>(Credit to Richard Scott Nokes for coining “Grendel’s MILF.”)
I hoped to have a hilariously good time seeing Beowulf with my students. I hoped that the movie would be of the so-bad-it’s-good ilk. Unfortunately it was more painful than that, and not because it was so terribly bad, but because there were moments that were smart and interesting and effective, but they were buried in a mess of a movie. And even in the mess, I could see some of the seemingly odder choices were still informed choices — they were attempts at doing something based on interpretation rather than the literal elements of the poem — but in going so wrong, those choices were all the more disappointing. The movie reminded me of a smart student’s B- paper. You know the type: the paper that has these wonderful moments of insight that show so much promise, but they’re buried in a sloppy disaster of disorganization, hastiness, illogic, and misreading.
It’s clear that Gaiman and Avary have taken the question about the interpretation of last word of the poem — lofgeornost, “most eager for fame” — and applied it to their characterization of Beowulf throughout. Fine. But in doing so they’ve also decided to ignore the other three descriptors applied to Beowulf in the last lines of the poem: manna mildust (mildest of men), monthwaerust (most gentle), and leodum lithost (kindest to his people). Gaiman and Avary’s Beowulf is an asshole. He’s a lying, cheating SOB who strangely likes to get naked in the dead of Danish winter (all the better to show off his six pack abs). He’s also not all that impressive of a fighter. In the poem he has the strength of 30 men in his arms, and he kills Grendel by acting like a human bear trap — clasping the monster’s arm and holding him there until the frantic creature yanks his own arm off just to get away. But in the movie, Beowulf first figures out a way to make Grendel shrink to regular man size (don’t ask me — it’s one of those moments in the film where I think the creators went on the “wouldn’t it look cool if…” principle — a principle operating way too often in this movie). Then he needs a combination of 2-3 simple machines to rip Grendel’s arm off: a pulley-wench combo and Heorot’s door used as a lever (or really, a slicing-mashing machine — a bit more Ronco than simple machine, I guess). And then he squeals like a kid when the severed arm exhibits postmortem movement. This is also the part, shown in the commercials, where Beowulf screams the non-poetic lines, “I am ripper, thrasher, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I am Beowulf!” The description really applies more to the door he’s using.
All through the movie, especially every time Beowulf announced his own name, I thought, “I know Beowulf, and you sir, are no Beowulf.” And frankly, I kept waiting for Gaiman and Avary to *really* change the plot and kill the guy off, because he was annoying me so much. A hero — as he is called over and over in the movie (though I think they were going for some ironic ring there; it really wasn’t clear) — or even an antihero should be, above all, cool. I don’t mean hip or with-it. I mean cool. Steve McQueen cool. The movie Beowulf is anything but.
Wherever the movie goes wrong it’s in capturing the spirit and tone of the poem and its people. And sadly, they pretty much go wrong with just about every character, whether you’re looking at it as an adaptation of the poem or just as a movie in its own right. I had a hard time figuring out why I should care about any of these people, and only once did I feel a sense of great loss — the famously elegiac tone of the poem — and that was when Grendel’s Mother mourns for her dead son. That was one of the smart moments I mentioned above, because the poem only subtly suggests that the mother’s attack on Heorot has a motivation of grief and loss and not simply monstrous revenge — it takes a careful reader to see that — and it’s reflective of the blood feuds the humans of the poem are constantly engaged in. It’s one of the ways that the poem subtly critiques the vengeful behavior of the humans, by equating it with a creature they call a monster. But that point is lost in the movie, since the plot is stripped of human feuding. (To be fair, Gaiman and Avary tried to do something with the “monster within” idea through the plot — which I won’t reveal here — but again, they get it so tonally wrong that I wasn’t moved by it, intellectually or emotionally.)
And in stripping the human feud stories — many of them frequently referred to as “digressions” — they also remove a number of the women characters and their stories, including Hildeburh, Frearwaru (Hrothgar in the movie has no children — a point that’s necessary for Gaiman’s and Avary’s re-conceived plot), and Modthryth. And since Beowulf doesn’t go back to Geatland in the movie, there’s no Hygd, either. Wealhtheow and Grendel’s Mother are the only female characters from the poem to make it to the movie, and then a bevy of serving wenches are added for background and cleavage in Heorot, and a young hottie love interest/damsel in distress, cutely named “Ursula,” is tacked on at the end. (I find it amusing, by the way, that most of the screenwriters’ changes to the plot, including keeping Unferth around and introducing Wiglaf from the beginning, seemed inspired by a desire for continuity and structural unity, and yet when it comes to hot babes, it’s OK to introduce one in the last act.)
