“I am Ripper... Tearer... Slasher... Gouger. I am the Teeth in the Darkness, the Talons in the Night. Mine is Strength... and Lust... and Power! I AM BEOWULF!” - Beowulf, from the 2007 movie
It was with great anticipation that we finally rented the DVD “Beowulf.” As enormous fans of the Old English poem about heroism (especially the masterful translation by Poet Seamus Heaney), we eagerly looked forward to the visual interpretation of the story.
We were left with stomach cramps and a strong desire to seek out director Robert Zemeckis at his favorite bistro and kick him in the nuts. They should have been forbidden to name the movie after the poem – instead opting for a more appropriate title: “Beo-Whimp.” Leave it to Hollywood to alter a story that has riveted generations for more than a thousand years because they didn’t it find the narrative gripping enough for modern audiences. So instead of trusting the material they did what they always do – dumbed it down by infusing it with an episode of Jerry Springer.
“Beowulf” – the poem – is the oldest piece of surviving English literature written around the 8th century. The poem is the epic tale of Beowulf, a warrior of the Geats (part of Sweden), who battles three antagonists: Grendel, a monster, Grendel’s mother, and later an unnamed dragon. He is killed in the final battle.
The poem is notable for the character of Beowulf – a hero who becomes king by testing his courage and strength against evil creatures of great supernatural power. He travels to Denmark to aid King Hrothgar and his court when Grendel, a monster and possibly a demon, terrorizes them.
Beowulf, without his sword, tears Grendel’s arm off in battle and the creature returns to his bog to die. While the Danes celebrate Beowulf’s victory, Grendel’s mother attacks the court and kills many while Beowulf sleeps in another dwelling.
Vowing revenge, Beowulf tracks Grendel’s mother to her lair under the bog and during an epic battle he slays her with a magic sword he discovers among her plunder. He returns to Geatland and eventually becomes king for 50 years. When a dragon attacks his kingdom, Beowulf tracks the beast to its lair and cuts it in half with a dagger. Poisoned by the dragon’s horn, Beowulf dies after the battle. He is buried in a barrow.
One would imagine that this heroic tale filled with blood, guts, and courage would be more than enough to satisfy modern audiences. But leave it to Hollywood to “sex it up” with its own misguided interpretation. The Hollywood hackers justified these flights of fancy by claiming Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. Here are the major changes:
Grendel becomes more of a confused teenager struggling with his isolation. He kills because men reject and hate him for his differences (instead of being a devil-spawned mass murder). In fact, during his death scene he becomes a wounded child
Grendel’s mother (played by Angelina Jolie) becomes a sexy seductress who charms King Hrothgar and then later Beowulf
Hrothgar is a drunk and philanderer
Grendel is King Hrothgar’s illegitimate child
Instead of killing Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is seduced by her
Grendel’s mother gives birth to Beowulf’s illegitimate child – the dragon
Beowulf kills his son and his son kills him
The movie ends with Beowulf’s second in command being beckoned for seduction by Grendel’s mother
In other words, the entire point of the poem is tied up, dragged into a closet, and beaten to death with an axe handle. The real monsters are humans – who make the poor misunderstood Grendel an outcast because he looks different (not because he’s an evil bastard who dines on their flesh).
There’s no greater casualty than Beowulf. The noble warrior who risks all for others becomes a lying, boastful egotist – an adrenaline and sex junkie instead of an epic hero. He’s a thoroughly modern leader in the mold of CEO – flawed, greedy, arrogant, and completely self-possessed. The scene where he strips naked to fight Grendel (and then has his private parts covered in creative ways) plays more than Austin Powers than legendary warrior.
How can we say this? Oh, yeah: Beo-Whimp.
Thankfully, we aren’t alone is condemning this tripe. British writer Michael Morpurgo criticized the movie this way:
“The film changes the very nature of its hero. He becomes vulnerable and flawed, and he loses much of his nobility. The minute he starts lying, he becomes less interesting. The monster, Grendel, is also rather diminished here. He is imagined as a pathetic creature - you feel as if he's being eaten from the inside by maggots. I never had the sense of his enormous and terrifying strength. They've created a whole new plot about who slept with Grendel's mother, which feels clunky."
Bonnie Wheeler, director of Medieval Studies at Southern Methodist University had little use for the film as well:
“It’s a great cop-out on a great poem... For me, the sad thing is the movie returns to… a view of the horror of woman, the monstrous female who will kill off the male. It seems to me you could do so much better now. And the story of Beowulf is so much more powerful.