LEARNING GUIDE TO:
SUBJECTS — World/Ancient Greece; Mythology; Literature;Seafaring;
Age: 14+ for the film; 11+ for the book; MPAA Rating -- PG-13 (for violent sequences and some sensuality); Drama; 1997; 165 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Read the Book First! The ancient epic poem The Odyssey is an absorbing, action packed adventure full of exciting battles, fascinating situations, interesting characters, and fantastic beings. Robert Fitzgerald's award-winning translation reads easily and is engrossing, almost like a modern popular novel. It is comprehensible to any child who reads at a 10th grade level. (Many children read at this level much earlier than the age of 15.) The book transports the reader back in time: children (and adults) can easily envision being at the banquet hall of a Greek nobleman listening to the story recited by a blind poet. It is a great loss for any child not to have read The Odyssey before he or she graduates from high school! Click here for an example of the beautiful language of this book.
While the movie is interesting, Homer's tale is truly exceptional. The film is best used in conjunction with reading the book. Therefore, this Learning Guide focuses on the book. It will help teachers prepare lesson plans for classes with students who are reading the entire epic. For parents, we suggest that you read the book to or with your child. Very good readers can start the Fitzgerald translation on their own at about age 11. This Learning Guide will also help parents discuss the book with their children.
A Greek Amphora Showing Odysseus Listening to the Sirens
WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.
Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes; and
Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM's guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
Description: This movie recounts the efforts of Odysseus to return home after the Trojan War. The names of the characters are the same as those of the classic Greek epic. Most of the incidents in the film bear a strong resemblance to stories from the myth. There are some changes in the plot and the characters. The movie also adds some explanatory material about the birth of Telemachus and the Trojan War.
The characterization of Odysseus by Armand Assante is excellent and will leave a strong impression of the cleverest of the ancient Greek warriors.
Benefits of the Movie: This movie is best used as an adjunct to reading the book and should be shown to children after the book has been read. The film can be used by teachers as a reward or a supplemental activity. Alternatively, certain portions of the film can be shown in class, analyzed and discussed.
Possible Problems: MODERATE. The film is not as good as the book. (This is a comment rather than a criticism. Very little can measure up to the written version of The Odyssey.) The movie eliminates some of the episodes in the book.
In the film, there are several bloody scenes of fighting and men being eaten alive by various monsters. There are some quite sexually suggestive scenes with Circe and Calypso, but nothing explicit is shown other than embracing, kissing and the act of lying down together on a bed. Odysseus is a married man. His allegiance to his wife and family and his strong desire to return to them are a major theme. However, in ancient times, marital fidelity for males had nothing to do with sexual fidelity.
Parenting Points: Remember to either read the book with your child or have your child read it. See Read the Book First! As you go through the book review the Helpful Background section and the Discussion Questions for topics to discuss.
If your child watches the movie before reading the book, ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION: What do you think was Odysseus' most heroic act, the one event which most clearly defines his character and sums up the major themes of The Odyssey?
Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. The key to the answer is how the act chosen as the most heroic relates to the themes of the story. For example, an excellent answer would be the slaying of the suitors and a description of how it advances at least three of the following themes: (a) Odysseus' cleverness as a warrior; (b) his need for divine intervention to win at such great odds; (c) the use of the bow, the symbol of his authority, (d) that he cleansed his house of the suitors; or (e) that he vindicated the rules of hospitality by removing from his house the suitors who had violated the obligations of guests and stayed too long.
We suggest, however, that a better answer is that Odysseus' most heroic act was the choice of the life of a mortal married to Penelope and his rejection of Calypso's offer of eternal life on Ogygia. Another good answer is Odysseus' choice to forgo the offer of marriage to the young Phaeacian princess Nausicaa in favor of returning to Ithaca and his marriage to Penelope. These two actions relate to the theme of Odysseus seeking his proper place in the universe: that of a mortal, in a particular family, in a particular society.
Selected Awards, Cast and Director:
Featured Actors: Armand Assante, Geraldine Chaplin, Greta Scacchi, Isabella Rosselini; Vanessa Williams.
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky.
