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Beowulf

We just don’t tell stories the way they used to be told in epic poems, do we? Our tendency towards more naturalistic/realistic/verisimilitudinous (I made a word!) stories, and our frequent desire to explain the psychology of a story’s characters, don’t quite fit with the inherently artificial quality epic poems have. (I once decided that someone should try making a film interpretation of The Odyssey with no dialogue, to suggest that artificiality in a different way. Could be an interesting exercise.) The stories can still speak to us, though, if we let them.

I’m still processing my feelings about the film version of Beowulf that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote for Robert Zemeckis. I've seen it twice, first in 3-D its opening weekend and then in 2-D on Saturday when I took Alicia. (She can't see 3-D films; think the words "anxiety" and "vertigo" and you should understand why.) There are amazing images, and silly ones; intriguing ideas, and silly ones. Gaiman and Avary -- I'm not so sure about Zemeckis, who I think is not as interested in story as they are -- try to make Beowulf more immediate and relatable, but still there's that remove built into the original poem, an episodic yarn about a warrior who fights a monster, fights another monster, then gets old and fights one more monster. The connections and changes they made to better explain what happens (and why it happens) are indeed clever, but seem a little too tacked-on; the original story resists their explaining, and the result is this kind of feathered-fish of a film that's gotten very mixed reviews. (I think I was last this conflicted about a film way back in 2001, with A.I., though I'll admit I liked Beowulf a fair amount more than A.I. And I'm really enjoying the novelization by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which adds depth, motivation, and interior thought that the film can only suggest.)

I was first exposed to Beowulf in junior high, both excerpts and reactions (I was especially fond of Richard Wilbur’s poem that stressed the story’s unreal quality: “The land was overmuch like scenery…”). I got more out of the poem later, when my junior high/high school friend David Carlton turned out to be a great fan of Beowulf; he'd talk about what impressed him about it, and he helped me better visualize the story. And then a few years ago I read Seamus Heaney’s great translation of the original poem…and then re-read it immediately, out loud, as the story was first told. (I read it in Modern English, so it wasn’t totally the way it was told 1,300 years ago, but I did read portions of the Old English original that’s printed on the left-side pages of Heaney’s book.)

In a way, visualizing Beowulf through motion-capture fits the poem. It shows us a recognizable world that’s still a little “off” from ours; an attempt to do this in live-action could have just been awkward. I doubt 300which I didn’t like much, sorry, happyspector – would have worked on film without its computer-generated and hyper-real environments, an approach not that different from Beowulf. The motion-capture visuals take some getting used to, and judging from lots of peoples’ reactions to the film and its ads, most of us aren’t really used to it yet. Zemeckis, to his credit, calms down the visual style from the “Hey! Look what we can doooooo!” demo-reel quality of some of The Polar Express, also done with motion capture. But like most films shot with 3-D in mind, Beowulf goes annoyingly over-the-top and overboard with the throwing of stuff at the camera. The format can be subtler than that; when the filmmakers aren’t too carried away with showing off, the 3-D could make a film a more immersive experience. (Maybe the 3-D presentation of next year's Coraline film will manage that. I'll hope, but I doubt I'll become a big fan of 3-D.)

Almost no one comes off very well in this telling of the tale. You can't quite trust most of the characters, whether it's Beowulf with his over-the-top boasts and lies of omission, Hrothgar with his carefully worded sort-of-truths, or the sniveling, beating-happy Unferth (John Malkovich, unfortunately not quite theatrical enough). Only Beowulf's troubled second-mate Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) and Grendel's mother in her moments with her son -- especially after Grendel's death -- come nearest to being truly sympathetic. (This is all reinforced in Kiernan's novelization; I've gone "Oh no, he'd do that?" more often than I expected to...) These are flawed, difficult people, and with the additional remove of their computer-processed look -- which is less effective the younger and smoother-skinned a character is -- we have trouble connecting to them the way the filmmakers sought. The depth of character is there, but we as the audience are not really encouraged to seek it.

I was disappointed in how relatively little the human women of the story got to do. (Obviously the original poem isn't a great role-for-women story, with one big exception, but Gaiman and Avery have had more interesting female characters before.) This improves as the film reaches its third act -- Alicia noted "It's good she [Wealthow] grew a spine" -- but still there seems to be only so much for the women here to do: basically, be lust-objects (either willing or unwilling) who most often look either scared or bothered, except when the servant girls are tittering about Beowulf's "legs -- all three of them." The one scene Queen Wealthow gets with only a fellow female and no one else, when she talks to servant girl Ursula right before the dragon first attacks, was a moment where I admit my attention wandered for a bit.

And I wish the filmmakers had taken the full plunge and gone for an R rating. This story is almost R-rated by its very nature; had it been an R, it may have avoided the silliness of the convenient-props-blocking-Beowulf's-nakedness when he fought Grendel, plus there would've been a clearer signal to the idiots who assume "animated = kids' films" that, y'know, MAYBE THIS ISN'T FOR KIDS AT ALL.

I was most caught up and engaged in the film's bloody, fiery finale, where Beowulf fights the dragon. That made the film worth it; I loved the dragon's look, I could feel the stakes of the fight, and I could wince at the damage Beowulf does to himself to stop the monster (you squeamish? You don't want to know what he does). And the very ending is surprisingly impressionistic for a major-studio blockbuster; rather ambiguous. The way I read the ending is this: in the past both Hrothgar and Beowulf had entered into a Faustian bargain with Grendel's mother to have their stories be told for millennia, and that somehow Wiglaf becomes complicit in that, whether by what he does or by what he doesn't do (thus the ambiguity as the film fades out). I think it's kind of a darker version of the slogan "Frodo Lives"; there's a reason the story of Beowulf stayed with us, and it's not a happy reason.

