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Beowulf and Grendel

December 16th, 2006 (01:00 pm)
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current music: miscellaneous Fairport

Last night's film at Lady Alysande's was meant to be A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, the Bing Crosby version, which I'd ordered from the US a few weeks ago, and left at Lady A's other half Q's porter's lodge, only to find that it disappeared. Lady A subsequently borrowed Beowulf and Grendel from a film reviewer friend, with Q frantically reformatting it for his home-made projection system as VC and I arrived.

Lady A and VC had been apprehensive about Beowulf and Grendel, largely thought the knowledge that St Brendan appears in it. I don't know the stories but I learned from both that Brendan and Beowulf don't fit well. As it happens neither had anything to be afraid of - Brendan here is a personification of the Christian voice in the Beowulf poem, apparently, introduced at the point in the story where critics are agreed Christian themes are introduced, and done away in a casually brutal fashion by a hitherto sidelined major character towards the end. My main issue with the film was the dialogue, which lurches clumsily from the heroic, to pub closing time talk, to the 'hood. I took a little time to get used to Gerard Butler's Scottish Beowulf, who surfaces - literally - in such a way that I expected him to say that he's been walking along the sea bed and all he knows is that he's two days out from Inverness.

In this version Grendel's motivation is textbook stuff - as a bearded, blond child he saw Hrothgar kill his father, and since has nursed the mummified head in his cave - and a new character, Selma, a witch who lives outside the Danes' settlement, in her person (a slightly underfed Sarah Polley) negotiates what becomes an equilibrium between Beowult and Grendel, even though realisation comes too late. The production has a homespun feel, as if the cameras have just been set rolling without any great effort to compose actors and scenery into an image that tells a story. Sturla Gunnarsson's picture could thus be a useful corrective to anyone feeling that they have been exposed to too much of Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's middle earth. There were some striking pictures, though, such as the Geats'  ship sailing through a frozen landscape in search of Grendel's lair, that spoke to my sense of personal location. I thought of Britain as an island suspended between the north and the west, and I come from a part of the country where that tension is most felt. I live in a 'western' territory, but watchign the film made me yearn for the north; the Christmas visit to Northumberland will be insufficient, I think. I need a visit to northern Scotland, Iceland or parts Scandinavian.


Posted by: The Two Trees (arda_unmarred)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 05:48 am (UTC)

What a coincidence! I just watched Beowulf and Grendel yesterday. I was not impressed. Even the scenery could not make up for the horribly misplaced "realistic" dialogue, the cliched "I was wronged as a child and now I'm taking revenge but really I have a heart of gold" plotline, and the fact that no one, especially Sarah Polley, bothered to get rid of their national accents. I wonder what the Hollywood Beowulf will be like...

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 10:20 am (UTC)

I was wondering what the decision to leave all the accents on said; perhaps that being a Dane or a Geat was more a matter of attitude and commitment than ethnicity. I didn't say that there was something about Sarah Polley's performance that made me expect her to pull out a guitar and break into dolefully reflective contemporary song, and the Canadian accent contributed to that. Overall, though, I thought the refusal to hide the different nationalities of the performers contributed to the homespunness.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC)
Beowulf and Grendel

With the poem being written in Old English, the filmmakers surmised that the Scottish brogue is the closest to Old English you would have been likely to find for centuries. Therefore, they hired all the Geats from Scotland, with the exception of one from Wales. Icelandic accents were chosen for the Danes for the obvious reason that the film was shot on that island and the accents are very similar to Swedish. Apparently when funds are procured for a film the cast and crew must be hired from those countries or origin. This film was a Canada/Iceland/UK production. Stellan Skarsgard (Hrothgar) being Swedish was not acceptable to those funding the film. The filmmakers fought for him for obvious reasons and won. The director's reasoning for Sarah Polley not using an accent as a Dane was to further remove her from the tribe that had cast her out. He has since apologized profusely. As for Brendan, I don't recall if they labeled him a saint or simply a missionary priest by the same name. Their lengthy research showed that as far back as the 5th century missionaries did go out in small boats across the sea and happened to find their way into the UK, Scandinavia, Europe, etc. from many places of origin. So whichever century you feel Beowulf was written, they've provided nothing too far fetched for the period. As for the "pub dialog" while the "F" word, in particular, only goes back 500 years, men are men and always have been and likely have always had their derogatory words and phrases. They opted to go with something familiar to the viewing public. Actually, I'm not sure they know what the 1500 year old equivalent is. Lastly, they decided to take the poem back to its origin, to a time and place where this tale might have began...in reality. That would be a place where there were no "monsters" and no things in the night of a supernatural origin. They reasoned what might be likely to happen in human terms. If you do research the epic poem and it's translations and whatnot, you will read about the tribe of giants surviving Goliath and the "sons of Cain." And just so you know, the comedy was intended. The screenwriter was certain that humor didn't originate in our lifetime.

