When I organized these movies in my head I thought I was going from the least changed to the most changed in regards to the source material. Now I realize I’m also going in reverse cronological order. The X-Men originated in the sixties, The Lord of the Rings was published in the fifties, and Conan goes back to the thirties. Let’s take a slightly bigger step back to roughly the eighth century.
Beowulf: Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Ah, Beowulf. Let’s all say the catechism together, “The oldest extant poem in the English language.” There’s not much gray area with this poem. Either you love it and think it’s a rich, evocative epic; or you hate it and think it’s a boring, dusty relic. I have theories about why that is but I’ll save those for some other time. I will say that I love it but for now let’s stick to Beowulf the poem and what it takes to make Beowulf the movie.
Beowulf the movie is very similar to Excalibur the movie. It’s got all the same characters and the same story elements, but they’re reworked into a true retelling of the story. Some people think that’s sacreligious but I think it shows an understanding of the stringht of these myths and legends. After all, the poem is pretty clearly a retelling of an even older story.
And it is a signifigant reworking. The long passages concerning kings and kingship are almost completely gone. Replaced by more movie friendly action sequences- Grendel’s attack, Beowulf’s race against Brecca, his fight with Grendel and later the dragon. Instead of people talking about Beowulf being a great warrior we see it. Always a good thing in a movie. It’s almost as if the movie looks more at what the poem hints at. The writer’s ask questions about the poem and make a movie out of the answers.
The poem doesn’t describe Grendel in any detail. So what does he look like? The movie gives us an emaciated, tortured being driven to violence by the pain of his own existence. He takes it out on Hrothgar by slaughtering the Danes. Why is he like that and why attack Hrothgar’s people? We find out that Hrothgar is Grendel’s father. How could he sleep with a sea-hag? Well the ‘hag’ is a naked Angelina Jolie who will give you wealth, fame, and power if you sleep with her. That answers that question. Beowulf goes to kill her but falls prey to the same seduction as Hrothgar. Why would our hero do that? Well because he didn’t kill Grendel to help the Danes, he’s driven by a need for fame.
Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother out of hand in the poem without much thought. By changing that to seduction the writers give us a through line that ties three acts. It tells us where Grendel came from, it ties Beowulf’s kingship to his brave deeds and his secret weakness. It gives us a transition to the dragon’s depradations and we see Beowulf tested in the same way Hrothgar was, giving a sense of continuity even though Beowulf has grown old. By not being afraid to really rework story elements they give us a fast paced three act screenplay with lots of sworswinging action. It’s also a dark and brooding study of the epic hero and what price he pays for epic mistakes.
Next movie: Troy