Film Review: Beowulf*
First posted in December, 2007

* Beowulf the film... not to be confused
with the poem of the same name

Tonight I learned a couple of sneaky ways that you, as a movie maker, can make a better movie out of a timeless epic:

(1)   If you're going to make a movie with some interesting monsters in it, the way to keep your audience from noticing how poorly rendered your CGI monsters are is to simply make everything with bad CGI. Grendel? Of course! Beowulf? Why not? All the gore? Gotta get a PG-13 rating out of it somehow - might as well make the blood look pretty fake!

Okay, so I'm being a bit overly critical here. Maybe. I'm generally not a fan of CGI when it comes to representing humanoid forms, and was unaware before the movie began that the entire thing is done in CGI. In some respects, the CGI exceeded my expectations; from time to time character expression and movement were intensely realistic and impressive, and I rather enjoyed the way they based the likenesses of characters on their respective voice actors. But in general, the humans still felt very, very fake, and I still don't think that Hollywood is ready for a realistic all-CGI character film. The backgrounds, of course, were fairly good - CGI technology is pretty decent these days when it comes to settings, both man-made and natural. I think I would have preferred to see real actors superimposed in the CGI world, or just the standard CGI-monsters superimposed on otherwise real sets with real actors.

As for the gore, I think that they made a good call on the CGI there, but only for the reason stated (not altogether facetiously) above. Prior to seeing the film, I just figured they'd tone down the gore to avoid a more restrictive movie rating (and thus deviate wildly from the original story) because they'll want lots of teenagers to go see this. After all, lots of secondary and high school students are required to read Beowulf - watching a movie sure is easier than wading through the Wikipedia entry, and definitely easier than, y'know, reading (only) 3183 lines of poetry. Because, really - who reads poetry these days? Please.

Which brings me to my second point...

(2)   If you're going to deviate from a story that's over a millennium old, the best way to get around everyone being angry is to throw in a plausible plot twist that wasn't originally present.

So, they kept the gore. Which was great. I'm not really into violent films, and hate fight scenes usually, but the fight scenes were rather entertaining, and, dare I say it, often amusing (but then, I have a dark sense of humor... at one point, when Beowulf had been swallowed by a giant sea monster, I leaned over to Sam and started whispering, "Oh please, please have him cut his way out from inside!" and was delighted to see that, not only did Beowulf cut his way out, but he emerged from the eye - not the boring old stomach, which was what I was (rather mundanely) hoping for).

Keeping the gore means keeping to the story, right? Well, at first, sure. For, say, the first fifteen or so minutes of the film they were pretty much spot-on. Just enough to catch the average slacking student who's only read the first little bit of the poem unawares. At first the deviations are pretty minor, and in fact they kept a lot of the finer details that I figured would be omitted (they had to go to outrageous lengths (pun possibly intended) to have Beowulf fight Grendel in the nude without risking a restrictive rating, for example). However, by the middle of the movie things go way out of control. That's when I realized that, while it's hard to omit bits of story from a poem that's only three thousand lines long, it's actually really, really easy to add as much stuff as you want! The thing that kept me smiling, long after they'd butchered the plot of the poem, was thinking about how many completely screwed up Beowulf essays are going to be turned in, how many English lit tests are going to be failed, all due to this one film. Mwuhahaha!

At first I was a little upset that they'd bollocksed the plot all up, especially since Neil Gaiman was one of the one of the writers behind the screenplay (I expected a bit more out of ol' Neil), and because the cast included some people who I thought were above participating in a full-fledged rewrite of a classic like this (Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, and Angelina Jolie come to mind here). But they didn't just shake the whole thing up without admitting to it. No, they got all crafty. They came up with a rather plausible reason for totally twisting the plot. And the twist that they give it is, I think, rather well done. So well done, in fact, that I'll admit that I like the movie version better. There. I said it, and I'll stand by it. But the fact of the matter is, I really disagree on principle with taking the oldest surviving epic in British literature and rewriting it. Not just a little bit - I mean really having your way with it. But I did walk away feeling strangely unsettled by the fact that I liked their version better and that, had I been alive a millennium ago and been the one jotting down my interpretation of what had been, until then, oral tradition, I might have chosen the craftier, wilier plot. But then, I'm no Neil Gaiman. And, for better or worse, neither was the poet who put Beowulf to parchment.