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