A Story Centered on the Life of a Man This story is about a man who understands his humanity and accepts it. Gods and divine beings appear, but unlike many other myths, the Gods are not the focus of interest. Odysseus makes use of his capacity to reason and think (that most human of tools) to deal with the situations he faces. When offered eternal life with the divine nymph, Calypso, Odysseus declines, choosing instead to remain a mortal devoted to his human wife, Penelope. By the end of his travails, both Odysseus and Penelope are past the golden age of their youth, but Odysseus knows that his nature is that of a mortal human being, born and bred into a particular society, and a member of a family who cares for him. His story and his choice are a celebration of humanity.
Odysseus' weaknesses are quintessentially human. He suffers from pride (hubris) and sometimes fails to see the frailties of his friends. Odysseus is curious; almost terminally curious in some cases. He struggles to control his desires and largely succeeds. His sailors on the other hand, cannot control their desires, with fatal consequences.
A Man is Defined by His Place in His Community and His Family Odysseus never abandons the desire to return home to Ithaca, his wife, and his son. In ancient societies a man was defined by his relationship to his town and his family. The attachment of a well grounded modern person is broader and, while tied to family, children, and country, it is often not closely related to a physical location.
Allegiance to Family is a Virtue The story of the Trojan conflict and the return of the Greeks from Troy involves issues of loyalty and fidelity to marriage. Helen's betrayal of Menelaus, Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia in return for favorable winds for the Greek fleet, and the revenge on Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, are contrasted with the constant fidelity of Odysseus and Penelope to their marriage. Thus, the importance of loyalty to family is a major theme in The Odyssey.
Odysseus is twice offered enticing alternatives to home and Penelope. First with Calypso, who would give him immortality if he stayed with her, and then with the pretty young Phaeacian princess Nausicaa. Each time he declines in favor of Ithaca, his own family, and Penelope. (Note that sexual fidelity for men was not considered a virtue in the ancient world. Odysseus was not seen as transgressing his marriage vows by sleeping with the various women and female beings he meets on his journey.)
The Celebration of a Man Who Uses His Mind Odysseus is a great warrior, but not in the manner of Achilles or Ajax. These heroes excelled at strength, ferociousness, and skill in the use of arms, while Odysseus was merely competent in battle. The bow, the weapon at which Odysseus favored, was not often used as a weapon in battle.
Odysseus is the cleverest of the Greeks in counsel and in strategy. He is more powerful than any single soldier, including the great Achilles. Time and again during the Trojan War, his intelligence and diplomacy save the day for the Greeks. In the end, after the Greeks have been unable for ten years to breach the walls of Troy, it is Odysseus' stratagem of the Trojan Horse that finally enables the Greeks to sack the city. Odysseus has the ability to use his mind and out-think his opponents, be they Trojan or Cyclops.
The Necessity of Restraint Men who don't restrain themselves suffer or even perish. Both Odysseus and his men suffer from lack of restraint. Odysseus incurs wrath from Poseidon because he rashly identifies himself to Polythemus. His remaining soldiers die because they cannot restrain themselves from eating the sheep and cattle of the Sun God.
A Warning Against Pride The Odyssey is a warning that no matter how clever, mankind is still dependent on the will of the gods. Bad luck and circumstances can easily overmatch any human being. Odysseus' ultimate triumph, returning home and defeating the suitors, could not have been accomplished without the sufferance and the help of the fickle and amoral gods. (Zeus had to instruct Poseidon to allow Odysseus to come home. Zeus also instructed Calypso to release Odysseus. Athena was at Odysseus' side during the battle with the suitors.)
Hospitality - One of the Ancient World's Highest Virtues In the ancient world, travelers and strangers were to be given hospitality. As Menelaus said, when rebuking a retainer for not immediately showing hospitality to Telemachus:
You were no idiot before, Eteoneus,Guests, in return were not to abuse that hospitality. Thus, when a Trojan prince, while a guest at the palace of Menelaus, stole the king's wife and treasure, it was a breach of the rules of hospitality and led to the Trojan War. The suitors of Penelope committed a capital offense when they abused the rules of hospitality by taking over the home of an absent man. To compound their crime, they themselves abused a beggar (Odysseus in disguise) and failed to extend to him the hospitality that they had demanded and abused. The interest of the gods in punishing abuses of hospitality is shown by the sack of Troy and by the direct intervention of Athena, helping Odysseus to trap and kill the suitors.
