Spoilers will follow. You have been warned.
I had written before that this movie had vikings, dragons, and Angelina Jolie in a non-political movie. What more do you need to know? In a visceral sense, the movie delivers. The vikings are vikings, the dragon is done quite well, and Angelina Jolie, well . . . is sufficiently lacking of clothing. In fact, it is a good movie. It is action packed. The CGI-animated medium did not disappoint (though, it still seems to have a problem with conveying human faces). BUT . . . the movie would have been much better if it had been named something else, because this is NOT the story of Beowulf.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for changing up the story, adding layers of complexity, and tinkering with plot details to make a better more exciting story. However, I think that if you are still going to retain the title of the work you are reimagining, you should show a little respect for the spirit of the original tale. Here is where Beowulf fell on its sword in my mind (of course, if you know nothing about the original epic tale, this should not be a problem for you).
The original tale was not very complex: A viking hero confronts a series of monsters to save his people and gain everlasting glory. I can understand the need for plot development in such a tale in order to make a commercially successful movie in the year 2007. The story of Beowulf is a hero tale, an epic about nobility and sacrifice. This movie is a story about an ego-maniac whose sins bring death and destruction upon himself and his people. Essentially, they have turned a hero epic into a tragedy. I suppose that is all well and good, but why did they need to do that?
Indeed, it is the manly Viking egos of Beowulf and the King Hrothgar that are the true villains of this tale. They are responsible for the monsters plaguing their people. I guess this is a good story, but I am sick of hearing about the “hero” that isn’t really a hero. I want to see stories about HEROES. Early in the movie, Hrothgar remarks that his people need a “Hero.” “Yes!,” I thought. It turns out that all they need is a King with the ability to keep his trousers on. The original Beowulf is a tale about the epic hero. This movie is about turning heroes into big giant jokes. Sure, they do incredible things (wouldn’t be much of a movie if they did not), but they are only doing them to clean up their own messes. Where’s the nobility in that?
Imagine going to a Superman movie in which Superman is responsible for all the bad things that are happening. At what point does he cease to be Superman, and actually becomes the villain? Pretty quick right? Is that a movie you want to see? That is essentially what they have done to Beowulf in this movie. He is pompous, arrogant, greedy, and a liar. We might just be willing to sweep all that under the rug because, well, he’s a Viking. Conan, anyone? But, where Conan the Barbarian had a heart of gold. Beowulf has no heart.
But perhaps this is a cautionary tale. Perhaps, they are turning Beowulf into tragic anti-hero for a reason? Will the next leader learn from Beowulf’s mistakes. At the movie’s end, we are left with every indication that the answer is no. It almost seems that the problem is “men.” As long as men rule, they will always fall victim to the charms of femme fatale. The virtuous Queen Wealthhow seems the only one capable of resisting the charms of Grendel’s mother. How she would deal with protecting her kingdom from Grendel’s mother is another matter.
The movie’s tagline is “Pride is the Curse” so I guess I should have known. Apparently, there does not seem to be any way to end that curse. There is no hope. That is the tragedy. I suppose as a story on its own, that is all well and good, but it certainly did not do the epic hero tale of Beowulf justice.
A final note:
Contrast this movie with the recent movie “300” about the Spartans at Thermopylae. 300 was a surprise box office smash. It took obvious liberties with the historical facts about the battle of Thermopylae, but it captured the spirit of Herodotus’ account about the last stand of the Spartans. The story was an ennobling one about sacrifice and the cost of liberty. It could have been easily turned into a post-modern tale of ego, stupidity, and the futility of battle (i.e., like this movie version of Beowulf). I will be surprised if Beowulf does as well at the box office, and I wonder if it will have anything to do with that difference.