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In Depth: Beowulf: The Movie(s)

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: August 5, 2005 | Publication: Film As Art: Danel Griffin's Guide to Cinema | Author: Danel Griffin

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A Comprehensive Look at the (Brief) List of Cinematic Adaptations of the English Language's Most Enduring Epic Poem

From the cover of the graphic novel by Gareth Hinds.

Literally hundreds of “muscle-man” films exist that are attributed to the great, masculine myths of ancient times, among them Hercules, Robin Hood, King Arthur and his knights, Jason and the Argonauts, and Samson. Even more modern fantasy myths, such as Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, have also been given full cinematic treatment. Yet at the time of this writing, it is curious that only three film versions, all considered minor cinema, exist of the epic Norse poem that influenced at least half of the aforementioned heroes: Beowulf. The epic adventure poem about a brave Geat prince who travels to the castle Heroet and fights the evil troll Grendel, his avenging mother, and, finally, the dreaded fire-dragon has been heralded as “one of the foundation works of poetry in English” (Heaney ix), and since the text “was [first] written down sometime in the 7th or 8th century” (Kiernan 13), it has since undergone probably hundreds of translations over the proceeding centuries. It is studied in English and history classes alike, and it is truly one of the giants of English literature.

Where, then, is the cinematic love? Sans an animated, Classics Illustrated rendition that was part of a series for children, and another animated version based on John Gardner’s book Grendel, neither of which really count as feature films that directly and seriously try to tackle the poem’s themes and storyline, there have been only three attempts to bring Beowulf to the big screen, one of which is still in production. Curiously, all of these versions came into production in a timeframe of less than five years: Sony Pictures’ The 13th Warrior (1999, directed by John McTiernan), Threshold Pictures’ Beowulf (2000, directed by Graham Baker), and Arclight Films’ Beowulf & Grendel (currently in production, slated for an early 2005 release, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson) are the only members of the very short list of cinematic attempts of the poem. Of these cinematic adaptations, two are low-budget, independent films financed by obscure European production companies, and the other, produced by a major Hollywood studio, had a box office performance that can only be described as lackluster.

The purpose of this essay will be to reflect upon the adaptability of the poem, the process in which it could be interpreted for the cinema, and then examine the choices made by the filmmakers when adapting the ancient story. This discussion should shed light into the reason why more filmmakers haven’t tackled this complicated work, and the problems that the existing productions have faced.

It should first be noted that adapting the poem into modern English has notoriously been a difficult, challenging task on its own. J.R.R. Tolkien famously said, “Beowulf is not merely in verse, it is a great poem” (49), and this is generally regarded as the key idea that modern day translators take into consideration. Two questions must always be asked when in view of an adaptation of the poem: A) How do we maintain the spirit of the original, and B) how do we maintain the spirit of the way it was written? At first glance, these might seem like simple questions; in truth, they have driven many a potential translator into torment:
Translating Old English into 21st Century vernacular is not as easy as it first appears. It is not just as simple as changing an old word for a modern one; the grammar is entirely different as is the method and importance of inflexion so where a couple of words in terse old Saxon with stress placed on particular syllables can convey a meaning graphically it can take a very long sentence to give the same result in our much more complex language. A choice therefore sometimes has to be made between writing a line-by-line translation as close to the original as possible, which may be mostly unintelligible to the majority of readers, or to completely re-write the whole work in the contemporary fashion. (U.K. 1)
When adapting the poem into a film, these are issues that must also be considered. Do we, the filmmakers ask, want to preserve the lyrical traditions of the poem, so that the film plays sort of like a Shakespearian adaptation? If we do, what translations do we use, and how much dialogue should remain intact? If we don’t, how do we keep the film’s words at least true to the spirit of the original language?

