I let my son persuade me to take him to see Beowulf this weekend, and truth be told I didn’t need too much persuading when I found out that Neil Gaiman was involved with the screenplay. I’m not going to talk much about the technical aspects of the film, except that it reminded me of how my father told me a long time ago that one day computer animation would be used to make movies with lifelike people. I thought he was mad — this was over twenty years ago, we’d barely moved from Pong to Pacman (perhaps I exaggerate), and at my house we owned a Commodore 64. Some might say we haven’t quite reached the “lifelike” part, but we’re closer than I could have imagined then.
What interests me is the story. As someone who often teaches Beowulf, the poem, I was curious to see how it might be translated to film. I don’t find it an easy poem. A rare remnant of a lost cultural world, it points outward to so many vanished histories and tales that it feels incomplete. Its narrative seems episodic; the scenes with Grendel and his mother are disconnected from the final battle with the dragon. How would modern audiences respond? The first thing that struck me was that what has prepared audiences to appreciate this film is seeing JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series brought to the screen. Visualizing the world of the Rohirrim will allow audiences to accept the world of Heorot, of the Danes, Geats, and Frisians. And this is no accident since Tolkien’s Middle Earth was itself an attempt to work backwards from scraps found in Anglo-Saxon literature to a half-forgotten earlier world of elves, dwarves, and dragons that he found in elliptical and opaque fragments of ancient European literatures.
The movie is in dialogue with the poem; it purports to be the “true” story of Beowulf which the poem distorts with heroic praise. But it is a fantastical vision of truth. This is a very different Beowulf than the one we saw in The Thirteenth Warrior, the 1999 movie version of Michael Crichton’s very clever Eaters of the Dead, both of which attempt to rationalize the monsters, to give them a scientific or historical explanation, albeit in different ways. No, in this Beowulf the monsters are really real, and in this claim, I believe its authors are true to Tolkien’s vision.
Its authors are especially to be praised for the ethical question that is raised by these really real monsters, a question that is implicit in The Lord of the Rings and in almost every good guy/bad guy fantasy novel and movie, namely, what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad, other than the fact that we are rooting for one side rather than the other? Why are Grendel and his mother bad and Beowulf good? Both sides live for violence and treasure, and attempt to kill and destroy the other. One could argue that Grendel attacks first, but his mother would probably counter that her kind lived in Denmark long before humans arrived, and since they have been hunted almost to extinction, they are the real victims. Beowulf, the character in the movie, recognizes this dilemma after the monsters are vanquished and he is at the height of his heroic reputation when he says, “We have become the monsters. There are no heroes anymore.” In a nation grappling with waterboarding and Abu Ghraib, it may be hoped this message will have resonance.