I went to see Beowulf at the IMAX theater last night. The 3D effects were very nice, especially after the first hour, when the director was finally convinced he’d included enough shots of gratuitously long and pointy objects held out in front of the audience to justify the extra six bucks for an IMAX ticket.
If you are spoiler sensitive, stop reading blog posts about the movie you’re so worried about getting information on. It’s just common sense. People with nut allergies always politely turn down invitations from Mr. Peanut, no matter how lavish and spectacular the ball he is throwing. Nonetheless, consider this gratuitous picture of Angelina Jolie your last warning.
Now onto the movie. As we all know from reading the Anglo-Saxon poem, the action takes place at Heorot, the grandest mead hall in all of Denmark, owned by King Hrothgar, a notorious drunk who likes to parade around in a toga (Anthony Hopkins with about 75 extra digitially added pounds). The hall is attacked by the giant flame-belching monster named Grendel (Marty’s dad from Back to the Future) who was born with several unfortunate birth-defects, including skin turned the wrong-side out* and an ear drum that’s on the outside of his head that makes him especially sensitive to the noise caused by all those drunken warriors at Heorot. During the initial attack, Unferth, Hrothgar’s Wormtongue (John Malkovitch, who has first dibs on all slinky hate-filled roles in Hollywood), proves his cowardice by hiding inside a large pool of water that Hrothgar had installed at Heorot so that people might prove their cowardice by hiding inside during monster attacks.** Also, our Grendel is the illegitimate son of Hrothgar, gotten on a certain mysterious golden dragon/mermaid/lady thing (eventually played by Angelina Jolie). Beowulf, a nudist with Tourette’s Syndrome (Ray Winstone, who had 75 pounds digitally subtracted), journeys from Geatland to Denmark to kill the monster, accompanied by his good friend Wiglaf and several other warriors. We know that they are brave warriors because they shout half of their lines for no apparent reason.
Before dinner, Unferth drunkenly insults Beowulf for losing a swimming contest with Brecca. Beowulf retorts that the reason he lost the contest was that he was fighting sea monsters at the time, big cycloptic flying snake sea monsters that he slew by climbing inside, gouging out their single eye from the within, then climbing out through the bloody hole where the eye used to be. Also, he slept with a mermaid while underwater, but he doesn’t mention that to Unferth. Later, at dinner, Beowulf flirts shamelessly with Wealtheow, Hrothgar’s unhappy bride who loathes her husband because of his secret shame (Robin Wright Penn, who displays the full range of emotions from wearily disapproving to icily disapproving). Beowulf says his famous catchphrase, “THIS IS SPART–I MEAN, I AM BEOWULF!!!” several times to good effect and caps off the night by flashing the queen (who is flusteredly disapproving).
After a big fight in which Beowulf punches Grendel in the eardrum repeatedly and does Matrix-style flips, all while nude, Beowulf cuts off the monster’s arm by slamming it in the door until it falls off. Unfortunately, Grendel’s mother, who speaks pidgin German with a Transylvanian accent, attacks, first invading Beowulf’s dreams in the form of Wealtheow (who even manages to look disapproving while trying to seduce the hero) and then killing all his men except for Wiglaf while they sleep, hanging them from the rafters, throats slit, ala Braveheart, spurring Beowulf and Wiglaf on to follow the demoness to her cave. Wiglaf wisely chooses to remain outside. Guided by a magical dragon-shaped horn that glows in the dark, Beowulf meets with the extremely seductive water demoness(/mermaid/dragon/ghost) and rather than killing her, sleeps with her, because she promises to make him king so long as his magic drinking horn stays in her cave. Beowulf returns, pretends to have killed the sexy monster, and becomes king of the Danes when Hrothgar commits suicide. Beowulf takes Wealtheow as a bride, grows old, and conquers many lands, though victory is hollow, because as king he is not allowed to take part personally in battle, and because his success is all secretly due to the water demon’s magic.
