>Last word on Beowulf

>One of my students forwarded me the link to this article in Salon by Gary Kamiya, in which the author laments the failure of tone and spirit of the Beowulf movie by comparing it to Beowulf-scholar J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of that text. So far this is the best analysis I’ve seen of why Beowulf the movie was so disheartening for those of us who love the poem; and it’s a wonderful antidote to all those annoying reviews, good or bad, that start with a reference to “the poem you were forced to read in high school” or “the poem you hated in high school.” Here’s a sample:

“Beowulf” doesn’t fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But “Beowulf” is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.

Thank you, Mr. Kamiya, for an elegant and thoughtful article.

>More on Beowulf

>If you want a less idiosyncratic review than mine, and one from an actual Anglo-Saxonist who likes comics, video games, and other genres of pop culture that I’m less versed in, but who still didn’t like Beowulf the movie, go read Dr. Nokes’ review. He also has a round-up of other medievalists’ reviews here.

Updated to add: I hadn’t checked my Sitemeter stats in some time and decided to check just now. Turns out I’ve gotten twice the normal number of hits in the last two days and all the new hits have to do with Beowulf, of course. But what’s really funny is that majority of the hits are from search engine searches for the following: “Beowulf nudity.” On Google, my Naked Beowulf? WTF? entry is the fourth hit for that search. So, to all of you searching “Beowulf nudity” who want to know why Beowulf is naked in the fight with Grendel and if that’s really “in the poem,” as Roger Avary claims, my post probably addressed your needs, right? But if you were looking to ogle either Ray Winstone or Angelina Jolie, I apologize for delaying your gratification. That is all.

>A diminished Beowulf, a shrinking Grendel, a wussy Wealhtheow, and Grendel’s MILF

>(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.

>Hwaet the hell?

>Frankly, I think the three word title of this post is all the review Beowulf the Movie needs: it avoids spoilers and it perfectly expresses my disappointment in the movie as both a movie and an adaptation of Beowulf the poem. (It also features a weird mixture of Old and Modern English, as did Grendel’s and Grendel’s Mother’s dialogue. Though my post title is missing Angelina Jolie’s weird Transylvanian accent.)

But actually, I do want to say more — I just don’t have the energy at the moment and will have to save it until tomorrow. Since I’m sure there will be many other reviews across the medieval blogosphere, I’m also sure you’re not waiting with ‘bated breath for mine. But to distinguish mine, I think I’ll focus on the movie’s treatment and adaptation of the female characters. Believe it or not, there are actually *fewer* significant female roles in the 21st century movie than in the 6th-11th century (choose your preferred date) poem, and the poem gives them more dignity and importance than the movie. More tomorrow.

In the meantime, I leave you with one of my students’ responses. This particular student is writing her honor’s thesis with me on Grendel’s Mother, Judith, and Elene. When I asked her what she thought, she said, totally deadpan:

There were moments that I thought were kind of interesting…but I’m still trying to figure out how to work Grendel’s Mother’s stilettos into my thesis.


>Medieval news

>Sorry for the silence, but here’s a few tidbits until I can post again:

  • Give a big welcome to Dame Eleanor Hull, and new medievalist blogger. According to her “About” page, “Dame Eleanor Hull was a fifteenth century English woman who served Henry IV’s wife, Queen Joan, and translated psalms and commentaries from French to English. Her present incarnation is as a pseudonym for an American woman professor of medieval English literature.” Already Dame Hull has written two posts, including one chock full of ideas and information about making quills and using them in the classroom! Huzzah! Welcome Dame Hull!
  • I’m going to see Beowulf with about 12 students and their guests this afternoon. I’m so excited! I’ll post tonight on the experience.

Oh, and btw, this is my 402nd post. Hard to believe.

>Relax: let the movies explain it all to you

>[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.

>Naked Beowulf? WTF?

>This week’s Entertainment Weekly features an article on the mini-trend in recent movies of men fighting for their lives in the buff. One of the upcoming instances of nekid wrasslin’ they cite is the CGI version of Ray Winstone in Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of Beowulf. Winstone plays our eponymous hero and the nakedness, er, reveals itself in the fight with Grendel.