The Cyclops is lawless, obeying neither the rules imposed by gods or any society. He violates the obligation of hospitality, eating six of Odysseus' men before Odysseus blinds him. Eumaios, the swineherd, the first human being Odysseus meets when he returns to Ithaca, is also the first host who is neither god nor aristocrat. This episode shows that rules of hospitality extend to the lower classes.
The Role of Women in The Odyssey The main human female characters are Penelope, Nausicaa, Arete, and Helen. Their characters are strongly and sympathetically drawn. Penelope is a heroine for her constancy. Even the minor female human characters Anticleia (Odysseus' mother) and the servant, Eurycleia, are striking personalities.
The female divine characters of the fantasy world of Odysseus' journey (the nymph Calypso, the witch Circe, and the Sirens) are limited to their islands and each represents some part of the female personality perceived as dangerous. Circe leads to overindulgence (note that the benefits of restraint are a major theme in the epic). Odysseus' stay with Calypso is characterized by barely controllable grieving, suspension of activity, sensuality, and isolation, all traits that are antithetical to a healthy human society. The Sirens' song is alluring but leads sailors to their deaths.
Emphasis on Survival While Odysseus embraces his identity as a mortal, his story is one of tenacious survival. Unlike his men, and unlike the warriors at Troy, many of whom sought death in battle, Odysseus affirms the choice of life over an easy surrender to death. There are times when he contemplates suicide or states, ingenuously, that he wishes that he had died. There is a long period of time (e.g. seven years in Ogygia), when overcome by the hardships and tragedies that he has endured (held in thrall by the magic of Calypso), Odysseus lapses into lassitude and passivity. But ultimately he surges back. Odysseus will not give up until he can overcome a foe or reach safety.
Others in the story do not cling to life so tenaciously. Examples are Anticleia, Odysseus' mother who dies of grief over his absence and his crew who, although warned, slaughter the livestock of Helios to feed their hungry bellies.
Sleep The treatment of sleep in The Odyssey shows the profound distrust that the ancients had of this necessary bodily function. In sleep, a warrior loses consciousness and control. He is vulnerable to the transgressions of others, as when Odysseus' men open the bag containing the winds that blow the ship away from Ithaca or when, as he sleeps, his companions fatally slaughter Helios' livestock.
Sleep is also an occasion for transition from the world of fantasy to the world of men. Odysseus sleeps after he emerges from the sea and crawls onto the beach at Scherzi, the way station between the magical world of the voyage and the world of mankind. Odysseus also sleeps during the final voyage to Ithaca the last transition from the world of magic to the world of men.
Leadership The Odyssey teaches obedience to wise leadership. Odysseus' men repeatedly defy him. They repeatedly meet adversity and eventually die due to their failure to obey. Odysseus is not a great leader, failing at crucial times to fully inform his men of the reasons for his decisions and being asleep when they make important mistakes. Odysseus does not have the trust and loyalty of his men, but this might be asking too much for a three year voyage to nowhere.
Appearance vs. Reality The difference between appearance and reality is a constant tension in The Odyssey. Odysseus appears in Ithaca disguised as a beggar. Athena is always assuming one type of disguise or another. The suitors are venal and base, but apparently young and handsome. The Sirens sing a beautiful song but it leads only to death. Circe appears to be hospitable but turns her guests into animals. And of course, the entire epic has as its background the Trojan Horse, apparently a gift, but in reality, a hiding place for the men who will sack and burn Troy.
The movie tells the story chronologically. The epic takes a much different course:
Book V -- Zeus instructs Calypso to let Odysseus go; Odysseus declines Calypso's offer of immortality and journeys on a raft from Ogygia to Scheria.
Books VI - XII -- Odysseus spends a few days with the Phaeacians in which he reveals his identity, declines the hand of Nausicaa, wins an athletic competition, secures passage home, and tells of his travels in the fantasy world.
Book XIII -- The Phaeacians take Odysseus home and are punished by Poseidon; Odysseus arrives on Ithaca and is met by Athena who prepares him for the trials to come.
Books XIV - XXIV -- Odysseus meets Telemachus, deals with the suitors, is reunited with Penelope, and reestablishes himself in his home and on his Island.
In Books VI - XII Homer has Odysseus, rather than the poet, describe what happened in the fantasy world of his voyage. This occurs in the transition world of Phaeacia and is a means of allowing Odysseus to come to terms with what happened to him on the voyage before he takes up the challenges of the real world in Ithaca. Homer, as all great poets, was an excellent psychologist.
