Many years ago I studied Anglo Saxon as a module at University, and could actually read and speak a few snippets of that of that long dead, resonant, rhythmic, repetitive, blood-drenched-battle filled ancient tongue. (‘Biter was the baduraes, sword edg onfeng’ – that’s the only bit I can remember. Meaning ‘Bitter was the battle, sword clashed against um, ‘onfeng’? Lance? Forgive me, it was a long time ago.)
I also read Beowolf, in translation not in the original Anglo Saxon, and I remember finding it tough going. A wonderful core story – Grendel is the monster, but when he’s killed, Grendel’s Mother stalks the land – hilarious but chilling. And great passages of rhythmic epic writing. And I don’t doubt Seamus Heaney’s claims that it’s one of the greatest poems ever written. But it is without doubt a tough read - very repetitive, and full of bragging alpha males.
And so I have to take my hat off to Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, for what they’ve done with their script for the Robert Zemeckis’ directed Beowulf. They turn a turgid yarn into a ripping yarn. And without taking any credit away from Avary, surely it was Gaiman’s influence that turned a macho blood-fest into a subtle dissection and critique of the nature of heroism? Quoting from memory: late in the story, Beowulf (Ray Winstone) says, ‘Men are the monsters now,’ beautifully turning a reactionary tale into a critique of war. And the extraordinary twist in the story, featuring a near-naked CGI Angelina Jolie, most certainly was not in the original….
This is, all in all, a very very smart movie. You wouldn’t know that from the rather sniffy reviews, which all tactitly imply that Gaiman/Avary are playing fast and loose with a flawless classic, rather than making a magnificent hero’s journey morality tale out of a dense and bloodthirsty and at times impenetrable text.
The final sequence is fabulous in every sense of the word – a brilliant tour de force spectacle every bit as thrilling as the best bits in the first Lord of the Rings.
There are flaws, as in every movie – Anthony Hopkins is fine as Hrothgar, but Robin Wright Penn makes an attempt at a matching Welsh accent that was ill-advised and, for a Welshman, deeply annoying. And John Malcovich? Um?
But I found this beautiful and spectacular and thought-provoking. And like The 300, this is a film which stretches the visual possibilities of film. It’s eerie, at first, to see such almost-real CGI animations; but by the final climax I had suspended my disbelief totally, and could totally see why they just had to do it that way.
The nude scenes have been much mocked, because of the way the naughty bits are always cunningly concealed. I didn’t mind that – am I really ready to see a CGI willy or vulva? I think not! And to my mind, it was very like the coy way nudity has always been handled in Marvel Comics, which I’m sure is the intended vibe. (But it still manages to be genuinely sexy. Especially Angelina as Grendel’s mum! – quick, cool me down with swamp water immediately..!)
The 3 D experience added enormously to the richness of the experience. I remember seeing House of Wax in 3D in a cinema near Piccadilly Circus many moons ago. The modern incarnation of 3D is streets ahead of that – and for a spectacular movie like this creates a truly remarkable viewing experience.
‘I’ve come to kill your monster!’ says Ray Winstone/Beowulf in an early sequence. Good lad, off you go then….
And okay, that bit is maybe just a tiny bit unintentionally funny; though I wouldn’t swear to that. Gaiman of course has the most delicious sense of humor, and he doesn’t mind leavening drama and tragedy with belly laughs.
One of the pieces of writing I’m proudest of is my own adaptation of another literary classic for radio – Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (That also had a dragon, in fact…) The experience of making that was fabulous, though extremely risky; I kept closely to the story, but I iconoclastically wrote the whole thing in my own very different Hollywood-influenced style.
But at that time, I never would have imagined that these dusty greats of Eng Lit would start making their way into the multiplexes of the world….
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