Andrew Berzins, screenwriter of the most current film project, Beowulf & Grendel, admits that while he “read about six or seven translations, along with half-blindly crawling through the original almost twenty-five years ago,” he believes that “you can do a respectful film adaptation of the Beowulf story, [but] the poem is an entirely different creature” (1). His motive for this assertion is from a narrative viewpoint—Berzins believes that the poem is exciting and works on its own terms, but the very nature of the story causes problems in plausibility for a visual, literal adaptation. Berzins points out:
Beowulf, though living barely more than a day’s sail from the Danes, only finds out about Grendel twelve years after the latter starts his rampage! We’re talking [about] trading seafaring cultures here. Twelve years for the story to get from the Danes to the Geats? A walrus could have brought it in a week. … The Geats arrive after a one-day sail. Beowulf kills Grendel the first night. … That’s a pretty abrupt rush to climax. … It’s fine in the poem, [but] I don’t think such a time-frame suits a film. Then there is the ‘dialogue’ of the poem: With very few exceptions (such as the Unferth/Beowulf friction at supper), it’s substantially a series of monologues by various characters. It is absolutely unwieldy in any conventional sense of film dialogue. (3-5)
Berzins evidently speaks on behalf of the previous filmmakers who have tackled the poem as well: At the time of this writing, no version exists that completely and faithfully follows the storyline, and little to none of the poem’s rich, long-winded dialogue remains intact in any of the films.

What, then, does remain, and how faithful do the current versions stay to the original source? By analyzing each version carefully, we are able to see the different approaches that each filmmaker takes. In turn, this should give us a greater understanding of the poem itself, as it will reveal how different artists have both interpreted and recreated Beowulf for the movie audience.

The 1st Warrior: The “Historical” Beowulf

Vladimir Kulich as Buliwyf, the "historical" Beowulf

The 13th Warrior, John McTiernan’s Norse epic, is chiefly notable for its expansion on the fact that “several of the named kings [in the poem] exist in the historical record” (Berzins 2). Is it so outlandish, the film argues, to suggest that Beowulf himself is also based on a historical character? Thus, humans have replaced all supernatural villains contained in the poem, and all superhuman feats that are accomplished in the poem are reduced to exciting action sequences that are not quite so outlandish. Additionally, the Christian overtones in the poem, inserted into the decidedly pagan poem at some point in its scribing process, have been omitted, restoring the Norse and pagan traditions from the oral, source material. Despite these changes, however, The 13th Warrior manages to remain true to the spirit of the poem, especially in its emphasis on good versus evil and the glory of a war-like existence.

The film, written by William Wisher and Warren Lewis, is a faithful adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, which was the best-selling author’s attempt at unraveling the Beowulf myth and speculating on the poem’s true origins. Mostly a faithful adaptation of Beowulf itself, both the film and book are also influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s classic film The Seven Samurai, as the storyline follows the Norse prince Buliwyf (the “historical” Beowulf, played in the film by Vladimir Kulich) and his band of warriors answering the distress call of a nearby village of poor farmers, who are under siege from a mysterious group of bear-like creatures call the “wendol” (which is, of course, a play on the name “Grendel”). These “creatures” turn out to be a nomadic group of humans, living like bears (in Crichton’s book, they are Neanderthals, but the film leaves this detail out), and in a matter of days, Buliwyf and his ever-dwindling group of warriors defeat the animal-like army, kill their mother (Grendel’s mother, of course), and finally, triumph over their dreaded leader (a variation on the fire-dragon of the poem). Buliwyf meets his end in the final battle, and he is buried liked a king on a magnificent funeral pyre.

The film’s attempt to speculate on the historical origins on the poem is validated by the inclusion of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan (Antonio Banderas) as the chief protagonist, the “13th warrior” of the title. Fadlan, an important, real-life historical figure, was a Muslim poet/explorer who chronicled his many journeys around the world. It is not outrageous to suggest that he might have experienced an adventure such as this. By making him part of Buliwyf’s band of warriors, standing in the background as sort of a silent observer, the film creates a credible claim of historical authenticity, albeit a counterfeit one.

