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The Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Homer’s Odyssey
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“O Muse!
Sing in me, and through me tell the story
Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
A wanderer, harried for years on end …”

(OB 3)2

The Coen brothers’ 2000 film O Brother Where Art Thou? opens with this, Homer’s epic invocation to the Muse. Subsequent title cards inform the viewer that the film was written by brothers Ethan and Joel Coen and “Based Upon ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer.”3 But the Coen brothers claim that they never read the purported model for their film adaptation: “Between the cast and us … Tim Nelson is the only one who’s actually read The Odyssey.”4 And even when Ethan acknowledged that Nelson, who was a Classics major at Brown University, had read the Odyssey (“I wonder if he read it in Greek? I know he read it.”), Joel did his part to sow doubt (“Did he?”).5 I join other scholars in suspecting that the brothers’ claim not to have read the Odyssey is just as false and misleading a statement as their previous claim that their hit film, Fargo, was based on a true story.6 Such mythologizing of their process delights fans of the Coen brothers but has been known to lead astray others who seek to define their art.

The film’s soundtrack liner notes for the DVD announce that “The trio journey through a landscape of wonder and adventure populated by a series of outlandish characters who jumble together classical mythology, Southern archetypes and pop-culture imagery.” Encouraged by the Coens’ purposeful misdirection, most film reviewers (and many literary critics) chose not to focus on any connections between the film and the Odyssey. Since the Coens themselves minimize the extent of the influence of Homer’s epic on the film, critics focus instead on the film’s portrait of the Depression-era Deep South.7 They point to an astonishing range of source material to account for the familiarity of these images and scenarios including great American literature of the age (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, and James Agee’s 1936 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as illustrated by Walker Evans’ photographs) and a wide range of films including I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Bonnie and Clyde (1969), and Down by Law (1986).8 Comedies by Preston Sturges such as The Great McGinty (1940) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) also make their mark, but not nearly as obviously as his Sullivan’s Travels (1941), whose eponymous comedy film director/hero eventually abandons his goal of making a serious film about poverty and despair in the Depression-era South, a film he had planned to call O Brother Where Art Thou?9

Even when Homer’s poem is acknowledged as a source, appreciation seems limited. Many critics see little beyond obvious nominal echoes: the heroes of both poem and film share a name (Odysseus = Ulysses Everett McGill), as do their hometowns (Ithaka = Ithaca, Mississippi), and their wives (Penelope = Penny).10 Many critics accept only a surface similarity in plot between film and poem: each hero struggles to overcome obstacles (Big Dan is the Cyclops, the sensuous women they meet at water’s edge are the Sirens) in order to get home in time to prevent his wife from marrying another man.11 Many others dismiss O Brother as nothing more than an episodic “road movie,” a loosely connected series of vignettes and set pieces.12

The Coens’ purported ignorance of Homer’s text—together with their well-known fondness for movies of past eras—has led some critics to conclude that the brothers actually got their knowledge of the Odyssey from Kirk Douglas’ 1954 film Ulysses (G. Perry 2000 and Danek 2001: 90) or even from the Classics comic version of the tale (Hunter 2000, Taylor 2000, and Danek 2001: 90).13 In fact, in interview responses ostensibly designed to prove the limited influence of Homer’s Odyssey on the film, the Coens reveal a much more-than-passing acquaintance with the text:

Ethan: We avail ourselves of [the Odyssey...