One of the main things you learn at liberal arts college in Chicago is just how important the great books are to a solid liberal arts education. Most of the greats, though, go far beyond their own pages and enter the culture at large, sometimes in very derivative versions or in entirely original works modeled on the books.
Last month, Shakespeare got his turn to shine. Now we take a look at another great studied at liberal arts university in Chicago and one who is also a huge part of our popular culture. Volume Two is Homer:
O’ Brother Where Art Thou (The Odyssey)
While Joel and Ethan Cohen may claim they never read The Odyssey, their 2000 film O’ Brother Where Art Thou is clearly inspired by Homer’s epic poem. Not only that, it is filled with references and parallels to the great work. Here are a few examples:
- The main character is named Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and Ulysses is the Latin version of Odysseus, Homer’s protagonist. Not only that, but Everett, like Odysseus, frequently suffers misfortune when he sleeps, is hampered by his pride and is a real smooth talker.
- The blind man in the radio station is the first to record The Soggy Bottom Boys just as the supposedly blind poet Homer was the first to record the story of Odysseus.
- Just as Odysseus first appears in disguise to his wife Penelope and then has to fight off her suitors. Everett first appears in disguise to his wife Penny and also has to fight off her new fiancée.
- Both stories start with the hero imprisoned without explaining how they got there.
- There are plenty of other character parallels including the washing women and the sirens as well as Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) and the Cyclops
The Golden Apple (The Iliad and The Odyssey)
In 1954, Jerome Moross and John Treville Latouche wrote a musical called The Golden Apple. It started off-Broadway before making to theatre’s big stage.
They didn’t even try to disguise its connection with the works of Homer. The characters have the same names: Helen, Paris, Ulysses, Mars, Hector and Penelope to name a few. The play is even set near Mount Olympus. That is the Mount Olympus in Washington State at the turn of the 20th century.
There are, of course other differences. Paris, for example, is a travelling salesman in town to judge an apple pie eating contest and Ulysses is returning from the Spanish-American War. Plus, everyone is singing all the time.
Cassandra & Illium/Olympos (The Iliad)
Christa Wolfe’s 1983 novel Cassandra and the 2003 and 2004 science fiction books Illium and Olympos by Dan Simmons don’t hide that Homer’s Iliad is their influence. In fact, they make that point quite clear.
Simmons uses some of the characters and places them in a futuristic science fiction retelling of the story. Cassandra, on the other hand, is set in the same time period as Homer’s epic, but is told from the point of view of Priam’s daughter Cassandra who has a significantly different take on events than the classic story does. Most notably, in this version, Helen is never in Troy, it’s just a ploy to mobilize for war.
Can you think of any other modern works based on Homer?