“Pride is the Curse” – promotional tagline for the film
All things in their context, naturally, both olde and contemporary. Let’s start with the former.
As is likely obvious to all, “Beowulf” is the oldest surviving piece of English literature, being dated back to between the 8th and the 11th century. An oral epic poem, it was written down in a manuscript known as the Nowell Codex in England by two anonymous scribes. It was pagan in origin, specifically Germanic and tribal, prior to its transcription by two men who were most likely devout Christians, and thus elements of paganism and hero worship wind up clashing with elements of Christianity and martyrdom – though it’s likely that, being an oral story, it had met with a fair number of revisions, lapses, and distortions through the years, incidental or deliberate. The poem itself only really obtained legitimacy in English language studies in the early 20th century, due to efforts by J.R.R. Tolkien to promote the creative value of the poem rather than merely its historical significance. At the time “Beowulf” was written, the Christianization of Scandinavia was possibly well underway, with Christian traditions supplanting Norse. Thus were Scandinavians introduced to concepts such as original sin, the Incarnation, and the Trinity: such concepts must have proved unusual to the warrior-minded tribes and their notions of Valhalla and Ragnorok that favored those who expressed strength and died as warriors.
Let’s establish the more contemporary context, closer to the modern day: right around the beginning of 1995 or so. There’s a lot less uncertainty here when I state that at the Academy Awards that year, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary took home the Best Original Screenplay award for Pulp Fiction, which was easily the film of 1993, having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes the previous May. The two accepted the statuette from Anthony Hopkins; meanwhile, Forrest Gump swept the awards that year, most notably for Best Director for Robert Zemeckis and for Best Effects, Visual Effects, for the use of computer effects to edit the title character into many iconic American moments caught on video and film. This almost fateful confluence of talents and visionaries could almost be considered complete had comics writer Neil Gaiman been screenwriting in the early nineties – instead, he was hard at work on “The Sandman” for DC’s Vertigo imprint, and its status as one of DC’s hottest properties would pique the interest of Warner Bros. in adapting the work for the cinema.
Unfortunately for Roger Avary, for Neil Gaiman, and for screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, said attempts at adapting the material for film proved disastrous, as Elliott and Rossio have explained here. To make a long story short, Avary, who was a hot ticket after his Pulp Fiction win and his debut writing-directing feature Killing Zoe, was offered many big projects and chose to leap upon The Sandman, only instead to waste a year on a fruitless project. As he explains in his introduction to the collected Beowulf scripts, he decided to turn his attention to putting together a screenplay adaptation of the epic poem. Struggling with how to link the first two acts – Grendel’s attack on the mead hall and his subsequent slaying, followed by his mother – with the third and final act – in which an older Beowulf heroically sacrifices himself to kill a dragon plaguing his kingdom, Avary received a phone call from Neil Gaiman. Explaining his frustrations with the poem’s structure and the conceit of Beowulf as an unreliable narrator, Gaiman immediately provided the solution: that if Grendel is Hrothgar’s son, then the dragon is Beowulf’s, both birthed by Grendel’s mother. So the two decided to collaborate on the screenplay to Beowulf. And, to make an even longer story shorter for the sake of patience, Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers production house eventually snatched up the script, with Zemeckis at the helm as director and Avary and Gaiman as executive producers and screenwriters, to film Beowulf as a 3D mo-cap spectacle, a far cry from the raw and dirty, Jabberwocky, Excalibur, and Polanski’s Macbeth-inspired concept that Avary long nursed in his hopes of directing the feature himself.
The reception to Beowulf was lukewarm at best. Though many critics enjoyed it as entertaining spectacle, others still criticized the imperfect motion capture process as well as what they characterized as a juvenile presentation. They’re not entirely wrong: Beowulf is indeed spectacle as it reaches for photorealism in its motion capture and falls quite often into the nadir that is the uncanny valley. And much of the film is juvenile, with its many crass innuendos, lewdness, and incredibly gory violence (how this film got a PG-13 is beyond me – the so-called director’s cut reinserts relatively little in terms of on-screen viscera). Yet beneath all this is a film that is much smarter than its detractors may think, a film written by two men who understand that stories aren’t immutable, and that their rendition of “Beowulf” is yet another inevitable distortion in a series of Chinese whispers.
