Tuesday, November 20, 2007

So They Made Another Beowulf Movie....

Well! Now that I've beaten the subject of Valkyries to death, it's time to move on to another topic. So now I get to beat Beowulf to death, too.

For all you pedants out there (like my wife): No, I didn't actually beat Beowulf to death. He's already been dead a really long time.

About a year ago, I read somewhere that film director Robert Zemeckis--who did the recent Polar Express movie, and (more well-known to my generation) Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, was putting together a version of Beowulf. I was very intrigued.

Now, it's not that Beowulf hasn't been done before. There are at least two previous adaptations to the big screen that I know of (although I haven't seen any of them). The problem is, neither of these adaptations actually try to tell the story straight. The first of these films, released in 1999, set the activity in a post-technological future-fantasy setting, and was roundly panned by critics. The second of these was an Icelandic production from 2005, and did everything in its power to "humanize" Grendel by giving him a tragic back-story, and to turn Beowulf into a reluctant hero, who sympathizes more with Grendel than with the violent, barbaric Danes. This one fared marginally better with the critics, although it was still described by at least one reviewer as having dialogue that puts the viewer in mind of a bad Monty Python sketch.


Now, my first introduction to Beowulf was in an excerpt that showed up in one of my English textbooks in Junior High. It was a re-written and dumbed-down account of the battle between Beowulf and Grendel, that started about the point where Grendel entered the hall to eat the people he found there, and ended just after Beowulf pulled off Grendel's arm, and Grendel fled away to die. Sad to say, there really wasn't anything compelling in this rendition, other than the draw that blood and guts has for your typical Junior-High-School boy, to make us more interested in the story or its literary background. I mean, we'd already learned a lot about Greek myths and legends, and a little about the Norse; but Beowulf? Where did that fit in? It had no context. I knew nothing about the work, or the culture it came from, or who wrote it. It was just a weird story.

Fast forward to the mid-nineties, when I was out of college and commuting to work every day by train, forty-five minutes each way. I decided that my knowledge of Western Civ needed a little beefing up, so I started working my way through various classical works. I figured that I needed to read Beowulf and find out what all the fuss was about. After all, even though I'd had no context for my earlier reading, even then I could tell that the story was considered a classic of the English Language (though I'd had no way of understanding why, at that point). So I picked up a copy of this edition.

It's a good edition. The core of the book is of course the epic poem itself; but it's presented with the Old English text on the left page, and a poetic translation on the right page, so one can compare. The preface contains a textual synopsis and criticism, explaining what modern scholars believe the themes are that play out in the poem; there's also a "Guide to Reading Aloud" for those who wish to attempt to tackle the Old English. After the poem, the book contains a section describing the historical and cultural context in which the poem was written, followed by a running commentary on the entire poem, and a brief glossary of Old English terms.

I fell in love with the poem.

I can't explain it, but it was while I reading and studying Beowulf, from this volume, that I gained an entirely new appreciation for Epic Poetry.

I found myself fascinated by Anglo-Saxon culture: what was a thane? How did bonds of loyalty and obligation work? How did kings in the Anglo-Saxon world maintain their authority?

I found myself fascinated by the theological background of the poem, which took place in a time when Christianity was still very new in the land, and the theology was still strongly influenced by the older pagan sources. I think about the view expressed in the book of God being stern, but benevolent; but the pagans in the poem, though depicted as very noble, lived in a harsh, unforgiving world, and were obviously pitied by the author for their unfortunate, hopeless state. And I'm intrigued by the concept of the "Curse of Cain", who (in the poem) is described as the progenitor of all the monsters, the demons, the wicked things that torment Man--including Grendel himself.

I found myself fascinated by the Old English Language itself:


We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Part of this, of course, comes from the idea that this language--seemingly so alien to our own--is, in fact, really early English. This was before the Norman Invasion, so we hadn't had the influx of French words and grammar into our language yet. So Old English actually resembles the Old Saxon dialect of German. But still, if one looks closely enough, one sees words that are destined to become Modern English: cwen will eventually become queen, ða will eventually become the; the German König becomes the Old English cyninc (which is pronounced almost the same), which eventually becomes king.

And, of course, there all all those funny little letters that we don't have anymore, but should: þ (thorn) and ð (eth), both of which are eventually supplanted in Modern English by the th digraph. Learning to read these things, makes one feel like one is reading ancient runes. Hey, look at me! I'm a lore-master! ;-)

And then there's the story itself, which (now that we've been fortified with knowledge of the world in which the poem was written) is a ripping good yarn. Not only that, but it contains occasional insights on the human condition which are really quite profound. Here's one that caught my attention when I read the book. After Beowulf has dispatched both Grendel and his Mother, and has returned from the land of the Danes to his own king, he gives an account of the Danes. It seems the Danes have attempted to secure peace, through the use of an alliance through marriage. Beowulf comments that he doesn't think this arrangement will work out, and he gives this little bit of reasoning:

