An epic poem over 400 pages long. Yep a poem. The plot line details the return journey of Odysseus, a Greek warrior, and his encounters with civilizations and Greek Gods through his travels.Composed in 700BC, it is one of the earliest poems to ever exist. So why would this text be worthy of appropriation? Well let’s start off with why any text would be appropriated.In the words of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “There are no original ideas. There are only original people.”This statement is undeniably true as most of the texts we see today have been in some way appropriated or modelled from existing texts. By taking key characters, themes or concerns from an original text and reworking them to fit into a different social or historical context, composers are able to facilitate a greater audience engagement of the original text.Through the manifestation they are able to critique the moral or social failures of a text by reconsidering the values and contrasting them through the new text. Now, why The Odyssey.
The Odyssey was composed by Homer as the sequel to his first epic poem “The Iliad”, and the series occupy the central position in the foundational works of Western literature, concerning the great defining moment of Greek culture, The Trojan War. The Greeks regard Homer’s epics as the focal point of their values, concentrating their identity through the narrative, ethics and concerns. Originally written in Ancient Greek, it has since been translated for greater audience viewing, thus proving it’s value in modern society. Not only was the Odyssey of extreme significance to Greek history and culture, but it is also recognized as the earliest action-adventure story in Western literature and has paved the way for many more monumental poems. Detailing a 10-year long journey, it explores the thematic concerns of the heroism of man, the hospitality of strangers and the natural world. These universal issues have transcended time, and are visible in many contemporary works, altered to fit their composer’s values and cultural setting.
The central most theme of the narrative, the idea of a journey, has since been appropriated into multiple novels including Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad”, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife”, however, the most recognized appropriation is the Coen Brothers film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’. Composed in 2000, the film offers a multi-faceted and critical exploration of a journey, reworking it to become more relevant and meaningful to a contemporary audience. Set in America during the 1940’s, the reinvigorated context consisted of the development of technology, an outbreak of natural disasters, and changes in communication and trade. Features of structure, language forms, characters and events are mirrored to engage with the values of the original text, but are also contrasted to convey contextual changes in values.
Through this manifestation, it is clearly evident that texts are appropriated over time for their universal values and ideas that remain constantly relevant throughout time. One of the first features of The Odyssey that readers recognize is that there is more than one plot. It varies greatly from traditional structuring of adventure stories, which would normally follow a single character on his one dimensional quest. The tale starts off with Telemachus his son, before jumping to Odysseus where he recounts his adventures for 4 books and then we are sent back to Odysseus in his home land where he fights alongside his son against a common enemy. One could describe the plot as complex. However, part of the reason why it has stood the test of time, is because of it’s structural complexity that has engaged audiences for millennia. Each thread, or part of the story, has its own exposition, inciting incident and rising action with the third part intertwining the climax, falling action and resolution. This convoluted plot line of the journey is perhaps the most prominent link between The Odyssey and O Brother. The protagonist in O Brother, Everett, escapes from a chain gang along with two compatriots. Their goal? To reach a treasure buried in an area that is set to be flooded and turned into a lake. Following the narrative template set by the Odyssey, it features two separate story lines; one that follows Everett and his companions, whilst the other provides information regarding the context, including scenes involving the KKK, lynching’s, religion and an ongoing political race. This recounting of past events, parallel to the Odyssey, is critical to the plot line and allows the reader to gain important contextual information. Another feature of this appropriation is the undermining of the archetypal construction of Homer’s hero, Odysseus.
The Coen Brothers have undermined the notion of ‘the heroic man’ by conveying the protagonist as a convicted con man who deceives even his closest of friends. Michael Clarke in his text ‘Manhood and Heroism’ describes Homer’s hero as, “The Homeric warrior is driven to action by a need for social validation: status, respect and honour in the eyes of other men”. The Coen brothers have subverted this through the visual contrast between white robes of church “brothers and sisters” and the muddied, dirty clothing of Everett and his companions. Using a panning shot that slowly moves upwards into a high angle shot, they convey a religious allusion to a higher God, similar to that of Odysseus’ prayers to the Greek Gods. These values of religion featured in O Brother are parallel to those in The Odyssey, conveying the enduring influence religion has in various social and historical settings. Demonstrated through the rhythm of dactylic hexameter, the main morale in the Odyssey is the concept of hospitality, the treatment of strangers, and this value is echoed in O Brother.
Throughout his travelling’s Odysseus encounters multiple Gods and civilizations, including that of the courteous God Athena, who uses rhetoric as a means of persuasion, ‘Welcome, stranger. You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward, when you have tasted dinner, you shall tell us what your need is.’. The rhetoric the character’s display is quite sophisticated and Odysseus is equally as adept at wit and conversation, “Majesty, shining among your island people, what a fine thing it is to listen to such a bard as we have here – the man sings like a god.”. This is one of the many instances in which The Odyssey is self-referential: as the poem itself was originally a work performed by bards, a poet that recites epic poems. Weaving in this testimony of the value of bards is one way that Homer has ensured that both the poem and its speakers would be perpetuated through the passage of time.Robert Fagles refers to hospitality as a dominant part of “the only code of moral conduct that obtains in the insecure world of The Odyssey.”. My views align with Fagles, as I understand the treatment of strangers to be the lasting impression Homer wanted to make on his readers, contrasted against the harsh nature of the environment and the creatures his hero encounters. Ancient Greek context dictates that hospitality was a key aspect of Greek culture, a notion predominantly conveyed through the actions of the Gods. Their staggering influence towards Odysseus’ journey, is representative of the belief that the Gods were in control of the nature of man. Controlling their emotions, desires and hatreds that would ultimately determine their treatment of strangers. Yet due to the drastic contextual shift to 1940’s America, the Coen Brothers have instead illuminated hospitality through the journey of Everett.
Odysseus is welcomed by Athena with open arms, so too are Everett and his friends, as they are treated to Southern hospitality; warm food, fresh clothes and even invited along to a bank robbery. The South, depicted in O Brother juxtaposes the poor and middle classes’ lack of education with the crime wave of the 30s, while emphasizing Southern hospitality and the importance of family.Bonds of family in The Odyssey constitute another portrayal of Ancient Greek myths and legends, such as that of Orpheus and Eurydice, to expose the Ancient Greek value of ‘going to the ends of the earth’. Both metaphorically and figuratively demonstrated through Odysseus’ journey between the Greek islands. In The Odyssey, Odysseus demonstrates the flaws of human life throughout his journey, constantly struggling through the eternal fight for life, but is weighed down by the never ending power struggle of nature versus mankind.
Natural phenomena are described by Homer and Ancient Greek civilization, as the gods doing. One such example of this is the legend of Charybdis, a sea monster whose ”boiling surf, under high fiery winds, carries tossing wreckage of ships and men.”, which they used to explain shipwrecks.The Coen Brothers inclusion of natural occurrences, instils another prominent resemblance to the original text. Influenced by recent natural disasters such as the Oklahoma Tornado Outbreak and the Great Flood, natural anomaly’s are incorporated into O Brother, such as the flood which miraculously saves Everett and his crew from certain death. As two separate and different mediums, there is an inability to transpose fully a text to the screen, but through the parallelisms between the journey of Odysseus and Everett we are able to see distinct and prominent links between both texts. The values embedded in The Odyssey are both challenged and mirrored by the appropriation, reinforcing the contextual social and historical changes. Through the manifestation of The Odyssey into O Brother Where Art Thou, it is clearly evident that texts are appropriated over time for their universal values and ideas that remain constantly relevant throughout time.