Avary, Gaiman, and Zemeckis’ Beowulf
Neil Gaiman is best known for two works: “Sandman,” and the novel American Gods, and both treat the mythological and folkloric characters within not as powerful forces that exist without humanity, but as constructs and ideas that are dependent on human beings to survive. In “Sandman,” for instance, there is Baast, the Egyptian cat-headed goddess who is nearly starved for lack of belief in her, and in American Gods the very land that is the United States is slowly destroying those deities who cannot adapt and compete with the so-called New Gods, who spring out of the American drive of industry, technology, and pop culture. Neil Gaiman’s America is so inhospitable to Old World gods that Thor succumbs to alcoholism and blows his brains out with a shotgun long before the story even begins. Gaiman understands the ability of time and place to distort and erase stories and myths, as powerful as they may be.
Roger Avary also understands this, though in a different sense. For Avary, adaptation is a matter of changing anything and everything so long as he remains true to what he believes is the story’s basic essence and feeling. It’s debatable if his approach works: while his Rules of Attraction adaptation was lauded by Bret Easton Ellis for its faithfulness to his tone and style even as it makes major changes to the plot, his script for Silent Hill proved quite divisive among that franchise’s fans as it bombed with critics (as a fan, I must note that Roger Ebert wasn’t off the mark when he called the film the most visually beautiful bad movie he ever watched). To best explain himself, Avary uses an anecdote to justify his approach to adaptation, which he discusses here:
Ed’s note: Video may start at 13:35 instead of 13:55 due to Youtube. Please scan ahead to 13:55 for story.
Finally, there is Zemeckis, whose main contribution to this project consisted of the motion capture process that frees the camera and bodies of characters in ways not possible in a traditional live-action feature. The level of bombast that follows is a mixed blessing: in many ways, the braggadocio of these Thanes and Geats is better served with this approach, but on the other hand the various ways that pikes point at the camera or objects fly at the screen distracts when one is or is not watching in 3D. On the other hand, Zemeckis’ effects-driven process is in keeping with the revisionist/subversive tendencies of Gaiman and Avary’s screenplay; this isn’t the first film by Zemeckis to extensively utilize the latest in visual effects technology as a means of literally changing the past. Back to the Future Part II features some of the earliest uses by Industrial Light & Magic of digital compositing which, in tandem with the then-revolutionary VistaGlide system, allowed for scenes in which multiple performances by the same actor were present to have dynamic, moving camera shots; digital compositing was used further in Forrest Gump to insert Tom Hanks’ character into historical footage as though he were always present.
In terms of bringing together talents, it possibly couldn’t have been better. Gaiman and Avary for their understanding of the mutability of stories, and Zemeckis for the swaggering, effects-fueled approach appropriate to the material.
But What About The Film?
Finally, yes, we come to the film. What makes Beowulf worth viewing? It’s hard to answer that, since the reasons why can be self-undermining. Some of the photorealistic motion capture imagery can be genuinely breathtaking, while at other points one can’t help but noticed the fish-eyed shortcomings apparent even among the main cast members. As essential the loud, boisterous tone is to the film’s depictions of Scandinavian heroism, at times it distracts or annoys, such as the aforementioned 3D pop-out moments that tend to involve instruments of impalement. Most talked about at time of release besides the film’s somewhat irreverent treatment of the poem is Beowulf’s (Ray Winstone) nude fight with Grendel (Crispin Glover, wonderfully deranged and pathetic), which is skillfully and ludicrously censored, Austin Powers-style, so that we do not witness Beowulf’s manhood. So contrived are the placements of props, shadows, and mist that the scene tilts into farce, which seems to run counter to Beowulf’s very real strength and virility that defeats most doubts regarding his competence. Yet these are essential to developing the story and its themes, for glory cannot be obtained without boastfulness, however obnoxious it may be.
Names are important in Beowulf. Every character has a name and title to convey their past heroic deeds, which they will share without even needing to be asked, and Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) mead hall, Herot, is the site for boasting proud accomplishments. As Hrothgar puts it, it’s the place to celebrate victories, for “scops [to] sing their sagas.” And for a short time, they do, as the Thanes sing praises of their king’s accomplishments, how he has defeated dragons. That is, until Grendel attacks, in agony over such merry-making, and forces the closing of Herot as he repeatedly comes in the night to slaughter the hall’s residents. It is only reopened when the virile,powerful Beowulf arrives seeking glory. Yet before his arrival came another, that of the Christian faith and their God. Hrothgar’s adviser, Unferth (slayer of virgins, Kingslayer, weasel-faced bastard), asks Hrothgar that, alongside the sacrificing of goats and sheep to Odin or Heimdall, should they also pray to “the new Roman God, Christ Jesus.” Hrothgar rebuffs this: “The gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. No, we need a hero.” And for a time, a hero is perfectly suitable; that is, until Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) seduces Beowulf with promises of power and glory, and a long life, just as she seduced Hrothgar to beget Grendel.