The Scylding king has brought this about,
the guard of his kingdom, accepts the opinion
that with the young woman he'll settle his share
of the killings and feud. But seldom anywhere,
after a slaying, will the death-spear rest,
even for a while, though the bride be good.
The lord of the Heathobards may well be displeased,
and each of his thanes, his nation's retainers,
when the Danish attendant walks in their hall
beside his lady, is honorably received.
On Danish belts swing shining heirlooms,
sharp as of old, the Heathobards' ring-treasures
for as long as they could wield those weapons,
till they finally led into that shield-play
their beloved companions and their own lives.
Then at the beer-feast an old fighter speaks,
who sees that ring-hilt, remembers it all,
the spear-death of men--has a fierce heart--
begins in cold sorrow to search out a youngster
in the depths of his heart, to test his resolve,
strike blade-spark in kin, and he says these words:
'Can you, my comrade, now recognize the sword
which your father bore in the final battle,
under grim war-mask for the last time,
that precious iron, when the Danes killed him,
controlled the field, when Withergyld fell
in our heroes' crash at Scylding hands?
Now some son or other of your father's killers
walks in this hall, here, in his pride;
exults in his finery, boasts of his slayings,
carries that treasure that is rightfully yours.'
He continually whets the young man's mind
with cruel words, until a day comes
when the lady's retainer, for his father's killings,
sleeps bloody-bearded, hacked by a sword,
his life forfeited. The slayer will escape,
get away with his life, he knows the country.
Then, on both sides, broken like swords
the nobles' oath-swearing, once deadly hate
wells up in Ingeld; in that hot passion
his love for the peace-weaver, his wife, will cool.
So I count it little, the Heathobards' loyalty,
friendship so firm, peace-sharing with the Danes,
think it less than the truth.
...and when I read this, I thought: some Anglo-Saxon writer, probably over a thousand years ago, has managed to diagnose the central issue of the entire problem in the Middle East today.


So what of the latest movie?

A word of warning: while I have not seen the movie, I have read everything I can about it online, and so I need to deliver a...

Go no further if you want to see the movie, before a semi-coherent bloviator blows the plot for you.

Well, I was intrigued when I heard how Zemeckis was planning on filming the thing. He figured that the art of computer animation is advanced enough, that the entire film can be done in motion capture. This is an intriguing idea; it means that you don't need sets, you don't need makeup, you don't need lights, you don't film while filming; all you need to do is capture the sound of the characters' voices and some realistic-looking motions, and then set the animators to work on it. Basically, every character is animated the same way that Gollum/Smeagol was in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

And this method of film making has several potential advantages over traditional filming. For instance, they were able to age the character of Beowulf 50 years between the second and third acts of the movie, and have it look more realistic than if it was a standard make-up aging. This sort of thing saves a whole lot of time; you can get a whole lot more filming done in any given day if you're just doing motion capture, and not having to have your main character sit in the make-up chair for six hours a day.

Of course, this opens up other possibilities, as well. For one thing, you can take a screen vixen, such as Angelina Jolie--who was three months pregnant at the time of "filming"--and give her a nude scene without her even realizing it.

What!? I don't remember that in the epic poem. Maybe I need to go read the thing again....

No, seriously. This is where the thing starts to go off the rails, actually. In this new telling of Beowulf, they do a fair amount of reading between the lines. After all, there isn't any sex in the original poem, but our society is obsessed with sex, so no sword-and-sorcery flick can be considered complete without it. Basically, the producers decided to make a couple of leaps with the original story:

  • Both Grendel and his mother are depicted as being of the monstrous race of Cain--but nothing is ever said about Grendel's father. Who would mate with such a hag to produce this spawn? Well....
  • The text is apparently unclear about whether Grendel's mother was actually a hag. The term aglæc-wif has traditionally been rendered "monster-woman"; but the aglæc- prefix in other contexts simply means "hero" or "warrior", and is apparently used to refer to Beowulf himself on occasion. So it's not completely out of the range of possibility that Grendel's mother was not an ugly hag. So, let's go with the idea that she's a beautiful, seductive, she-devil-type creature....
  • Who is obviously trying to mate with Men of Mighty Stature, such as... let's see... How about King Hrothgar? Yes, that'll work. So she's mated with Hrothgar, and so Grendel is actually Hrothgar's son.
  • Now, when Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel, the mum needs another man with whom to produce another offspring. Any other eligible Men of Mighty Stature around that would fit the bill? Hmmm...
  • Yup, you guessed it. That's why she drags Wulfie down to her cave under the swamp.
  • Now, the poem says that Beowulf cuts off her head. But how do we know that for sure? After all, the only two people in that cave were Beowulf and the mum. So anything that happened in that cave, we only have Beowulf's word to go on. What if he lied about it? After all, people lie about sex all the time....
  • ...which ultimately gives us the origin of the Dragon that shows up fifty years later, at the end of the poem. Yup, it's another of mum's offspring, sired by our favorite Man of Mighty Stature.

So anyway, Angelina Jolie apparently didn't realize that she was going to look like that until she saw herself vamping around onscreen at the premier. She described herself as feeling rather, um... exposed, and felt the need to call home to her family about it.


So, how's the movie doing? Apparently it was #1 at the box office last weekend, so it's not doing too badly. The reviews are mixed about it--some good, some bad. I read this review by someone else who loves the poem, and it pretty well realized my fears about the movie. Though to be fair, by all accounts it's better than those first two stinkers I linked to above.

I'm still curious to see it, though. However, as a parent of three kids ages five and under, I don't get to go out to the movies much--especially not the kinds of movies where giant ogres get their limbs pulled off. I think Tonya and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of movies we've seen since the Pillowfight Fairy came along five years ago. If I expressed a desire to see this one, I would have to explain to my wife exactly what reason I could possibly have for wanting to seeing a naked, demonic Angelina Jolie.

I mean, what good reason I could possibly have....

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