O Brother, Where Art Thou? - From Greek Classic to American Original
In the winter of 2001, American audiences initially paid little attention to Joel and Ethan Coen's Depression era, jail-break, musical "buddy" comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? The film's reputation lingered, however, and over the next seven months O Brother eventually grossed a significant $45.5 million (imdb.com). Loosely adapted from Homer’s The Odyssey, the film focuses on Ulysses Everett McGill’s (George Clooney’s) journey from the jailhouse back to both his home in Ithaca, Mississippi, and to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter). Along with his two sidekicks, Delmar and Pete (Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro), Ulysses encounters not only characters from the classic myth including the Sirens and the Cyclops, but also slices of American folk legend. Episodic in its narrative structure, the film unfolds like Homer’s saga with very few, if any, segues between the vignettes. The film deserves an admiring second look for the Coen brothers employ their old-time country music soundtrack in a manner analogous to Homer’s lyre, reconstruct gender roles and heroism for the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and create a moving tribute to the American South during the Great Depression.
The title of the film derives from Preston Sturges’s 1941 American film comedy Sullivan’s Travels, in which a movie-director character attempts to prove himself a “serious” artist by deserting comedy and making a dramatic film entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen brothers perhaps created their O Brother as a realized vision of their directorial counterpart in Sullivan’s Travels. Simultaneously they reinforce the idea that comedy certainly can be art, and thus O Brother acts as the most recent addition to their repertoire, as they have repeatedly taken the art of comedy to new levels. One example of Joel and Ethan Coen’s collective comedic sensibility is the way in which they duped Fargo audiences by asserting the film was based on true events when it was not. Their joke on the audience in O Brother is that they claim never to have read The Odyssey. Regardless of whether they have actually read the epic poem or simply the Cliff’s Notes version, by combining their working knowledge of the tale with a strong musical accompaniment, they have managed to stay truer to the original’s form than they might have had they attempted to slavishly mimic Homer’s epic style and story.
According to Dudley Andrew’s definitions of adaptations, O Brother is a “borrowing,” meaning “the artist employs, more or less extensively, the material, idea, or form of an earlier, generally successful, text” (30). In a borrowing, Andrew explains, “the main concern is the generality of the original … its existence as a continuing form or archetype in culture” (30). By ignoring vast sections of the original text, yet incorporating some of the most memorable characters and incidents, the Coen brothers...