If it seems a leap to suggest that Beowulf was seduced by Grendel’s mother, Gaiman and Avary would insist that such an interpretation comes from reading between the lines. Their main motivations for this theory are that, for one, Beowulf never brings back to Herot any indication of his actually slaying Grendel’s mother, having only brought back the severed head of Grendel. Another involves Beowulf himself, whose motivations aren’t necessarily born of Christian piety and righteousness but instead of “strength, and lust, and power,” as Beowulf so puts it before defeating Grendel. Working off the Burton Raffel translation of the poem, the following lines in particular were singled out, from the fight with Grendel’s mother:
“So fame comes to men who mean to win it and care about nothing else!”
“She welcomed him into her claws,
Clutching him savagely but could not harm him.”
“She fell, Grendel’s fierce mother, and the Geats’
Proud prince was ready to leap on her.”
“And in an instant she had him down, held helpless.
Squatting with her weight on his stomach”
Combined with the lack of proof of the killing of Grendel’s mother, as well as Hrothgar’s own knowledge of her existence, an interpretation along these lines becomes quite compelling, and thus Beowulf is rendered an unreliable narrator. And as the Christianisation of Scandinavia continues, Beowulf’s pride and his aspirations towards glory devolve and become guilt, for pride is now the curse, the mortal sin that returns to haunt Beowulf in the form of the dragon.
The dragon, and Beowulf’s fight with it, forms an interesting parallel with Hrothgar and Grendel. Hrothgar has fought dragons before and is lauded for it, and is the one who supplies Beowulf with the knowledge for how to kill it. Grendel is Hrothgar’s son, and sin, as much as the dragon is Beowulf’s. And yet there are interesting contrasts here. Grendel is portrayed through motion capture by Crispin Glover, and though it is Hrothgar’s duty to destroy him, he does not, and Hrothgar seems to convey little regret for having laid with the demon’s mother even as his queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright), subtly and not-so-subtly shames him for it. On the other hand, in Beowulf’s old age he carries much regret, especially for having deceived friends and lovers alike, and he takes up the challenge of fighting the dragon to defend his kingdom and its people from its wrath. Other parallels are also present in the fight with the dragon, calling back to Beowulf’s boastful tale of a battle with sea creatures (which, in flashback, ends with his seduction by a mermaid, which he conveniently leaves out of the retelling) and his battle with Grendel. The dragon’s tail is a call back to the tail of the mermaid, and its tail is most striking as it swims under the sea in an attempt at shaking off the attacking Beowulf (“the Bee-Wolf, the bear”). It should also be noted that the motion capture for the Golden Man and his dragon form are also done by Ray Winstone, which further conveys the interior nature of the battle as much as the exterior. Again, there is a parallel here, this time to the seduction of Beowulf by Grendel’s mother. She takes from him the dragon-shaped horn that Hrothgar has given to Beowulf for his victory over Grendel as a sort of collateral, and she says to him, “I know that underneath your glamour you’re as much a monster as my son Grendel. Perhaps more. … One needs glamour to become a king…” The word “glamour” is important here: it refers not only to charming, exciting, even sexual appearance, but also to an archaic form of the word for literal enchantment and magic. It may even be said to refer to the Scots’ belief in glamour, the name for a malevolent shapeshifter. As much as Grendel’s mother fits the bill, Beowulf is not much different, and that shapeshifter quality is most obviously apparent within his son, the dragon. In his battle with the dragon, Beowulf fully grapples with his sins with the intent to win, even as an older man, unlike Hrothgar. He even severs his arm within his chain mail so that he can reach deeper into the dragon’s throat to rip out its heart, much as he severed the arm of Grendel at the mead hall. But the intent is not for glory, but to save his people, a true act of heroism that, as he is dying, becomes an act of martyrdom.
Beowulf’s lies persist even as he is dying, only not by Beowulf. Instead, he is martyred and entered into the glory of history by Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), who is now King, and Grendel’s mother lays in wait for him as, presumably, Wiglaf will continue to beget the curse of pride. And pride is a curse especially now as the Geats steadily convert from older religions to the new Christian faith, a faith that condemns the sort of pride that hero worship survives upon. Though many of demon kind has been slain by heroes, it will live on in the hearts of prideful, ashamed men.
This review originally written for Lovefest at The Dissolve