A Tale of Two Beowulfs
By Kristin Battestella
Who hasn’t tried his hand at an adaptation of the epic ode Beowulf? From Star Trek: Voyager’s ‘Heroes and Demons’ to 1999’s out there sci-fi Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert, this ancient tale is never far from our consciousness. Such was the case when I viewed both Gerard Butler’s 2005 Beowulf & Grendel and the 2007 motion capture feat Beowulf.
We know the story well enough. Danish King Hrothgar, his wife Weaththeow, and his Heorot Mead Hall are plagued by repeated attacks from the monster Grendel. Old friend from Geatland Beowulf arrives with his heroic reputation preceding him. After defeating Grendel by cutting off his arm, Beowulf also kills Grendel’s vengeful mother and then a dragon. Eventually Beowulf also becomes a king himself.
Although not as horrendous as the Sci-Fi Channel 2007 original Grendel starring Ben Cross and Marina Sirtis, both Butler’s Icelandic production and Robert Zemeckis’ mocap piece leave much to be desired. Director Sturla Gunnarsson filmed his Beowulf & Grendel on location in Iceland with an all star cast, including 300 star Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Stellan Skarsgard (Mamma Mia!) as Hrothgar.
This international cast and beautiful locations add a touch of authenticity to Beowulf & Grendel. The story from Andrew Rai Berzins is close enough to the original poem, minus bookends about Grendel’s father and child. Here Grendel and his mother are merely creepy, deformed oafish sea people. The film, unfortunately takes a turn for the worst when people speak. F bombs mixed with modern speech and old speaketh like make for some ridiculous exposition. The battle scenes, although small scale, are done well. If only the costumes didn’t look like this year’s Halloween clearance swords and chain mail. Everyone is so damn dirty and beyond the main cast you can’t tell who the heck is who.
For some reason, modern folks need to add sex and juiciness to perfectly good stories, and Beowulf & Grendel suffers greatly from this. I could forgive the bad script and poor costumes if it weren’t for the silly and laughable Grendel raping the needlessly there hot witch Selma (Sarah Polley, Road to Avonlea). As if this weren’t weird enough, when Selma tells all this to Beowulf, he mounts her, too. This creepy yet somehow humorous sequence of events is still stuck in my head.
Giving me the giggles for similar reasons is the 2007 motion captured Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, and Angelina Jolie. At first I must say the look of this film is stunning; an entire film made through motion capture computer technology. Lovely actor performances and actions put into a computer then tweaked to our visual hearts’ delights. It’s a technological feat and I imagine a bit scary for actors who could theoretically be replaced onscreen. The DVD is full of behind the scenes features giving us the how-to treats. Unfortunately, director Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) and writers Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) put this stylized production above their cast and story.
The music, dialogue, and all star talent give Beowulf a serious feel beyond its cartoonish look. It’s nudity is funny, too. Yes, Beowulf’s nude fight with Grendel is more in keeping with the anonymous source material, but do we really need to see a computer generated man’s ass? I viewed the director’s cut, which supposedly had a few more naughty lines, and I love that good ale tune the Geats sing, but once Grendel enters the picture, things go south.
Beowulf makes the effort of giving Grendel and his mother’s dialogue an Old English flavor, but the sympathy and baby like treatment of Grendel takes away from the action and art of the character-and even then, the action is so over the top that we are again reminded this is computer animation. No human can move so suave as Beowulf!
Speaking of suave, the previews and trailers for Beowulf focused heavily on Angelina Jolie’s saucy portrayal of Grendel’s mother. One, this is very misleading considering the amount of time she is actually in the film, and two, Jolie herself went on record saying she disliked the way her performance was manipulated as such. I could forgive all this if her role didn’t make this film more stupid than it already was. Somehow the dragon Beowulf bags later is his son by the golden lizard-fish nymp Jolie? This great epic that has stood for twelve centuries ends packed with over the top father-son reflection and adulterous regret. What’s with all the bestiality, anyway?
I also feel very bad for Ray Winstone (Henry VIII, King Arthur) and his literally wizard behind the curtain performance of Beowulf. Of his talent there is no doubt, but the mocap wizards took the real life hearty and hefty stature of Winstone and redrew him as a pretty, blonde, buff sculpture of hotness. My Dad doesn’t like to know how movies are made, so when I turned the DVD over to him for a viewing (another person deceived by the previews), every time Beowulf appeared onscreen, my Dad asked, “Are you sure that isn’t Sean Bean?”
If only the best of both Beowulf & Grendel and Beowulf could be realized in one epic film. Hey, keep all the great talent and give us the flair and color of Beowulf and place it in the authentic Iceland of Beowulf & Grendel. Cut the sex and monstrosity of the Grendel family and make our heroes look heroic instead of butcher their being there and I’m all set.
It’s strange to say, but all these Beowulf productions I’ve named dropped and yet I’d recommend none of them. Each have their moments, but I don’t think anyone would rush out to buy the book after seeing either of these recent films. Even Antonio Banderas’ The 13th Warrior takes pieces of Beowulf, but this mishmash also can’t touch the spirit of the poem. We’ve had all these Lord of the Rings imitations in recent years (In The Name of The King with such a similar title and the near identical DVD cover of Blood of Beasts) why can’t someone make a proper retelling of Beowulf? (And my beloved King Arthur while you’re at it.) Anyone who’s been forced to read the poem in school knows how difficult it is to adapt the rather plain, nondescript but no less likeable story. So what if we don’t know what kind of monster Grendel is or who his father was. Why can’t someone tell the story like it is and add some umph? It doesn’t matter how long winded a rendition they make, someday I just want to see a damn good movie version of Beowulf. Look what happened when both Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh gave their love to Hamlet.
Aficionados of Beowulf, teachers, and scholars might enjoy a viewing of any or all and discussing, but neither Beowulf & Grendel nor the 2007 Beowulf lend any justice to this timeless story. Hope, however, springs eternal.
ETA: As you may have noticed, I've added some screen captures of Beowulf & Grendel, as I picked it up at a Buy 3 Get One Free sale, hehe.
(The Hound versus Leonidas - who would win?)