Friday, November 16, 2007

Beowulf: The Movie

Neil Gaimen's Beowulf finally hits the theatres this weekend and expectations are high, both because this is the first blockbuster Beowulf movie ever and since Gaimen has a devoted following. As a Medievalist, an Anglo-Saxonist in particular, I'm in the first crowd, though I've seen the previews so know it's Beowulf with a twist.

Jack Niles, the Old English professor here at Madison, invited the department to a special screening (3D! Imax!) the night before opening day. He also led a Q&A following the movie, which was neat since we got to see him field questions ranging from, "how is this like the book" (my answer: there are characters who have the same name) to Beth's great question about the role of adaptation in Medieval literature. So we got the red carpet treatment which meant we were given priority seating and didn't have to wait in the humongous line and get turned away. Here's a brief overview of the movie alongside some analysis of it. (WARNING: spoilers follow.)

The poem has three major fight scenes: Beowulf vs. Grendel, his mother and a dragon. This traditionally flummoxes directors and scholars seeking to connect the first two with the last. Gaimen does manage to do it. He turns Grendel's mother into a seductress who tempts: 1) Hrothgar, 2) Beowulf and 3) possibly Wiglaf, which is where the movie ambiguously ends. (Wiglaf has been the closest thing we've gotten to a hero in the movie, though it's because he cares for people and does his job well rather than any great actions he accomplishes.) Angelina Jolie's -- err, I mean, Grendel's mother's -- motivation is to have children. (They keep getting killed by their fathers when they try to ravish the kingdom.) 

This is about all that Gaimen really keeps and my major problem with the movie is that once I stopped thinking, "this isn't Beowulf at all..." I couldn't get into the story they were telling: it all revolved around fighting and there wasn't even any stirring dialogue. "I am the ripper, the terror, the slasher. I am the teeth in the darkness! The talons in the night! My name is strength! And lust! And power! I AM BEOWULF!" doesn't really do it for me...

Which is part of the movie's point, I think. Noble dialogue would have suggested that there as some nobility to be found -- even Wiglaf is revealed throughout to be insufficient. What I did like about the movie was how it deconstructed the notion of the hero and fully reflected a modern temper. 

Hrothgar wasn't the noble, flawed but thoughtful king from the poem; he was instead a drunkard who wears a toga/sheet that slips off and declares, "This hall is made for fornication!" Beowulf was the hero that Hrothgar declares they need, but is only revealed to be deeply flawed as well: he exaggerates stories of how many sea monsters he killed with Breca, claims to have killed Grendel's mother when he in fact had sex with her and only becomes a great king because of this deal with Grendel's mother. One character will later claim that "the time of heroes is dead" -- "the Christ God has killed it, leaving humankind nothing but weeping martyrs and fear and death." This sums up the entire movie for me since Gaimen's point is to show that everyone is flawed (even before Christianity) and insufficient to the tasks they have at hand for them. One of Beowulf's closing lines is to request to be remembered as a man, not a hero or a king. This plays on the expectations that we have of heroes and salvation, suggesting in the end we only do what we can do.

So while this isn't Beowulf at all, it's a fascinating commentary on our own time. The coolest part of the movie (aside from the scenes that just made me giggle because they were so poorly written -- I expected something more from Gaimen...) was this scene where a rat scampers across the roof beams of the mead hall, chats briefly with another mouse who is promptly carried away by a hawk. What makes this so neat is it's an inversion of the famous sparrow through the mead hall image quoted by Bede. He recounts the conversion of Northumbria, where one of the pagan advisors listens to stories of the new religion and advocates accepting it because it offers more information about the afterlife than their own religion does. The counsellor describes the soul as a sparrow, driven by the winds who briefly flies through a mead hall and then dashes back out into the unknown. The mead hall is life and the snow eternity.

Gaimen turns this hopeful conception on its head: instead of a sparrow, we have a rat. Instead of the storm, we have the loss of a friend because of a hungry hawk. It unsettles the notions of the expected order of the universe while emphasizing the uncertain cruelty of the world. And captures the spirit of the movie perfectly.

In short, the movie wasn't one that I would have seen were it not for the Beowulfian premise. It was an action movie that tried to be more, but became tangled in its own ambition. I think for what Gaimen wanted to do, he picked the wrong poem. Trying to make it work required him to sacrifice both the poem and his own vision. On the other hand, it was my first experience with 3D Imax, which is seriously the way to see movies! It still needs some work when images are panned, and you have to sit pretty far back to avoid motion sickness, but the depth of field is realistic. This movie was a good one for this adaptation because it does try to blur the boundaries between the theatre and the screen -- the trees jump out at you, the scene in the hall is blocked at times by posts as if you're pacing the outside wall and so forth. But again, what they try to do and what they accomplish were so much at odds...

1 comment:

Ems said...

I really liked reading your thoughts about the movie. I haven't read Beowulf in ages! Hope you are well, friend!