Achilles and Baby Face Nelson: Modernization of Character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Carrie A. Alhelm-Sizelove

University of New Mexico

Anyone who has seen Joel and Ethan Coen's film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is aware it claims to be based on Homer's Odyssey. With closer inspection most will find obvious parallels between various episodes in the poem and the film. The main character, Ulysses Everett McGill, is trying to get home to his wife Penny. We encounter a blind prophet, a Cyclops, beautiful singing sirens and one suitor whose intention is to marry Penny, yet we are left to guess where any other Odyssey-like episodes have been placed. While the film is a good teaching tool for creating modern visual anchors to accompany a close reading of the Odyssey, many have criticized the film harshly, noting that the viewer is set adrift to discern a story line from disparate pieces of plotline. One suggestion for the film's obvious omissions could be that many episodes from the Odyssey seem to have been collapsed into others due to cinematic brevity. This contraction creates a story in which many of the characters and travails of the hero become unrecognizable, even if they do correspond to Homer's Odyssey. A far easier explanation would be that the attempt to modernize the epic has failed, proving that there is no surrogate for Homer nor modern proxy for the epic hero.

This paper will suggest that the Coen brothers have encrypted many episodes and characters by incarnating them in their modern relatives. In the case of the character George "Baby Face" Nelson, I will argue that he is a reconstituted epic hero echoing the Achilles who appears in the Odyssey (Book 11) lamenting his fate. But Nelson also embodies the arrogant, self-aggrandized personality of Achilles showcased in the Iliad. The analogy of the bi-polar, Chicago-style gangster to the Homeric hero becomes a perfect pairing for the almost schizophrenic recantation delivered by the shade Achilles later in the Nekuia. Many readers who experience Achilles in the Iliad and his articulation of a seemingly static heroic code are later forced to reconsider their interpretation upon hearing the famous hero's regrets in the Odyssey. Just so, his modern representation, George Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, has his own dual-minded assessment of his position and his fate. This paper will explore how the 1930's gangster figure is a modern facsimile recalling and emulating the heroic code of the ancients.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page