Saturday, November 17, 2007

Pseudo-Review of Beowulf

I was going to post a sort of review of the movie (yes, I saw it opening night, though that wasn't my idea) but kind of like Dr. Virago, I really just don't want to -- though not for her reasons. I actually kind of liked the movie. It had this weird relationship to the text, in which it was oddly faithful and oddly divergent. That's of course fine for a movie-ization, I think. My opinion is that it's kind of ridiculous to go in there looking for something that (more-or-less) literally translates something onto the screen. It just can't happen. Take it for what it is. And now, off my tiny little soapbox.

So, some random-ish thoughts:
  • Generally, the CGI was amazing, although most of the movie I thought I was watching a video game come to life. Seriously, I felt like I should have a controller in my hands. But, at points, they were able to convincingly recreate men on screen. I mean, it was literally jarring for me to see what absolutely looked like a real actor up there.
  • The movie's portrayal of Grendel has a lot to do with John Gardner's novel, Grendel, methinks, as the monster comes across quite sympathetic. I also liked how they played up the filial relationship between Grendel and his mother. I also kind of liked the weird Olde Englishe/ modern English that Grendel and his mom spoke. It worked well to differentiate them from the men, as older, more ancient, products of another age in some way.
  • It was also just funny at parts. There's a scene in Heorot that reminded me of a scene at the end of the first Austin Powers movie.
  • The insertion of Christianity was a bit odd and heavy-handed though, especially the burning crosses that come crashing down (repeatedly).
  • The most interesting thing for me though, and this goes back to my "watching a video game" comment, was how much I felt afterwards that I had stumbled into some guy's adolescent fantasy -- a real cross between a graphic novel and a video game, which is exactly what this movie is. But I don't mean that condescendingly at all. The sex and the violence. The strong men doing brave things with swords and brawn (certainly there in the poem), slaying monsters, jumping off of things and on to things, and being "conflicted" by what they're doing. The kind of "pithy" philosophy undergirding it all. The handsome men lusting after, even being seduced by, beautiful women. And those men's inability to resist. (Seriously, Wiglaf, even after everything that's happened?)
Any other thoughts?

UPDATE: Dr. Virago now has a full review up. I don't agree with everything she says but she's definitely right about the role of women in the poem (see also my much briefer thoughts above).

UPDATE 2: Dr. Nokes now has his (very-detailed) review up.


Dr. Virago said...

Matthew, I actually agree with you on each of your discrete points, many of which are some of the smart elements that, admittedly, I only alluded to without specifying. I did like Grendel's sympathetic quality and the influence of Gardner, and I got geekily excited by the Old English, too, and saw it working in exactly the way you point out.

I have to say, though, that I guess since I don't play video games, movies that look like them frustrate me more and I'm less patient with effects for effects' sake. So I suppose that accounts for my lukewarm reaction -- really, that's just a matter of taste.

And just to be clear, I wouldn't normally critique a movie on its faithfulnes (or not) to the text it's based on -- different media; different needs & expectations -- but in all the pre-release publicity the writers, Avary especially, and Zemeckis seemed so much to want the stamp of "classic story" authority. So if you're going to claim your movie is *based* on a text -- and not a retelling or reimagining of it -- then it's fair game to be critiqued on your reading of said text.

Matthew Gabriele said...

I take your points and thanks for stopping by.

I didn't mean to suggest that YOU were simply attacking the movie's faithfulness to the poem for no reason. It was, as I mention, weirdly faithful and weirdly not at very strange moments. Honestly, I think being more faithful to the actual poem would've been better...

Steve Muhlberger said...

When I commented on some of the video game like parts of the LotR movies a friend pointed out that for many of the young audience that filmmakers chase this is big positive. Of course for many of the animators and other techies who do the work it's undoubtedly a big positive, too.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Absolutely, Steve. While I was watching it, I even turned to my friend and told him that I wanted to have a controller in my hands while I was watching...

Linda C. McCabe said...

I answered the question you left for me on Jeff Sypeck's blog, but thought I should probably put it here as well. Just to make sure you saw that I responded.


That’s the rub. Beowulf is after glory, but he lacks honor.

The sense of honor in the Code of Chivalry is the ideal that I think few people ever lived by. That Code is certainly is lost in our present age.

