Making the Grades
For most of us, our first exposure to Homer's Odyssey happened in some high school English class. That was a while ago for me, so after watching O Brother Where Art Thou?--billed as based on this classic poem, I reread (okay, I skimmed) a version of the story, to see how much resemblance it shared with the movie. It was quickly obvious that this interpretation has been subject to much artistic license.
Set in depression era Mississippi, the opening scenes share more of a kinship with the Three Stooges than the Greek epic. It was kind of like watching Larry, Moe and Curly do Shakespeare. The tale recounts the escapades of three escaped convicts on a mission to return to their home and retrieve a buried treasure.
The trio consists of Everett McGill (George Clooney), the glib talking, self-appointed Ulysses who uses globs of Dapper Dan pomade and hair nets to keep his locks in check while doggedly driving the threesome from adventure to adventure, although his lack of a plan for his share of the loot makes it hard to understand why he's so determined to get it. Along for the ride and a share of the money are two simple-minded felons (John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson) who just happened to be part of Everett's chain gang.
Like Odysseus and his crew, these felons encounter an odd assortment of characters including blind men, bible bashers, scantily clad sirens, and battling politicians along their back road journey to redemption. Profanities and terms of Deity are prolific in this movie but most disturbing to families may be the acts of graphic violence including the killing of animals, rampant gunfire, beatings, the horse-whipping of a recaptured convict and the portrayal of Ku Klux Klan activities.
Returning heroes they certainly weren't, but then Mississippi's not Ithaca, nor is Everett's ex a good and faithful Penelope waiting at home. Yet, as in the original odyssey (and perhaps true of life), the journey proves to be more interesting than the destination. Thankfully, unlike the epic, it didn't take these guys ten years to get home.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Despite their history of criminal activity, the audience is expected to have sympathy for the three main characters. What events in the script build that sense of compassion? How does the story justify the convict’s continual lying? Does the manipulation of the roles of heroes and villains in the film add to that perspective?
Who was Homer? This movie may spark an interest in classical Greek poetry. Check your library for The Iliad, and it’s sequel, The Odyssey. But don’t imagine you can write your English term paper if this is the only version of the story you know.