Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Zemeckis' modern adaptation of Beowulf misses the mark

I had high hopes for director Robert Zemeckis' 2007 adaption of Beowulf, the recent film based on the ancient epic poem. Although I'm not intimately familiar with Beowulf (the poem), I have read it years ago, and recently I listened to Seamus Heaney's brilliant audio rendition while driving to work. At worst, I figured a film that hewed close to the poem would provide some solid action and an epic tale to take me out of the usual dull routine for a couple hours.

While I certainly wasn't bored watching Beowulf--and how could I be, with its gory battle sequences and stunning computer generated imagery--in the end it was a bit of a disappointment. Co-writers Neil Gaiman (whose novel American Gods I greatly enjoyed) and Roger Avary put together a script at once too clever and too modern for its own good, greatly denuding the old poem of its epic feel and mythic elements. They made a number of changes to the original text in an attempt to modernize the character of Beowulf and create a new interpretation of the poem--an interpretation that doesn't come from the actual text, hence the need for wholesale changes. Directors have every right to make creative changes when they adapt the written word, and skillful adaptations are welcome, but for the most part the creative license taken by Zemeckis and crew with Beowulf mucked things up.

Despite my problems with it I did find a lot to like in the film, first and foremost the visual effects. Beowulf was shot using a technique called motion capture. I don't know much about it, other than its supposedly accomplished by computer animators digitially recreating the work of real actors, which gives the computer images a very realistic appearance. This works to some degree, capturing motion and sweeping action well, but facial expressions still seem plastic and artificial. Beowulf was an improvement over The Polar Express, which used the same technique, but motion capture still needs work. But I did enjoy the wonderful computer-generated landscape of ancient Denmark, Hrothgar's mead hall, and the entertaining battle sequences.

Beowulf starts strong. Hrothgar's hall is a raucous place of drinking and eating and lovemaking, loud with song and merriment and testosterone. It was fun, and the build up to Grendel's attack on the hall was well-done. Grendel was a striking monster and his vicious assault was suitably gory, with men ripped in half, heads bitten off, etc. I also liked the build-up to the character of Beowulf, who arrives from over the sea with a crew of warriors to kill Grendel and free Hrothgar's hall from its curse. "Played" by Ray Winstone, Beowulf is larger than life, a hero from folklore capable of superhuman feats of arms, and is singleminded of purpose--he is here to crush the enemy and win fame. All this is done with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek approach that works.

But after the epic fight between Beowulf and Grendel in Hrothgar's hall, in which Beowulf tears off the monster's arm and sends it crawling back to its mother with a mortal wound, the movie begins to veer off from the poem. Essentially, it introduces frailty into Beowulf's character. Our hero falls for Grendel's mother (herself a demon, but capable of taking on a beautiful female shape as played by Angelina Jolie). After sleeping with her, Beowulf returns to Hrothgar's hall and perpetuates a great lie that he slew the mother. She later gives birth to a second demon son. And thus, the ancient curse continues.

I found this twist to be unnecessary, and part of the first of what I thought were three failings of the film:

1. In an attempt to "humanize" Beowulf by giving him flaws and failings, I became less interested in the character and the film. Epic and fresh until that point, Beowulf suddenly became very familiar. Why do directors feel like every hero has to be flawed, and must undergo an internal struggle to overcome those flaws ? Why can't a hero just be a hero? Like all Hollywood blockbusters, Beowulf slipped into the well-worn path of a tale about the redemption of its central character. Beowulf is redeemed, but his return to glory feels like a cliche instead of a triumph. In fact, Gaiman and Avary more or less lifted a line straight from Excalibur, one of my favorite films: Beowulf apologizes to his wife, the queen, for his old indescetion with Beowulf's mother, uttering something to the effect of "When I can be just a man," etc. I can't remember the exact words, but it was very much a swiped scene from Excalibur when Arthur delivers near-identical lines to Guinevere in the nunnery (minus the feeling, unfortunately--the same scene in Excalibur is much more emotionally powerful, as it contrasts sharply with Arthur's kingly image of laws first, love second, built up over the duration of the film. There's none of that in Beowulf).

In short, the ancient sagas accomplished what they did with action, not introspection. Beowulf was not meant to be a modern story.

2. A whole bunch of silly and unnecessary phallic and vaginal imagery. I'm not one of these readers who inteprets every cigar as a penis symbol, but Beowulf was an onslaught of beat-you-over-the-head phallus-ness. For example, we have Beowulf, stark naked, holding a long sword perfectly positioned over his manhood. Or Beowulf entering Grendel's mother's cave, which is conscipuously slit-like with curly "shrubs" on both sides. I'm not sure where the writers were going with all this, other than perhaps an attempt to poke fun at the ultra-male warrior archetype whose potency is tied to the size of his sword. Overall it was an unnecessary bit of "wink-winking" to the audience.

3. The film ascribed all the reasons for the curse to a simplistic "sins of the father" explanation: Essentially, that men can't resist hot women. In this version of Beowulf, Hrothgar and later Beowulf both brought the curse of Grendel/Grendel's mother upon themselves because they couldn't keep it in their pants. Hrothgar's coupling with Grendel's mother birthed Grendel, and Beowulf's coupling with the mother results in another unholy son, the dragon. The great "evil" in the story is a beautiful, lustful she-demon who preys on men's weakness. We're left with a cliffhanger at the end of the film as Beowulf's friend and second in command Wiglaf confronts Grendel's mother rising up out of the sea. We don't know whether Wiglaf also succumbs to her beauty, but since the poem and the film end here we can assume that he may have staved off his lustful urges and ended the curse.

In contrast, Beowulf the poem is about the inevitability of fate, and Beowulf's faltering as a warrior through age, which are much stronger themes than sexual attraction.

Ultimately, Beowulf suffers from these elements, and because it didn't know what it wanted to be. You can't have an epic saga that also wants to be an anti-heroic, emasculation of the male warrior myth, all wrapped up in one film. I would have been much more happy with a straight adaptation of the poem itself, shorn of all the modern detritus that Zemeckis, Gaiman, and co. thought necessary in order to bring it to a modern audience.


Andy said...

What's sad is that Zemeckis whines in the dvd extras about how crushingly dull the original epic poem was, but almost all the most interesting things about the movie in fact came from the original poem. D'uh!

I thought the movie as a whole was...alright, but I really had trouble with the CGI filming technique. I read somewhere that they spent something like nearly $200 million on making this thing, and yet I saw very little in the film that couldn't have been done more cheaply in live action and created more empathy for the characters because real actors don't have those soulless eyes.

Brian Murphy said...

You know, I meant to listen to the DVD extras--I had the Director's Cut, but it was on loan from Netflix and my wife dropped it in the mail before I could listen. Rats. But after hearing your comments it's probably better I didn't listen to Zemeckis' commentary. That burns my blood--what a lout. I can't see how anyone can listen to Heaney's recent translation and consider it boring.

I agree about the film. It was all right, certainly a fun way to pass two hours, but I thought it could have been better. As you said, live actors alone would have made it better. There's no reason why they couldn't have done it that way--look at what Peter Jackson accomplished with the Lord of the Rings. The combination of CGI and live acting made it a much more compelling and believable film than Beowulf.