Tuesday, November 6, 2007


I had high hopes for Robert Zemeckis's "digitally enhanced live-action" film adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, which is set to be released next Friday. I read Seamus Heaney's wonderful verse translation of the poem in high school, and I got to study it in the original Anglo-Saxon at Harvard. Beowulf has a reputation for being unbearably boring -- and it is, at times -- but I found it absolutely fascinating for the most part, mainly because Beowulf is such a captivatingly cocky character, and he's got the goods to back up his numerous boasts. There's also the poem's strange mix of pagan and Christian worldviews, not to mention the pulsing power of Anglo-Saxon poetry itself. The one passage that sticks in my mind whenever I think of Beowulf is the introduction of Beowulf's primary foe, Grendel, in which the monster's biblical genealogy is explained. Here it is in Heaney's translation:

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until he gave them their reward.

Just fascinating, at least to me! I also have to include one of Beowulf's fantastic boasts:

"When it comes to fighting, I count myself
as dangerous any day as Grendel.
So it won't be a cutting edge I'll wield
to mow him down, easily as I might.
He has no idea of the arts of war,
of shield or sword-play, although he does possess
a wild strength. No weapons, therefore,
for either this night: unarmed he shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit."

Grendel, by the way, had earlier "grabbed thirty men" and dragged their "butchered corpses" back to his lair, just to give you an idea of what Beowulf was up against. What a great story.

So I had high hopes, as I say, for the film adaptation of Beowulf, but I'm a little bit nervous after seeing the trailers, which look, in my opinion, silly. Fidelity to the original text certainly doesn't seem to have been a high priority for the filmmakers. I can't make heads or tails of what many of the plot differences are between the poem and the movie, but I'm fairly certain, for example, that Grendel's mother is not portrayed in the poem as looking anything like Angelina Jolie. I tried to embed one of the TV spot videos here, but it was way too big and it looked silly, so here's a link to the movie trailers and such.


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