Christianity comes to Denmark. Beowulf has a poignant meeting with Finn of Frisia then retires to Heorot to celebrate Beowulf Day, the holiday thrown in his honor, by watching midgets re-enact his fight with Grendel. Then Unferth, who has by now become a Christian monk, brings Beowulf his magic drinking horn, found by a slave on the moors. This means that the deal between Beowulf and Angelina Jolie’s breasts is off, and so Beowulf’s illegitimate bald gold-skinned son turns into a dragon, flies out of the cave, and burns up the kingdom, including Unferth’s family. Beowulf raises an army and then goes to fight the dragon with Wiglaf at his side, but when they get to the cave, Wiglaf remains outside. Beowulf fashions a grappling hook out of an axe and a chain and rides the dragon back to his castle, stabbing it over and over. Ultimately, Beowulf cuts off his own arm so that he can reach into the dragon’s chest and pull out its heart. The dragon and Beowulf die after sharing a small moment of familial recognition. Beowulf is burned on a pyre at sea, and the magic horn and the seductive water demon come to Wiglaf, who is torn between hatred of the demon and the fact that she has computer animated Angelina Jolie breasts and a fondness for gold body paint.
OK, so there are a few minor differences from the original. As a medievalist, I can’t really fault the makers of an adaptation for not remaining true to the letter of their source material. If medieval authors had shown that sort of fidelity, my dissertation would be very short. Nevertheless, I prefer adaptations that allow the characters the dignity that they had in the source material, so I was annoyed to see Hrothgar prancing around like a fool and Wiglaf sitting on his hands while Beowulf fights the dragon. And to reduce Beowulf’s vaunted wordhoard to “I AM BEOWULF!!!!”… it boggles the mind.***
The main problem with the movie is that it is a bog-standard dumb action extravaganza created by people who think that they have instead made a very smart film. I put the blame mostly on Neil Gaiman, because he has a solid track record for taking well-worn cliche’s, stock characters, and stale plots, adding some black-eyeliner, and calling it Deep, Dark, and Meaningful. He thinks that he’s some sort of revolutionary for making a movie where the evil woman is a slinky seductress and the virtuous woman is an ice queen. I’m not saying that we need to see Wealtheow in a string bikini, but it’s a little absurd that Grendel’s Mom’s breasts are such a big part of the film that they probably had their own trailer on the set, while Wealtheow’s wearing some sort of medieval minimizer. And how subtle to have the evil woman live in a cave shaped like the only part of Angelina Jolie that they didn’t computer animate.
So in the end, the lesson we learn from Beowulf is that sex has consequences–huge, negative, eat your friends and break all your furniture consequences. Sleeping with a gold-dipped centerfold may seem like a good idea at first, but all it will bring is a few moments of sexual bliss followed by fifty years of prosperity and power. Sooner or later, your golden son who can turn into a dragon will kill you in a really awesome fight scene.
Now a few random thoughts before I sign off:
- Am I supposed to think that Grendel has magic spear-controlling powers? In the second attack on Heorot, Grendel knocks a spear away from a warrior, and the spear turns end over end and lands on its former wielder, impaling him. Or is it just that Neil Gaiman loves him some unlikely irony?
- Why is it bad to have sex with mermaids who offer you power and wealth to go with your hanky-panky, but OK to have sex with mermaids who only offer sex? Or is there another Beowulf, Jr. swimming around in the ocean waiting for a sequel?
- Why do we have to be treated to a long scene of “foreshadowing” in which the hero learns exactly how to defeat the big bad guy? Lucky that Hrothgar didn’t like drinking out of a rhinoceros-shaped drinking horn, or Beowulf wouldn’t have known to stab the big glowing “stab here to kill me” spot on the dragon.
- Why are dragon’s hearts so tiny and in their throats?
- And why does Beowulf get so pissy when he finds out that there’s a second monster he has to fight. Sure, it’s funny to have him say, “Does this Grendel have any uncles or nephews I need to slay while I’m out?” but nearly half of his lines to that point had been some version of “I’m here to slay your mon-stah,” “I will slay your mon-stah for you,” or “Hey, get a load of how weird I sound when I say ‘mon-stah,’ ” so this sudden reticence is just out of character.
- It was nice to see that Gaiman or the other screenwriter read the introduction to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf and so knows the weird theory Tolkien had about Beowulf meaning “bee-wolf.”
- It was also nice to see the cameo by the original text, recited by the scop while two midgets flailed around in a pantomime show during the “Beowulf Day” celebration.
- And speaking of scops, why does the movie treat them like the fifth-century equivalent of bloggers? Have the scops spread the news of our victory! And tell them to stop singing about cats who cannot speak English properly. That is so fourth century.
*Like Slim Goodbody, only… evil!
**Or maybe it’s a jacuzzi. I can’t be sure.
***I expect that Richard Noakes is rather upset that he’s going to have to change the name of his blog to Unlocked I AM BEOWULF!!!