By Viola Miglio
Actas del II Congreso Internacional sobre Bebida y Literatura, edited by Sara Poot-Herrera (Merida, 2009)
Introduction: Granted: approaching medieval literature as a modern reader presents its challenges, both because the language is often unfamiliar or even unintelligible and because we are entering a world whose values and frame of reference we no longer understand without special training. Making it palatable to a modern cinema audience may therefore seem an unattainable goal under the best of circumstances. The discussion in this paper focuses on two filmic renditions of the Old English epic poem Beowulf, an anonymous masterpiece composed between the eighth and tenth century based on fifth century literary motifs, vaguely identified historical events and common Germanic folklore (cf. Fulk et al, in the Introduction to Klaeber’s Beowulf, 2008) and contained in a single 10th or early 11th century manuscript, the London British Library Cotton Vitellius A.xv. The filmic renditions analysed are Zemeckis’s 2007 performance capture Beowulf (the Hollywood version), and Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf and Grendel (2005, a Canadian-Icelandic production): they both deviate from the original poem, but given their closeness in date, the different treatment is so considerable as to warrant comparison. There are some obvious differences imposed by the quasi-animated medium in Hollywood-Beowulf (perhaps Hollywulf?), which allows for many more spectacular effects (and some ludicrous ones), and the quasi-archaeological rendition of material culture in Gunnarsson’s film, where the attention to detail is excruciating, down to the natural dyes used for the costumes, in order to avoid anachronism (cf. the director’s commentary on the DVD version).
I will playfully enumerate at least fifty ways in which the original poem has been butchered, focusing mainly on drinking and feasting, but I will also argue that, while both films impose a modern interpretation of the events in the original plot, as well as adding characters and explaining away motives at will, the Canadian-Icelandic version at least offers a much more hopeful message of tolerance than the Hollywood version. Zemeckis’s Beowulf’s screenwriters, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary grossly and wilfully overinterpret motives, betraying the stern grandeur and complex nature of the original poem and essentially create a plot of a much more ‘basic instinct’ type, which may be justifiable in terms of box office success, but it also reveals a sinister ideological twist of reducing all motivation behind every action to lust. Zemeckis’s Beowulf’s message entails that chopping enemies to bits is fine (plenty of gore and splatter confirms it), but sex and carnal desire (and their excesses as embodied by lust) are the root of all evils.
This particular point is hard to drive home when the producers aimed at a PG-13 rating, and this is one of the masterful ways in which Hollywulf solves the problem (see below), beckoning to an audience of ‘barely legal’ male, video-game-toting teenagers, who certainly won’t miss the beauty of the original text, since they barely read required texts for school.