The novel that I’m working on has one the lead characters (Ruggiero) actually try to be The Perfect Knight. He is uncompromising in his attempt to live up to the standard that he believes was personified by Hector of Troy. And that is his biggest character flaw: he is obsessed with the ideal of perfection and honor.

No other knight in my story even attempts such an impossible feat. That makes for great contrast because there are so many despicable characters who are only interested in power and glory. They have pride, but no honor.

In reflecting on why “Beowulf” did not work for me I realized that he was more like some of my secondary scoundrel characters rather than my hero.

So I think what you are asking me is whether or not it could still make for good storytelling to see a brave and courageous character have to live with his mistakes and come to regret them at the end of his life and then redeem himself?

It could work, but I don’t think the movie worked as well as it could have. Because I do not feel as if Beowulf was really trying to seek redemption. Instead, I think he felt obligated to go forth to Slay the Monstah in order to preserve his name in the songs of heroism for the ages. It was his own vanity at stake more than an act of selflessness.

I felt nothing at his death. Nothing. I can tear up at a well made Hallmark card commercial. They could have gotten me to tear up at the death of the hero of the story If They Tried.

They didn’t.

Instead I think they were more interested in choreographing fight scenes and making the mead hall seem like a Renn Faire atmosphere with bawdy wenches.

As a larger overview of the subject of fallen heroes, there are many tales of hubris throughout Greek Mythology. Heroes like Bellerophon who killed the Chimera and later felt that he belonged in Mount Olympus with the gods. He went too far, and his pride brought about his downfall.

It’s interesting because while I adore Greek Mythology, I have yet to find any movie adaptation of those classic stories that I find satisfying. Not a one. It’s a shame since they are filled with themes that are larger than life and influence literature to this day.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!


Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Linda.

I agree that Beowulf the movie (tm) didn't pull on the heartstrings but I don't think that that was its intent. Instead, you're right that it was about choreographed fight scenes, bawdy wenches, and cool visuals -- and all that is totally Ren Faire, isn't it? Anyway, I think that choice had everything to do with its "video game" feel and its target demographic (young boys/ men who play those video games).

Also, I'm not saying it's a good thing, but the poem itself is complicated and thoughtful. That, however, doesn't make good Hollywood cinema. Dr. Virago's comments on the movie as a "B-" paper are particularly good here because the movie TRIES to be deep by displaying some really stereotypical undergraduate philosophy (you know, the kind where you think you're deep but then look back on it later and realize that you're not), in that it never explores the larger problems/ issues underlying the themes it raises -- like pride, honor, belief, redemption, etc.

At the very least though, it's fun to talk about...

Anonymous said...

Just to mention, I'm not sure I agree with Dr Virago about Zemeckis et al. wanting classic story approval. I think if they wanted that, rather than a "you know the name but we'll show you the story" kind of effect, they would have actually mentioned, somewhere in the credits or even the opening titles, that there exists, today, a poem from the Anglo-Saxon period on which this film was based. Which they didn't. Not anywhere. They quoted from it, they referenced it, they even borrowed interpretations from some scholarship on it, but that's for those who already know the score. They didn't actually let the untutored audience know there was a real story. The aim here was, I think, to appropriate the original by eliding it, making it a new story to go with the shiny CGI, not to attach the honour of antiquity to their work.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Interesting take, Jonathan. Is the poem REALLY not mentioned ANYWHERE? That's weird...

Linda C. McCabe said...


I understand the concept of target demographics, but if that is the sole intent of film makers to craft a story to appeal to a segment of the population then they risk creating a film that will not have lasting appeal to the overall public.

Recently I rented the 20th Anniversary DVD of The Karate Kid to share with my son who is taking Tae Kwon Do.

I was surprised how well the movie has held up over the years. Some movies that I loved years ago now are cringe worthy. Not so with that movie. It still works on many levels.

One of the interesting aspects of the special extra laden DVDs is that the principles can talk about the film making process. There was mention about a different actor they considered for the part of Mr. Miyagi. He was a skilled actor, but his version was a scary Mr. Miyagi.

That is not what was needed in the story.

Another anecdote I found interesting was a recommendation from studio honchos to cut the scene where Mr. Miyagi is drunk on his wedding anniversary and mourns the death of his wife and child years before. Some execs felt that it slowed down the narrative, but the director fought to keep it in because that scene was necessary for Daniel to recognize there is more to life than his own petty problems.

It also gave Mr. Miyagi's character depth.

To remove that scene from the story would be to remove a large part of the heart and soul from the story.

And well, that's what I'm complaining about this version of Beowulf is that I did not feel that there was any heart or soul to the story. There was no "there" there - just cool special effects. While it might have been difficult to work in honor and redemption into the storyline, it would not have been impossible. I find its omission to be what makes the movie so unsatisfying for me and why I have no interest in watching it again. Unless of course I wish to dissect it further to find further fault with its narrative structure.

Oh, and I was thinking of another story that uses an unsympathetic character as its main character throughout, but that it works because of redemption. That would be Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. Ebeneezer Scrooge is thoroughly despicable, but as the story goes on you start to see this caricature as a person who made many mistakes in his lifetime and has grown to be a miserable, lonely old man. He then is given the opportunity to repent and save his soul.

It is a story that works, regardless of the format that is used in the retelling.


I had not stuck around to see the full credits roll at the theater, but when I looked at the movie poster's credits online (click on the small credits link)

there is a mention of "Read the Novel by Harper Collins." Going to I found that Neil Gaiman has a Kindle e-book version as well as a mass market paperback version. The MM PB is ranked as #53,493 in books whereas the Seamus Heaney version is, without any mention from the studios, doing much better.

Heaney's is now ranked at #475 in all books and #1 in Epic, #1 in Ancient, Classical & Medieval, and #1 in British & Irish.

I'm now interested in checking out my local bookstore to see if there are any displays or endcaps with Beowulf and which version is more prominently featured: Gaiman's or Heaney's.

And I agree with the assessment that at least this is giving us something fun to discuss.



Matthew Gabriele said...


But what about the Sopranos (specifically Tony)? Ain't a whole lot redeeming about that guy but you still end up rooting for him...

Linda C. McCabe said...


I confess that I have not watched "The Sopranos." Well, maybe 15 minutes or so once while I was waiting for something else to come on. That's hardly enough to know who the characters are or be able to discuss the show with any authority.

We only recently started subscribing to HBO. By that time the series was in its 4th (?) season. I didn't want to start watching something that far into a series because I would be horribly ignorant of all the backstory. Yes, I could rent the DVDs to try and get up to speed for a discussion about pop culture, but at this point in time it seems like homework.

I have watched every episode of "Rome" and "Big Love" so if you'd like to ask me something about those series I'll at least be more informed on the subject matter.

However, I would say that from the little that I know about "The Sopranos" (mostly reading articles about the series or seeing promos on HBO) that Tony has human frailties and sees a therapist. That in and of itself would tend to "humanize" his character and should help to make him sympathetic.

I go back to the idea that audiences need to somehow or another find an actor likable. Is Tony Soprano likable? If you find yourself rooting for him, then I would say that the answer is yes.

If we like someone we are willing to forgive a lot. We will overlook mountains of evidence of wrongdoing and/or rationalize away bad acts if we want to continue to hold someone in high esteem. Otherwise if we dislike someone, the most minor of infractions can be the cause for endless rounds of derision and rejection.


I went out on errands today and couldn't help but stop at my local Barnes and Noble. I wanted to know if there were any displays of Beowulf. I found one end-cap with a sign "as seen at the movies" but it did not have anything related to Beowulf. In fact, the end cap was pretty lousy overall.

Then on a side table were stacks of mass market paperbacks with a sign for sci-fi/fantasy. In the middle was the novelization of the screenplay with the image from the movie posters. I took a quick look inside and it was nothing more than the screenplay retold in the format for novels.

There were no other copies of Beowulf on that table. Neither were there any copies of the poem in the Fiction/Literature section. However, in the section for Mythology there were two copies of Beowulf translated by Frances Gummere (in 1910) and published in 2007 by Red and Black Publishers. Gotta love public domain - anyone can publish that book and not have to pay for rights.

I could not find any copies by Seamus Heaney. Possibly they sold out of those copies since it is doing so well on Amazon.

Then again maybe they sold their one modeled copy and didn't plan ahead to coincide with the new demand. I don't know.

It is easier to type in keyword searches and compare between titles and find exactly what you are looking for rather than walk around a store looking on tables and multiple shelves.


Sharon K. Goetz said...

The obvious comment to add, perhaps, is that Avary is a video gamer....

Matthew Gabriele said...

Didn't know that but it absolutely makes sense. Thanks, skg046!