Despite this historically friendly “upgrade,” the themes, the basic storyline, and many of the images remain very true to the poem’s overall themes and spirit. For example, the film keeps the nature of Buliwyf’s motivations simple, as the poem did. Buliwyf is not a philosopher or a man driven by any secret agendas (traits we will see in the other Beowulf films), but simply a man moved to action by duty and the glory of war. There is a scene in which twelve men from Buliwyf’s tribe are asked to volunteer to fight the wendol is battle, and as each man stands up and volunteers melodramatically, the village cheering them on and the music swelling all the while, we realize that this is exactly the spirit of warriorship and brotherhood contained in the poem. Consider the passages of the poem in which Beowulf and his men arrive on the shore outside of Hereot, the castle beseiged by Grendel:
The leader of the troop [Beowulf] unlocked his word-hound;
The distinguised one delivered this answer:
“We come in good faith to find your lord
and nation’s shield, the son of Halfdane.
Give us the right advance and direction.
We have arrived here on a great errand
To the lord of the Danes. …
So tell us if what we have heard is true
About this threat, whatever it is,
The danger abroad in the dark nights,
This corpse-maker mongering death
In the Shielding’s country. (258-259, 267-271,273-277)
Note the strong sense of patriotism in this passage, and the pride that Beowulf finds in serving his people through war. Beowulf calls Grendel a “danger” and “corpse-maker mongering death,” and he immediately follows these descriptions by making it very clear that Grendel is attacking in “the Shielding’s country,” which is what justifies the beast’s death. Certainly (and paradoxically) Beowulf and the norsemen are guilty of as many unjustified, violent crimes as Grendel. Case in point: there is another pasage around line 1810 in which Unferth, who maliciously slayed his brothers, is forgiven because he happily lends Beowulf his sword. This forgiveness is not granted because of Unferth’s repentence but rather because of his patriotism, and this reveals Beowulf’s nonchalant attitude towards cruel and needless killing that is certainly no less vile than Grendel’s nightly slaughters. Yet Grendel cannot be exempt because his sins are against Beowulf’s “lord and nation’s shield.” Grendel is a stranger, and he therefore must die, and Beowulf is the embodiement of heroism because he volunteers to be the man who will kill him. His goodness is proven by his patriotism.

The measure of Buliwyf’s goodness is exactly that of Beowulf’s: His greatness is found in his sense of duty in relieving an oppressed people of a savage enemy, even though earlier scenes of Buliwyf slaying fellow Norsemen at a dinner table force us to question whether he is any more noble than the wendol. One of the deep flaws, I think, of The 13th Warrior is its thinly-drawn characters; we never see the workings of Buliwyf’s mind, nor Fadlan’s for that matter. Events happen, people die, and characters never come to any realizations or emerge as dynamic. But to be absolutely fair, the poem works on exactly the same level. It is composed of speeches and action sequences that emphasize patriotism and honor, without any character ever considering what they are doing, or why. The 13th Warrior replicates this feeling exactly, to the point of both cinematic excitement and, more often, violent redundancy.

The film also strips away the Christian elements found in the poem, which is appropriate considering the pagan traditions of Beowulf’s origins, and spends a great deal of time focusing on Norse culture and lifestyle—the examination of which includes their grooming habits, superstitions, and religiouns rituals. Among the retained pagan traditions kept in the poem is Beowulf’s funeral pyre:
The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf
Stacked and decked it until it stood four-square,
Hung with helmets, heavy war-shields
And shining armour, just as he had ordered.
Then his wariors laid him in the middle of it,
Mourning a lord-far-famed and beloved.
On a hieght they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up; the blaze roared
And drowed out their weeping. (3137-3146)
The 13th Warrior replicates this image exactly in Buliwyf’s death march, emphasising an important pagan ritual—the funeral fire, the “helmets, heavy war-shields” of the pyre, and his warriors carrying his body among the mourning people before it is swept into the sea.

In replicating such images, the film manages to be more faithful to the original, pagan spirit of Beowulf than the perhaps even the poem’s ultimate Christian scribes, who infused the pagan work with their own traditions, permitted. By keeping this strong emphasis on Norse traditions, The 13th Warrior eventually is a fascinating tribute to historical facts that births myths such as Beowulf. It is a flawed but ambitious project, and probably the most faithful of the two version currently released.

