With Hollywood’s recent proclivity for movies featuring bare-kneed men wielding massive swords, it’s surprising that it took so long to get around to filming Beowulf, especially after Seamus Heaney’s bestselling translation, when Beowulf was as close to being an American popular culture figure as he was ever likely to become. Maybe Hollywood’s slow approach had to do with the poem’s awkward narrative structure. I’m not a medievalist, so I don’t know if the three-monster fight form was as prevalent in Anglo-Saxon times as the three-act sitcom structure is today. Most modern retellings of the Beowulf tale focus on the battles against Grendel and his mother, leaving out Beowulf’s last battle against a dragon. The young Beowulf as the growling outsider is more appealing, or more dramatically gripping for modern audiences, than the later Beowulf, who is probably the only epic hero to lose a fight to a dragon.
Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation keeps the dragon but reworks the narrative structure so that Wiglaf appears throughout the film, whereas in the poem he only appears during the last scenes. Like most directors of literary adaptations, Zemeckis remains true to some aspects of the original text, while changing others to suit his storytelling purposes or to satisfy contract terms worked out by CAA. Heorot is a reasonable facsimile of a medieval village, loaded with period details like public belching. Grendel’s mother, played by Angelina Jolie working her curves and collagen lips to full effect, is shockingly alluring, but not outrageously so. An impossibly sexy Grendel’s mother raises, obliquely, the long-standing question of Grendel’s paternity. If I remember correctly from reading Heaney’s translation, Grendel’s father was an unnamed troll, but that may have been scurrilous rumor. In any case, Beowulf’s themes include the lust for gold, the problems of kinship, and a pagan counter-offensive against Christianity, so a monstrous seductress at the center of the mayhem makes a certain kind of sense. Her character also makes a good foil for Robin Penn Wright’s Wealtheow, who is repulsed by her husband’s pleasures of the flesh.
Beowulf isn’t cinematic only by virtue of its soggy villages, winsome heroines, and Germanic lusts. The tale is easy to graft onto the Oedipal trajectory of the classical American film style, albeit in inverted form. Beowulf steps into a complex and bitter struggle over kingship and paternity. He hacks his way onto the throne, but in Zemeckis’s retelling he’s already slain his proper queen, Grendel’s mother, played by the only A list star in the film and therefore, by the conventions of contemporary American cinema, the key token to resolving the hero’s Oedipal conflicts. Once on the throne Beowulf comes to resemble Hrothgar, the bad father. Beowulf’s Faustian bargain is resolved by the gender-bending dragon with its golden hide that looks like custom couture from Prada.
Like many film adaptations of classical literary texts, Zemeckis’s Beowulf has been attacked for infidelities to the "original" poem. It should be noted, however, that Beowulf itself is a text under constant revision and reinterpretation. Seamus Heaney’s celebrated translation of the poem failed to impress medievalists, who complained about all the Celticisms Heaney scattered about an Anglo-Saxon poem. (Zemeckis’s source was a new translation by Dick Ringler.) If you really want to be a stickler for historical detail, forget both Zemeckis’s movie and your old college edition and listen to someone recite it from memory, which was how it was originally experienced. It’s entirely possible that a storyteller in pre-Conquest England told a version of Beowulf with Wiglaf popping up in surprising places and Grendel’s mother as a curvaceous beauty with plush lips.
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