Dec 21, 2007

Beowulf - the movie

Well, it took me over a month, but I finally went to see Beowulf. I confess that my expectations weren’t very high. I didn’t really like the trailer, and I was a bit suspicious of the style of animation it was done in. Still, I thought I’d give it a chance, and I was very, very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it a lot.

Beowulf the movie is not Beowulf the epic poem. And let me start by saying that I have yet to read the poem, so I’m really not the ideal person to be making comparisons. But, based on the many retellings I’ve read and on my boyfriend’s knowledge of the poem, I could draw some conclusions, so bear with me here.

First of all, it goes without saying that a movie that adapted the poem without making any changes would not be a very good one. Changes are necessary for it to work as a movie. But of course the changes we have here go beyond what is necessary to make it work as a movie. They offer a new interpretation of the story – one that, judging by some of the reviews I read, a lot of people object to, but that I thought was intelligent, interesting and very well done.

I suppose I can see why some of the people who love the poem as it is would object to the changes. Many times in the past I have complained about changes made in book-to-movie adaptations. But I am much, much more welcoming to changes when it comes to myths or folktales. And Beowulf, before being an epic poem, was an oral tale. Changes and shifts in its retelling is part of its very nature. Of course, why I assume that contemporary stories are to be set in stone would be an interesting thing to debate. But anyway.

This movie shifts the story, but not exactly in a “Beowulf is the monster and Grendel is the victim” sort of way. I’m sure that has been done many times in the past, but what we have here is something more subtle, something in-between. And it also does something I love in retellings of old tales, something I think Neil is excellent at: it explores the emotions, the motivations and the inner lives of the characters. Myths and epic tales offer us the bare plot, so there is much room for speculation. This movie takes advantage of those gaps and uses them to create a complex and ambiguous story. Also, something else it does brilliantly is unifying the story into a single coherent whole. The second part of the poem, when Beowulf fights the dragon, is a separate story which happens to have the same hero. In the movie, the second part of the tale is a consequence of the first. Explaining how would be a spoiler, though, so you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Some of the reviews I read complained that by making Beowulf flawed and vulnerable, the hero’s nobility was taken away, and thus he became a common and uninteresting man. While I agree that he becomes more common, more human, more within our reach, I don’t think that makes him less interesting. Quite the opposite. As a young man, Beowulf the movie hero is not a sympathetic character. He is ambitious, proud, lustful, and bloodthirsty. But as an old man, in the second part of the tale, he becomes much more sympathetic. One looks at him and sees an image of pure regret – an old man using the very last of his strength to amend the mistakes he is acknowledging at last. That’s not what we think of when we think of an epic hero, I know, but perhaps it is the kind of hero we need these days.

At its core, Beowulf the movie is a tale about power, ambition, corruption and regret. It’s a tale about the demons we all try to resist, and also about the ones we create and try to hide. I really liked the way this tale does the opposite of what the old myths tend to do – instead of demonizing the enemy, exacerbating its difference from us to make it easier to slaughter, it shows both perspectives without necessarily making us pick one. Again, not an epic tale, but perhaps the kind of tale we need these days.

Let me end by saying that all my fears about this kind of animation were put to rest. I saw the movie in 3D, and it was a visual feast the whole way through. Stunning and highly recommended.


  1. Happy to hear you enjoyed the movie. I thought it was alright - the animation bothered me though. A lot of the actions were very . . . awkward, I guess the word would be. When the characters were standing still it was fabulous, but as soon as they would move about something was just very off about it.

    But at the same time it's good to see that north american studios are finally getting to this point of animation, whereas other animation studios were at this point a few years ago.

  2. Hmm. Now I may have to go see this! I admit that, like you before you saw the movie, I haven't been too eager after seeing the trailers. But now that I've read your review, you definitely have my interest piqued. I may give into my husband after all and go see this one with him. Thanks for the review!

  3. Like you and Wendy I was put off by the trailers and didn't yet bother to go and see it. I might give it a go now after I get back from Liverpool. I am looking forward to reading the poem next year too.

  4. Court: This was actually my first time seeing a movie in 3D, so I guess I was too busy going "look, his sword is coming out of the screen!" to notice :P Seriously though, I am the worst person ever when it comes to things like that...I don't pay enough attention!

    Literary Feline: Do give in :P You might be pleasantly surprised, like I was.

    Rhinoa: I hope I can get around to reading the poem next year too. The trailer makes it look like some dumb action movie set in old Scandinavia, but there's definitely a lot more to it than that.

  5. I saw this in IMAX, which was neat. I also didn't think the previews did the movie justice; I enjoyed the story, but about halfway through my 3D glasses were so painful that I had to take them off, which made it weird to watch!

    So, I liked the storyline quite a bit, but not the style of presentation.

  6. Eva, I took my glasses off at some point too, and it DID look extremely weird!

    But the story was interesting, wasn't it? And apparently there were some changes between the script that was filmed and the one that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary originally wrote. Apparently the official script book has both version..I'm tempted to pick it up to find out how they originally envisioned the story.

  7. Jeff and I had very different responses to this film. I loved the look of it, and seeing it in 3D was incredible. The story itself just didn't do anything for me and I had no emotional connection to any of the characters, whereas Jeff really did. Just goes to prove that movies do different things for different people. I didn't hate it, I enjoyed it for what it was, but it isn't a movie that I would want to own or ever watch again. I think that says as much about my experience with the film as anything else.


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