The Son of Baal: Beowulf as Antihero

Christopher Lambert as a techno-punk, reluctant Beowulf.

Graham Baker’s Beowulf is a little more difficult to pigeonhole. Perhaps more so than The 13th Warrior, it understands that liberties must be taken with the poem’s characters to create a more cinematic experience, and there are moments that, even in its liberties, it reveals a deep appreciation for the poem, and a profound understanding of its ideas. There are other moments, however, that seem so absurd and outlandish that we wonder if the writers, Mark Leahy and David Chappe, have even read the poem.

Perhaps the most bizarre departure from the poem is its setting: The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic, techno-feudal future that owes more to Mad Max than Beowulf. Some unrevealed catastrophe has taken place that has caused civilization to reverse itself, and people now roam the earth in eccentric armour assembled together out of ancient, now worthless remnants of techology. King Hrothgar (played by Oliver Cotton), the king under Grendel’s attack in the poem, is now a border-lord living in a medieval-looking outpost with a few remants of advanced civilizations left—including a loudspeaker and methane-lit torches.

In the opening scenes, we learn that the outpost is under attack from an evil, reptilian beast who feasts on its inhabitants every night, and Hrothgar can only watch helplessly as more and more soldiers and innocent civilians are killed. In the meantime, the situaiton is only made more hopeless as an enemy seige-line circling the outpost keeps Hrothgar and his kingdom trapped within the castle. The seige-line believes the inhabitants to be cursed because of their demonic tormenter, and they unwilling to allow even one to escape.

The notion of the seige-line is an inspired idea; after all, the poem is so rich in description and so patriotic in its sense of war and honor that we never think to stop and ask why King Hrothgar doesn’t just pack up his bags and leave Hereot instead of being plauged by a seemingly unstoppable creature for twelve years. Adding a seige line that traps the kingdom’s residents within their outpost restores a sense of continuity that, while we would never consider it while reading the poem, would automatically be a question for movie watchers.

Yet transforming the setting into a futuristic, punkish future (complete with a techno soundtrack) removes altogether the deep-seeded patriotism and proud sense of lineage that is so prevalent in the poem. It is hard to sidestep the poem’s opening passages that set its agenda: “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by/ and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness./ We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns” (1-3), not to mention’s Beowulf’s own charge when first stepping off of his ship: “In his day, my father was a famous man,/ a noble warrior-lord named Ecgtheow./He outlasted many a long winter/ and went on his way” (262-265). The poem portrays a people whose honor and heritage depend upon their proud lineage of warriors and their glorious deaths; removing these elements from the equation removes an important, essential ingredient of Beowulf.

On the other hand, there is no denying bizarre setting adds an effective sense of timelessness to the story, successfully creating an atmosphere comparable to that of Julie Taymor’s Titus, which places Shakespeare’s play in a sort of ancient-modern hybrid. Unlike The 13th Warrior, this Beowulf creates a world in which demons and monsters can exist as easily as humans. In the midsts of this unusual world, Beowulf (played by Christopher Lambert) fights his way through the seige-lines, rides to Heroet, and informs Hrothgar that he is there to fight “the Darkness” because he has “no choice.” Beowulf’s personality is probably the most drastic departure from the poem; he is no longer a rugged, heroic warrior with noble intentions but a dark, tortured man, equipped with all sorts of interesting gadgets (including an automatic-reloading crossbow), bleached-white hair, and a spider-like, blood-red tattoo on his neck.

We come to learn that Beowulf is half-man, half-demon, the bastard son of Baal, Yahweh-God’s most prominent foil in the Old Testament. He can sense evil, and he came to Hrothgar’s aid because, as he claims, “The only thing that keeps me from becoming evil isfighting evil.” Lambert is certainly effective as this revistionist, reluctant warrior: Unlike his alter-ego in the poem, he is isolated (he has no fellow warriors who come to Hereot with him), of few words, and stares at other characters icily as if he is in the constant state of reading the evil secrets in their guilt-ridden minds. He senses evil because it beckons him—Grendel feels as pulled towards Beowulf as Beowulf does to him, and when they finally confront one another, Beowulf laments, “Each of us is the other’s strength. I’m like you: I’m one of the damned.”

