Published 24 Aug 2016
Comparison of the epic poem Beowulf and the Animated Film
Beowulf, the epic English poem from the 8th century has become standard reading in English literature classes and has seen many reincarnations and adaptations in books, theater, and film. Though its author is unknown, it is considered by many to be the greatest achievement of Old English literature. It is known to be the earliest heroic epic in any European language
So when the 2007 animated feature film Beowulf came out many expected to find the classic story come to life. So does the film meet expectations? In some ways yes, but largely not quite.
The narrative of Beowulf the epic poem is in two parts. The first tells of the story of the hero Beowulf from the Geatland (now Sweden) who sails to Denmark in aid of King Hrothgar who is beset by a half-demon known as Grendel. Grendel would attack the Mead Hall (drinking hall) built by the King whenever merriment was held there. After slaying Grendel, Beowulf then kills Grendel’s avenging mother. The second part of the epic tells about how Beowulf returns home to Sweden where he rules in peace and prosperity for 50 years until he is thrust back into action when a dragon, attacks the country after it discovers that its treasure load has been looted. Beowulf then successfully kills the dragon but is mortally wounded in return.
The Animated Film
Beowulf the animated film is directed by Robert Zemeckis from a screenplay written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Apart from its star-studded cast top billed by actors like Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, the films’ claim to fame is its extensive use of motion capture technology which Zemeckis used in his previous animated film the Polar Express.
Similarities & Differences
While Beowulf follows many of the epic poem’s content in terms of characters and themes, it is obvious that Gaiman and Avary took storyline liberties in the film, which has made it a far cry from what you would learn in high school. In a move to explain some details left out in the poem, the scriptwriters provided their own interpretation to some scenes such as providing reasons behind Grendel’s’ behavior. In the poem, Grendel was simply depicted as a monster demon while the movie version showed a more “humanized” version whose sensitive ears were the reason he would go on a rampage whenever merrymaking, especially singing was done.
In so doing, the filmmakers sought to bring forth the concept that Grendel was not entirely evil but was rather misunderstood. In the poem, Grendel was depicted as enormous, terrifying and strong. In the film, while he was still arguably big, Grendel came off more as pathetic and deformed. In order to emphasize Grendel’s “victim” image, the form he takes after he dies in his mother’s lair is reminiscent of that of a child curled up in a fetal position.
In a move to make the movie more current and appealing to contemporary audiences, the producers and director modernized the style and tone of the film doing away with most of the old English.
Also incorporated into the film were very visible Christian elements like the reference to the “Roman God Jesus” and the use of crosses.
In the original poem, Beowulf was also portrayed as a true blue hero with unshakable integrity and courage. The film, however, portrayed Beowulf as an ordinary man susceptible to weakness, vanity, and temptation. In the film, most of this temptation came in the form of personal glory and women particularly Grendel’s mother whose character likeness was based on the actress Angelina Jolie. This is another part of the movie which veers sharply away from the poem which depicts Grendel’s mother as an ugly old hag.
In casting Grendel’s mother in the role of temptress and her succeeding seductions of King Hrothgar and Beowulf, Zemeckis, Gaiman and Avary tried to read between the lines of the poem when they concluded that Hrothgar was the father of Grendel and Beowulf the father of the dragon.
This “interpretation” resulted in a change in the story line that was highly pivotal since it did away completely with the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother which as told in the poem ends with Beowulf killing her.
Another departure from the original poem was the film’s depiction of King Hrothgar as a hedonistic drunk and womanizer. Also conspicuously absent from the film were Hrothgar’s two sons from his Queen Wealtheow.
The last big difference between the poem and the film was in the portrayal of the burial of Beowulf. The poem tells of Beowulf’s cremation and subsequent burial in a mound facing the sea while in the film Beowulf’s last rites came in the form of a funeral barge sunk into the sea. This while admittedly added more drama in the film and followed traditional Norse send-offs proved to be nothing more than an additional dramatic element.
Avary has defended the changes in their interpretation of the story by saying that the supposed battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother as told by Beowulf himself was unreliable.
In a behind the scenes interview with one of the film’s screenplay writers, Avary referred to the poem’s sequence as “disjointed.” He raised questions as to why for example, Grendel just stuck to tormenting Hrothgar and never directly attacking him.
Why? It made me ask the simple question that for some reason no one has ever asked before: who is Grendel’s father? (Avery, Production Notes)
Avary also questions why after Beowulf supposedly goes into the cave to kill Grendel’s
mother after the very swift vengeance she carried out on his men, did he only come out bearing only Grendel’s head and not his mother’s. While Beowulf in his pronouncements following his descent into the cave implies that he has indeed slain the demon, there is no other proof of it than his word.
Avary also defends his portrayal of Beowulf as a weak and tempted man by arguing the possibility of Beowulf’s own weakness that made him a prime target for the temptations and promises made by the siren. Instead of killing Grendel’s mother, he must have made a pact with the demon.
Film critic Roger Ebert believes that the film was never meant to be a faithful retelling of the age-old poem. Besides done with a slant towards commercial gain, he observes that the film and its portrayal of events in the poem to be rather satirical in nature. “I’m serious when I say the movie is funny. Some of the dialogs sounds like Monty Python. No, most of the dialog does. “I didn’t hear him coming,” a wench tells a warrior. “You’ll hear me,” he promises. (Ebert)
The animated film adaptation of the epic saga uses the poem as its starting point and resembles the original by taking its main characters and events. But the film definitely goes a step further in trying to explain the gaps and inconsistencies in the poem. It also succeeds in humanizing both the hero Beowulf by making him flawed and the villain Grendel by making him partly unaccountable for his actions. This in effect blurs the lines between Hero and Villain such as it happens in real life. But in so doing, the film has considerably changed what is arguably the most famous piece of old English literature and as to be expected, this has critics and literary purists up in arms.
Beowulf the film provides alternative answers to questions raised by the original poem. It is visually stunning especially when seen in its 3d version but it cannot in any way serve as a replacement for anyone wanting to learn about the original epic – but for those wanting a better understanding of English literature and appreciation of epic poems, better grab the book instead.
- Author unknown. Appelbaum, ed., Stanley . Beowulf. 1992. N.Y.: Dover, 1992.
- Beowulf. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Robin
- Wright Penn, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich, Alison Lohman. Film. Warner Bros.
- Pictures International, Paramount Pictures, 2007
- Ebert, Roger. “Beowulf.” rogerebert.com. 15 November 2007