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'Beowulf' undertakes glorious deeds on stage and in films

Category: Beowulf & Grendel News
Article Date: August 9, 2006 | Publication: USA Today | Author: Maria Puente

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Odds are, unless you're a college English major, you haven't read Beowulf in years — if you read it at all. Which makes the sudden flourishing of the 1,000-year-old epic in popular entertainment all the more peculiar.

An opera and three movies, including a big-budget version with Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, are the current or coming attractions featuring the blood-and-guts story of Beowulf, the great hero of the Danes, and Grendel, the Dane-eating monster, plus Grendel's way-nasty mama (played by Jolie), who does a fair amount of Dane-munching herself.

Oh, there's a dragon, too.

Why Beowulf and why now? A 3,182-line poem is not exactly a beach read. But it's usually the first thing studied in any English-lit survey course because it's the first piece of literature in English — actually, Old English, which eventually became modern English.

Beowulf is a warrior who sails from his home, Geatland (Sweden), to Denmark to kill a man-eating monster named Grendel. Then, when Grendel's mom comes looking for revenge, he kills her, too. But much later, Beowulf is killed by a treasure-hoarding dragon.

"It's Anglo-Saxon with Scandinavian influences, set in Denmark but almost certainly written in what is now Britain, because no one was speaking Old English anywhere else but there (at the time)," says Beowulf and medieval-lit scholar Michael Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass.

"The manuscript dates from around 1000, but the poem itself is a couple hundred years older."

"Difficult" doesn't begin to describe it. "Even the people teaching it didn't like it," Drout says.

But J.R.R. Tolkien helped change that, he says. A scholar of Old English, Tolkien argued that Beowulf should be read for its literary merits. Better translations made it possible to "teach it as it really is, not dusty and boring but a great story," Drout says.

The Tolkien connection may be why Beowulf is suddenly hot. The author of the Lord of the Rings books drenched them in Beowulf-style Anglo-Saxon mythology — as were the Rings movies, which grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide.

Indeed, money can be made on epic-poem movies, just not necessarily in the USA. Recall that Troy, the big-budget ($175 million) costume drama based on Homer's The Iliad and starring Brad Pitt, was critically panned in 2004, and it made only $133 million domestically. But it grossed nearly $500 million worldwide.

This isn't the first time Beowulf has appeared in popular entertainment. There was an animated TV movie in 1998 (with Joseph Fiennes as the hero) and a sci-fi-style film in 1999, but neither made much of an impact. A more recent boost to Beowulf awareness came in 2000, when the Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney produced a new translation that was well-regarded and even sold well.

More Beowulf, both now and in the future:

•Beowulf &Grendel. Released in June, this Canadian art film was made in Iceland, starred Scottish actor Gerard Butler as Beowulf, and was directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, a Canadian descendant of Vikings.

•Grendel: Transcendence of the Great Big Bad. The opera, which premiered in June, is based on John Gardner's 1971 book Grendel, which tells the story from the point of view of the monster. The opera, featuring mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as the dragon, was written and directed by Lion King queen Julie Taymor and composed by her companion, Elliot Goldenthal.

•Beowulf: Prince of the Geats. Due in 2007 and filmed in such locales as Norway and South Africa, it features a little-known cast and Emmy-winning filmmaker Scott Wegener at the helm. He rewrote the story to make Beowulf a man caught between two cultures as the son of an African explorer who marries into a Geat clan.

•Beowulf. Also due in 2007, director Robert Zemeckis' version of the epic will use the performance-capture technique of his Polar Express. Besides Jolie and Hopkins (as the Danish king harassed by Grendel), the cast includes Ray Winstone as Beowulf and Crispin Glover as Grendel.


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