But my beef is not with the lack of roles for women in Hollywood, nor is it a simplistic “images of women” critique. Rather, the changes to the women characters is one of the many ways in which Gaimand and Avary get tone and character wrong, and apply a frat-boy sensibility to the story, both as an adaptation of the poem and in the logic of their own movie on its own. Wealhtheow, Hrothgar’s queen, is the first woman we meet in the movie, as in the poem. In the poem, she makes her entrance ceremonially presenting the mead cup to the king and to his guests, but not in an act of servitude; she’s not Wealhtheow the waitress. My students often make this mistake, and so I turn their attention to the words that describe her: she is radiant with gold (a sign of her status and wealth), wise, mindful of customs, of excellent heart. She also speaks to Beowulf as Hrothgar does, thanking him for the service he is about to perform for their people. Later, it is her ceremonial place to lavish gifts of reward on Beowulf for saving Heorot. In other words, Wealhtheow is queenly — a regal, dignified woman of status. Later she speaks on behalf of her sons, reminding both Hrothgar and Beowulf of their duties to them, and of the political and social ties that bind them. There’s a sense of futility in that wise advice, however, since the poem hints at the destruction to come in the house of Hrothgar, including the loss of its heirs. The one other hint that Wealhtheow’s life is not all that glamorous is in her name, which may mean “foreign captive.” The poem certainly gives us other stories of women married off to foreigners to settle feuds, and that may have been Wealhtheow’s fate. Such suggestions of what has been lost and what will be lost only makes her dignity, her “mindful[ness] of customs,” all the more poignant.
Not so in the movie. She has no dignity, nor respect from any of the men. She is in turns ignored, treated a servant — and here the cup-bearing is servile — and ogled. She reacts petulantly, with many sighs and eye-rolling. But she suffers in silence. This Wealhtheow has no regal speeches, and her radiance exists not as a sign of her status, but as a reward for the gaze of the men in the narrative and the audience. (And the other servile women with their Ren Fest wench cleavage even more so.) I think Gaiman, Avary, and Zemeckis are tying to say, “look how badly women are treated — don’t you feel sorry for them?” But all I felt was bored by yet another cliched version of domestic drudgery. And in knowing the poem I knew all the ways in which Wealhtheow was being diminished, and how Zemeckis and company were thus actually narratively mistreating this woman. The poem is already sensitive to the price women pay for the desires of men — for bloodlust, if not sexual lust — and expresses much of its sense of loss through the grief of women (including, significantly, the lament of the Geatish woman at Beowulf’s funeral at the end of the poem — another woman missing from the movie). In removing most of those stories, the movie misses their point as well, and does a bad job transferring it all to Wealhtheow, who not only barely puts up with and frequently rebuffs her drunken, boorish husband Hrothgar (another character robbed of all the dignity the poem gives him), but then is bequeathed to Beowulf, who regularly cheats on her. But Wealhtheow’s inarticulate poutiness through all of this does nothing to make this heartbreaking.
And then there’s Grendel’s Mother. It might seem at first blush that in expanding her role, giving her language and treacherous conniving, and casting Angelina Jolie, the biggest star in the movie, the creators are making her the center of the film and its most powerful figure. In the right hands this could have been really interesting, and I can tell that Gaiman and Avary are trying. There’s this bit in the beginning when Beowulf talks of the sea as his “mother,” and images of the dead being carried out to sea repeat throughout the movie — an adaptation, clearly, of the extra-narrative sea-funeral of Scyld Scefing that opens the poem. And, of course, Grendel and his Mother live in a cave at the bottom of a “mere,” a swampy body of water — both in the poem and in the movie. The movie makers are very obviously trying to make the mer/mere/la mere (sea/mere/mother) connection and perhaps positing that some matriarchal/female sexual power is the most powerful force of all, more powerful than warriors, heroes, and kings.
I think that’s what Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary think they are doing. But what they actually say is that woman is the downfall of man, especially through her sexuality. According to the movie, if men were left alone to fight naked with monsters, they’d be a lot better off, but when the woman enters and messes with things, everything gets bloodier and messier. There’s some of that in the poem — Grendel’s Mother is a greater foe for Beowulf than Grendel is. She does sneak into Heorot unseen and kill, and Beowulf has a harder time fighting her than he does Grendel. But in the poem he actually fights her and she very nearly kicks his ass. In the movie she’s naked Angelina Jolie, against whom men’s penises are helpless (cf. Brad Pitt). In the movie she doesn’t fight with Beowulf; something else happens, though it happens off-screen. And what happens has happened before, and will happen again, the movie shows us. The men will succumb to Grendel’s Mother again and again. Her super-MILFness will be their undoing now and for eternity. So instead of monsters descended from Cain, we get Eve. And I think we’re supposed to see this as some sort of “girl power.” Great.
I think the screenwriters were assuming we’d read this downfall as the product of men’s lust, not women’s seduction, but it reads both ways. And the puritanical streak this element of the movie exhibits is somewhat ironic given the weird little subtext of anti-Christianity the film also inserts into the narrative. There are lots of ways the movie went wrong as an adaptation of the poem or as a work in its own right — way too many to get into here, in this already long post — but its treatment of the female characters exhibits a lot of the problems (and also the potential) of the film. I may even use in the classroom, not as those silly “educational” promotional item suggested I do, but as a “sample” of reading and misreading, and a lesson in the ways that women’s history and the history of women in literature is not a necessarily progressive tale. Sometimes an Anglo-Saxon text is better for women than a 21st century movie.