The Rudder That Steers a Story

December 2, 2003
Two men. Two men alike in two different stories, in two different time
periods, characterized in ways that fit their culture and the social
structure of their audience. Efficient changes in characters tend to help
the reader or the viewer better understand and relate to modern day
circumstances. Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the
most effective adaptation because he retains certain core qualities from
the original character of Odysseus at the same time as he is modernized.

Significant, core characteristics in both Odysseus and Everett that
are essential in making the adaptation between Odysseus and Everett
effective and essential in keeping the story alluring are the ambition, the
boldness, the drive, and the leadership qualities they possess. In every
story, there are always those characters that have this persona, and most
of the time having these qualities is the rudder that steers the plotline.

Being bold and ambitious causes Odysseus and Everett to be extremely
willful. Ambitious people have a distinct plan they want to stick by, and
they want that plan to go their way. Any story needs this kind of
character so that the story line stays strong. Just as it was in Greek
times, in more modern times, an audience still has a natural focus on these
types of characters because of their potent personalities and hard-driven
hearts. Even after hundreds of years, strong, courageous personalities are
still, and will probably always be, an inspiration to people. If Everett
in O Brother, Where Art Thou? had not had these same qualities, he would
not have pulled off the same effect that Odysseus did in The Odyssey. The
story would not have even been the same, since one of the main focuses of
The Odyssey is Odysseus’ iron-willed drive that eventually gets him home.

Everett’s obsession to get home to his wife and kids as well as Odysseus’
passion to do the same is what made this story so strong. If either
character had been passive or unassertive, both stories would have lost a
lot of its power and effect. Being a king calls for the job of being a
leader, and since Odysseus’ ambitious aspirations are what get him home, it
becomes quite an inspirational story to anyone who reads it. Odysseus was
quite a leader, and in an authoritative position with his crew members,
just as Everett was between him, and his two ‘crew members,’ Pete and
Delmar. It is obvious that the drive and ambition in these two characters
make them the decision-makers of their ‘group,’ which is also a strong,
effective feature. Odysseus shows all these qualities and more in trying
to lead his army back to Ithaca. He shows great leadership and wisdom when
encountering such obstacles as the sirens and the Cyclops, just as Everett
also takes control in leading him and his friends through barriers along
the way. The will power in Everett and Odysseus plays a huge part in
making them the most effective adaptation.

Another important quality that has been adapted and modernized is
Odysseus’ and Everett’s susceptibility to temptation. Though their
aggression and determination can certainly get them far, it is natural and
obvious that not everything will go as planned, especially when tested with
difficult situations. Temptation occasionally gets both Odysseus and
Everett into trouble, but what kind of story would the audience be
interested in if there were not a few things that got them into trouble?
Odysseus is often tempted by other women (Circe, Calypso, etc.) to satisfy
both his and their sexual needs. It may have been more accepted for the
men to do that sort of thing in that era than in the time period of O
Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it still breaks a trust and loyalty issue.

Though Everett is also slightly tempted by the “sirens” in the movie, just
as Odysseus was tempted by Circe and Calypso, he does not commit adultery
quite like Odysseus does, which was good for the story in that the main
reason for Everett’s journey was to get his wife back (p. 212, line 33-37).

And though Odysseus was tempted by these women, his heart is still with
Penelope (p. 212, line 37-41). Also, both characters are at some point
distracted by food and hunger issues that get them into trouble. Odysseus,
in the Cyclops chapter, gets in a dilemma over Polyphemus’ cheese, and
Everett, at the picnic with Big Dan, seems to be more focused on what he is
eating to realize that his friend has just been knocked down (pp 218-220,
line 253-305). This particular weakness in each character is a very
important part to keep because it shows that not all heroes of a story are
perfect. Everyone can fall, and everyone can mess up, and it is not
something that was only significant to show in Greek times. Everett
retains a ‘weakness’ factor from Odysseus that portrays a valuable,
imperfect quality to show that not all people are faultless. Every
audience likes conflict, temptation, sin, and imperfection. That is what
makes it so appealing and that is what makes the characters most
successful, especially when overcoming that shortcoming in the end.

One other effective adaptation where Everett is modernized from
Odysseus in O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the sign of powerlessness
Everett showed around his wife. Odysseus remained pretty consistent in
staying in that audacious, confident, leadership position, over his wife.

