Years and years ago I decided to write a rock opera of Beowulf. I kind of plan ned it out in my head and wrote three really bad rock songs—al in the key of C, since it was the only key I knew—and then moved on to other projects (probably Speed Racer, the Motion Picture) which would never get produced.
But I love Beowulf. Three weeks ago, in anticipation of the new CGI Beowulf movie directed by Robert Zemeckis (now how interesting a choice is that?) I read Seamus Heany’s fantastic translation for the second time (the first time had been as part of a group recitation at Pennsic). So, with no feast to attend, on Thursday for Thanksigiving I took Hanna out to see Beowulf in 3D at the pavilion. It was a lot of fun. I’m really glad we saw it in 3D, because it probably made it a lot better. I had gone expecting it to be total crap and it wasn’t. It was really good. I got a charge out of it the way I usually do from really good action movies. The animation was excellent, the plot was interesting, even the characters had some coolness to them. No, it wasn’t really Beowulf, but it wasn’t not Beowulf either. It was a nice little riff on the poem. Purists know to stay away.
Beowulf has been pretty big recently. About ten years ago there was Michael Chricton’s take on Beowulf, 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas. This year there was also a live action film called “Beowulf, Prince of the Geats,” the science fiction version with Christopher Lambert from 1999 (don’t really have to count that one, I guess), and there’s a TV version called Grendel also from 2007. The one that got the most press recently was probably Beowulf and Grendel from 2005. I love it, being a big Beowulf fan, but I certainly can’t keep up with all these versions floating around on cable at the same time. From what I heard about it (I haven’t seen it—I just attended three papers on it at last years Medievalism conference at Ohio State) this seems like it is a much better film than Beowulf and Grendel. In that one they tried to search for “the truth behind the myth” like they did in Troy, and ended up with a rather politically correct Beowulf (Beowulf, for crying out loud), in which the heroic myth is shattered and in its place we are left with a much better ideal, that of modern multi-cultural liberalism. Blah!
In this animated Beowulf they stuck with the heroic myth. Yes, they added a lot of stuff to it that didn’t belong there, but that’s ok. I wasn’t expecting a Tolkinean lecture on Beowulf, after all. To me the most interesting thing was that they made all of the characters look like the actors who were voicing/performing them: Hrothgar looked like Anthony Hopkins, the Queen like Robin Wright Penn, the witch queen like Angelina Jolie, (it was all done with motion capture technology), except for Ray Winstone (ok, and Crispin Glover, but you could actually see a bit of his face in Grendel’s). The body they put on big, chubby Ray Winstone was pretty amazing.
The best part was the Grendel section. They stuck as close to the story as you could expect a modern film to. They even included the boasting contest in which Beowulf tells of battling the sea serpent during a swimming race. They showed really well why Grendel attacks Herrorot—that his hearing is so amplified that the singing of the warriors drove him mad. And the fight scene, while more action packed than in the poem, gets the most important parts right: Beowulf fights him without armor or weapons and rips his arm off.
After that it becomes a different kind of Beowulf-like story. It’s still pretty fun, and it still takes some interesting points from the poem and palys with them, and I liked it. They kind of add a Prospero/Caliban element to the whole thing (if you agree with some of the speculative scholarship about the Tempest), which works pretty well. And the actions scenes are marvelous.
If you go expecting Beowulf you will be disappointed. If you go expecting something else you will likely be pleasantly surprised how much of Beowulf you find there.
Check it out.