If you follow every film taken from anything written and expect it to follow to the big screen verbatim, you will always be disappointed. If you decide to see the upcoming film 300 you would do well to read Gates of Fire as well as Frank Miller's comic book. A little information goes a long way. Wait until a film hits the bargain bin and you've just missed way too much. All the scholars and critics of note have been heard from. We've all learned a lot on many subjects all originating from the epic poem Beowulf. Visit www.wrathofgods.com to see some of what you've missed. A side note for arda_unmarred, the Hollywood version will be animated. If you want to do some backup research, just watch Polar Express.


Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 03:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Beowulf and Grendel

Thank you for commenting. I had wondered whether Sarah Polley's Canadian accent was being used as you describe. I'm not being as critical as you seem to think - the 'homespunness' is actually part of the film's charm. I declare myself innocent of expecting a verbatim transcription of the poem to the screen, and agree that Brendan's travels are not far fetched; we discussed this point after watching the film, when I pointed out to the medieval scholars I was watching with that even if none of the Brendan story appears his appearance was consistent with being a 'navigator' of the period.

I'm not sure what humour you were referring to, but surely no one would question that "humor didn't originate in our lifetime"?

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 10:29 am (UTC)

We can heartily recommend Orkney and the Icelandic countryside (and, to a slightly lesser extent, Shetland).

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 11:21 am (UTC)

I'd love to explore those places, though I don't think it's going to happen for a while.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 11:25 am (UTC)

All are a little difficult, and hence expensive and time-consuming, to get to. However, it can be done. There is a bus-cum-ferry to Orkney from Inverness, which is cheap enough; and on the ferry from Aberdeen, if you make do with a reclining seat, the fare is low. Or, by flying from Luton via Aberdeen, we were there by 11 am.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 11:29 am (UTC)

I will bear all these options in mind. I love northern Scotland, but have only glimpsed Orkney from Duncansby Head, a long time ago.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 21st, 2006 04:18 pm (UTC)

I agree, especially about Iceland.
But of course, the "real" countryside of most of Beowulf (now near Copenhagen) is a lot tamer (and easier/cheaper to get to...).
Looking forward to seeing the film, I only just heard of it today.


Posted by: aranelcharis (aranelcharis)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 01:26 pm (UTC)

apparently, introduced at the point in the story where critics are agreed Christian themes are introduced

Eh?? Critics are agreed? They never agree! I for one disagree just to be meddlesome. :)

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 01:40 pm (UTC)

And you'll be telling us next that critics agree when the story was first composed ;-)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC)

Eh?? Critics are agreed? They never agree! I for one disagree just to be meddlesome. :)

And here I am yearning for consensus... I've never read nor studied Beowulf, so could only report what my fellow-viewers told me. I was told that the shape of latterday Beowulf criticism is determined by The Monsters and the Critics, though.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 21st, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC)

"I was told that the shape of latterday Beowulf criticism is determined by The Monsters and the Critics, though."

That was a ceratinly a mile-stone, but (in hindsight) really only in the development of a whole new set of disagreements...


Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC)
Northern holiday
Grey Havens

I have been privately plotting a frivolous expedition in the Caledonian Sleeper to wherever it ends up and back, possibly spending a night there in between... the plotting is likely to end when I discover how many multiples of Boston-Chicago it will cost, though. You'd be welcome to join me/us :-)

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 07:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Northern holiday

Book a long way in advance and you can get some pretty reasonable prices. And planned changes to the (non-sleeper) timetables will mean that you can get between Orkney and London in a day.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 08:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Northern holiday

A cheap overnight return from Euston to Fort William for mid-February seems to be in the region of £61.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: December 17th, 2006 08:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Northern holiday

Thank you for the invitation - it's an attractive idea, though I'd like to spend longer in Scotland, just being quiet, I think.