Thursday, November 22, 2007

Review of Beowulf (the film)

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:

Dr. Virago.
Scott Nokes.
John Walter.


N.E. Brigand said...

The above is probably a good explanation of why I haven't won any awards for film scripts

Don't worry: this Beowulf won't manage that feat either.

highlyeccentric said...

oooh, naked philology! it doesn't get much hotter than that.

i'm going to see the film with a bunch of anglo-saxonists in two weeks. the temptation to shout out "Angelina is doing philology naked", it will be overwhelming

meredith arwen said...

"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."

Actually, I think Gaiman was doing something more subtle than that. The implication of the flashback to Beowulf fighting in the ocean is the moment that best illustrates it: he is shown fighting I believe two monsters (certainly not more than three) and then being distracted and presumably enchanted by a mermaid. This is what actually happened. However, when he *tells* the story, it's told "I killed nine of them and pursued them down to the depths" - the number is increased, and the distraction by pretty mermaid left out.

Which is a slightly subtler comment on these things than simple "we know they all lie" cynicism - the lies aren't straight-forward, they're not wholesale fabrications, and there are important truths in the lie (in this case, that the only reason Beowulf lost the swimming match is because he was attacked by monsters and had to kill them, making his feat much more impressive than his opponent's). People tell little lies that don't really touch a core truth (he was attacked by huge monsters and survived - what does the number REALLY matter?), and those lies are sometimes very important - something reflected, I think, in movie!Wiglaf's vehement assertion that the "official" version is the true one, despite the fact that he knows much better.

N.E. Brigand said...

meredith arwen said:

"People tell little lies that don't really touch a core truth (he was attacked by huge monsters and survived - what does the number REALLY matter?)"

As Scott Nokes has observed, Beowulf might not have fought any sea monsters at all. (And Nokes thinks the number shown was more than three; I couldn't keep them straight, myself.)

"and those lies are sometimes very important - something reflected, I think, in movie!Wiglaf's vehement assertion that the 'official' version is the true one, despite the fact that he knows much better."

Was anyone else reminded here of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) -- "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"? Or of The Gunfighter (1950) and The Shootist (1976) in the scene where Beowulf and Wiglaf discuss the motivations of the Frisian invaders?

meredith arwen said...

n.e. brigand:

I'd have to see it again to get much more involved in that discussion, as first-viewing memory is not something I'd like to put that much weight on. Although taking that route, the thing descends into slightly more narrative incoherence than I would expect from either writer.

Western is not my genre, so no, I wasn't reminded. I have observed, however, that stories, how they grow, how they're remembered, what they mean and what they're used for are major concerns of Gaiman in particular (I'm not nearly as much a follower of Avery) - and that his examination of them tends not to be simplistic along the lines of "the real story went like this, then there was a fake, look at how cynical you should be about the world!" It may use that as a jumping-off point, because that disparity is interesting, but the narratives tend to go other places. As a result, I tend to resist the impulse to think the most obvious thing is actually what's going on, even when he's writing for Hollywood, with all that implies (for instance, the dragon-battle was completely rewritten for shooting.)

As such, I don't think that the lamias and the dragons and the monsters are supposed to be a litmus test for story/not-story in this movie: they are part of reality, and they do change the tenor of the stories that are part of reality. And these things can be true and people can still lie about fighting them, the same way atomic bombs can be true and people lie about having built them, the same way terrorists can be real and people can lie about what they've done. There's a continuity of the nature of stories going on, whatever the setting: people lie, the lies become accepted, and then the lies become important in both good ways (Danish peace and prosperity, for all it's due to a monster that no one knows about) and bad (the eventual outcome). Just like truths. Stories can be important and in a real way true without having to have actually happened. And in the end, we're left in real doubt about which way Wiglaf's story is going to go

It's certainly not the best Gaiman meditation on these things that I've seen/read, but that's not surprising, given it's also a Hollywood movie. I just think there's something slightly more complex going on than a simplistic meditation on "the story vs the truth."

John said...

I'm still trying to figure out what I think of the movie more than a week after seeing it, but I do agree with what Meredith Arwen's arguing here.

That said, having now read the essays in the script movie book, I think we also need to be careful about discussing Gaiman's intent. The movie began as an Avery project (apparently a project that he spent 20 years on), with Gaiman being brought in after Gaiman suggested a solution to a particular problem Avery had run up against, and the entire vision for the movie changed when Zemeckis became director. (It changed in scope and vision, but also in the script. For instance, it seems to have been Zemeckis' decision to have Beowulf inherit Hrothgar's kingdom rather than return to home.)

Like Meredith, I think there's a lot going on underneath the surface. What that is, exactly, I'm still trying to figure out.

Casdok said...

I saw it last night and am also still wondering what i thought!

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I went and saw this with LDW when I was visiting him in Exciting European Capital, and he liked it more than I did. That kind of surprised me, since he's taught an entire semester course around Beowulf, but then he's also much better on sf/f literary conventions and re-tellings/re-castings than I am.

Hrothulf said...

"Are you the one they call Beowulf?" She asks. "The wolf of the bees? The bear?"

That is one theory of what the name Beowulf means. But it could also be interpreted as meaning BEERWOLF, from "Beow-wulf." Beow (Byggvir in Norse) was the god of barley, and by extension, of BEER.

The movie certainly departed from the poem. The only possible justification I can imagine for making Hrothgar the father of Grendel is an obscure one. The poem says Grendel was a descendant of Cain, and according to the Book of Enoch the daughters of Cain interbred with demons and the resulting offspring were eotenas ond ylfe, ond orcneas, swylce gigantas. So, it is not entirely gratuitous that the eoten Grendel was the monstrous progeny of Hrothgar and a demoness in the movie.

I only wonder why the movie omitted the character of my namesake.

Andrew Higgins said...

Professor Drout

I received your Tolkien Encyclopedia for Christmas - very excited!

On another front - I recently saw the Beowulf film in 3-D Imax and have started to do some blogging on it.

I am inrigued by the words in the poem - "ides, aglaec-wif" as a description of Grendles mom and whether this description is to translated as "monsterous woman" or "female warrior" - I've done some elementary research on this on my blog at Wotan's Blog Spot and would be great to get your comments and thoughts on this. Really enjoy your blog and your Anglo Saxon aloud is top on my Ipod!

Best, Andy Higgins (London)

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