The whole twenty years Penelope was without Odysseus she felt that things
were not in control. He was not there to place some boundaries on the
suitors, though if he had been there, she would not have had suitors to
begin with. She depended on him to take care of her and the house, which
shows what kind of man Odysseus is. He was the man of the house and he
brought home the bread. Generally, men rule over women, husbands’ rule
over their wives, and this was even more evident in the time period of the
Odyssey. For example, when Odysseus has to leave Penelope after Telemachus
was born to go to war in Troy, it is implied that Penelope is submissive to
him by letting him go and understanding why he has to go, rather than
saying or doing anything to try and hold him back from what he needs to do.

Everett also carries those same audacious, confident, leadership qualities
all throughout the movie, until he sees his wife again. Penny seems to
know what she wants and demands it, and one cannot condone that Everett,
though very strong and ambitious, is much a slave to her needs. Everett
spends so much of his energy trying to gain his wife’s trust back that he
would do nearly anything to get her and his daughters back. Before Everett
and his band sing up on stage, he tries to get the attention of Penny by
saying, “I wanna be what you want me to be”-a perfect example of how
Everett just wants to cater to her needs. In no way does Odysseus
demonstrate this side to Penelope. When Penny says that she won’t marry
Everett unless he gets their old wedding ring back, is another example from
the movie that shows Everett’s servitude to Penny. This part makes the
adaptation of Odysseus to Everett the most effective one in that it shows
the change in the role of women over time. Though women are still somewhat
portrayed as people that submit to their husbands, the rise of women and
their roles in society have greatly changed. Today, most women stand up
for themselves, get jobs, and become more than just a housewife. Penelope,
as sweet as she is, is very passive, a follower, a “human-doormat” so to
speak, but that was the role of women at that time. It was not appropriate
for women to act much differently back then, when it is very socially
acceptable for women to act in such a way today. This change in character,
this somewhat “surrendering” attitude that Everett displays towards Penny
also provides more comedy for the film, whereas The Odyssey was not
necessarily a typical comedic novel, nor was that what the audience during
that time period was exposed to. A contemporary audience is more often
exposed to humor, and that is what this transformation of the strong-willed
Odysseus to the strong-willed, weakened-by-Penny, Everett does to a
contemporary audience, especially taking it into consideration that Everett
probably would not admit to groveling to his wife. The men enjoy laughing
at the situation, while women enjoy relating to it, giving off the most
effective adjustment to a modern day audience.

Some would say that Odysseus to Everett is not the most effective
adaptation of The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou? They would argue
that the change from Penelope to Penny is the best adaptation because
neither character retains core qualities of the other, and that perhaps is
a more effective adaptation. There is more of a difference in character
between Penny and Penelope than in Everett and Odysseus. Penny and
Penelope are quite opposite and the extreme change between these characters
could be looked at as more effective for this very reason. The
modernization from Penelope to Penny could be looked at as being more
effective to the viewer, more of a change in character to fit modern
circumstances. From what has been shown though, it seems that Odysseus and
Everett still play the stronger role in actually retaining some core
qualities of each other. Their characters are more appealing, more
captivating, more interesting, simply for the reason that their personality
calls for that kind of attention. Even though it seems like Penny has a
little more control over Everett than Penelope does over Odysseus,
Everett’s qualities in Odysseus, the wit, charm, confidence, and ambition,
are still more attractive to the eye. The main character of a story
usually has more influence over an audience because they are, in fact, the
characters that are shown the most, have the most lines, and carry the most
responsibility, thus making the adaptation a more efficient one.

Overall, evidence shows that the adaptation between Odysseus in The
Odyssey and Everett in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the most affective
adaptation. Their motivated, striving personalities, their vulnerability
to temptation, and their way of reacting to the role of women, all display
perfect examples of how an old story can be correspondingly transformed
into a more modern one, adjusting certain qualities according to the time
and the audience, and keeping core ones. Everett definitely portrays many
of the same qualities that Odysseus does, being in a leadership position,
fearless, and confident. This is an important concept to consider in that
modernizing a character can help the view better connect with the person
and better understand the importance of such an adaptation, perfect for the
time. It becomes clearer and more evident that character adjustments and
modernizations are the rudder that steers the remake of an original.

Works Cited
Homer. The Odyssey. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books
Ltd,Registered Offices.

Touchtone Pictures. (producer). (2000). O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Motion
picture). Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc.