Mother of all sagas

The screen may pro­vide mod­ern au­di­ences with an en­tree to clas­sic lit­er­a­ture, writes Rose­mary Sorensen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THE mak­ing of a semi- an­i­mated movie ver­sion of Be­owulf , the old­est ex­tant epic poem writ­ten in the English lan­guage, tells us much about our col­lec­tive state of mind. Much of what it tells us is not bad but some of it is deeply trou­bling.

The ad­ver­tis­ing poster is a good place to start. Not many of us, con­fronted with the shapely legs and cur­va­ceous bot­tom of a golden wo­man whose feet ap­pear to be stiletto shaped and who sports a devil’s long tail, would au­to­mat­i­cally go, yep, that’d be Gren­del’s mother.

The first thing di­rec­tor Robert Ze­meckis and his gung- ho, ir­re­press­ibly boyo pair of writ­ers, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, tell us is that any block­buster aimed at the child­ishly mas­cu­line dom­i­nant vis­ual par­a­digm of our times must of­fer up women like a bon­bon: sticky and sug­ared with a naughty dash of head- emp­ty­ing liqueur at the cen­tre. We can’t get too up­set. We are very used to it, even if we’re still be­mused that bo­soms, even spec­tac­u­larly well- shaped ones such as An­gelina Jolie’s, are made to do weirdly un­likely things, curv­ing like the prow of a Vik­ing boat while re­main­ing static in even the most vig­or­ous ac­tion se­quence.

But weird doesn’t be­gin to cover the fact our film­mak­ers have de­cided not only that any ac­tion hero needs to be se­duced ( the un­known writ­ers of the orig­i­nal Be­owulf con­sid­ered it unessen­tial to the plot), but to turn one of the most un­sexy women in lit­er­a­ture into the mother of all vamps. Even the mak­ers of that un­for­get­table mon­ster mother in Alien , which ap­par­ently was in­spired by Gren­del’s mother from Be­owulf , doesn’t trans­form into Jolie with gold stilet­tos. It’s in­struc­tive that for this tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced film ver­sion of an an­cient epic, the ac­tor who plays Be­owulf was cho­sen for his voice, while the ac­tor who plays Gren­del’s mother was se­lected for her body. Sim­plis­tic times we live in.

This is, if not for­giv­able, at least un­der­stand­able. Box- of­fice driven, the filmic for­mula is sim­ple: you have to have a fe­male sex sym­bol in your movie if it is to suc­ceed, which may ex­plain why Ni­cole Kid­man is cast in roles be­yond her act­ing ca­pa­bil­ity.

In­ter­est­ingly, we have not had Kid­man try­ing to be El­iz­a­beth Ben­net or Por­tia ( though she did do a pass­able job with Henry James’s Por­trait of a Lady ) and this leads us to a sec­ond ob­ser­va­tion about our times. We are still, mer­ci­fully, quite re­spect­ful of clas­sic lit­er­a­ture.

While Hol­ly­wood went through a joy­ously over- the- top pe­riod of plun­der­ing ev­ery­thing from the Greek myths ( ripe for plun­der, it’s true) to Shake­speare, we are in­creas­ingly well served by the text- into- film genre. Kirk Douglas sow­ing the seeds for his ter­ri­fy­ing skele­ton army in Ulysses may not have been too con­cerned about em­body­ing a sense of the classical mag­nif­i­cence of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey , but those old films were pow­er­fully fo­cused on the ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries they were vi­su­al­is­ing. Shake­speare, the vul­gar­ity of the El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton era not­with­stand­ing, has been treated with par­tic­u­lar skill and wis­dom.

In­creas­ingly, we’ve come to re­spect the po­tency of the text as more than a ve­hi­cle for the story, even if this re­spect has to be sub­dued, hid­den be­hind cliches about pas­sion and re­venge and shal­low in­ter­views with the star ac­tors who get to dress up.

It must work as a way to at­tract peo­ple into cine­mas and even the theatre, oth­er­wise why would opera com­pa­nies ad­ver­tise the most beau­ti­ful works as tales of lust and mur­der? It’s hard to imag­ine buy­ing a ticket to Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor to get a fix of sex and vi­o­lence, but mar­ket­ing ad­vice must be telling arts com­pa­nies that’s a good strat­egy. The sex and vi­o­lence con­tent of this mod­i­fied Be­owulf was not, ap­par­ently, suf­fi­cient to re­as­sure the film­mak­ers they should in­vest in it as an en­ter­tain­ment.

It was more an in­sur­ance, a trump card to jus­tify tak­ing the next step in the new tech­nol­ogy Ze­meckis calls per­for­mance cap­ture’’, where the ac­tor is wired up and moves in a vir­tu­ally bare stu­dio, and is later embed­ded into an an­i­mated set. Us­ing this tech­nol­ogy, Be­owulf has been cre­ated to give the viewer a three­d­i­men­sional ex­pe­ri­ence so im­mer­sive, so per­cep­tu­ally strange, that it can per­haps be com­pared only with that of read­ing.

No one has been able to ad­e­quately ex­plain that switch into the read­ing space that hap­pens when you are so in­volved in a text you are ab­sorbed by it. What is com­pletely dif­fer­ent in film, and in par­tic­u­lar with th­ese new film tech­nolo­gies, is that the lan­guage used fades dra­mat­i­cally in sig­nif­i­cance and the im­por­tance of the im­age in­creases in di­rect mea­sure.

This is not to say that read­ing is good, film is bad, or that a text ver­sion of Be­owulf is al­ways go­ing to of­fer a su­pe­rior ex­pe­ri­ence to that of sit­ting be­fore a huge screen with the rot­ting mon­ster Gren­del drip­ping saliva on to your pop­corn. A gen­er­a­tion of peo­ple now knows, how­ever par­tially, that there was once, in the so­ci­eties of what is now Bri­tain, a story told about a hero who fought one too many mon­sters. That has to be counted as a pos­i­tive. This film, how­ever silly the sexy bits and gory the vi­o­lence, also in­vites us to pick up a book ver­sion, piquing our cu­rios­ity about the ori­gins of this grandly con­ceived film.

In an ideal world, in which our cu­rios­ity would not be ham­pered by pro­pa­ganda about how lit­er­a­ture is elit­ist and only the dull and ir­rel­e­vant pur­sue it, the pub­li­ca­tion in 1999 of No­bel lau­re­ate Sea­mus Heaney’s verse trans­la­tion of Be­owulf would have sent us in droves to dis­cover for our­selves this foun­da­tion text.

Pos­si­bly it was that great poet’s work that first in­spired th­ese film­mak­ers to do their own Be­owulf . Pos­si­bly it was the enor­mous resur­gence of in­ter­est in J. R. R. Tolkien fol­low­ing Peter Jack­son’s su­perb ren­der­ing of The Lord of the Rings into film.

Tolkien was re­spon­si­ble for rein­vig­o­rat­ing in­ter­est in Be­owulf when he de­liv­ered a lec­ture ti­tled The Mon­sters and the Crit­ics. The year was 1936 and there he was, talk­ing about how read­ing Be­owulf as an in­su­lar his­tory of the Danes was miss­ing the point and that it should be seen as an epic about the eter­nal strug­gle against evil.

If in­deed a sex- en­hanced Be­owulf , with mon­sters so re­al­is­tic they leap off the screen at us, can be said to tell us some­thing about the state we’re in, it tells us we are less in­ter­ested in open­ing our­selves to the im­mensely plea­sur­able and in­fin­itely puz­zling chal­lenge of texts as un­know­able as Be­owulf and more in­ter­ested in the sim­ple thrill of what we know.

Gold stilet­tos are easy to un­der­stand; a slip­pery, elu­sive, dan­ger­ous be­ing who we must de­fine as we glimpse her through a kalei­do­scope of texts is maybe not so easy, at least from a mar­ket­ing per­spec­tive.

In my wildest dreams, I imag­ine Jolie telling us which trans­la­tion of Be­owulf she most ad­mires.

Text ap­peal: Viggo Mortensen in a scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Re­turn of the King

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