My favorite part of the Beowulf film (which I saw in 3D on Sunday) was the moment when, in her watery lair, Angelina Jolie shows herself and starts speaking to our hero:
"Are you the one they call Beowulf?" She asks. "The wolf of the bees? The bear?
At that particular moment I wanted to jump up in the theater and yell:
Angelina Jolie is doing philology!!! Angelina Jolie is doing philology naked!!!
(Does it get any better than that?)
And then I thought, wouldn't it be great if Beowulf replied:
"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" Beowulf said, clutching Unferth's sword. "But actually it means 'Woodpecker'(as Grimm and Skeat guessed)-- and there's a good reason for that." [cue dumb sexual puns on "Woodpecker].
[The above is probably a good explanation of why I haven't won any awards for film scripts].
But the opportunity to make insider-jokes about philology is just one of the many opportunities lost in this movie, which is a weird cross between a serious attempt to envision the Northern early medieval past and "Ye Olde Medieval Worlde" of Shrek. Although I had at least moderately high hopes going in becaues Neil Gaiman was one of the screenwriters, I was pretty disappointed with how it came out.
There are a number of good visual moments in the film: Grendel is the most horrifyingly disgusting monster that has ever appeared on screeen, the sword Hrunting dissolving into little mercury blobs was great, Angelina Jolie's "tail" being her hair was a good choice, and Heorot beseiged by the elements worked very well. But there were also too large a number of absolutely false notes: Hrothgar's drunkenness and absolute lack of dignity, Wealhtheow's cold shoulder both to Hrothgar and Beowulf in public venues, the Beowulf vs. Finn confrontation, Hrothgar's suicide, the introduction of a young girl, Ursa, and the tedious and predictable use of visual and situational cliches with her and Wealhtheow (falling off of collapsing bridges only to be grabbed by the strong hand of Wiglaf, etc.).
But I think I was most disappointed by the theme of the film, which is nothing like the theme of the poem (which is fine), but which was a tedious cliche. I think that people are giving the film way too much credit when they say that it is about unreliable storytelling. Or, rather, they are mistaken in thinking that making Beowulf into a film about unreliable storytelling is anything new, interesting or important. The problem is that there are two many different levels of truth and falsity to make the twists work: On the one hand, we have to believe that everyone is lying when they tell their stories. On the other, there really are Grendel monsters, lamias and dragons. The whole "here is what really happened" approach just doesn't work very well when there really are monsters in the world of the film. I think the combination of these two pieces—the "explanation" of Beowulf's ripping off Grendel's arm with the chain pulley system [which was used in Shrek I] with the "sense of the marvellous" of living monsters (not just confusions about Neanderthals or T.Rexes or whatever)—simply injects some postmodern cynicism without doing anything interesting with it.
Secondly, I wonder if Hollywood directors all have very serious Daddy issues. So the great sin of Hrothgar is that he cheated on Mommy? There are more, and more important sins in the world, and this particular sin is so completely brought into the contemporary socio-psychological context that the story, dialogue and acting could have been out of American Beauty and not from a poem that deals with kings and queens and dynasties--Hrothgar, Wealtheow, Beowulf and Ursula live, for this part of the film, on Wysteria Lane, not in Heorot. If we are in the heroic world or the 6th-century historical world, then the idea that Wealhtheow is being cold to Hrothgar and refusing his sexual advances both in public and for the long term, is absolutely ridiculous. So instead, for those elements of the story, we are in a modern, post-psychological world even though we have dragons, monsters, dynasties, magic drinking cups, etc. Having written at least one bad fantasy novel that tried to take this approach, I think it is doomed to failure.
There is a core of an interesting interpretation that could be centered around Beowulf making a bargain with Grendel's mother for the fame and success that he has later on: he would then be seen as not having earned it, and the film could be an examination of that bargain and its pitfalls (which could have worked if Grendel's mother was the dragon, rather than the dragon being Beowulf's son). Set against the dishonesty that Beowulf would have exhibited in making this bargain would have been the 50 years of peace and prosperity (no mean thing) he gave his kingdom: the failed raids by the Frisians in the film should have been seen as being good: it means that the Frisians are not able to burn, rape, pillage and murder Beowulf's people. Who cares if they are slaughtered on the beach of a country that they are invading? But that's not the film we have, which is focused almost exclusively on the "Daddy cheated on Mommy" sin. This sin might have been made more interesting if Hrothgar and Beowulf had refused to acknowledge their mutant offspring in some way (I don't know how you'd do it), which could then do the (tedious; but a lot of people seem to like it) John Gardner turn-around that Grendel really does have some kind of grievance. But that's not in this film, either.
The back-stories and connections of Beowulf are even more complicated than those of The Godfather, and there are all kinds of opportunities to work on the other sins that can be found in Beowulf (though note in the poem that Beowulf himself, as John Hill points out, is remarkably free of these sins, which is why he is so appealing -- but he is only so appealing in that context of all the other scheming, murdering and manipulating people in the background and the tradition. Hollywood does know how to do stories about pride, ambition and the net of fate woven by early promises, but for some reason when it comes to the fantasy genre, all of that goes out the window. The villains have to be all straight-out-of-Central-Casting: Saruman as generic "Eeville Wizard" or Denethor stuffing grapes in his mouth and slavering or Hrothgar's drunken ineptitude. There's no subtlety of the kind we get with Vito and Michael Corleone or the Martin Sheen character in Apocalypse Now or any number of complex, somewhat compelling villains or flawed men. I wish Hollywood would take a chance on respecting the audience in the fantasy genre. Or, just make pure, escapist fantasy (which I like very much; and I'll note that the 80's film Dragonslayer was better than Beowulf in this regard -- kudos to Vinny A for pointing this out to me).
There is also the problem of narrative 'tighness' vs. 'slackness'. The poem Beowulf has a loose feel that is lost in the film (the suicide of Hrothgar and Beowulf picking up the kingdom of the Danes right there is another example of "tightness" that makes a viewer/reader lose the "feel" of Beowulf). The Lord of the Rings book has this same kind of slackness, with characters appearing out of nowhere, the introduction of new plot points or problems that are not anticipated at the beginning, etc., and it was significantly tightened in the film versions. The radical simplification of Beowulf thus may have been necessary for the tightening of the narrative (no Geatland, no Hygelac, strictly tight connection between all monsters) and may be a demand of the genre. But 'tightness' is not in itself necessarily a virtue, and many of us who love Tolkien or love the old materials (Beowulf, Sagas), love exactly that leisurely and loose feel of the narrative). And all this, in a very round-about way, brings me to a general comment about the film.
Different genres and different time periods have different sets of aesthetic expectations. My major criticism of this Beowulf film is that it bounced from the comic-book-heroic, fight-by-wire, visual-cliches everywhere action-movie aesthetic to the post-modern, psychologized, we-all-know-that-heroes-aren't-reallyheroes cynical aesthetic. I think a film or even an adapted story that couldn't find a Hollywood audience could find some interesting middle ground to occupy, but this film did not reach that ground. And if we are to have cliches, visual or narrative, I would prefer the old cliches of Beowulf (and there are plenty, probably more than we recognize) than the newer cliches of late 20th-century visual media, middle-brow psychologizing narrative, and superficial and cynical ideology.
Posts whose citation I should have worked into this main post, but didn't: