The screenwriters of Beowulf (3-D)—Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary--certainly understood the plot of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem on which the film is based. They understood that the basic theme was one of heroism, that the poem was a study in character and kingship, that it had possible Christian sub-texts, that the fabled monsters had psychological implications. In making extensive changes to both the plot and themes of the story, they did so in a studied way with the intent of both modernizing the poem and making the story more palatable and interesting to contemporary audiences.
There is no rule against making changes to a story when it is adapted from text to film. Some of the worst adaptations have been faithful to their sources (and some have been equally unfaithful). Film is a commercial medium as well as an artistic one. If you don't sell tickets and attract an audience, you fail, at least by one definition of film.
Beowulf the poem is basically a narrative about an epic hero. The poem lacks much self-consciousness. It's artful, but the artistry to me seems more the result of the story being told and the culture in which it occurs. Beowulf the poem is largely unaware of itself as artifice, as art, and its purpose is the telling of history, the forging of legend to be grafted on to a developing cultural and national consciousness.
Beowulf the film is highly self-conscious. It is torn by a desire to do right by the poem and the desire to be commercial. All the changes made in the conversion of the source text to film appear to have been made with these contending desires in mind. By changing the poem and by failing to provide in the changed narrative a unified logic equally compelling to that in the source, the film falls short.
The film preserves most of the basic events of the original story, although it sometimes reconceives and embellishes them. The three monsters—Grendel, his mother, and the dragon—are all there. Beowulf continues as the hero of the Geats who hears of the monster that is threatening Hrothgar's people and comes to the land of the Geats to vanquish it. He does so because he wants fame and the power that fame brings. This is not so different from the poem. But the film makes Beowulf a flawed hero, and in the poem few if any flaws are evident. Beowulf in the film (played by Ray Winstone) is arrogant and proud, and in his quest for victory he is willing to compromise himself—he lies to Hrothgar about killing Grendel's mother and about losing the treasured golden horn Hrothgar had given him; he does not reveal that he had sex with her. The film views anyone with power as corrupt by nature. Hrothgar himself (played by a miscast Anthony Hopkins) is an aged and bloated version of Beowulf—vain, loud, boastful. When Hrothgar commits suicide, Beowulf wins his kingdom and his queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn)—although she had virtually no role in the poem she is a major character in the film—she becomes Beowulf's wife, whom he betrays by taking at least one lover. In the poem, Hrothgar lives on while Beowulf returns home to the Geats and later becomes their king. We know nothing about Beowulf's wife and less about his exploits with other women.
In the poem, Beowulf is a great and flawless hero, and for this reason he is a major point in the argument for the poem's Christian sub-text. Beowulf is a Christ-like hero, and his battle against evil—embodied in the two monsters as well as the dragon—is a Christian battle of good against evil. In the film the battle that Beowulf undertakes is a battle against his own duplicity, the sins he has committed, the deceptions he has carried out. The film uses this quest for redemption to weave the two largely unrelated parts of the poem (the battles against Grendel and his mother and the battle against the dragon) into a more seamless but ultimately less satisfying narrative.
The flawed heroism of Beowulf is a specifically modern heroism. Its basis lies in the Aristotelian concept of the flawed tragic hero and even more in modern skepticism about heroes—no individual can be wholly good and unblemished, every hero must be flawed in some way. In making the story one of Beowulf's quest to redeem himself from the sins and errors of his life, the film fundamentally reconceives the story in the poem. In the poem, when the dragon begins its rampage Beowulf acts out of heroic goodness to confront evil and protect a suffering people. He does this even though he recognizes that his death may result. The poem's concern is with heroism and the character of a hero, not with tragedy. In the film he seeks personal redemption and expiation of his own sins of deceit and lust. His motive is selfish, not altruistic.
The film also gives us an Oedipal story. Grendel's mother is an evil demon who can take on the form of a beautiful sexual temptress. She seduces Hrothgar, and from this union comes Grendel. Later she seduces Beowulf, and from this union comes the dragon. Both sons seek to slay their fathers, partially from jealousy and partially out of revenge against the fathers whose duplicity and corruption are at the root of their progeny's being. This is course is a twist to the story largely absent from the poem.
The world of the poem Beowulf is a pagan world. Christianity, if it is there at all, is present in faint hints and presentiments. Beowulf's character and heroism contain the values and virtues that are the basis of the Christian sub-text. But in the film the world of the Danes is a world in transition. Christianity is explicitly mentioned as a religion that may succeed the pagan faith of the Danes and Geats. It is mentioned as a religion in which there are no monsters—monsters belong to paganism. As the film presents it, the battle of Beowulf against the monsters is a battle of Christianity vs. paganism, even though Beowulf himself is still pagan. In the film's final image, after Beowulf's death, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), who has accompanied Beowulf throughout his life and who has succeeded him as king of the Danes, looks out to the sea at the sinking funeral ship that carries the vanquished hero's body—he sees Grendel's mother rise out of the water-- they stare at one another. She is the pagan world—he is the Christian. The film leaves this face off unresolved, as if to suggest that Grendel's mother is not vanquished--she is with us today, whatever we might think to the contrary. We live in a world that is the opposite of the one in the poem—we live in a post-Christian world of rationality and skepticism, but the subterranean context is one in which monsters, in whatever modern forms they may take, still dwell. Even so, in its explicit acknowledgement of Christianity as a religion soon to replace the pagan religions of the Danes and Geats, the film seems confused and does not make anything particularly significant or meaningful out of the transition that it shows to be taking place. Maybe the point is that in the new Christian age without monsters, heroes like Beowulf won't be needed, but the film still can't refrain from denying the title character the full measure of heroism that the poem allows him.
The special effects in the film detract from the story. The entire film is digitally reconceived—the result of motion-capture technology. The characters move in a stiff, unnatural way. As many have pointed out, their eyes lack life. In face-on shots, they often seem to stare off to the side of the camera, to avoid a direct glance that would make their empty eyes more obvious. Their faces lack skin and muscle tone; the nuanced play of light and shadow that we see when we look at a living human face is missing. The digital effects exaggerate the unreality of the story. The filmmakers should have reserved digital effects for the obvious moments when they are needed—the monsters, the heroic exploits of various characters, especially Beowulf. For a story about human character, we need portrayals that are more human and less virtual. At this point in the development of DGI animation, the technology and those who wield it are simply not capable of presenting convincing recreations of human beings—at least not in this film. Do we blame director Robert Zemeckis, who in Forrest Gump, Contact, and Castaway showed himself more than capable of dealing with human characters and situations, or do we place blame elsewhere? Was this just a hire-for-pay effort by Zemeckis, Gaiman, and others?
Beowulf is a far more successful and nuanced film that 300, which also used extensive digital effects. Many of the reviews have overlooked the intelligence of the Beowulf script, dwelling instead on its many defects. Even so, the decision to craft the story for a modern audience, rather than to attempt a genuine adaptation of the epic poem, led to a significant missed opportunity. The poem has great power—its pagan world, alien to our own, so like it in ways—that would translate into a compelling film, if only someone had the courage to make it.
I saw the 3-D version of this film. 3-D technology has vastly improved since its first introduction to American audiences in the 1950s. I remember as a kid watching the film 13 Ghosts in 3-D at a theatre in East Point, Georgia. In Beowulf 3-D technology becomes another dimension of the film's insistence on spectacle. It is noticeable at first as a kind of novelty, but after a few minutes it ceases to be of much interest. In general, it lends little to the film.
Originally published in Blogcritics: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2007/11/30/211425.php