Simile is a particularly powerful literary tool in the hands of Homer. A simile describes by comparison, in which the attributes of a person, action, object, situation or place are described as something ordinarily thought of as quite different. Similes use the words "like", "as," or "so" for their logical connectors. An example of a simile is "He roared like a lion." In this simile, "roared" is the subject, "like" is the connector, and "lion" is the description.
Homer exploits simile beautifully by painting word pictures and by placing the subject of the comparison, in our example, the "roar" at the end of the simile. Homer often splits the simile, sandwiching the description between two references to the subject. He also adds colorful descriptions throughout the simile, to the subject and to the description. This draws out and enriches the image.
We have analyzed three examples of similes used in the Robert Fitzgerald translation of The Odyssey. The connectors are in italics and are capitalized. The subjects are in bold. The first example occurs the night before Odysseus slays the suitors. At this point, Odysseus is in his own hall, but incognito, disguised as a beggar...
His rageAnother example is the following description of the suitors after Odysseus has finished with them:
In blood and dustA final example is a "simple" simile from the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope:
Now from his breast into his eyes the acheMetaphor is the application of a word or phrase to an object or concept it does not literally denote. The metaphors used by Homer are lovely as well. A few examples follow:
"in throes for the salt sea" Book XXII lines 431 - 437;
"kindly beaches," (Book XXII, line 267)
Telemachus and Nestor's son are on their journey to the Menelaus' palace when "... they slept the night./But up when the young Dawn's finger tips of rose opened in the east they hitched the team once more to the painted car, and steered out eastward...." (Book III lines 533 - 535.) Note that one line of this short passage contains as many as five metaphors, "young Dawn's," "Dawn's fingertips," "fingertips of rose," and "Dawn ... opened" and "finger[s] ... opened,";
"the singing nymph with sun-bright hair" (Book XI, line 8)
"Kharybdis, dire gorge of the salt sea tide" (Book XII lines 304 & 5).
The bow is a symbol of the power of established authority on Ithaca, and of Odysseus' authority. No one but Odysseus can string it. When strung, Odysseus uses it to kill the suitors, the main sources of lawlessness in Ithaca.
The suitors themselves are a symbol of the anarchy that comes when lawful authority is missing.
Argus is Odysseus' dog, trained by his master, but just a puppy when Odysseus embarked for the Trojan war. When Odysseus returns home, the dog sees his master, wags his tail and expires. This is a symbol for the domestic life that Odysseus has lost due to his twenty year absence from home.
Based on a careful reading of The Iliad, ancient Troy was rediscovered in present day Turkey by Heinrich Schliemann, a German-born American amateur archaeologist. Beginning with Schliemann's work (1870 - 1890) there have been many excavations of the site. There was settlement in Troy from 3000 BC until 400 AD. Archaeologists have found nine different layers, each established on the one before. See e.g., Archaeological Evidence of Troy.
The Odyssey: An Oral Tradition Most people believe that The Odyssey was composed as an oral poem, that was amended and improved by the bards who recited it from memory. There are many arguments for this position, chief among them the use of a multitude of fixed phrases employed repeatedly or in several variations. The variations permit the thought to be expressed in a different number of metrical feet allowing the poet to meet the demands of the hexameter verse. The most frequent of these fixed phrases with variations are the noun-epithets for people or gods. Just a few examples are:
Son of Laertes, versatile Odysseus
Odysseus, raider of cities
Odysseus, canniest of men
The great tactician
That kingly man, Odysseus
Lord Odysseus, the long enduring
Odysseus, master of land ways and sea ways
young Dawn's finger tips of rose
young Dawn with finger tips of rose
Homer is thought to have been born in a Greek Colony in Asia Minor around 800 B.C.E. The Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War, is also attributed to Homer.
For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM's Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film's end.
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Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.
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Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.
BUILDING VOCABULARY: epic, archetypal, hubris, wily, "Trojan Horse," Cyclops, "Siren song," odyssey.
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1. See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.
2. It has been said that the genius of Odysseus lies in his intelligence to quickly assess any situation and his ability to select the best course. He also has the strength and resourcefulness to act on his ideas. Is this wisdom?