Um, why? Well, explains co-writer Roger Avary in the ET article (#956, Sept. 28, 2007, p.55):

In the original epic poem, Beowulf decides that swords and armor are just going to slow him down. So, he strips and waits for Grendel to come and then does some medieval ass-kicking in the buff. When we were first working on the script, Robert Zemeckis said, “Guys, does he have to fight him naked?” We were like, “Yes, actually he does — it’s in the poem!”

You know, I always half suspected that Avary was just riding Tarantino’s coat-tails with his co-writer credit for the Pulp Fiction screenplay (and the Oscar it won) and now I’m more than certain. Where on earth does he get “naked” from without sword and shield (or armor, as he mistakenly claims)?? Does he think that because the men are sleeping when Grendel arrives that they’re necessarily in the nude? All I’ve got at home is the Roy Liuzza translation, so if there’s something in the Old English that suggests nakedness let me know (though somehow I doubt that Avary was reading Old English!). Or, more plausibly perhaps, is there a bad translation or adaptation he’s getting this from? Or is it from one of the looser and interpretative parts of the Heaney translation? Here’s what the Liuzza translation has in the relevant passages:

I have also heard that this evil beast
in his wildness does not care for weapons,
so I too will scorn — so that Hygelac,
my liege-lord, may be glad of me —
to bear a sword or a broad shield,
a yellow battle-board, but with my grip
I shall grapple with the fiend and fight for life
foe against foe. (ll. 433-40)

[H]e knows no arts of war, no way to strike back,
hack at my shield-boss, though he be brave
in his wicked deeds; but tonight we two will
forgo our swords, if he dare to seek out
a war without weapons (ll. 681-5)

Hm…you know, maybe Avary thought that “so that Hygelac, my liege-lord, may be glad of me” could mean something a bit more risqué than the usual lord-thane bond.

In fact, I’d have no problem with Avary and his Beowulf in the buff if he’d said something like, “we wanted to emphasize the hyper-masculinity of this society, right down to male bodies, so that when Grendel’s Mother appears and they’re not ready, it’s clear they didn’t think a female creature was a threat” or something cool and interpretative like that. That I could buy. I could even buy a total queering of the poem if the interpretation had the courage of its convictions (and that would totally surprise me, too, coming from a mainstream Hollywood movie!). In other words, Roger, dude, don’t be a boring literalist and a slave to your source material while also getting it literally wrong! Don’t claim “it’s in the poem!” if it’s not; or, if what you mean is ‘the poem suggests this’ then say so. Learn the difference between text and subtext, if only so that those of us who teach the original poem won’t have to deal with a generation of fan boys and fan girls who think they read that Beowulf was naked in those fights because he was in your movie version and you claimed “it’s in the poem!”

But I have to say, now having gotten that rant out of the way, I’m really intrigued by Avary’s misreading. Maybe it even falls into the category of Harold Bloom’s “strong misreading.” I mean, as I suggest above, it could work. (It only really bugs me that Avary lays the ‘blame’ on the poem, instead of taking credit himself — though that’s kind of interesting, too, in an arm-chair psychologist way. Roger, dude, why are you afraid to take credit?) Heck, I may end up using all of this a way to teach my students the difference between summary (whether accurate or inaccurate) and interpretation. Like many teachers, I spend a lot of time reminding them that they have to back up their arguments with the text, so that what I often get from the less strong students is an “argument” that “proves” the plot, and they end up doing something like Avary and saying “It’s in the poem!” (albeit usually more accurately than he does). I could someday take the movie and say, “Look, naked Beowulf is not literally in the poem, but how might this make sense as an interpretation?” And then maybe we could talk about the hyper-masculinity of the poem, of the nakedness of Winstone’s really buff body as the cinematic equivalent of the boasting, etc., etc. Who knows. As long as they know that the nakedness is not literally in the poem!