Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Beowulf and Tolkien

There’s an interesting article in Salon today comparing the new Beowulf film by Robert Zemeckis with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Much better researched and argued than usual for its type. And it gets major bonus points from me for the author’s discussion of Tolkien’s landmark essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” as well as for quoting from his poem, “Mythopoeia.”

Here’s a nice excerpt that gets straight to the point of how and why Zemeckis’s Beowulf is fundamentally flawed (even if it may be an exciting and dazzling visual spectacle — I haven’t seen it yet):

“Beowulf” doesn’t fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But “Beowulf” is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.

A very astute criticism.

Has anyone seen the film yet? Anyone planning to? I probably will, but with carefully managed expectations. I haven’t seen any of the previous film versions, but I have read Michael Crichton’s The Thirteenth Warrior (the novel’s original — and better — title is Eaters of the Dead). A very enjoyable retelling of the myth. Speaking of which, another very original adaptation is John Gardner’s Grendel.


  1. No way I will buy a ticket for this Beowulf, since that's a vote: "Please continue to make stuff like this."

    I wish that Akira Kurosawa had filmed it, or, say, Grettir's Saga. His Throne of Blood shows that he could evoke a stark landscape and a doom-drenched story with supernatural elements. If you haven't seen Throne, I'd say save your Beowulf money and rent or buy Throne instead.

    Speaking of sagas and movies, I have wondered for years of Werner Herzog or somebody else involved with the making of his conquistador movie Aguirre: The Wrath of God had been reading them.

    In Grettir's Saga, Thorbjorn drives his spear through Atli's body. Atli says (Chapter 45) "Broad spears are becoming fashionable nowadays."

    In Laxdaela Saga, Audgisl beheads Thorgils. Thorgils had been counting pieces of silver (Chapter 67). He counts "Ten," loses his head, and (some attest) says "Eleven" as his head flies off his shoulders.

    I don't have a copy of the movie, but incidents just like these occur in Herzog's movie.

  2. I will probably still see it, just purely as an adventure spectacle. I respect your ticket=vote point, but I figure they’re going to make this stuff anyway, whether I see it or not. So I may as well know what all the fuss is about. :)

    And while a Kurosawa version might be more faithful, it wouldn’t make any money. Those who care about art, of course, don’t care about profit; but the movie business does. Even art-house films have to be profitable to some extent, or in some (often secondary) way. Which may be why there isn’t a Kurosawa or Herzog version.

    Besides, without a big, loud, sexy, 3D movie, how do you market all the toys, action figures, Playstation games, Halloween costumes, and other crap we Americans simply must have with our movies? ;)