This is certainly a departure from the poem, yet it also reveals an understanding of the Christian traditions within the source material. According to the poem, Grendel
[lived] in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
And condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
The Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Out of the curse of his exile there sprang
Orges and elves and evil phantoms
And the Giants too. (104-108, 111-114)
Grendel, then, is a descendent of Cain, the biblical character who had to wander the earth with a curse for murdering his brother Abel. The Bible also speaks of Nephilim, human-demon hybrids who wandered the earth, and by turning Beowulf into such a creature, the film elaborates on the supernatural, biblical traditions of the poem. The change also raises the stakes for Beowulf, making him a much more tragic, human character: He desperately seeks to become more human, and he can only do so by betraying his natural tendency towards evil. This theme is nowhere to be found in the poem, but it is also not far from the type of character that such traditions might create, as Grendel’s origins in the poem reveal.

By putting the Christian traditions into the poem, of course, early scribes were attempting to deviate from Beowulf’s questionable, warrior-like motives and create a pure warrior for God, who now seeks to destroy a monster whose origins are found in the biblical birth of murder. By revising Beowulf’s character in the film, the clear-cut battle between God and evil in the poem isn’t just revealed in the battle between Beowulf and Grendel, but in the internal struggles of Beowulf himself. By his own admission, this Beowulf is “trapped between two worlds.” To be demon means that he is subject to the temptation of evil impulses; to be human means that he wants to do good and follow the upright way of righteousness. The film, then, soon turns into something like The Last Temptation of Beowulf—a man struggling to overcome his duo nature and find equilibrium. This spiritual quest, as it were, places the poem’s biblical emphasis front and center.

The film also revises the characters of Hrothgar, Grendel, and his mother, here called the Witchmother (played by Layla Roberts), in ways that cleverly compensate for the lack of narrative structure in the poem. The Witchmother here is an ancient demon who does not take kindly to humans building an outpost on her territory. We learn that twelve years prior to the film’s opening, she visited the Outpost in the form of a beautiful woman, seduced Hrothgar, and then gave birth to his son, Grendel, who now attacks the outpost to reclaim his rightful title as ruler of the land. This change adds a certain coherency to the storyline, and it also challenges the simplicity of the characters in the poem, who remain static throughout. Hrothgar is now not simply a proud king, but also an lustful adulterer. Grendel and his mother are not only angry trolls, but ancient, mythological demons with resentful grudges.

In addition, Beowulf now fights a human-demon hybrid that is essentially his equal, only the situation is more complicated than that: In the film’s closing scenes, the Witchmother subtly reveals that she very well might be Baal himself, and thus Beowulf’s father, rendering the Beowulf/Grendel fight with a brother vs. brother element. One wonders, as Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body and presents it to Hrothgar (in a scene replicated exactly from the poem), whether or not sibling rivalry comes into play, in a feud continuing since Cain first struck down Abel. None of this, of course, is found in the poem, but it certainly continues to reveal an expansion of the poem’s Biblical traditions that blends well with the source material.

These clever ideas aside, the film is unfortunately mediocre at best. The set design and some of the revised storyline are both stupendous, but the overall experience makes for poor cinema: The low budget, bad acting (from everyone sans Lambert and Cotton), unnecessary love subplots, lousy dialogue, distracting techno-soundtrack, badly-choreographed fight scenes, and a curiously tongue-in-cheek tone (the film sometimes plays as a parody of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, complete with the “whisting” as Lambert rides up to the outpost) ultimately make the film seem less like a serious adaptation of Beowulf and more like a low-rent Mortal Kombat. The insightful additions to the Beowulf-lore are therefore muddled and underwhelming, and it is the movie’s own fault that more students of Beowulf don’t take it as seriously as some of its ideas probably demand. That is a pity, because there are plenty of interesting interpretations to be seen here. If the film is finally laughable, it demonstrates a healthy understanding of the poem at least on its simplest storytelling levels.

