The Optimistic Nihilism of the Coen Brothers’ Biblical and Mythological Adaptations

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The Optimistic Nihilism of the Coen Brothers’ Biblical and Mythological Adaptations

When we look at popular, universal texts like the Bible and the Odyssey, we often do so in search of guidance. Indeed, traditional texts were created, largely, to teach us something. And in the case of the two aforementioned, that lesson, simply put, is that everything happens for a reason. How, then, can one adapt these tales into a modern setting in which nihilism runs rampant?

Among the best equipped to answer this question are the Coen brothers, who have spent the better of the last two decades adapting classical source material, and continue to do so as The Tragedy of Macbeth recently saw its festival premiere. A Serious Man, for example, transfers The Book of Job to the Minnesota suburbs. O Brother, Where Art Thou? transports Homer’s Odyssey to Mississippi during the Great Depression, while Inside Llewyn Davis ponders what the ancient Greek poem might look like in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s and The Big Lebowski asks what might happen if a laid back, White Russian-drinking hippie was thrown into a micro-Odyssey of his own.

While the general public has taken on a more pessimistic, jaded perspective with regards to the meaning of life since these stories originated, that doesn’t mean the Coen Brothers are using these adaptations to posit that life has simply lost its meaning since then. In fact, they suggest something even more optimistic than their predecessors: Meaning comes from within, and therefore meaning is infinite.

How the filmmakers convey this switch is when they stick to their source material and when they deviate from it. In A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stulbarg) life is falling apart bit by bit. His wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), is leaving him for charismatic widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). His job is being threatened by a disgruntled student. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is facing a potential felony charge. Not to mention the fact that, when his neighbor mows his lawn, he maneuvers ever-so-slightly off of his own property and unwittingly trims a strip of Larry’s grass.

Larry’s monsoon of grievances are reminiscent of his predecessor, Job. Job is described as a good and faithful man, whom God proudly believes can do no wrong. Satan begs to differ, however, and suggests that his goodness stems only from his privilege. He asks God: “Have you not made a hedge around him and his household and all that he has on every side?” (Job 1:10). (See? Even Job had a lawn he was proud of.) So, to test Job’s faith, Satan wreaks total havoc on his little life, killing his animals and his kids, and afflicting him with horrible sores. Understandably, Job’s faith momentarily wavers, but then comes back stronger than ever.

Where A Serious Man starts to deviate from its source material, however, is the origin of the protagonist’s laments. Job is troubled by the fact he is being tormented. Larry, on the other hand, is more bothered by the fact that he is being tormented and doesn’t know why. Larry is a physicist, and often looks to quantum mechanics—specifically Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment—to strive to understand the randomness of the universe. But when bad things start happening to Larry with strange synchronicity and he can’t figure out why, he knows he needs to search in areas other than science and math for answers.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? also sees reason not withstanding disaster, and characters looking elsewhere for meaning. After being poisoned by a trio of enticing women, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) wake up to find their friend Pete (John Turturro) missing. All that’s left are his clothes, with a small toad hidden within. Delmar immediately clings to the belief that the toad is Pete, not willing to entertain the possibility that something random and tragic might have happened to his friend. And, of course, the toad isn’t Pete, and Delmar’s veneration of the amphibian is ultimately meaningless.

The Odyssey is a particularly poignant story to adapt, as it, like biblical stories, is so enmeshed in the idea of fate. Ancient Greeks were adamant believers in destiny and even went so far as to say that those who attempted to resist their fate were fools. But in their Odyssey adaptations, the Coen brothers actively reject the notion of fate. When, at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, aspiring singer/songwriter Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) walks out of the Gaslight Café and a young, unknown Bob Dylan walks onstage, it is nothing more than a tragically cruel comment on the fact that some people make it, and some people just…don’t. Llewyn is our protagonist, so we expect him to succeed in some way. But the Coen brothers have ultimately given us an unheroic protagonist, even though he has all of the qualities that a successful musician should have.

And in The Big Lebowski, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is essentially the antithesis of Odysseus. Dudeism, inspired by the character, is a modern philosophical school of thought that advocates going with the flow and accepting things as they come. Part of this philosophy demands an acceptance of the fact that nothing really matters: If Odysseus kept a cool head when he was trapped on Calypso’s island, he never would have left. Is this not, then, a form of advanced nihilism?

The rabbis that A Serious Man’s Larry seeks out for council amidst his crises seem to abide by their own kind of Dudeism. When Larry insists that this domino-style chain of misfortune can’t possibly be an accident, all three rabbis he visits essentially tell him the same thing from different perspectives: That it is a coincidence. One tells him that you can find meaning in anything, (look for God in a parking lot and you’ll find God in a parking lot), while another tells him that seeking meaning in the enigmatic universe will only drive him crazy.

Which is all well and good, but what are we supposed to do with this information? When Ulysses returns home to his wife Penny (Holly Hunter), she immediately berates him for losing her ring in the ocean, and he still has to continue living in hiding as an escaped convict. His Greek predecessor, on the other hand, is unanimously treated like a hero. So was Ulysses’ odyssey even worth going through? For Odysseus, a large part of the appeal of his journey is fulfilling his Greek duty to play out the destiny bestowed upon him by the gods. But Ulysses has no such sense of loyalty to a higher power—or even to his “soldiers,” Pete and Delmar. But to take a story like the Odyssey and suggest that just about anything could happen to our protagonist once the credits roll is a pretty radical thing, because it changes everything we know about one of the most famous stories in history—one that, alongside the stories of Jesus and more, inspired the very structure of our repeatedly reproduced “Hero’s Journey.” But the open-endedness of it makes it all worth it. For the Coen brothers, it’s not just about getting home. It’s about getting home and having the world still be open to you.

The same is true for Llewyn Davis, whose pilgrimage from New York to Chicago to sign a record deal yields no fruit. Both he and The Dude ultimately end up in the exact same place they were at the beginning of their films—Inside Llewyn Davis’s first scene also turns out to be the last scene—but The Big Lebowski’s final monologue, delivered by Sam Elliot, meditates saliently on the meaning of life as it has adjusted from ancient thought. “I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself,” he says, “down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time.” Which is to say, perhaps your journey was meaningless, but there’s nothing you can do to change that fact. And it’s a worthwhile journey nonetheless, because, regardless of what the Bible or Greek mythology tells you, you’re not tied to fate. There’s no telling what way the sands are going to come in until they do.

Recall the opening epigraph in A Serious Man from Rashi, a medieval French rabbi who wrote at length on the Talmud and Tanakh: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” Like Larry’s conclusion, this proverb suggests that there is no higher order in the world; yet simplicity does not amount to meaninglessness. An adoption of meaninglessness ultimately ties a person to a singular viewpoint: That nothing matters. An acceptance of randomness, on the other hand, offers a person endless opportunities to interpret his own life and tell his own story. This interpretation of life, then, is not a direct rejection of order, but rather a personal repurposing of it.


Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.