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Well, after finishing the last paper for my graduate program in which I argued that Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s Mother is akin to an underworld journey similar to Odysseus’s Nekyia in the Odyssey, I decided to see the latest film adaptation of that monster slayer’s eponymous poem.
Given how much the film version departed from the story, I’m surprised that I restrained myself from screaming at the screen during the movie and even from walking out. Once the credits started to roll, I did speak out, offering a succinct opinion of the film, “The book was better.”
What is it, I wondered, about some in the film industry who think that the only way to adapt a classic is to so twist it so it resembles their idea of what modern audiences want? What makes them think they know better how to tell a story than do authors whose works have survived for generations?
To be sure, one must make certain changes, to translate a story communicated verbally to one communicated visually. And this screenwriters did make certain changes which worked very well on the silver screen. The movie was at its best in two of the hero’s three battles with monsters. (The screenwriters translated the third (the one I considered in that aforementioned paper) into a scene of seduction.) The filmmakers portrayed the battles far differently than the poet had described them. But, the changes made sense and were (on the whole) thematically consistent with the poem. They worked visually, indeed, were really quite stunning.
Otherwise, I found myself bored and found it hard to keep myself from groaning. Early in the movie, the Danish warriors chant, “Hrothgar, Hrothgar” as if they’re cheering on a friend trying to win a drinking contest in a sports bar rather than hailing a King who has led their people to many victories.
I could go on an on (and on and on) about other changes which did not work as well as those battle scenes. At times, it seemed the screenwriters hadn’t even read the book, but based their adaptation instead on an old CliffsNotes version of the poem–with a few pages missing. It sometimes seemed the only relation to the original was the sequence of events (and the names of characters).
The biggest change of the poem was how the screenwriters reinvented the monsters. In the original work, they were beings of pure evil. Here, they are spawn of various men’s lust, including that of the protagonist. These men all found the charms of Grendel’s Mother (Angelina Jolie) irresistible.
In the original, the monsters could not talk. Their lack of verbal skills helped define them as less than human. In the movie, they have an unusual vocabulary, a strange mix of some Germanic tongue spoken with a poor imitation of Slavic accent. What is it with Angelina Jolie and these odd accents? In Alexander, she attempted to affect an Albanian accent by imitating the intonations of a Russian porn star making her American film debut.
In reimagining the monsters as less than fully evil, the filmmakers attempted to create a new hero more complex than his literary inspiration. No longer a brave man with a flair for killing monsters and eager to rid the world of their stain, the film hero has become a flawed man, so easily seduced by a demonically beautiful woman that he forgets his duty. One of the primary themes of the very poem was that a good man always remembers his duty, to his King, his kin and his people.
Granted, one of the (few) flaws of the poem is Beowulf’s near absence of flaws. It was a good idea to try to humanize the film hero by showing his weakness. After all, aren’t we cinephiles used to imperfect heroes? This might have worked had the screenwriters given him some flaw other than concupiscence. As Grendel’s mother becomes a seductive vixen, the film becomes little better than a remake of the 1999 adaptation of the poem featuring Christopher Lambert, but with much better special effects and fight choreography. (In that film, Grendel’s Mother had also trysted with Hrothgar, so spawning Grendel.)
With monsters as the spawn of the characters in the story and as an apparently invincible vixen (giving birth to that spawn), this version of Beowulf plays out as some frustrated straight boy’s attempt to demonize the super hot chick in high school who refused his first sexual advances. In trying to explain away the rejection, he imagines that the fulfillment of his adolescent fantasies would not have served him well. So, the “babe” who spurned him becomes the bitch who seduces him. And inhuman wench that she is, she can only give birth to monsters, for whose ravages he would be partially responsible. So, he tells the story to explain why it’s better he didn’t bed her.
But, the real poet did not so project onto women. He saw Grendel’s Mother not as an object of lust, but as a creature of evil. And the hero was one who had the courage and strength to defeat her–and others of her kind–so that they would not threaten men. (Had the real Grendel’s Mother had Angelina Jolie’s charms and attributes, the real Beowulf would have been easily able to resist them.) As J.R.R. Tolkien put it, in “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” one of the first serious scholarly essays on the poem:
Something more significant than a standard hero, a man faced with a foe more evil than any human enemy of house or realm, is before us, and yet incarnate intime, walking in heroic history ….[H]is real battle is between the soul and its adversaries. So the old monsters become images of the evil spirit orspirits, or rather the evil spirits entered into the monsters and took visible shape in the hideous bodies of the yrsas [giants or demons] and sigelhearwan [Ethiopians] of heathen imagination.
But, when the hero becomes responsible for the existence of the monsters, the film turns the poem’s notion of evil on its head. The poet understood something which all too many of us today, particularly those in Hollywood (and other blue islands), so easily forget: there is evil in the world that is not of our making–and which oftentimes we cannot explain. That Anglo-Saxon writer portrayed that evil in monsters who could not communicate with humans, seeking only to consume them.
When they try to explain that evil, the screenwriters lost sight of this concept which has preoccupied men for as long as we could express ourselves in words. In making lust, a basic human weakness, responsible for the monster’s ravages, they become no better than the moralistic Christians they apparently seek to mock in this film, those who would demonize sex. For in suggesting that lust spawns monsters, aren’t they making it into a sin of epic proportions?
It’s too bad that the screenwriters transformed one of the monsters into a lustful spirit, whose seduction spawns the monsters of the tale. Had they found some other way to take the hero off the pedestal onto which the poet placed him, they might have succeeded not only in making him more human, but also in making the movie more engaging. Even on that pedestal, the Beowulf of the poem represents qualities which men even today seek to emulate, the man unwavering in his commitment to fight for what is right.
All that said, there were stunning visuals in this flic. I particularly enjoyed how the filmmakers concealed the protagonist’s private parts in his naked battle with Grendel. (While many talking heads have made much of that battle, it actually is one of the few elements of the movie which is thematically consistent with the poem. As I wrote earlier today, when Beowulf battled Grendel, “he did not want to have any advantages the monster lacked.”)
All that notwithstanding, as I said when the film was over, the book was better. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the film more had I loved the poem less.
– B. Daniel Blatt (GayPatriotWest@aol.com)
Please note that since orginally posting this piece, I made some slight changes to fix typos and improve its flow — and one change to fix a formatting flaw which apparently had hidden some of the text.