Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

*. At the beginning of the group DVD commentary on Beowulf & Grendel a couple of interesting things are said.
*. I’ll start with writer Andrew Rai Berzins, who says that he was drawn to the Beowulf story in part because it “had never been filmed.” Actually, it had been filmed twice just five years earlier: as The 13th Warrior and Beowulf. Now both of these were loose adaptations, with the former being a more realistic version of the legend based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead and the latter a post-apocalyptic fantasy starring Christopher Lambert, but they were still the Beowulf story. Given how much is changed in this telling I don’t think they can say they were the first and it’s hard to believe Berzins wasn’t aware of the others (from other things he says on the commentary it seems pretty clear that he was). [Note: Berzins responds in the comments below.]
*. The second thing I found interesting is when director Sturla Gunnarsson says that his initial inspiration for the film was the Icelandic landscape, which he describes as being a character in the film. I can see that, and if you’ve got a crush on such a landscape I guess there are only so many different stories that are going to work with it. Beowulf was one. Not because Iceland looks like Denmark, but because it makes such a wonderful fantasy backdrop.

*. The raw power of the setting gives the film both an otherworldly and realistic texture. This fits with the overall approach of the film, which was not to use any CGI. In other words it’s the opposite of the Robert Zemeckis animated Beowulf that would come out just a couple of years later.
*. Saying this is a more “realistic” and less mythical Beowulf doesn’t mean it’s any more faithful an adaptation. This is very much a modern re-interpretation, as I think you would expect. If you know the poem there actually isn’t much there to work with in terms of character. So Beowulf is a bit more conflicted here, while Grendel is given a more complicated back story. He’s a troll now, with Shakespeare’s Caliban as his literary model.

*. I was fine with most of the changes, and with the use of “fuck” throughout the script, and lines like “I tell you the troll must be one tough prick.” Some reviewers didn’t like this, but I don’t know what their objections were based on. How was it anachronistic? Nobody in the Middle Ages in this part of the world was speaking English anyway. I agree with Gunnarsson that it’s a silly convention that everyone in such historical epics deliver Shakespeherian lines.
*. I didn’t care for the character of the Good Witch Selma, and boy does Sarah Polley seem uninterested in the part. I think she’s a good actor, but she often looks like she’s bored by the roles she plays.
*. The movie has a wonderful big-screen look to it, and there are a lot of other things I enjoyed (like the script, in general, and Gerard Butler’s all-too-human Beowulf). But it doesn’t add up to a film I love. Perhaps because all the revisions take the story away from its roots in an essential way that The 13th Warrior and Zemeckis’s film didn’t (I should add here that I much prefer this film to Zemeckis’s, though I’d rank The 13th Warrior higher).
*. What I mean is that Beowulf is an action story and this movie doesn’t do action well. The fight scenes are quick, dark, and uninteresting, and the half-humanization of Grendel undercuts the heroic man vs. monster mythos.
*. A final note on the commentary. Berzins remarks that the way the film ends, with the child of Grendel and Selma being allowed to live, was introduced because they wanted to leave things open for a sequel. Really! Like Beowulf & the Son of Grendel. Or maybe Grendel: The Revenge. That’s incredible, but I didn’t get the sense Berzins was joking. [Note: Berzin expands on this point in his comment below.] My own take on the ending was that they just wanted to suggest the heroic-age revenge cycle of violence was doomed to continue. I think that’s the way I’ll continue to think of it. The idea of a sequel is too diminishing.

2 thoughts on “Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

  1. Andrew Rai Berzins

    Hi Alex – I happened on this. Thought I’d comment. I don’t remember exactly what I said in commentary on the DVD, but I would still maintain that Beowulf had NOT been filmed when we took it on. I liked 13th Warrior but it is not the Beowulf story. Grendel is not a tribe of cannibals. The Christopher Lambert thing is something else again. I invented some characters and added some motivation, but the bones of the story stayed far truer to the source than either of those. When I indicated a sequel, I was sincere [whether or not demented]. I would have done not one but two. Part 2 would have covered Beowulf’s rise to chieftain, which would have been similar to one of the Shakespeare history plays – political machinations, intrigue, betrayal, and battle. Also with a shadow story involving the Huldufolk. Part 3 would have been Beowulf & the Wurm. And I fully get that 13th Warrior was for you a way more satisfying cinematic adventure. Made half a decade before ours, it also enjoyed 10 times the budget. Cheers.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks for the clarification Andrew. I appreciate your taking the time, and your idea for the sequels does sound more interesting than I was imagining. On the question of what counts as a filming of the Beowulf story I’m inclined to allow more latitude. I mean, sticking with Shakespeare I’d call Joe MacBeth, Men of Respect, The Moving Forest, or Scotland, PA all versions of Macbeth. But I see your point. Thanks again!


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