Sunday, 2 December 2007

Beowulf (the Movie, not the Poem)

In the English language, we have no epic hero older than Beowulf. The poem is set in the 5th century and may itself date back to the 8th century. In the time since its composition it has become something of a national epic for England (even though no Angles nor Saxons appear in the poem--for the most part the characters are Geats and Danes). In some schools it is even required reading (at least in modern English translation). It is for those reasons that it has always been curious to me that the motion picture industry has ignored Beowulf for almost all of its history. This has changed only recently. In 1981 there was the animated film adaptation of John Gardner's novel Grendel, which told the story from the monster's point of view. The 13th Warrior was an adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, which was a very loose retelling of Beowulf. In 1999 there was a low budget, wretched sci-fi update of the poem, with Christopher Lambert in the title role. In 2005 there was the underrated film Beowulf and Grendel, which took the approach of telling the story from which the legend might have originated. This year alone there have been two adaptations of the poem. One was a very bad Sci-Fi Channel TV movie titled Grendel. The other is Robert Zemeckis' animated epic Beowulf.

Robert Zemeckis' Beowulf is a technical marvel. The film was created using the animation technique known as performance capture. Using performance capture, actors wear Lycra suits equipped with sensors. Cameras then capture the movements of the actors which are recorded into computers. The animators then use this information from which to create the characters and their movements. It is the technique through which Peter Jackson created Gollum for The Lord of the Rings and the technique Zemeckis used on his previous animated film The Polar Express. In this respect, Beowulf is a mark of how far we have come with regards to animation technology in the past few years. As impressive as The Polar Express is, Beowulf is even more impressive.

Indeed, the major drawing card for Beowulf is its visuals. Beowulf could be the most realistic animated film of all time. The 5th century Denmark through which the characters moved is extremely detailed, to the point that you could practically count the rings on the characters' chain mail. And Zemeckis makes great use of the technology in his hands. One early scene which follows a rat as he runs atop the rafters of the mead hall Heorot is merely a hint of things to come. The movie's only shortcoming with regards to the animation is that, as with The Polar Express, there are times when the characters aren't quite as expressive as they should be. In some of the early scenes, Queen Wealhtheow (voiced by Robin Wright Penn) seems particularly flat and lifeless.

As a a fantasy action epic, Beowulf succeeds quite well. The screenplay, written by Neil Gaiman (creator of Sandman) and Roger Avary (co-writer on Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) will hold most viewers' interest quite easily. In fact, the movie features some of the best action scenes in any fantasy film. Beowulf's final battle alone is well worth the price of admission. The actors also do a good job of lending their voices to their characters. Ray Winstone sounds suitably heroic, exactly as I always pictured Beowulf sounding. Anthony Hopkins adds a suitable mixture of weariness and pathos to the voice of King Hrothgar. And John Malkovich is perfectly cast as Unferth, Hrothgar's advisor (in Old English) who initially doubts Beowulf.

While I can say that Beowulf is a great fantasy action film, however, I must also say that it fails miserably as an adaptation of the poem. Every film adaptation of Beowulf has departed from the poem's story in some way, and in this respect Zemeckis' Beowulf is one of the worst offenders. I am sure that most of us were aware of this when the trailers revealed Grendel's mother to look like Angelina Jolie (in the movie it is a bit more complex than that, but it still departs from the poem). Now I freely admit that the poem's story is fairly straight forward. And I will admit that to make a movie based on the poem they would have to expand on the story in some ways. That having been said, I fail to see why they simply could not have done a more straight forward retelling of the poem. It is one of the most compelling works in the English language (especially if one reads it in the original Old English), and I doubt any screenwriter, not even Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, will ever be able to improve upon it.

Of course, I probably would not be as bothered by the departures from the poem if it was not for the fact that Zemeckis' Beowulf is a very inaccurate portrait of life in 5th century Denmark. I must admit that the clothing, weapons, and armour appear for the most part to be accurate. And the architecture of Heorot in the earlier part of the film is also for the most part accurate. Sadly, in the latter part of the film, Heorot somehow becomes a stone fortress, even though the Danes would not be building in stone for another five centuries or show. Even this would not be so distressing to me if it wasn't for the fact that Gaiman and Avary clearly did not do their research with regards to the culture and the history of the Germanic peoples (the Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, English, Germans, and so on). The 5th century Danes would have been rather more conservative with regards to sex than Gaiman and Avary would have us believe. While they would probably have found sex outside of marriage less objectionable than the average Christian does today, it still would not have been encouraged and certainly would not have been as prevalent as it seems to be in this movie. Similarly, it would be a few centuries before Christianity would gain even a foothold in Denmark. Is it possible that there would be a few Christian converts in 5th century Denmark? Yes, it is. Is it likely that there would be. No, it would not be. There are a number of other ways in which the movie is not an accurate portrait of 5th century Danish society. I find it highly unlikely that weapons would be drawn in a king's meadhall, and in the presence of the king at that. And contrary to what the movie claims, Germanic kings in the Dark Ages did engage in combat (Penda, King of Mercia in 7th century England, is a perfect example of this).

Ultimately, I rather suspect that the average movie goer probably won't notice that the film's story departs from that of the poem or that it is a less accurate portrait of life in Dark Ages Scandinavia than even The Vikings from the Fifties. They will be able to appreciate it for basically what it is, a very good, animated fantasy film. That having been said, I have to warn any purists out there. Beowulf departs from the poem and portrays 5th century Denmark in such ways that you might have to find it disquieting. As a fantasy film, Beowulf succeeds admirably. As an adaptation of Beowulf, sadly, it fails miserably.

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