Politically Correct Warrior: Black vs. White, or Gray vs. Gray?

Gerard Bulter as a modern, philosphical Beowulf (? We'll see...)

It is difficult to make any direct statements about Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel, as it is still in post-production and will not be released until later next year. However, there are a few speculations that we can make on the film based on interviews with the actor portraying Beowulf, Gerard Butler. Evidently, the film seriously explores the nature of Beowulf and Grendel’s relationship (which will be more complicated than the poem reveals), and it will call into question the heroism of the former, at the same time showing sympathy for the latter.

Butler reveals,
[Beowulf] is a hero, but …he’s not somebody who enjoys what he does. He needs what he does. He loves the quest, but he hates it as well. Killing is a necessary evil, but it’s something that he does a lot of. He sees the folly of what he does. There’s a piece of him who loves to be an adventurer, but there’s a part of him who would have liked to have settled down, been a farmer, lived a simple life. [Fighting Grendel] makes him consider ideas of spirituality and humanity that he has never thought about before. (
Sympathy for Grendel is not an original idea (in fact, it is the theme of John Gardner’s aforementioned book Grendel); more interesting is the idea of Beowulf as sort of a politically-correct hero who is neither inherently good or evil, but can rather see the “folly” of his lifestyle. He is a modern man, Emerson’s “thinking man,” trapped in the confines of an ancient time and mentality. If Buliwyf, like the poem’s protagonist, was committed to his honor and his people, and if Lambert’s Beowulf fought because he had no choice, then here is a Beowulf who does what he does perhaps because he has done it for so long that he doesn’t know anything else. Interesting.

There is a hint of a lonely hero questioning his warrior ways in the poem, but it only comes after the battle with Grendel and his mother. The poem points out that after the encounter at Hereot, Beowulf “behaved with honor/ and took no advantage; never cut down/ a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper” (2178-80). This doesn’t strike us as the warrior that we see in previous passages, and even other kings and Geats notice the change:
He had been poorly regarded
For a long time, was taken by the Greats
For less than he was worth: and their lord too
Had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
That the prime was a weakling. (2184-89)
“Weakling” and “poorly regarded” are sharp contrasts to the praise that Beowulf received when he struck down Grendel. This passage reveals a much more mellow Beowulf than his previous days of fighting, when he proudly declared, “When it comes to fighting, I count myself/ as dangerous any day as Grendel” (677-78). Perhaps the point of Beowulf & Grendel is to reveal what might have sparked the change within the warrior—what might have moved him from his youthful zeal for fighting evil and led him into a gentler, “weakling” king. Perhaps as The 13th Warrior tried to strip away the myth from the tale, this film tries to strip away the heroic myth from the man. This places a contemporary spin on the legend while at the same time keeping the variation reasonably close to the traditions of the literary tale from which it came. Only time will tell how it favors, and how it will rank against the other two flawed but genuinely fascinating adaptations.

One thing is certain: A “faithful” version of the poem has yet to be done, and carefully studying how these films hold up to the poem and its themes gives us clues as to why an absolutely faithful version might never be done. Cinema works in movement, clarity, and abstracts, and Beowulf, for all of its adventures, offers too little of these elements: The never ceasing dialogue would slow down the action, the unresolved and/or inexplicable plot developments would detract from clear plausibility, and the poem’s constant shifts in time would keep the film from coherency. So what is left for filmmakers who wish to tackle the ambitious project? For screenwriter Andrew Berzins, it boils down to a few elements in the poem that transfer to the big screen just fine: “The bones of the story. The horror. The beauty. The doom. The weird” (8). His point? There are plenty of cinematic elements in the poem. The trick is to find them and, in translating them to screen, create a visual piece that is true to the poem’s spirit. By looking at the various film versions, we can at least see what different filmmakers felt the “spirit” of the poem was. If we don’t agree with them, then perhaps we should get to work on adaptations of our own.


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