Dec 6


[Warning: a few minor spoilers may be found below.]  Okay, full disclosure: I teach the poem Beowulf, and since it seems that every fantasy-related work I teach in that class is destined to have a lousy movie made about it, I wanted to weigh in here.  Thus far reviews seem to be running towards the positive side, about 70% on Rotten Tomatoes from both critics and users (who would have thought they could get along?) and a B grade average from the critics at Yahoo Movies.  Sounds reasonable; hell, the RT users gave The Shawshank Redemption 98%, so obviously they know what's what, right?  And just check out the raves the critics are giving the film:

"An animated action epic you can feel in your loins."   (Nice.  I felt The Polar Express in my elbow, mostly.)

 "…plenty of swordplay, monster-slaying and a naked Angelina Jolie turn the centuries-old poem into a bitching action movie." (Bitching!)

"Beowulf couldn't be less faithful to the original epic poem, and that's actually a good thing for moviegoers. It's a lot more fun than the mythic adventure most of us read in school." 

Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.  What?

Uh-oh.  Turns out USA Today's Claudia Puig (I have no idea…if your name was Puig, you'd probably have to become a movie reviewer too) pretty much summarizes what everyone who loves the movie loves most about it: it's not Beowulf.  Really.  It's got a cool warrior, sure, and a whothehellknowswhatthisisbutit'sabad-ass monster, and a kick-ass dragon, and a hot woman, and sweet CG graphics (if you don't already know, that means computer-generated, and get with the program if you didn't know, you fossils!).  But it's definitely not the poem, and that's great.  Apparently.  You can tell from all the offhanded references to "wouldn't please the English teachers" in these reviews that there are some awfully bitter ex-AP English refugees out there.

Now I'll be the first to admit that Beowulf taught wrong wouldn't be a fun experience for anyone.  I read it for the first time in college, but if I had been a high school freshman trying to slog through too much "Ongeat pa se goda grund-wyrgenne, / mere-wif mihtig; maegen-raes forgeaf" I probably would have ripped off my own arm.  (By the way, that means "The hero observed that swamp-thing from hell, / the tarn-hag in all her terrible strength."  It's talking about Grendel's mother.  You know, Angelina Jolie.  The resemblance is striking.  Surprised)  But the fact that some teachers teach the poem too early, or don't know how to teach it properly (by forgetting to emphasize the fact that it is a bitching action poem as well, for example, or actually trying to make modern students read it in the original Old English instead of a good translation), isn't a reason to throw it out, or approve of a movie which thinks it's okay to do so.  What this appears to come down to is that a lot of people are going to see the movie, thinking "Thank God, it was called Beowulf but I didn't want to gouge my eyes out from boredom watching it the way I did when Mrs. Grumpleclown made me read it in high school, this is obviously a masterwork," and then going home and writing reviews about how freaking great it is.


But the problem with this is that in the meantime, the actual story isn't getting told.  This isn't the first time they've taken a shot at Beowulf, you know; a movie came out in 2005 called Beowulf and Grendel which was even worse (I've seen it, and all I can say is that when you have Grendel as a 7 foot tall Neanderthal who yells a lot and an inexplicable (and inexplicably) Scottish woman, hot though she may be, who plays the "must have sex in this tale somehow" role, you've got problems), and there was even a sci-fi try with the inimitable Christopher Lambert before that.  And in each case, the story itself has gotten lost.  This is an action tale, yes, and there is a curse, yes, but it's an action tale about a very flawed man whose only "curse" is to trust himself above all others, even in the end when he's well beyond his "taking out nine sea monsters at once" years.  Beowulf is a great hero, and an inspirational one, but he also falsely believes (despite warnings from Hrothgar) that he can conquer everything, even death itself.  In the meantime he's not doing anything to teach his people how to defend themselves, and the end of the poem is sad precisely because he doesn't realize his limitations, or more exactly, because he doesn't realize that he needs others to overcome them.  Result?  Beowulf's country after his death is in big, big trouble.  In the movie, it's really all Grendel's mother's fault, evidently, and since Angelina Jolie is hot, I guess we can't blame the men for being all hot and bothered by her even if she is a "swamp-thing from hell."

Look, I don't have any problem with playing with mythology; my almost-finished second novel plays with myths a bit too, and a lot of good fantasy fiction stretches and inverts standard conventions.  My problem is that we haven't actually seen the standard conventions of this tale yet, an honest to God Beowulf as the poet intended, and I think that story deserves to be seen on film.  Such a story would still be bitching even without Angelina Jolie.  Neil Gaiman (for whom I have a lot of respect–he can write and is a good guy too), who co-wrote the screenplay, says that this film is "filling in the gaps."  Except it's not; it's creating new gaps and then filling them.  If you want something which fills in the gaps, go read John Gardner's Grendel, which tells the Beowulf story from Grendel's perspective and which plays with and expands the original greatly without doing violence to the spirit of the work.  In fact, you could do a pretty good movie about that book too.  But in the meantime, make a movie just like the one you made, but call it The Revenge of Grendel's Hot Mom or something like that.  And leave your bitterness over your boring high school English classes at the door, please; take it out on The Scarlet Letter, if you must, but leave poor old Beowulf alone.  He's got enough to worry about.

4 Responses to “Seriously, Grendel’s mom just isn’t supposed to be that hot.”

  1. J Kn Says:

    REal – Very good appreciation of the new movie AND the problem that Hollywood-ians always have in trying to put a book on the screen. I’m going to be reviewing this for our feeble office newsletter – do you mind if, with attribution, I quote from your review?
    In any event, thanks – Cheers.
    [Marking your site as a Favorite; and then:]
    P.S. On my pc’s, your “Leave a Reply” backgrd color is slate, but the text color is black – black on black, basically: makes for very iffy typing when the characters all seem invisible!

  2. Real Writer Says:

    Hey J Kn…thanks for the kind words, and of course, you’re welcome to use the review (and tell everyone how great the place where it came from is, of course… 😉 ). Welcome to the discussion, and please stick around. As for the text color when inputting it into the comment section, you’re right, and I’m not yet sure how to fix it–I’ll try to look into it, but if anyone with WordPress knowledge has any idea how to handle it in the meantime I’d love to hear from you.


  3. Amy Says:

    Thanks for this review. I have just been given a class set of the graphic novel to teach to a rowdy, disengaged group of year 10 boys, and was wondering whether to show them the film or not. So I watched it. What a waste of time! Loved the original story – as told in the graphic novel – but was so disappointed by the sexualisation and over commercialism of the film. I hate Angelina, so that kinda made it worse… You review helped me to form my ideas more clearly. Cheers!

  4. A Writer Says:

    Thanks for the comment. Amy, and yeah–although I don’t hate Angelina, I could do without the ridiculous exploitation of her celebrity in a story which shouldn’t need it. Welcome, and please stick around!


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