O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Homer in Hollywood: The Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Could a Hollywood filmmaker adapt Homer's Odyssey for the screen in the same way that James Joyce did for the Modernist novel? The idea of a high-art film adaptation of the Odyssey is actually at the center of the plot of Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt, and the Alberto Moravia novel on which Godard's film is based. In Contempt, Prokosch, a rich American dilettante film producer played by Jack Palance, hires Fritz Lang to film a version of Homer's Odyssey, then hires a screenwriter to write it and promptly ruins his marriage to Brigitte Bardot. Fritz Lang gamely plays himself -- joining the ranks of fellow "arty" German-born directors who had earlier deigned to act before the camera (like Erich von Stroheim in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, playing a former director not unlike himself, or even Otto Preminger in Wilder's Stalag 17, playing a concentration camp commandant who behaves like a Hollywood director) -- yet Fritz Lang's film version of the Odyssey is only glimpsed in preliminary rushes within the film, only to provoke the producer's wrath as being too "arty." In point of fact, it appears to be a straightforward film of Homer's story with Greek marble statuary and aquamarine Mediterranean waters seemingly out of a Giorgio di Chirico canvas (Godard 1963). We are perhaps invited to imagine the rest being a highly aestheticized affair, a technicolor retread of Lang's own cinematic epic Metropolis, but we never see the completed film-within-the-film (Lang 1927). Partly because James Joyce's Ulysses is still regarded as the supreme achievement of Modernist literature -- and is itself an adaptation (of sorts) of the Odyssey -- Godard uses the very idea of a film adaptation of the Odyssey as either an idea of cinematic "art" or else a vulgarian's notion of what cinematic "art" should entail. Whose vision is it to be, the producer's or the auteur's?
It is precisely that Joycean and Modernist impulse that Will Self, in a recent piece for the Guardian surveying the Coens' oeuvre even as it considers their 2011 release True Grit, attributes to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Of the film, Self says "this isn't just a retro-style depression-era chain-gang jailbreak movie, but a retelling of the Odyssey to boot. It's James Joyce with a catchy country soundtrack instead of all that brain-ache wordplay" (Self 2011). Invoking Joyce sounds like we are in the territory of serious art, yet the Coen Brothers are constantly toying with notions of what "serious art" might actually mean in film -- indeed that very question lies at the heart of the title character's dilemma in their 1991 breakout film Barton Fink, as he tries to make serious art out of a studio B-movie screenplay about professional wrestling -- it is only fitting that they should face the challenge of adapting Homer's Odyssey head-on. Yet from the very title of their 2000 feature O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the knowledgeable viewer is already made aware that the Coens are not merely adapting Homer, and are certainly not adapting Homer straightforwardly, in the way Jack Palance's overbearing producer Prokosch demands of his screenwriter in Godard's story. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was, in fact, the first adapted screenplay that the Coens ever attempted at the time of its release in 2000, although since then they have collaborated on several more adaptations and/or remakes of existing material, and to some extent they are making a Coen Brothers film first and foremost, and a Homeric adaptation only secondarily. But in order to assess the Coens' adaptation of Homer, and their larger achievement in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I think it is necessary to approach several topics individually.
First I think we must situate O Brother, Where Art Thou? within the larger context of the Coens' oeuvre, in order to clarify questions of genre, pastiche, and allusion (their title itself is an allusion to previous Hollywood film) -- and also to broach the question of what sort of freewheeling adaptation they have made of their source material. Although capable of remarkable fidelity in the two westerns they have adapted from novels by Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, the Coens approach to Homeric source material resembles more the oblique approach taken to "adapting" the Old Testament Book of Job in A Serious Man (2008). But we will also discuss various other works (both film and fiction) which provide a nexus of allusions and source-materials well beyond Homer. Then we must consider...
Finally we may also ask in what way it resembles other important films that use Homer's Odyssey as a point of departure for adaptation: in addressing this topic, we may use as examples not only Godard's Contempt, but also the more oblique version of Homeric epic presented in Stanley Kubrick's arty sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hope to show that both Godard and Kubrick seem interested in a separate aspect of the Odysseus legend that does not derive directly from the Odyssey itself, but from later poets ranging from Dante to Tennyson working with the Homeric source material as adaptors, building the legend of an after-life to the Homeric Odysseus that seems to be central to Godard's and Kubrick's use of the Odyssey but is vastly less important in the Coen Brothers' approach. And finally I hope to address the ways in which the Coen Brothers are taking a specific route in adapting the Odyssey, and it is the same one that James Joyce and arguably the Roman writer Petronius Arbiter (author of the Satyricon) took, by following the general plotline of the Odyssey and looking for equivalents -- but more importantly, all three of these loose adaptations of the Odyssey discover what it is about the Odyssey that is most enduring for future generations. Although an epic, it ends with a recognition -- and to a certain degree a reconciliation -- between husband and wife. It is like an epic whose ending comes straight out of the archetypes for the "mythos of comedy," as Northrop Frye once identified them, which classically ends in marital reconciliation -- and as such these approaches to the Odyssey on the part of very different artists allows for an approach to a "comic epic" (Frye 283). I think that this is essentially the Coens' own view of their achievement in O Brother Where Art Thou?; in interviews they downplay the seriousness of their approach to the Odyssey, claiming that their film "combines the Three Stooges with Homer's Odyssey" perhaps to make the film sound more approachable for a general audience or merely to play up the weird hybrid genre of the film, but they also imply that frankness of their epic ambitions when they describe it (only half-slightingly) as potentially the "Lawrence of Arabia of Hayseed movies" ("Production Featurette" 2001). I think this qualifies their chief debt to Homer as the application of a post-Homeric category -- comedy -- onto the template of the Odyssey itself, which the Coens do as surely as Petronius Arbiter and James Joyce did in different prose fictions, to produce an archetypally comic and epic narrative.
PART 1. O Brother Where Art Thou as Adaptation and Pastiche.
In a very important sense, O Brother Where Art Thou? is less like any Homeric adaptation than it is like the Coens' strong series of mid-career films -- from Miller's Crossing (1990), Barton Fink (1991) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) through The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), which follows the year after O Brother -- all of which resemble not so much as adaptations or even straightforward genre films as much as they resemble pastiche. By this I mean that each of those films is heavily dependent upon a knowledge of prior cinema, and a frequent cinemagoers exhaustive knowledge of film genre. Like Miller's Crossing and Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou? is set within the greater context of America's Great Depression in the 1930s -- which was also the moment when film attained a sort of cultural supremacy, and Hollywood under the studio system was turning out vastly more product on a yearly basis than it currently does. The U.S. Government's breakup of the Hollywood "studio system" in the late 1940s -- which asserted that "Hollywood's practices really did violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act" and issued a legal injunction that the studios sell their cinema chains -- would ultimately prove the death-blow for an entire way of doing business and making films in Hollywood (Friedrich 196). One immediate consequence was the inability of studios to maintain exclusive contracts with performers, which would destroy the great variety of character actors who populated Hollywood films of the 1930s, in a style that the Coens consciously emulate. Another…
Teaching the fundamentals does not necessarily mean stripping the fun out of learning, however. In fact, the best educators know how to balance the wishes of students with core concepts. For example, teaching Homers Odyssey could include both a close reading of the primary text, an analysis of the text using literary criticism, plus an analysis of modern manifestations of the work, such as the Coen brothers' film O Brother