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Eaten alive

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: March 9, 2006 | Publication: | Author: Melora Koepke

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Icelandic saga Beowulf and Grendel pits good against evil

You can't go too wrong with a movie in which a 10-foot human monster gets his arm ripped off and sees the bloody fleshy stump nailed to the wall. But then again, that same movie also features Sarah Polley with dreadlocks.

As it happens, Polley's character, a sexually aggressive pagan/witch/fortune teller person named Selma, is an embellishment Toronto-based filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson made in his adaptation of the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf for the screen. Gunnarsson's lush Beowulf and Grendel, in fact, made many changes to a poem that, originally, was retold around campfires before being committed to sheepskin, lost, and then found again in the 1800s.

Gunnarsson sees a timeless, humanistic note in the brutal epic, in which the hero Beowulf (Gerard Butler, the dude who played the phantom in the movie version of Phantom of the Opera) fights a monster called Grendel who is terrorizing the King's court and eating folks alive.

"We stayed pretty true to the action, the bones of the story, but we [created] that character and fleshed out the rest," says Gunnarsson. "We set the story in this moment of transition from the pagan to Christian world. As opposed to the poem told around the campfire for hundreds of years before, by the time it finds its way to the sheepskin... Grendel is a mythological creature, spawn of evil, and Beowulf is the embodiment of virtue, and it is a very simple battle. If you look at the Icelandic sagas, the villains are always interesting and
complex, and the heroes are always flawed. It's closer to the world we actually live in than the idealized [Christian] notion of good and evil. Our intention in adapting the poem was to look at that [dichotomy] through modern eyes."

Though visceral and vast, and shot against Iceland's breathtaking landscape, Beowulf's main focus is on exploring the human traits that make a hero or a villain. Though Grendel is a monster, Gunnarsson points out that he's not like the scary stuff we're used to in today's scary movies.

"At its core, I think [Beowulf] is about primal fear, about huddling against dark forces... though there's plenty of skeletal remains of eight- and 10-foot creatures that are of the same descent as man. The choice we made was to take Grendel and put him in the natural world. He's just from a different part of the evolutionary tree. Mind you, I think if you lived in that world, I don't think there was a lot of need for mythological creatures - I think there was enough to scare the bejeezus out of you anyway, in the real world!"

Despite making the jump to a whole new medium, Beowulf is shot and paced like an epic poem with a slow arc that recalls the oral tradition, and with the mnemonic devices of battles and whatnot to keep the action on track. Indeed, Gunnarsson, who mostly comes from a TV background (he helmed some Da Vinci's Inquest episodes, among many other things), may have made a movie that will feel odd to audiences accustomed to contemporary shoot-'em-ups. Fans of Cancon can think of Beowulf as a sort of Dominic Da Vinci, actually; he's a flawed hero who undertakes to overthrow the whole system (in this case, monsters eating people), and on fjords, no less.

Speaking of fjords, Beowulf's most remarkable quality is definitely the stunning cinematography, for which Gunnarsson fulfilled a lifelong desire to shoot in his birthplace, Iceland.

"I had been wanting to do something on that landscape for a very long time, because I feel like it's a character in its own right, it kind of dwarfs everything. You begin to understand the pagan culture, because the gods are all embodiments of these elements that are so much more powerful than you are," he says.

"The other conscious choice was to make it a CG-free zone, where everything is real. The guy hanging off a cliff is really hanging off a cliff. Part of the thing that happens with the CG epics is actors not acting with each other, but with marks on the wall. [Analog filmmaking is] about the actors on this vast landscape."


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