Beowulf Redux

I like Beowulf. A lot. Like my other favorite book of all time, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I was introduced to Beowulf by my high school English teacher, and have read it many, many times over in multiple translations. So when a big name director like Robert Zemeckis takes it upon himself to pull out all the stops and make a big budget film version of the story, and yet says,
"Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me," I know that I'm not going to like what happens next. And, no, I will not be seeing the film.

I could talk about this unwatched movie from a number of different perspectives. A lot has been said by the writers concerning the nature of the Beowulf story. They point out that it's not really fair to criticize them for making changes because the story itself has changed so much historically. They point out that the Christian monk that put the story to paper changed many of the elements of the pagan legend, and so why can't they change it too? The problem with this reasoning is that the "pagan legends" upon which Beowulf is supposedly based are not masterpieces of Western literature, whereas the epic poem Beowulf penned by a brilliant Christian author in early medieval England is. It's much like the higher textual critic who affirms that Q is more authoritative than the Gospels we have in our Bible, and uses Q (a document concerning which he can only hypothesize) to "debunk" the Bible (a book he can pick up and read).

I could also talk about the movie from the perspective of heroes. In this film, as in the Sturla Gunnarsson film "Beowulf and Grendel" from two years ago, Beowulf is not the shining and flawless hero of the poem. Why can't filmmakers actually put a hero on screen? You know, someone who is not fraught with inner conflict. Someone who knows the right thing to do and does it...flawlessly. Like Beowulf or Sir Gawain. But we are in the age of Spiderman, the angst-filled girly-man. This is why Peter was so whiny and indecisive in The Chronicles of Narnia, and why Aragorn had to be so conflicted in the Lord of the Rings. Not at all like their literary counterparts. Why can't we simply have an all-good hero and a purely-evil baddie? Is it because we're too jaded to even believe in the existence of good and evil?

I think the best way to criticize the film, is that it is, in fact, a film. Beowulf is not a work that can be properly filmed because, like most old literature, Beowulf is language-driven, not plot-driven. Plotwise there is a coherence of ideas throughout the poem, but not one cohesive story with an Intro, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. It shows two set pieces: the young Beowulf rescuing Heorot from Grendel and Grendel's mother, and the old Beowulf fighting the dragon. Through these set pieces, the author explores such ideas as the nature of virtue, the futility of blood-feuds, and the need for Christ.

And he does so beautifully. Even the most clumsy translation can't fully hide the glory of the Anglo-Saxon poetry, and Seamus Heaney's translation releases the Old English in all its glory. The the sounds, not the plot, drive the reader from page to page. I'm reading Beowulf out loud to my 2 year old, and he loves it. I started as a lark one day at the breakfast table. I showed him the cover and told him it was Beowulf and then began to read. I don't know if he even gets anything that's going on in the story other than "Beowulf fights the monster", but the cadence and the alliteration captivate him. Usually when I've read a few pages, I'll make as if to put the book down and ask him, "Luther, do you want to go play now?" Inevitably he replies with a grin, "Ooor....we can read more Beowulf?" He's learning to appreciate beautiful language, something a movie just can't convey.

When I read many pre-20th century books, I am often struck with the attention paid to beautiful words as opposed to mad, page-turning action. The Mabinogion, which I just completed, comes to mind. One of the stories in it, "The Dream of Rhonabwy", over 40 pages long and contains no action. It begins with three knights arriving at a certain house and taking up lodging there. One of the knights falls asleep on a dais and has a dream, which, like dreams, is disconnected and goes nowhere. However the attention to detail and lavish descriptions of the horses and knights in his dream, the games they play, King Arthur, and the giant ravens is astonishing.

So if the only beauty a filmmaker can conjure up in a movie about Beowulf is a near-nude demon woman, I think I'll have to take a pass on this one. And with the way so many film critics have been lauding the movie as giving new life to a "boring and painfully long poem", I don't know if I can ever trust a film critic again.

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