Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel

(At last I’ve got my desktop back, and substantially operational. Now I can post the movie review I promised last weekend.)

I’ve been waiting for Beowulf and Grendel for some time. There was an official website, where they posted photos and production information, but as is the case with so many movies, there were problems in the distribution phase. I had high hopes for it. The costumes, in particular, looked to be far more authentic than anything we’ve seen in a Viking movie to date. (Technically it’s not really a Viking movie, since it takes place in the 6th Century, and the Viking period didn’t officially start until the 8th Century. But I doubt if a Northman living in those times would have seen any important difference.)

The film never did get meaningful release. It played in a handful of theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and now has gone to DVD. This is unfortunate in many ways, since it’s a well-acted, visually fascinating piece of work.

But I don’t like it much.

It was great to look at. The costumes, as I said, were outstanding. The armor and weapons were (thankfully) done with exacting care, barring some not-unthinkable improvisations (in contrast to the ones used in The Thirteenth Warrior, apparently the result of a scavenger hunt through the props department). The Icelandic locations were grimly beautiful as only Iceland can be–though a little disorienting, since the story is expressly set in Denmark, and Denmark has never–now or then–looked much like Iceland (it was heavily wooded in Beowulf’s time).

But Beowulf and Grendel is a preachy movie, and what’s worse, it’s a sort of preaching I don’t like.

If you read the Beowulf poem, you read the story of a heroic young man (played by Gerard Butler in the movie) who kills a mighty monster in order to protect the people of a family friend, King Hrothgar of Denmark. It’s a black-and-white story. Grendel, the monster, kills because he’s bloodthirsty and evil. Beowulf kills him (and later his fearsome mother) because he’s brave and strong and good.

The movie turns all this on its head. The new slant isn’t really revolutionary, because we’ve heard it all before, time and time again. It merely spoils the story. Grendel is now the heroic social outcast. He’s the utterly innocent victim of racial prejudice. He never kills anyone except those who’ve injured him (he’s able to pick those precise ones out through his superhuman sense of smell). It’s the Danes (typical imperialist, bigoted Europeans!) who have killed his father for sport.

I have no objection to humanizing villains. It’s something I take pains to do in my novels. A villain is more effective, more believable and more morally useful when the reader can sense our common, perilous humanity and recognize once again Solzhenitsyn’s profound dictum that “the line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”

But it can be overdone. The filmmakers (director Sturla Gunnarson and screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins), instead of offering insight into human complexity, have essentially switched sides. Now it’s the Danes who are mindless, bloodthirsty monsters, and Grendel who is the pure and unsullied Ideal.

Aside from being a cliché, this approach makes the movie a lot duller than it might have been. Beowulf, pretty much the only Dane with a lick of decency or compassion, fights without enthusiasm, and his victory is a hollow one. Suddenly The Thirteenth Warrior (which was based on the same story) looks better as a movie. At least there was serious fighting with important stakes in that movie, not to mention a hero who cared about what he was doing.

The whole thing is summed up in a line at the end, where one of Beowulf’s men, listening to a friend composing the first draft of the epic poem, says, “[His] story is sh*t.” That’s what this movie all boils down to. It’s a movie about Beowulf done by people who despise Beowulf.

It’s rated R and deserves it. Lavish use is made of the “F” word, and there’s some gore (though not as much as there might have been) and sexual situations. An Irish priest (unimaginatively named Brendan) shows up in order to demonstrate how impotent and misleading Christianity is. The real voice of wisdom in the film (again, predictably) is a witch played with offputting smugness by Sarah Polley (who was the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen).

I’d planned to buy this movie. I’m glad now I rented it first.

8 thoughts on “Movie Review: Beowulf & Grendel”

  1. And by all accounts the high-profile Spielberg-produced *other* version (cowritten or based on something by one of them pretentious comic-book Brits-I’m pretty sure it’s not Grant Morrison, but I can’t remember whether it’s Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman) is going the same route. Oh joy, oh rapture.

    I really hate that there’s two whole generations of writers and filmmakers who can’t tell the difference between a freak and a monster.

  2. Thanks, Lars, it just kind popped into my head as I was struggling to figure out how to say that the “oppressed, perceived-as-monstrous outcast” storyline is valid but not every monster in every fairy tale or horror story is an appropriate candidate for it.

    Caliban, for instance, is viable. I may not *like* “Good Caliban” stories, but Shakespeare in outlining the backstory of the island does leave a little bit of room for that interpretation.

    Grendel and his mom live at the bottom of a LAKE, if memory serves. They’re freaking amphibians. The humans in the area are competent in the technologies of the period, but surely not so numerous or so well-equipped as to overfish the lake or wipe out the local game. And the majority of the humans are clearly not much of a threat to the monsters. It’s hard to take the bare facts of the narrative and jump to “poor, oppressed Grendel”. Unless you just sort of believe that humans with swords are inherently evil, which unfortunately alot of revisionist fiction writers seem to.

  3. “I have no objection to humanizing villains.” – Only one problem with that view Lars; Grendel is NOT human. To ‘humanize’ the inhuman used to be called anthropomorphism when I was learning (trying) to write sf…. lo these many years ago. (It was considered a great sin at the time 🙂

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