WARNING–SPOILER ALERT If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further.
It’s been a week since I saw Beowulf the movie and I still can’t get out of my head all the changes they made to the original (and wonderful) story. The biggest change being the transformation of Grendel’s Mother from a speechless and hideous underworld demon into a seductive and seemingly omnipotent sprite.
In the comely form of Angelina Jolie, she entices both Hrothgar and Beowulf, spawning two of the monsters that the supposed hero (well, he’s a hero in the real story) battles. The ending suggests she’ll succeed in seducing Wiglaf, that monster-slayer’s heir and most loyal compatriot, likely producing another murderous beast. Thus, it seems the moral of this story that seduction breeds beasts.
It’s almost as if the screenwriters grafted a notion from a Victorian novel onto a medieval tale. In such novels, unmarried women who engage in sexual relations meet unfortunate ends while the scandal often destroys (or otherwise humiliates) the man who seduced her.
But, here we have a movie adapted from a story with no sex scene and a character whose very qualities would make it easy for him to resist even Angelina’s otherworldly charms. Not only that, in the movie, unlike the original story, she had killed all but one of his fellow Geatish travelers. It is unbelievable that a man, particularly one of Beowulf’s caliber, who having learned of the slaughter of his troop, would let the perpetrator of that atrocity seduce him.
While there is no sex scene in the original tale, there is, to be sure, a suggestion of sexual tension between Beowulf and Wealtheow, the young wife of the aged King Hrothgar. In the movie, that comely Dane does marry Beowulf after her husband’s untimely demise (a demise which does figure into the poem’s primary narrative). Perhaps, the filmmakers enhanced her role because, they recognize as did John Sullivan in that wonderful film about his travels that “There’s always a girl in the picture.”
To keep that girl in the picture–and remain true to the story–the filmmakers could have built on the romantic tension between Beowulf and Wealtheow, perhaps having the two attempt a tryst. But, just as they’re about to consummate the act, Beowulf, realizing the debt he owes Hrothgar and the duty he owes his host, would turn away from this lovely lady, telling her he couldn’t squire the wife of a man who saved his father.
As he rebuffed he would telled he loved her. He would retain the image of here beauty throughout his life. And at the end of the poem, as he prepares to fight the dragon and realizes he may die, one of his retainers (possibly Wiglaf) might ask him to reflect on his life. He realizes that the cost of his duty was the loss of romance in his life, perhaps then seeing his death as a means to unite himself his beloved, herself then long since dead.
But, I, like the Beowulf-poet, digress. While Wealtheow did enjoy a larger role in the movie (than in the poem), the more voluptuous vamp is the girl (I mean, you see her and not Robin Wright Penn (who played Wealtheow) on billboards promoting the movie).
With the monstrously seductive Angelina as the girl, the film develops a notion of sex which makes Victorian notions seem quaint. For when she seduces a man, she spawns a monster who murders his people. And it’s not just Angelina. The first man, the movie’s Hondshew, who attempts to seduce a woman, becomes Grendel’s first Geatish victim.
While I do believe that the best sex involves human relationship, I do understand the power of our sexual urges. And they are not monstrous, but quite human. Here, we don’t even have a married man cheating on his wife. At the time of the seduction, Beowulf has yet pledged his troth to Wealtheow.
Maybe the reason I can’t let go of the movie’s turning a female monster into an invincible seductress. It’s not just that it’s out of place in the Beowulf-story — bringing it themes at odds with the story’s themes and having the character do things at odds with the character. It’s that it makes human weakness appear monstrous.
While I do believe that married men and women must remain faithful to their partners, I’m still wrestling with what kind of pre-martial sexual behavior is appropriate. As I’m sure as are many people, aware of sexuality’s power and their own longing to make of it more than a mere grinding of loins. It may not be entirely right for an unmarried man to sleep with a seductive inhuman sprite, but it shouldn’t be considered monstrous.
And it’s unfortunate the latest Beowulf flick suggests as much.