3. In this story, what was Odysseus' most grievous loss?
4. Why is Odysseus a hero?
5. What is Athena to Odysseus?
6. What are the differences between the Judeo/Christian/Muslim concept of God and the gods of the ancients as shown in The Odyssey?
7. What was the ancient Greek view of death shown in The Odyssey? Does the world of the dead seem to be a good place?
8. Why does an ancient story such as The Odyssey interest modern audiences?
9. The society of The Odyssey is very much like our own, despite being set in a different continent thousands of years ago. The story illustrates many of our own concerns, foibles, strengths and weaknesses. What does this tell you about human nature and great literature?
10. Describe the differences between the society set out in The Odyssey and modern post-industrial society.
11. Describe the main female characters in The Odyssey. Who are they? How are they portrayed? Is there any difference between the human female characters and the divine female characters of the fantasy world of Odysseus' journey?
12. What was Odysseus doing on Calypso's island for seven years?
Penelope at her Loom Attended by Telemachus
13. In the world of The Odyssey, what crimes are consistently punished?
14. There are still many cultures in the world today and in the recent past which have valued hospitality in a way similar to the ancient Greeks. However, modern Western culture does not hold hospitality in such high regard. Would you make your home available to a homeless person who came in off the street? Would you criticize someone who did not? Would you wonder about the sanity of someone who did? If the attitude toward hospitality has changed, why and how did it change?
15. What role does revenge play in The Odyssey? Is this consistent with the modern view of revenge?
16. What does the term "hero" mean to you? Is this the same as the ancient Greek concept? Was Odysseus a hero? If you think he was, describe his heroic qualities. If you think he wasn't, contrast his experience and attributes with those of characters who were heros.
17. What is the attitude of The Odyssey toward the sea?
18. What does the term "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" mean and how does it relate to Odysseus?
19. What does the term "a Trojan Horse" mean?
20. Is The Odyssey a tragedy?
21. Most societies celebrate stories involving a journey. Give some examples other than The Odyssey. What is the attraction of these stories?
22. Between the Trojan War and his travels, Odysseus was gone from home for twenty years. Imagine that you were separated (with no contact) from your loved ones, all family, boyfriends or girlfriends, for twenty years. What would it be like to be reunited with them? How would things have changed? How would you feel?
23. Elpenor was the youngest and least accomplished of Odysseus' companions. He fell from Circe's roof while drunk and broke his neck. Odysseus met Elpenor's shade in Hades and promised to give his body a proper burial when Odysseus returned to Circe's island. What is the significance of this promise?
Select questions that are appropriate for your students.
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Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:
1. Odysseus was smart and clever, but was he wise?
2. Does Odysseus survive because the gods love him or due to his own effort?
3. Why is Odysseus permitted to sleep with several female divine personages while, if Penelope had been sexually unfaithful to Odysseus, she would have been disgraced? What is the view of The Odyssey about the loyalty of one spouse to another?
4. How well do you think that Odysseus and Penelope will get along after their twenty year separation? What are some of the difficulties that you would anticipate them having?
LEADERSHIP - COURAGE
5. Describe Odysseus as a leader. What were his strengths and weaknesses?
6. Who was braver, Odysseus or Penelope?
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OTHER LESSON PLANS:
Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Is honesty a virtue observed by Odysseus? What do you make of this?
2. Why were the female servants of Odysseus' household who consorted with the suitors killed? What duty did they violate?
See also questions in the Marriage section above.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
3. What is the position of The Odyssey on self-control and self-discipline?
Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.
Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.
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Bridges to Reading: The Odyssey itself is the basis for this Learning Guide. We read the translation by Robert Fitzgerald which won the Bollingen Award in 1961.
The Gold of Troy: Searching for Homer's Fabled City (Vladimir Tolstikov and Mikhail Treister, published by. The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, The A.S. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.)This is a catalogue of an exhibition of artifacts from the archaeological exploration of ancient Troy.
Greek Fire (Oliver Taplin. Atheneum, 1990.) This book contains hundreds of beautiful pictures that help illustrate the ways the modern world has been inspired and transformed by Greek culture. It also has information on Greek tragedy, philosophy, science, mythology, politics, and warfare.
Assignments, Projects and Activities:
Assignments, Projects and Activities for Use With Any Film that is a Work of Fiction
PHOTOGRAPHS, DIAGRAMS AND OTHER VISUALS:
Bibliography: In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
Last updated July 21, 2011.
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