Homer’s epic poem about homecoming and adventure, The Odyssey, is one of the great action stories of all time. For the ancient Greeks it had the same white-knuckle thrills and intensity as Die Hard. It’s also a pillar of the Western canon, and its influence is so pervasive that it gets copied and replicated in every corner of pop culture almost without our noticing.
As the great EveryMan (EverySponge?) of our time, SpongeBob was destined to reinvent Odysseus’ archetypal hero quest for a new generation. On his journey to rescue Bikini Bottom from the evil Plankton, Spongebob battles a giant “cyclops” (a deep-sea diver), makes a royal mess out of a magic bag of wind, and negotiates a nasty vendetta from the sea-god, Neptune. That’s all lifted right out of books 9, 10, and 11 of the Odyssey. Legend has it Homer strongly considered opening with, “Tell me, muse, / Who is the man who lives in a pineapple / Under the sea?”
Charles Frazier thought writing “parallel scenes” to the Odyssey would be “pretty limiting and kind of artificial,” but he explicitly modeled the larger architecture of his plot for Cold Mountain after Homer. It’s a homecoming after war — W. P. Inman is wending his way back from his tour with the Confederate army, Odysseus from the 10-year siege of Troy — to make it back to a long-suffering soulmate — Ada in the movie, Penelope in the poem — who holds out hope against hope that her man is alive. Fun fact: the real-life Inman was Frazier’s great great uncle.
Now, technically Coppola’s ’79 classic is based on Joseph Conrad’s gut-wrenching adventure novel, Heart of Darkness. But in a 1991 “making-of” documentary, screenwriter John Milius mentions that the Odyssey was never far from his mind during the production process. To be fair: his evidence for this is that the Playboy bunnies who entertain the troops are like Homer’s deadly singing seductresses, the sirens, because… they’re hot? And there’s music? I guess? But Apocalypse Now, Heart of Darkness, and the Odyssey are all roiling adventures on the water, so it counts. Coppola liked to call the film his “Idiodyssey.”
Admittedly, if you never knew this movie was based on the Odyssey, it might be because you never knew this was an actual movie. It’s a cult classic that tells the true story of Alferd Packer’s trial for, you know, eating people, and as his stories unfold there are a few quite directly recreated episodes (complete with musical numbers, of course). There are “Nihonjin” Japanese Indians to stand in for sirens, a confederate soldier and his “sheepies” for the cyclops, and a horse, Liane, for Odysseus’ faithful, long-desired wife. That last part doesn’t bear too much thinking about.
5. Paris, Texas
More than anything, Odysseus is desperate to get back to his “like-souled” wife, Penelope, and Sam Shepard’s screenplay for Paris-Texas is built around that same yearning. Travis, our dissipate vagabond of a hero, trudges across the desert in an obsessive search for his lost wife, Jane. Director Wim Wenders says he re-read Homer in pre-production, and it shows in the final scenes. Both Odysseus and Travis wait until the last possible minute to reveal their identities to their wives, but where Homer’s couple gets a pan-out, happily-ever-after finish, Travis has no such luck.
There’s a whole catalogue of Sinbad flicks full of good, wholesome, adventure pulp. They’re all drawn from an ancient Persian myth cycle about Sinbād, but those stories in turn borrow (read: unapologetically plagiarize) plenty of their material from Homer’s earlier myths. There’s a cyclops (the third voyage), a plant that men eat and go mad (the fourth), and forbidden animals that the crew slaughters and eats to our hero’s horror (the sixth). The 7th Voyage is the movie that brings Sinbad closest to some of his Greek roots, complete with a giant and completely un-terrifying stop-motion cyclops.
If there’s anything LOLCats have taught us, it’s that any story worth telling is worth retelling with cute animals (I can haz Ithaka?). Homeward Bound isn’t explicitly based on the Odyssey, but any motley crew of fictional adventurers battling their long way home owes everything to Homer. The dogs even come up against near-run episodic scrapes with outlandish, deadly creatures: a bear and a mountain lion for the pups, Scylla and Charybdis for the Greek troops. Plus the phrase Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey could basically be a subtitle to the Odyssey. And just LOOK at those ADORABLE FACES.
There are a few parallels between Homer’s foundational masterwork and this shamelessly cash-grubbing piece of trash, most notably when our heroes descend into the underworld. The Greeks called this κατάβασις, a “going down,” and it was a crucial turning point in any hero’s journey. Odysseus meets his mother, who has died in his absence, on his κατάβασις, whereas Elizabeth in Pirates is heartbroken to discover her father among the dead. There’s also the witch, Calypso, lifted out of books 5 and 6 in which an enchantress of the same name has imprisoned Odysseus when we first meet him.
Homer goes country. The Coen Brothers’ film is actually a fairly faithful retelling, full of solid one-to-one match-ups. There’s eyepatch-toting Big Dan T. (the cyclops, book 9), the sinfully sexy river divas (the sirens, book 12), and the blind railroad prophet (the seer Tiresias, book 11). Clooney’s character’s name, Ulysses McGill, comes from Odysseus’ Roman name, Ulixes. And not even Homer had a killer, four-Grammy bluegrass soundtrack (although the hit track’s title, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” is a loose translation of πόλυτλας — ancient Greek for “suffering much” — one of Homer’s descriptions of Odysseus).
10. The Wizard of Oz
L. Frank Baum was thinking (and smoking) a whole lot of things when he decided his magnum opus would be about a pre-teen girl exploring a psychedelic wonderland in the company of three strange men with a thing for dress-up. But a resourceful hero fighting for home through a series of episodic adventures? Sounds like our boy Odysseus, and Dorothy’s soporific poppies bear a striking resemblance to the memory-erasing Lotus plants in book 9. No question Odysseus would sympathize with “no place like home” as a motto. Although maybe not with ruby slippers as a fashion choice.