Friday, November 23, 2007

A review of the Beowulf Movie

We went to see Beowulf at one of our local theaters, and I can take a certain amount of pride in knowing that all three of us had already read the Beowulf epic in the Seamus Heaney translation. That having been noted, it really didn't help us much in viewing the movie, which used the familiar names but departed at many points from the original. Other than that is was a nice bit of escapism and the effects were awesome.

This was not a live-action film, but it would be inaccurate to refer to it simply as a cartoon. The animation and effects were of a quality that made one forget that this really wasn't actors on a sound stage. In addition, the digital rendering of the scenes made it possible to show angles and points of view that would be difficult, if not impossible for conventional cinematography. Imagine a spear being thrust toward you until all you see is the spearhead, and then the "camera" changes its point of view so you see the guard holding the spear, and the point just about touching Beowulf's eyes.

The film is violent and has a lot of gory images, and for this reason alone, you might want to get a babysitter for the youngsters. The sexuality is mostly innuendo, and involves anatomically correct outlines (for a Barbie doll), and about as much detail as a Barbie doll. Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude, and there always seems to be a strategically-placed plant or other object that keeps the visual effects in the PG-13 range. This is definitely not a family flick, but neither is it pornography.

On to the substance of the film. We all know that Grendel is Beowulf's first opponent. Grendel has a face only a mother could love, and oddly enough, that is a plot point in both the Old English epic and the 2007 film. How the two are connected are very different in the epic and the film. In the film the fight with the dragon is connected with the first two fights with Grendel and his mother -- a connection that is NOT made in the epic.

The film portrays Beowulf as a flawed character who ultimately redeems himself in the end. The Old English epic isn't much for character development. Beowulf is the hero, and that's all we need to know. In the film, Beowulf, having bested Grendel in a fair fight, felt the need to embellish the tale of his encounter with Grendel's mother. The lie he tells is actually closer to the original epic, than the "reality" of the film's depiction.

The ending is fairly satisfying, once you rid yourself of the expectation of conformity with the original epic, and overall, the film does a good job with internal consistency.

The Beowulf epic has many Christian elements interspersed with the Norse pantheon and the idea that a lone hero acting solely from internal motivations can save himself and his comrades. Personally, I would not call Beowulf a "Christian Epic", but I would recognize that it takes place in a milieu that is rapidly becoming Christian, and there are allusions to Christianity and Scripture in the original epic.

The film seemed to me to present a caricature of Christianity that, when juxtaposed with the heroic Danes and Geats, leaves the impression that things would be been far better without the Christians. Since the film writers chose to add specific events that were not a part of the original, I have to suspect that this was just a bit gratuitous.

I recommend this film highly for the effects and not so highly for the adaptation of the original source.

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