Sunday, June 27, 2010

Beowulf & Grendel

For Father's Day, I received some cool books and new DVDs, including a copy of Beowulf & Grendel, starring Gerard Butler in a pre-Leonidas role.

I'm a big fan of the original Beowulf poem. Really. It goes back to my youth when my father read me tales out of used library book about knights and heroes. There's a simple pen& ink drawing seared into my memory of Beowulf holding Grendel's arm while the troll lopes off into the woods. In high school, my freshman West Civ teacher expressed his love for the poem, and it became a running joke among my classmates that he probably was Beowulf reincarnated.

I read it in college, and struggled with the Old English. It took awhile before I could appreciate the beauty of words I didn't really understand. It has to be read aloud for a few minutes before you begin to latch onto the rhythm and tone.

I read the Seamus Heaney translation and finally came to understand the poem as it was, not as watered down in children's versions, or a Cliff's Notes synopsis, or in the many variations on the story. I'm convinced that the original Predator movie is a direct literary descendant of Beowulf.

Of course, I saw the Zemeckis/Gaiman animated version of Beowulf (sexed up with Angelina Jolie). I admire it as an epic attempt. I especially like how they managed to make the dragon sequence more organic and less episodic. It doesn't fit the modern expectations of storytelling. But it ultimately doesn't work for me. Gaiman tinkered with the story too much.

Beowulf & Grendel suffers from one of the same flaws as the animated Beowulf, it insists on giving Grendel a motive. In this movie, it even insists on giving Grendel a sympathetic motive. There is no exposition in the epic poem about why Grendel does what he does, he is one more inexplicable force of nature. It is a random doom sent on the Danes by fate. This, BTW, is one of the reasons I think Predator is an excellent modern take on the poem. The Predator shares a shallow motivation with Grendel, and simply inserts himself into the situation for his own perverse ends.

B&G is also not an action movie, as might be expected from the source. It plods in places. But, it is a gorgeous movie, filled with Icelandic splendor. The costumes have an authentic feel, even if they aren't 100% historically accurate. (They are closer than the Zemeckis movie, however.) And, although it diverges from the epic in some significant ways, it manages to fit in most, of not all, of the key elements from the epic. Plus, it shows a skald composing Beowulf's epic as he travels with the hero.

Gerard Butler is perfectly cast as Beowulf. He is handsome and strong in a believable way, but big enough to grow in legend yet to come. He does not go through the movie screaming his dialogue. ("THIS. IS. HEOROT!!!!" sorry, I had to do it.) I also liked the way the situation makes Beowulf question his world. It would be easy to make the character a post-modern ironic figure who questions and rejects his civilization as brutal. Instead, Beowulf loses a bit on innocence about his culture.

The fights in the movie are okay, but nothing to write home about. There's the usual Hollywood silliness about fitting sword edge on sword edge and abandonment of shields. The monsters never seem all that troubled wading into a melee against a dozen armored warriors with plenty of edged weapons. Which would be fine in a magical setting, but this movie is more naturalistic, and the opening scene makes it clear it doesn't take enchanted weapons to bring down a troll.

I can recommend this movie for an alternate take on fantasy movies, or if you have a thing for the original epic, or Viking movies. I can't promise you'll love it, but you will find something to appreciate in it.

No comments: