#ThrowbackThursday – Beowulf

Original US release date: November 16, 2007
Production budget: $150,000,000
Worldwide gross: $196,393,745

2007’s Beowulf is a notable film for a number of reasons.  For one, it continued director Robert Zemeckis’s experimentation with motion-capture CGI (computer generated imagery) filmmaking (initially utilized by Zemeckis in 2004’s The Polar Express).  Also, the changes to the original poem’s generally accepted narrative sparked outrage among the literary community, exposing a large disconnect between the ability to fully grasp the different intricacies in writing a story solely for reading purposes and those in writing a story for a visual medium for a completely different audience.  It also marks the first of my #ThrowbackThursday columns to feature a film that failed to make a profit from box office grosses, alone.  But that last one is really only interesting to me, I guess.

Beowulf tells the tale of the titular Viking who travels to Denmark in order to save a small village from being terrorized by the monster Grendel.  Interestingly enough, despite the widely adopted theory that this is the first story ever committed to paper in any form of the English language, this 2007 movie remains the only straight-up, widely-released film adaptation.  There was a sci-fi version in 1999 starring Christopher Lambert and a Thai version in 2005, but this is the only one released worldwide that maintained any effort to replicate the classic story as it had been passed down through the centuries.

Of course, that depends on who you ask.  If my memory serves, the largest complaint from fans of the poem centered around Grendel’s mother.  Oh, the physical pain that was caused by having the fabled creature adapt the physical appearance of Angelina Jolie!  “That’s not what she’s supposed to look like!” they cried!  But there are a couple of issues with that gripe.

Firstly, nobody knows who wrote the original poetic version of this story.  In fact, no one can even be sure that that version is the original version.  Many scholars suspect that the story was passed down for untold generations before someone finally decided to write it down.  Or, at least, they decided to write their version down.  And that’s the first problem.  How can anyone know what Grendel’s mother was originally “supposed” to look like?  Remember playing the game Telephone as a kid?  One person would whisper a phrase or a sentence into the ear of the person next to them, and then the phrase would get passed down the line, person to person.  By the time the last person recites it out loud, it’s nothing like the original line that the originator uttered at the beginning.

For all we know, the first version of the Beowulf story told of a young artistic prodigy who wanted to earn food for himself by painting on cave walls for all of the other villagers, but first had to overcome an overbearing father who didn’t see painting as manly and demanded that Beowulf instead build a wall to keep other villages from raiding their town and taking all of his mead.  Perhaps in this version, Grendel was Beowulf’s son and Grendel’s mother was the supple young co-ed at Beowulf’s art school that he attended without his father’s awareness.

But even if that isn’t the case, that leads us to the second issue with the anti-Angelina argument: in the film, Grendel’s mother didn’t actually look like Angelina Jolie.  It’s all a trick.  It’s an illusion designed to manipulate Beowulf and other men.  When we get brief, obscured glimpses at the mother of Grendel in her natural state, believe me, she’s not anyone who could ever be mistaken for Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hardy, Jay Leno, Larry King, or anything even remotely human.  So, that complaint loses all validity.  Just drop it, already.

It does, however, lead into the bigger issue: the persistent problem of fanboys and fangirls (listed alphabetically, not by order of importance) complaining about changes to their favorite books when those stories make the leap to the big screen.  The passion of these people is appreciated but it truly reveals a lack of comprehension of filmmaking.  And here’s the kicker – the thing they don’t really want to accept: the changes for Beowulf were much-needed.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume the widely published poem is the original version of the story.  Even if it, isn’t, it’s the best we have to go on.  That story is very basic with very little going on underneath the surface.  By Zemeckis and screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary making adjustments to Grendel’s mother and her interactions and relationships with others in the film, the story of Beowulf transcends straightforward heroics and becomes a deeper tale featuring believable, complex characters surrounded by a fantastic world of magic and monsters.

Beowulf, himself, is fully fleshed out into a very layered person with strengths and weaknesses.  The action scenes are epic, exciting, elaborate, and brilliantly staged.  But the most fascinating parts of the movie happen between them.  Beowulf is every bit the legendary warrior of whom people speak.  On the outside, he is capable of things that no one else could dream of doing.  But on the inside, he has his trappings and vices, just like the rest of us.  In particular, his fallacies are his ego and women.

Beowulf entirely defines himself based on what others think of him.  He embellishes his self-told stories of conquest in order to further impress the recipients of his tales.  There is one scene in particular that I remember as getting a lot of attention where he does battle with Grendel while completely naked.  The obvious result is a sequence of Austin Powers-like object placements that conceal his genitalia and keep the picture within a PG-13 rating (although barely.  Those boundaries are pushed to limit many times throughout the picture.).  I remember people mocking that scene while the underlying relevance of it flew over their heads at somewhere around cruising altitude.  Firstly, he was naked because he had laid down to go to sleep before the battle had broken out.  Beowulf isn’t exactly a pajamas kind of guy.  But once the battle begins, he doesn’t exactly have time to find some pants.  Lives are on the line, here, folks.  More than that, though, by battling naked, he places himself on even ground with Grendel.  No armor.  No weapons.  Beowulf has an audience for this fight and it’s important to him that he be as impressive as possible.  So, to counterbalance his deep-seated insecurities, he demands of himself that he best the fabled monster with his bare hands and on an even playing field.  It’s an important character moment that gives those attentive audience members further insight into his motivations and the choices he makes later on in the story.

Furthermore, the story alterations take a series of three battles from the original poem and turn them into three connected confrontations for the film.  In the poem, the final dragon battle is completely unrelated to the battles with Grendel and his mother.  That’s fine for that medium.  But in a film, there needs to be a single, overarching narrative and that was a problem for Zemeckis and company.  By switching up the Beowulf/Grendel’s mother confrontation and adding human flaws to Beowulf’s character, the filmmakers simultaneously make the protagonist relatable and sympathetic and create a story that carries momentum through a beginning, a middle, and an end.  As humans, we naturally get better at things the longer we do them (except maybe politics?).  We learn from those that came before us and we build upon their work.  That’s what happened here.  We’ve learned so much about proper storytelling since “Beowulf” was first committed to writing that it would be a failure of the storytellers to ignore that knowledge in favor of staying true to an archaic vision.

Aside from all of that, we’ve also come a long way from a technical perspective.  CGI has advanced so far, so fast, and even though Beowulf only came out nine years ago, it shows its age from a visual standpoint.  Really, it’s mostly in the faces where the film feels ancient.  When the characters speak, they are essentially limited to movement of their jaws/mouths/lips.  But that’s not how humans really look when we speak.  Our eyes move.  And our cheeks.  And our throats.  And our tongues.  And our heads.  We speak with our entire bodies, not just our mouths.  The film’s facial expressions, in general, are also extremely crude and limited.  This is not due to a lack of effort or awareness on Zemeckis’s part.  The technology was simply still in its infancy in 2007.  We learn by doing.  And I respect Zemeckis for being willing to try this and put it out there for public consumption and criticism before he had the means to do it the way he really wanted to.  Without him, though, I really don’t think the animation style could have advanced to the point that it has, today.  Mocking the flaws is ignorant and disrespectful.  Zemeckis deserves a lot of credit for pushing the animation forward the way that he did through films like this one and The Polar Express.

Other than the faces, the film is honestly still really gorgeous.  As I mentioned, the action scenes are innovative and perfectly crafted, while the set designs are absolutely exquisite.  The creatures are also frightening and gorgeous at the same time.  The textures really stand out for me and I can imagine just how the wood, stone, metals, and flesh (whether soft or scaly) would feel if I existed in this world.

The film is also bold and unyielding.  It’s not for small children.  There is a lot of sexual and suggestive dialogue, as well as male rear nudity and near-female nudity (but nooooooot quite).  The violence is unforgiving and brutal.  There is no mystery regarding how characters die in the film.  It all happens clear as day right in the middle of the screen for all to see.  If you haven’t seen this movie, do not expect a Disney-like adaptation.

I truly feel that Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf is one of the most underrated films of the last ten years.  At its heart, it’s a thoughtful character study/deconstruction disguised as an exciting action film.  There’s so much complexity going on (besides Beowulf’s internal struggles, there’s also a king with demons in his closet, friends torn between honor and duty, and a wife and mistress duo selflessly helping each other to survive an all-out assault) and it makes me sad that the film didn’t do better upon its release.  I suppose many people just couldn’t get past their own personal hang-ups and allow themselves to see the substance underneath the style.  “Beowulf” is a story that has been passed down for over a millennium and this film was Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary taking their turn at the campfire.  If I can convince just one person to pull up with their marshmallows and give them an open-minded listen, then I’ll consider this column a victory greater than that of the defeat of Grendel.

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