Just over two years ago, I imagined that tomorrow, the day of the release of Robert Zemeckis‘s Beowulf, would be the most difficult day for me since I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a screenwriter. You see, several years previously, I had completed my own adaptation of that great English poem about a celebrated Geatish monster-slayer and king. It is, I believe, one of my two best scripts and the mose marketable of all my screenplays.
I have loved Beowulf since I first read it in Tenth Grade, discovering there one of the sources of my then-favorite writer‘s* own epic. So much did I love the poem that I learned Old English as an undergraduate so that I could read the poem in the original as an undergraduate.
When about ten years ago, I found myself writing screenplays, I knew I would one day attempt to adapt Beowulf for the silver screen. But, the question arose how to translate a story writtent to be told for warriors in the mead-halls of Anglo-Saxon England in the last centuries of the first millennium (of the Common Era) to a film to be shown to modern men and women in movie theaters around the world in the first years of a new millennium.
The original Beowulf story has few of the things which make a movie work today. The hero doesn’t change. The Beowulf we see at the end of the poem is virtually the same person (though much older) as the one who volunteered to assemble a troop and travel to Denmark to fight the monster ravaging Hrothgar’s hall in Demark. Unlike most heroes of the silver screen, Beowulf is not initially reluctant to face his foe(s). When Beowulf hears of that Danish King’s woes, he sets out willingingly, without reservation, because that besieged monarch was “in need of men.”
We are so used to seeing a hero, hesitating before undertaking the task that will come to define him. But, Beowulf does not hesitate.
Moreover, those movies which move us, which draw us in, have at their core, a relationship, whether it’s that of father-son (Don Corleone & Michael in the Godfather) or mentor-student (Obiwan and Luke in Star Wars) or of two lovers (Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca). The best movies, like those listed, all have a number of relationships which shift as the flicks unfold.
But, in Beowulf, there are no such relationships. Yes, he acknowledges he owes Hrothgar a debt. There is a brief spark between him and Hrothgar’s wife Wealtheow and Wiglaf, alone among the warriors who follow Beowulf to the dragon’s lair, joins his King in battling that dread beast when the hero cannot face him on his own. (The others flee.) But, each relationship belongs to a specific part of the story. None sustains the whole poem.
How, I wondered could you have a movie without a relationship helping define the story?
And then it dawned on me, create the relationship between Beowulf and the at-that-time-undiscovered Beowulf-poet. Hearing the poem as a boy, he would identify with the hero, using his example to guide his life, then, at the end of the flick, he would complete the tale he had first heard when living at home. And it would help him, finally find his place in the world.
Thus, we would have both transformation and relationship, two ingredients, essential to a good flick.
The story, as I wrote it, did not come to me right away. At first the boy was just a child who loved stories while his parents wanted him to be practical and learn to work the land as did most of his peers. The moment of inspiration came when I was considering the work of great writer of the past. When I discovered Wolfram von Eschenbach‘s Parzival (ironically at the same time I was completing my first translation of Beowulf), I saw in that Germano-Celtic hero’s life’s the pattern of a journey which resonated across the generations.
Born isolated from the society of his day, Parzival errs before he finds his way in the world, learning along the way from a number of mentors (of both genders), achieving his greatest success in the same Castle where he had had his worst failure. Wolfram’s story had both relationship and transformation.
So, I found a way to integrate the Beowulf story into the poet’s life and a means for his life to inform the poem. So, I began my background research and started my second translation of the poem. As I worked, I even found a solution for an aspect of the poem which has troubled scholars familiar with Germanic legend–Wiglaf’s decision not to flee when the dragon attacks Beowulf. The typical Germanic hero would have faced the monster alone and like Beowuf, died vanquishing that beastly foe.
In my version, before the poet was even born, his father Wiglaf died defending his King Offa of Mercia (a real historical figure) in that nation’s civil war of 757. (Mercia was then the largest kingdom in the land now known as England.) Offa would later be the first man to be called “rex Anglorum,” King of the English. That good king wishes to honor Wiglaf’s widow and her offspring for her husband’s sacrifice. But, distraught at the loss of her husband, she chooses to isolate herself from society, preventing her son from learning about his father and his deeds.
But, he being a normal boy, wants to know of his father. When he first hears the tale of Beowulf, he relates to that hero as a boy in similar circumstances who would look elsewhere for a man to emulate.
When I had completed my script, I was proud of my work. I was flattered and honored that others who have read it (including at least one successful screenwriter) agree with my initial assessment. A few offered suggestions, some of which I incorporated into subsequent drafts.
When I finished, despite the sense of accomplishment I felt, I had another unexpected and quite unusual feeling, that while I would like to sell the script, I didn’t need to do so. The writing itself was the satisfaction. At the same time, I feared someone else would adapt it, having the chance to translate the story I had so loved for so long to the silver screen.
About three years later, I learned that Zemeckis, a director whose work I had admired since the year I first translated Beowulf, the year his Back to the Future was released, would be directing someone else’s adaptation. Due to the quality of that Oscar-winner’s movies, I was less distraught than I had imagined I would be. Sad, to be sure, but given what Zemeckis had done, I was confident he would make a good movie of my beloved story.
Only when I saw the first three-panel display promoting the flick in movie theaters did I began to question that assessment. One panel read, “Pride is the Curse” (the movie’s Tagline according to Imdb.) In the original story, there’s no pride. Beowulf only boasts of his achievements to reassure Hrothgar (and later his own people) that he can defeat the monsters which threaten them. If anything, the literary Beowulf is the opposite of proud, offering his treasures to his king and pooh-poohing his own accomplishments. In one celebrated case, he refuses to take credit for killing a sea-monster, saying instead that the “battle storm” took the beast.
And then there’s the panel featuring Angelina Jolie playing a seductive Grendel’s Mother and some language about lust. There’s no lust in the poem. Beowulf refuses Wealtheow’s advancements (while obviously attracted to the young queen). And Grendel’s Mother never speaks, being an object of disgust rather than desire.
Yes, I recognize that one must change a “verbal story” (i.e., poem or novel) to make it more visual and so fit the silver screen. One should at least strive to be thematically consistent. When Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings, he did not make Saruman into a sexy and buff villain.
When I saw the first preview, I couldn’t even recognize the story I loved in the imagery shown, even as the names were the same. Indeed, I couldn’t even find any story in that preview. The billboards around town are even less compelling.
All that said, even friends of mine who agree with my assessment about the theater display, the preview and the billboards, have told me they have heard good things about the film, that it does look good. Several, aware of my fondness for the tale, have observed that the movie will be nothing like the poem.
And that is perhaps why I’m not as upset as I might be with just hours to go before the film’s release. It will be as was The Thirteenth Warrior, a film inspired by that great poem. Had I known in advance that that film was based on Michael Crichton’s retelling of the poem, I might not have enjoyed it as much as I did. Had I known, I would have been constantly been measuring it up to the greatness of the original poem.
Perhaps, my film will never make the silver screen. It will thus not make grown men cry as it reminds them of one of the most fundamental relationships in their lives, that with their father. I believed my Beowulf would have a effect on viewers similar to Field of Dreams.
In the parts of my film depicting the poem, I was as faithful as I could be to the tale of the Eighth Century poet, whom I discovered as I wrote my script. The film released tomorrow may not be as faithful to his great story as I strove to be, but it could still be good.
For that reason, despite my previous misgivings, I may well decide to see the flick while it’s still in theaters. And I can still hope that there’s still a chance to one day bring a more authentic Beowulf to the silver screen.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)
*He now shares the title with George Eliot and Albert Camus.