Monday, 29 November 2010

I've come to kill your monstaaah!

I finally watched Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' 2007 digitally enhanced live-action film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic. I wasn't disappointed.

The epic of Beowulf is a strangely disconnected narrative with its separate Grendel and dragon episodes, but the writers of the screenplay, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, very neatly weave the Grendel and dragon episodes into one ongoing thread: a demonic bargain (and curse) that first afflicts King Hrothgar, then Beowulf himself. There were other nice touches such as the use of Anglo-Saxon and sub-Anglo-Saxon in the dialogue; self-reference to the process of mythologisation (how real events get massaged in the telling to fit hero-myth format); and, unusually in an epic film, showing the hero in the declining phase of the Campbell Cycle (see Heroes) as the city-founder who has fallen from grace. Admittedly, beyond Ray Winstone's much-ridiculed lapses into London accent, there were moments that were difficult to take seriously, such as the constantly-interposed objects to hide Beowulf's groin during his naked fight with Grendel, and Angelina Jolie's demon with integral (and anachronistic) high heels. But overall Gaiman and Avary have scripted a very neat reinterpretation of the legend.

I previously recommended another film adaptation, The Thirteenth Warrior (see Beowulf meets Ibn Fadlan); this was based on Michael Crichton's novel Eaters of the Dead, a demythologized Beowulf in which the monsters are a relict group of Neanderthals. Another book adaptation especially worth checking out is John Gardner's Grendel, which retells the first episode of Beowulf from the viewpoint of the antagonist, a highly intelligent monster who watches the rise of humans and whose conflict with Beowulf arises ultimately from his bafflement at culture and the power of language and world-view. See chapter 4 of Understanding John Gardner (John Michael Howell, 1993) for background. (This is, by the way, this John Gardner, not this one).

- Ray

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