So: that's my thought. And I still feel I haven't expressed myself very well about this film.

P.S. My favorite Beowulf comment from Alicia: "He should be proud: he sired a dragon. Hrothgar just sired a monster."

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
greyaenigma
Nov. 29th, 2007 06:19 am (UTC)
Interesting take on the ending -- I'm torn on that myself, thinking about it. Wiglaf doesn't seem like he'd pair up with the cause of Beowulf's demise, but on the other hand I can't think of a better motivation for that character.

So, you'd know the answers to these questions that have been nagging at me: is the 3-D version different from the flat version in the scenes? Are any of the "hey, look! We're doing 3-D!" scenes cut?

Also, how does it differ from the original poem? I know it's different, mostly in the end, but I don't know how.

chris_walsh
Nov. 29th, 2007 01:58 pm (UTC)
is the 3-D version different from the flat version in the scenes? Are any of the "hey, look! We're doing 3-D!" scenes cut?

No; they're the same. The filmmakers had considered doing two cuts, but the difference would've been an R-rated Imax/3-D version and a PG-13 general release. Sounds like they decided the potential confusion was too great (kids getting into the R-rated version when they shouldn't). That's touched upon in Quint's production office report from early last year.

Also, how does it differ from the original poem? I know it's different, mostly in the end, but I don't know how.

In broad strokes, the film assumes that Beowulf was exaggerating some elements of his story and fudging others: he's the only one who sees Grendel's mother, and brings back no sign of her death, instead only the head of Grendel. He stays in Denmark instead of becoming king of his own kingdom. I don't think we see Hrothgar die in the original poem, and if he did he certainly didn't die the way he does in the film. The film adds connections between the Danish monsters and the dragon (which, again, was a Swedish dragon in the poem and unrelated to Grendel and Grendel's mother). And there are more characters.

Interesting take on the ending -- I'm torn on that myself, thinking about it. Wiglaf doesn't seem like he'd pair up with the cause of Beowulf's demise, but on the other hand I can't think of a better motivation for that character.

Whatever happens, it's subtle: I'm mainly basing that idea on the use of color, which in the last shot fades to that gold associated with Grendel's mother before fading out. Grendel's mother and the dragon (and what the dragon becomes) are gold; so, in a way, is Wiglaf. It's ambiguous because we can wonder whether or not Wiglaf threw the horn back to the mother.

(It's awkward always referring to her as "Grendel's mother," isn't it? I almost wish there had been a name created for her, the way the novel Wicked names the Wicked Witch of the West Elphaba. But there probably wasn't a good name Gaiman and Avary could invent for her that would've made sense. And Caitlin's novelization uses her never-named status.)
greyaenigma
Nov. 29th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC)
I'm still not clear on what the actual differences are. Do you mean others saw Grendel's mother in the poem? Also, Hrothgar refers to the Swedish dragon, Fafnir (the one the goblet is based on) -- is that not separate from the dragon at the end? Do you mean that in the poem, he left and had a kingdom elsewhere? I thought Hrothgar's disappearance was a bit odd. I guess the continued implication is that she always reclaimed her lovers.

I get the sense Neil likes the term "Grendel's mother". She shows up in at least one of his short stories.
chris_walsh
Nov. 29th, 2007 08:05 pm (UTC)
I meant that since no one sees Beowulf battle Grendel's mother, he could get away with claiming he killed her. In the poem, he actually does kill her; in the movie, he doesn't but pretends he does. (And by the way, in both the poem and the film, Grendel's mother is never seen when she attacks Heorot; we just see the aftermath.) And the dragons are two different dragons; either Hrothgar did kill Fafnir in the past or he just claimed he did, though I don't think Hrothgar would flat-out lie the way Beowulf does in the film. (Remember that when Hrothgar's asked if Grendel's father is a threat, he says "Grendel's father can do no harm to man"...technically true, but leaving out lots of truth.)

And in the original poem, Beowulf sails from what one day will be Sweden to what one day will be Denmark, battles the first two monsters, then returns to his country in the east and eventually battles the dragon. The film never goes to Sweden.
happyspector
Nov. 29th, 2007 07:31 pm (UTC)
You seem to have a lot of the same mixed feelings on it as me... Aye, the fact that it's animated is clearly the only reason it got a PG-freakin'-13 rating... which I frankly like, especially since the movie's doing well, as we're getting more and more hard-edged S&S fantasy in film, the way I like it... Y'know, more like our ol' boy Howard! ;-)

Now, if they just manage to get Solomon Kane right...
chris_walsh
Nov. 30th, 2007 12:05 am (UTC)
PG-freakin'-13

Obviously the filmmakers wouldn't have gone all Eastern Promises with the nude fighting had it been R, but I still think going for an R would've been more honest. (Gaiman admitted that he wasn't comfortable with his 13-year-old daughter seeing it.) I do appreciate how hardcore the fighting and blood-and-guts are -- this is a film my brother will NEVER see!

(Hmm. I feel uninspired, reply-wise. Maybe I'll say more later.)

I'm ridin' the HopeMobile about Solomon Kane too, dude...
happyspector
Nov. 30th, 2007 12:21 am (UTC)
Apparently Max Von Sydow is slated to play... Kane's dad. Yeah, that made me go "Huh?" too, though Sydow's cool. So it'd seem we'll get a *good* Howard-inspired film every twenty-odd years and it has to have Sydow in a character role? So maybe by the time you and I are in our fifties, they'll finally do a Bran Mak Morn movie, and they can resurrect Sydow to play a zombie!
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