27 November 2009


To be clear, Beowulf is NOT a good movie. Not at all. It's pretty wretched, overblown and ridiculous with this awful digitized Final Fantasy look and phallic imagery out the yin yang. It is, however, a fascinating interpretation of the original text.

As a side note - Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf is an absolute delight, and very much worth reading. I had kind of assumed the text was a crusty old classic, but it's wonderful. Very short, which is nice - I think the audio book of Heaney reading it clocks in around 2 hours? - and the language, in Heaney's rendering, is just gorgeous.

Anyhow. Beowulf the movie. One of the major adaptations made by the film is to add this weird psychosexual oh my Freud element, where Grendel turns out to have been fathered by Hrothgar. Grendel's mother is played by Angelina Jolie, and transformed into this strange sexual sorceress who seems intent on bedding various kings, bearing their children and then sending those very children out to slaughter their fathers. Weird. This obviously complicates the notion of good and evil in the work - in fact, at some point, someone (Beowulf maybe?) says something like "it is us who are truly the monsters". Ok. So that's interesting, but also kind of old news. It's also pretty ridiculous and somewhat incoherent in the film. I suppose the director thought that audiences want a SOURCE for evil these days, and making it something so close to home is kind of the obvious choice in this day and age, which is sort of a fascinating look at how our society conceptualizes evil, and an interesting modification of the text, but also sort of stupid.

Next off, the movie insistently cuts Beowulf down to size by having him not be all that heroic at all. He lies about his adventures, oh and also cheats on his wife, and upon his deathbed is tired of all the lies, bla bla bla. This is really fascinating, because it picks up on a strange undercurrent in the original text connected to Beowulf's arrogance. In my opinion, the original work is sort of about how Beowulf is an amazing warrior but not a good king, precisely because the ideals of warriorness and kingship are irreconcilable - a warrior serves his king, yes, but ultimately he is a lone fighter, beholden to no one. A king, on the other hand, is the protector of his people, yes, but also their embodiment - his life is not his own. I read the text as mourning the end of an age of heroes and ushering in a realm of politics, where kings can't just go off and kill people, but have to, for instance, be diplomats and delegate their battles. Anyhow, there nonetheless IS this strange suggestion in the text that Beowulf is kind of an arrogant prick, and the movie sort of picks up on that and runs with it, ultimately turning it into this massive, tedious sideplot about a life of lies, etc.

The most disappointing aspect is the way in which the film deals with the Christianity issue in the text, ie, with the usual evil Christian guy droning on about sin and the like. The material for such a reading is definitely there - the moments when the narrator interjects Christian propaganda definitely alienates him from the text, and make him seem like a jerk - but the movie treats it in the most typical, boring way possible.

Overall - I can't recommend this film at all, unless you have just read the book - which you should! - in which case, it IS kind of fascinating.

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