Film as Lit Crit: The Problem With Beowulf

Film Reviews

Beowulf (2007) translates a thousand-year old epic into a groundbreaking (at the time) computer animated film to the delight of high school English students everywhere. Finally, they have something to watch instead of reading the poem! And it stars Angelina Jolie! Alas, any teacher worth her salt should be able to spot a student who substituted watching the film for doing the required reading because the film so thoroughly alters the poem’s plot.

Ironically, those changes are a tipoff that screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have read the poem well. The changes are so systematic that the while the movie is an aesthetic failure and certainly not a faithful adaptation of the source material, it works slightly better if you think of it as a 114-minute-long piece of feminist literary criticism that cost $150 million. What a bargain!

The movie tries to work on two levels. On the first level, we’re in a Game-of-Thrones-esque world filled with macho, mead-drinking warriors, the aristocratic ladies who love them, and the requisite monsters and dragons who threaten the kingdoms ruled by those men and women. This is the level that’s made for people who may have heard the name Beowulf but have never read the poem. On the second level, we’re given a charged critique of the original poem that only makes sense if you know the plot really well. Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), the king whose people have been haunted by a monster named Grendel, turns out to have a mysterious connection to the monster. Beowulf (Ray Winstone), the man who comes to save Hrothgar’s kingdom, himself has a dark relationship with Grendel’s mother, the monster he’s supposed to kill after he’s disposed of Grendel. The original poem, the writers are saying, celebrated a patriarchal world that demonized monsters and denigrated women. Hrothgar and Beowulf aren’t heroes. They’re hypocrites and windbags.

Director Robert Zemeckis invests the first level with the energy of a warped C-grade Disney cartoon; the film’s danger and sexual intrigue is only made weirder by the same computer graphics Zemeckis used in The Polar Express (2004). Meanwhile, the literary criticism level of the film becomes predictable, and at 114 minutes, the film feels about an hour too long.

The movie begins with a monster invading Hrothgar’s Danish kingdom and running amok. None of the Danes are strong enough to do anything about the monster, and the older Hrothgar is losing face in front of his men and his young and beautiful wife (Robin Wright). That’s when Beowulf arrives. He’s the best warrior from another tribe, and he’s come to get his hero-credentialing on. As in the poem, Beowulf flaps his gums to the Danes about his prior exploits and worthiness to challenge Grendel. Unlike the poem, however, Beowulf is portrayed by Gaiman and Avary in such a way that Beowulf’s audience inside and outside the film will see him as a blowhard who lies about what he’s accomplished. There’s also some nudge-nudge-wink-wink sexual energy between him and Hrothgar’s wife which makes everything slightly uncomfortable.

Beowulf disposes of Grendel, and everyone rejoices…just a little too soon. It seems Grendel has a mom and she’s not happy her son’s been killed. Hrothgar seems to know something is up but he sends Beowulf into the depths to seek out and kill Grendel’s mother as well. Beowulf finds a weird and shapely monster with the head of Angelina Jolie. She seduces him. Needless to say, this is definitely not what happens in the poem. In the movie, Beowulf returns from his monstrous hookup to report that Grendel’s mother is no longer a problem. Here’s where Gaiman and Avary start jettisoning any fidelity to the poem. Hrothgar promptly takes a swan dive off of the castle, and Beowulf stays in Denmark to marry Hrothgar’s widow and be king of the Danes. The film’s ending features elements of the poem’s conclusion, but it’s like if someone made a K-Pop hit into a big band standard. You’d recognize the melody, but everything else would be disorienting.

The parts of the film that work as literary criticism cripple the film as an adventure story. Satire is great when you have a sincere target that the audience knows and can appreciate you lampooning. Deadpool works because it was the 25th superhero movie, and we had expectations about the genre and the way characters in that genre should behave. But the people who don’t know anything about Beowulf would come to this film expecting heroes and dragons, not creepy sexy time with dragons that yield skepticism about the idea of heroes altogether. On the other hand, if you know the poem well enough to understand how the plot shuffling is actually a criticism of the original poem’s patriarchy and othering of the beasts, then you’re just going to feel like the screenwriters and director should have written an essay instead of making a movie.

Beowulf is like the guy at the party who drives you nuts by continually saying, “Well actually…”

“Hrothgar was a good king…”

“Well, actually…he was a warmonger who married his young wife as a bid to end tribal conflict and whose adultery is actually the cause of the kingdom’s woes.”

“Beowulf really was heroic…”

“Well, actually…no one can confirm the stories that Beowulf tells about himself, and he’s a braggart who seems more concerned about his own glory than the people he’s supposed to be trying to save.”

It would get tiring after ten minutes, much less nearly two hours.

The original poem is critical of Beowulf, I believe, but not to the detriment of his heroism. The anonymous English poet is a Christian looking back at a pagan past and seeing what’s best about it even as he must acknowledge its shortcomings. If Gaiman and Avary are so skeptical, why did they rewrite the story? Was it to finally disabuse us all of our deeply held beliefs about Beowulf’s heroism? I hate to break it to them, but almost no one has read the poem except nerds like me. If people watch this movie, I doubt that will change.