Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dudes, we're a franchise!

Over on ANSAX-net (the Anglo-Saxonist's listserv) and in a few other places, there has been discussion about the trailer for the upcoming Beowulf movie.

One of the big questions that keeps popping up is why the movie has to take such liberties with the story. There's been some fairly predictable (at least to me, if only because of the eternal arguments about the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings films) debate about how the adaptation is inferior to the original versus the idea that stories need to be updated to fit the times in which they are performed.

I go two ways on this. On the one hand, no one is giving me a hundred million dollars or so to make a Hollywood movie (although if any readers want to do this, don't think I'm ruling it out), and so, because there is a lot of money for a lot of people on the line, I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to people who think they know what their audience wants. On the other hand, I think that Hollywood films (which are, remember, made by committee no matter whose name is on the box-top) tend to think that the lowest common denominator is lower than it has to be. My take (and remember, I haven't had a chance to lose a few million on an unsuccessful movie) is that when Hollywood takes risks and respects the audience, things work out for the better. One of the biggests risks in both Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings would be sticking very closely to the story, but such a risk can pay off commerically. For example, the Narnia movie deviated very little from the original text and was very commercially successful.

The big question, though, is: why make a Beowulf movie and then not follow the story? As Johnny Cochrane said on South Park, "It does not makes sense." Want to make a film with Angelina Jolie as a naked snake-woman, and a character beating beating a monster with its own severed arm (I think every time he whacks Grendel with the arm he should say "Why are you hitting yourself? Huh? Why are you hitting yourself?" -- now you can tell I have a younger brother), and dragon rodeo? Why not just make a move with those things in it? But no, you add those things and you still call it Beowulf.

The only answer that makes sense to me is that the film-makers and their financial and marketing people thought that the Beowulf name was worth something. Otherwise there's no reason to use it if you are changing the story. That means that Beowulf, rather than being interpreted in the culture as something boring and tedious (i.e., Woody Allen's "never take a class in which you have to read Beowulf"), is being interpreted as something exciting and worth paying attention to.

That means that to some degree all of our work over the past twenty years or so has succeeded. Many, many of us have been preaching and teaching the joys of Beowulf, and we've helped bring about a cultural change. That's a very big deal, and a very good thing for Beowulf studies, Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature in general. Dudes, we're part of a franchise.

[now, in my next post, I try to tie this in to my recent experience in my Anglo-Saxon class, where students were extremely interested in the Indo-European language tree, ablaut and umlaut. Really. They were. I'm not making it up.]


Steve Muhlberger said...

I have a theory about why perfectly good ideas are monkeyed with in this way. I call it the Rich Dentist Theory of Film-making. Most films are made by getting a lot of different people (some of them rich dentists) to invest in them. All of those people are investing in films to be film-makers -- it's not a great way to make money. Some of them insist on having some roll "on the creative side." So films are hostage to what rich dentists care about. Rich dentists cared about how close Narnia was to the original. Beowulf? Maybe not so much.

The only way to beat this is to devote your life to making your dream film, and see how few compromises you can get away with.

meredith arwen said...

In this case, there's also the issue of Neil Gaiman being the screenwriter, and his well-established pattern of taking a known story and going " . . .huh, but what if I want to do THIS with it?" (his take on Snow White, for example, in his anthology Smoke and Mirrors, is kind of viral - I can't look at the original fairy-tale the same way again). Nothing Gaiman ever does is played straight, as it were; it's always twisted.

Which is why I'm not going to see the movie as "Beowulf", as such - I'm going to go see, and anticipate enjoying, Neil Gaiman's likely to be twisted take on an old, familiar story.

Steve Muhlberger said...

As someone pointed out at Unlocked Wordhoard, there's also plain old arrogance on the part of film makers.

Dr. Virago said...

Actually, the comment about arrogant filmmakers was at *my* blog. But people often confuse me and Dr. Nokes. ;)

And I still think the real answer here is "because Roger Avary is involved." I'm agnostic about Gaiman, though my partner is trying to get me to read him finally.

M. Richter said...

I beg to differ, to a degree, on your comment regarding the Narnia movie (although I'll grant, I haven't done inkling studies in quite a while, and CS Lewis was never my area of focus). The topic of the movie adaptation of LW&W recently came up in my children's literature course. While the changes were for the most part minor deviations, they rather seriously changed the portrayals of several of the principle characters - Peter and Edmund in particular. I will grant you that by and large the plot was in keeping with the details of the book on a much greater scale than other similar works of recent years, but even minor changes can lead to serious thematic alterations.

Not going to touch the how much modification is necessary/too much/not enough topic, however, simply because everyone's got different perspectives on that and nobody ever seems inclined to budge much. I'm cool with media crit and discussion being a bloodsport, but it's not so cool when the dead horse ends up decapitated for laughs (not meaning to imply you're doing anything of the sort, rather just that it's a can of worms I'm not going to open in my comment).

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