Some Stuff About Beowulf

Posted: December 21, 2009 in Braak, crotchety ranting
Tags: , ,

I’ve seen about eighty different versions of Beowulf at this point, and I’ve got to admit to being puzzled.  I can see that these guys are trying to make good movies, but it’s like they all want to secretly make different movies that aren’t Beowulf, and are kind of just making Beowulf because they’re stuck with it.  Or else, for some reason, we’re beating around the bush of Beowulf, as though maybe audiences aren’t quite ready for Beowulf, or as though we might not appreciate Beowulf.

You guys are trying hard, I get that.  You’ve got ideas in your head about who Beowulf is, about what a hero should be:  maybe he’s a noble, reluctant hero. Maybe he’s a cunning hero with a rocket crossbow.  Maybe he’s a naked trapeze artist.  Those are all definitely things that a person could think.  But what you guys are maybe overlooking is that Beowulf is, himself, already an archetype.

Perhaps you’re unacquainted with the archetype that is Beowulf, so let me do my best to illustrate it:

Beowulf is the kind of guy that, when he gets attacked by a monster that has eaten a million Danes, TEARS OFF THE MONSTER’S ARM AND BEATS HIM WITH IT.

He is the kind of guy that kills the shit out of a monster and then, after discovering that the monster has a mother, KILLS THE SHIT OUT OF THAT BITCH, TOO.

Did you notice that?  He’s not the kind of hero that, after defeating his adversary, recognizes the futility of conflict and the soul-crushing horror of pointless, endless violence.  That’s Achilles.  Achilles has a great story, but he’s a different guy.  He’s not Beowulf.  Beowulf is the guy that tears off Grendel’s arm and fucking BEATS HIM WITH IT.

If Beowulf had been in the Iliad, what would have happened is he would have torn off Hector’s arm and fucking BEATEN HIM WITH IT.  And then, when Priam came to get Hector’s body back, Beowulf WOULD HAVE KILLED THE SHIT OUT OF THAT MOTHERFUCKER.

Beowulf IS Beowulf, see?  He’s not Achilles, or Odysseus, or Vainamoinen, or any of those other guys.  He is BEOWULF.  Once you understand the nature of Beowulf, it’s a lot easier to write a Beowulf movie.  Like maybe the movie that I just watched.  Instead of dialog like this:

Hrothgar:  I am thinking of converting to Christianity, so I can get into heaven.  Do you ever think about that?  Heaven?

Beowulf:  I think I just go where I’m sent.

Which, okay, yes, Gerard Butler is a handsome man.  But he’s not reading Beowulf’s lines.  Beowulf’s lines go like this:

Hrothgar:  I am thinking of converting to Christianity, so I can get into heaven.  Do you ever think about that?  Heaven?

Beowulf:  No.  I think about killing the shit out of monsters.

If he’d been reading Beowulf’s lines when, for example, he met the witch (played, inexplicably, by the only American for a thousand miles), it would have sounded something like this:

Witch:  You want to know how you die?  When you fight the Grendel?

Beowulf:  I am going to tear off his arm and fucking BEAT HIM WITH IT.

Now, it’s not that there’s no complexity to Beowulf’s story.  There is complexity to it.  There’s irony to it.  It’s just not the irony of Achilles’ story, which is about how he is trapped by his own glorious destiny to be the best at something that he’s come to realize is terrible.  It’s not the irony of Odysseus’ story, which is about how, despite being skilled in all the ways of contending, all he really wants is the simple joy of seeing his wife and son after twenty years of war.

It’s the irony of Beowulf, which is why the story is called Beowulf.  The irony of Beowulf is that everyone around him is a fucking sissy, so he’s got to keep killing the shit out of monsters until he’s too god damn old anymore.  It is a viking story, not some story about missing your father or being sad about shit or having feelings or OTHER CRAP LIKE THAT.  It is a story about ripping apart monsters with your BARE FUCKING HANDS.

Now, I understand that people like complexity in their stories, and I know there’s no rule that says that you have to be true to your source material, or anything like that.  What I don’t understand is, why are you going to pick up Beowulf, and then try to make the main character like a different hero?  Why wouldn’t you just make a story about that guy?

Or, to put it another way, if you’re not trying to tell a story about a huge hairy fucking viking TEARING A MONSTER’S ARM OFF AND BEATING HIM WITH IT, and then KILLING THE SHIT OUT OF THE MONSTER’S MOTHER FOR GOOD MEASURE, then why did you even pick up Beowulf in the first place?

[UPDATE:  The chick who played the witch in that movie was actually Sarah Polley, who is Canadian, not American.  Still, though, she was the only person in the movie that wasn’t Irish, Scottish, Swedish, or retarded.]

  1. wench says:

    Oh god. Dude, it’s 1235 am and I’m trying so hard not to wake up my husband who has to work tomorrow and you’re making that VERY DIFFICULT because you’ve just successfully pointed out the flaw in every single version of Beowulf I’ve ever seen. Damn you!

