Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Epic Truths of Beowulf -- the Hollywood Version

At the very opening the beautiful queen fills the sacred Royal Dragon Horn with mead to bring to her king. The Dragon Horn as yet has no meaning but will reappear several times, including the story's final scene. What is quickly established is this: we have a debauched king encouraging celebration. His exploits have evidently preceded him. "He offered us protection when monsters roamed the land..." they sing. He had promised his people a glorious hall, and delivered on this promise. But the sounds of celebration echo into the distant darkness where a creature weeps blood, a creature whose identity we as yet know not.

Seven minutes into the film and the monster Grendel bursts upon the scene. Screaming, a horror of horrors, ripping limbs from torsos, flinging men across the hall, biting off men's heads, drooling slime, a contorted beast with an anguished heart.

Hrothgar the king calls for the monster to fight him, not destroy his people. But Grendel cannot. He returns to his cave, to his mother, where he is confronted, and comforted.

Hrothgar then declares that half the gold of his kingdom will be given to the man who slays this monster. Unferth suggests that in addition to sacrificing goats and sheep to their current gods that they also pray to the new Roman God Christ Jesus. (This story takes place in Denmark, 507 A.D..)

Hrothgar rejects appealing to any of the gods. "The gods will do nothing for us that we will not do for ourselves. What we need is a hero."

And so, the foundation is laid for Beowulf to appear. And appear he does. "They say you have a monster here. They say your lands are cursed... I am Beowulf. I'm here to kill your monster."

The soldier sent to confront him puts it plainly enough. "I thought there were no more heroes foolish enough to come up here and die for our gold."

Beowulf makes the epic declaration. "If we die it will be for glory, not for gold."

* * * *

Idealists are many, too. As the fair queen notes: "There are many brave men who have come to taste my Lord's mead, and many who have sworn to rid his hall of our nightmare. But in the morning, there was nothing left of any of them but blood to be cleaned from the floor, and the benches and the walls."

Beowulf is not deterred. "I will kill your monster."

* * * *

Hrothgar presents Beowulf with the Royal Dragon Horn, and explains that the ruby on the Dragon Horn represents the spot on the throat where your dagger must plunge. "It's the only way you can kill a dragon."

Each symbol introduced has its meaning disclosed later, producing a latticework of understanding.

In addition to the king's gold, whoever destroys Grendel will also obtain the king's beautiful queen... "forever and ever and ever."

* * * *

Hideous. Monstrous. But Beowulf, in the horrifying battle, becomes ripper, shredder, slasher, and upon discovering Grendel's weakness tears off an arm from the monster.

In the aftermath the king, in his bedchamber, expresses his desire to produce an heir. But the queen resists, citing his having lain with the mother of the beast.

We understand fully now how this horrorshow came to be. "The sins of the father..."

* * * *

Grendel, the damaged son, returns to his mother, awakening her grief. Giving birth to her revenge.

* * * *

The fascination here is the making visual and vibrant these mythical images, this classic tale of heroism, of valor and failure. The tale is classic, and Hollywood's skills have reached a point where the film can make vivid what was previously only possible via imagination.

Beowulf is seduced by means of his vanity. "Your story will live on after everything here now is dust."

Ah yes, the appeal to make a name for oneself, a legacy, is indeed appealing.

* * * *

Beowulf lies about his achievement, declaring that he planted his sword into Grendel's mother's chest. In reality the only planting that occurred was his own seed. But it is essential to keep up appearances. Beowulf must be believable as a hero. The monster's head was delivered. What further evidence was required.

Lie follows lie, and the sheep in eagerness accept it in order to placate their fears. All is well, the sun will come out tomorrow.

The only doubter is Hrothgar. "Did you kill her?" he asks privately.

And so, Hrothgar makes exclamation that upon his death all that he possesses, including his queen, shall become Beowulf's. And moment's later he plunges from a balcony to his own death.

Denial of the obvious continues as the queen explains, "He must have fallen."

* * * *

"MORE MEAD!"

Beowulf in its essence is a classic morality tale. As a horror story it captures the imagination, became bigger than life like the monsters in the story. In the end, though, the lesson is straight out of the scriptures: "A man reaps what he sows." Frankenstein meets Howard's End. Sooner or later your past comes back to haunt you.

At one point, as they watch their soldiers engaged in battle, Beowulf says, "We men are the monsters now. The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf."

* * * *

I personally found the graphic novel treatment utterly enthralling. They paid a boatload of money to make a CGI film with a boatload of stars and grossed a little over half back that first year. Why the less than stellar ratings? First, because like many, if not most, of Hollywood's translations of story to film, it becomes an entirely different story. Those who are knowledgeable about such things feel betrayed.

Reviews by those unfamiliar with the original tale scored much higher. Those who teach the story know well that this film account is a total bastardization. As one IMDB.com reviewer wrote:

Please people, READ THE BOOK! The only thing this movie had in common with Beowulf were the names of the characters. Say no to bastard children, naked mommies of monsters, and lips that do not match up with the dialog. The only thing I got out of this was true/false test material for my British Literature students who think they can get away with watching the movie instead of reading our text.

If learning about the original story is important to you, I recommend obtaining a good translation (like the Bible there are easier and harder translations to read) and reading the book, as this professor suggests. If you don't really mind not getting the facts right, enjoy the film. It's dramatic, bigger than life and has much to be commended for.

Much more can be said, like who wrote it, who directed it and who was in it, but you can get all that at IMDB. I enjoyed it... enough to watch it twice and write about it. 

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