>[Update: See Richard Scott Nokes’s blow-by-blow account of one of the “activities” of this promotional item here. And he found the PDF of the poster online, so if you want, you can read the whole thing here.]
So yesterday in my campus mail I got a promotional poster/lesson plan (Meets National Standards! it says) for Beowulf the Movie. It urges me to let the fine folks at Paramount help me introduce a “classic of English literature” to my students. It has “activities” for K-12 and discussion questions for high school and college classes. I’ve got to scan part of this and post it here because it’s too freakin’ hilarious and troubling at the same time. One of my students, by the way, was outraged and offended that they’d send such a thing “to a specialist!” And it does seem that they sent it to me precisely because I’m a medievalist.
But aside from the whole problem of “Just show the movie — they’ll like it more!” issue, or the issue of the conflation of film adaptation and poem, I got fascinated by the “character description” of Grendel on this thing. They tried really hard to do an old-fashioned, 8th-grade level “character sketch” for him, which is funny in and of itself. But the weird bit was the “origin” section, which said Grendel was the offspring of Hrothgar and a succubus (a half-woman, half-demon, they said). Isn’t that the same “back story” that the Beowulf and Grendel movie gave Grendel? Or no, wait, was it that Hrothgar and Grendel’s human dad were friends and Hrothgar raised Grendel as a foster-dad? At any rate, I’m fascinated by the fact that both films need to give some cause-and-effect explanation for Grendel’s murderous rage, a la a slasher film villain’s motivation. Why? Doesn’t that domesticate him a bit? Isn’t he scarier without motivation other than his seething hate?
I had a similar experience when I watched the 13th Warrior* with a screenwriter friend (not the famous one, for those who know). This friend couldn’t understand where the Grendel-inspired creatures were “coming from” (in the motivational sense) and found it a flaw in the film that there was no motivation for them. Given that Crichton (author of Eaters of the Dead, the basis for the movie) and the screenwriters had made Grendel into a race of proto-homo-sapien wild men, I thought it was pretty clear that they were supposed to express some atavistic quality in humanity or some primal element that we weren’t as evolved from as we thought (much as Grendel and his mother work in the poem itself), but that wasn’t enough for my friend, who needed a reason, preferably with psychological motivation to it.
Everyone wants to explain why bad things happen to good people, and to say that the things that go bump in the night have some logical explanation (even when it is a murderous monster). But the scariest works of literature and film — including Beowulf the poem — are the ones that realize our most irrational nightmares have great impossible truth to them.
*This is currently still my favorite movie inspired in part by Beowulf‘s plot, not counting the Beowulfian elements of Lord of the Rings. But I’m much more a fan of The 13th Warrior than Eaters of the Dead, which also has too much of that need to be deadeningly explanatory.