  2. Drew L. says:

    well said. amen. this has always bothered me about beowulf movies too…
    especially that animated one. omg, wtf?
    also, there should be a rule about diverging from your source material. let’s make that a rule, please? cuz they to do it all the fucking time, whether it’s beowulf or something else…and it bugs the hell out of me and nobody ever understands why…
    and i’m beginning to think, judging from all these flawed versions of beowulf and the norse mythology class i took at smtih (where we read beowulf) that a lot of people have a very hard time understanding the vikings.

  3. braak says:

    I don’t know that i want a rule about diverging from source material. I don’t actually have a problem diverging from source material, generally speaking — I think it’s okay, you’re making your own movie, you can make whatever movie you want. There’s already Beowulf the book, there’s no law that says that Beowulf the movie has to be the same.

    So you want to tinker with the order of events, or who has what name, or add some character stuff in there, okay. My problem is not divergence, but what amounts to the complete abandoning of the essential nature of the story — I’m much happier with a story that’s preserved the core of the story and changed all the trappings than I am with a story that’s preserved all that trappings, but is really telling a story about a different guy.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    All I know is, I’m really disappointed to hear that a director named Sturla Gunnarsson couldn’t make a good Beowulf movie.

  5. Sam says:

    Dunno, the whole punching out of (that’s “punching out of,” not “punching out”) a huge sea serpent’s eye in the animated movie elicited an approving nod from me.

  6. Jeff Holland says:

    The problems with the animated one are two-fold:

    1) It would have probably been a pretty cool live-action film, or a balls-out awesome animated movie. But this goofy-ass hybrid just made everything blobby and textureless and awkward.

    2) Inbetween the pretty great scenes of Naked Beowulf Attacking Things, there was an unfortunate amount of really tough to sit through “story” scenes, which are about as compelling as most video-game cut-scenes, but with Ray Winstone (so, maybe a little better).

    Now, someone go watch the Christopher Lambert sci-fi Beowulf and tell us how that stacks up.

    (I’m kidding! I’m fairly certain Braak’s already done so. Poor bastard.)

  7. Ryan says:


  8. Moff says:

    Braak, can you run down for me how you’d tell a story about an authentic version of Beowulf and make it interesting? This is not a snarky question — I just mean: Is this why the Greeks founded Western civilization instead of my own Scandinavian ancestors? Because I agree with you in principle, but am having trouble seeing how “Beowulf beats the shit out of monsters” translates into a story that’s not exactly like the ones we usually bitch about.

    Note, for the record, that I know jack shit about Beowulf, except for the basic characters and the fact that the original has caesuras.

  9. braak says:

    Well, actually — and some people don’t care for it, but they can go to hell — that’s one thing that I think The 13th Warrior did RIGHT. By moving the sort of emotional focus of the story away from Beowulf himself, it lets you preserve Beowulf as the mighty kind of badasses.

    Likewise, one of the things that I like about Steven Seagal movies…actually, wait, let me clarify something here. I don’t think it’s bad to make a movie that’s just retardedly stupid action; I just think it’s bad to try and defend that movie as anything other than that. Or to defend it at all. And this includes when people come and say, “Why can’t you just enjoy it for being awesome?” This is the wrong response. The correct response is, “Yeah, man that was stupid. I just like the part where he kicks a guy.” Presuming you need to respond at all.

    I LIKE Steven Seagal movies. One of my favorite parts of those movies is how, unlike Lethal Weapon or Die Hard, there’s never really any danger of Steven Seagal losing the fight. He doesn’t go up against some eight-foot tall kickboxer and get bloodied up real bad and then win because some hanging chains happen to be conveniently located nearby — he just fucking pummels his way across the landscape. I think you can make a movie like that, and you can make a movie like that be good, idiots that try to defend it notwithstanding.

    But if you wanted emotional complexity, there are still a couple of places where you can find good tension. Beowulf at the end of his career, for instance, when he is old and tired and it’s time to kill the firedrake — and where are his god-damn guys? The tragedy of Beowulf is that he’s the only hero in a world that no longer produces them.

    Or, alternately, Beowulf’s position can be understood in a kind of bittersweet way: again, Beowulf doesn’t want to change, to become soft, or to convert to Christianity. But the rest of civilization is moving on without him; everyone else is getting soft, and monsters are fewer and farther between. What does it mean to be a viking hero in a world in which there just aren’t any monsters left? When respect is awarded for tender hearts and mercy and diplomacy? Naturally, Beowulf goes after the firedrake, because it’s the only thing left he can do.

    One of the things that’s important about Beowulf is that the story doesn’t stop with Grendel’s mother.

  10. Moff says:

    That all makes sense. And anyone who doesn’t enjoy Steven Seagal movies on some level is a little suspect, in my book.

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    If you ignore the fact that the acting was downright hilarious and the director seemed to not know whether the foreground or background action should be in focus, then yes, “The 13th Warrior” was not that bad.

    (This is unfair – had it retained its badass “Eaters of the Dead” title, I would probably work a lot harder to defend it.)

  12. braak says:

    I actually think the hilarious acting contributes considerably to its charm.

  13. Jeff Holland says:

    Herger the Joyous: Where did you learn our language?
    Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan: I LISTENED!

    You are adorable, Antonio Banderas.

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