Now that Beowulf and Grendel is available on DVD, here's my long-promised review/critique. Please note that there will be plenty of spoilers herein, so if you don't want spoilers, stop reading. There's also a bit of foul language quoted from the film later, too. I'm going to critique the film on two fronts: quality as a film itself, and as an interpretation of the poem Beowulf.
First, as a film -- Beowulf and Grendel is high enough quality that it would have been worth the money to see it in the theaters, but that's about it. The costuming and photography are good, with lots of wind-swept vistas of rock and snow, and the costumes have enough verisimilitude that they appeared authentic enough to me at first glance.
It has a few problems, though. I found the accents rather annoying. Along with the vaguely Scandinavian accents are mingled a few Irish accents, and one notable American accent. With the exception of the Irish missionary (who had the appropriate accent), let's just pick and accent and stick with it, OK? If the Geats and Danes had used different accents, that would have been fine, but there was no consistancy.
The pacing of the film was off, too. I was rather put off by the long stretches of angst. The action scenes are oddly short and understated. Grendel's first attack on Heorot Hall is not even shown; we just get to see the carnage. The final battle with Beowulf is very, very short. In fact, there is a scene of Grendel urinating (not, by the way, the only urination scene in the film, which has as much urine as blood) that I suspect is longer than the battle in which Grendel is mortally wounded.
Instead, we get long periods in which Beowulf broods on how terrible it is to be famous, and on the justice of killing Grendel. Even then ... and this point seems lost on everyone in the film ... Beowulf does not actually kill Grendel. The reactions of the various people to Grendel's death seem at odds with what happened in the film. It was like the characters in the film had read the poem, rather than experienced the movie. Grendel's death is an act of self-mutilation/suicide. As far as I can remember, Beowulf never actually draws blood on Grendel, which leads me to wonder why he felt so guilty about killing a troll he never actually killed. Selma (a character invented for the film) too talks about how Beowulf "killed" Grendel. I think the writers got lost, and forgot what was theirs and what was the poet's.
All this seems rather negative, but overall it was a good film. The characters of the Geats are developed enough that I was able to distinguish one from another, and when one of them died, I was able to identify who had died and why. Too often in these kinds of films "Geatish Warrior #1" and "Geatish Warrior #6" are indistinguishable.
Even better, it was a poetically beautiful film. It opens with "Hwaet!" and a few lines of Anglo-Saxon style verse that is not actually out of the poem. The character Thorkel acts as scop, developing the tale of Beowulf as it unfolds, and the quality of their fake Anglo-Saxon verse is really quite high. If I had the money, I'd get the actor who played Thorkel to come to my classes and read aloud real Old English poetry. It was delightfully evocative.
The love interest (one dare not call it "romantic interest") for Beowulf that was developed for the film is rather good, I think. Because of the complexity of the relationship Beowulf develops with the witch/whore Selma, I began to find her an interesting character. Coming into the film, my expectation was that the "Selma" figure would be a Meg Ryan-style bland, cardboard cutout love interest. I am glad to be wrong.
The film's hostility toward Christianity is distracting (and confuses the themes ... more of this in the next section). Very quickly I began not to care about the subplot of the missionary coming, and wished that Grendel would just kill all the Christians so the filmmakers could stop posturing and get on with the movie. Yes, we get it -- you think Christianity is just a bunch of lies spouted by madmen, that people accept out of desperation and fear. If you want that to be your theme, why not try doing a film of Tartuffe, or something that actually fits that premise?
The film as an interpretation of Beowulf -- as far as faithfulness to the poem goes, this is far and away the best, but then again, the competition isn't very stiff. The basics are the same -- Geatish warrior Beowulf goes to help the Danish king Hrothgar fight off a troll, Grendel, who has been attacking Heorot Hall. After the death of Grendel, Grendel's mother arrives to avenge him, so Beowulf goes into her underwater cave to confront her and kill her. The story does not go on to the dragon episode.
Any professors out there who are worried that their freshmen might watch the movie instead of reading the poem have no need to worry, though. There are enough changes that someone trying to fake having read the poem will out themselves. The time frame is stretched out quite a bit, and the character of Selma (the aforementioned witch/whore) is one of the main characters, even though she has no analogue in the poem.
Grendel is, very explicitly, a troll. He wasn't a Tolkien-style cave troll, nor a rubbery D&D style troll. Instead, he was much more like trolls seem in the old Scandinavian epics -- large, burly, hairy, and man-like. On the one hand, I think this vision gets closer to the image of Grendel that the original audience would have had.
This Grendel, though, is what I refer to as the Postmodern Grendel -- deeply misunderstood. Way back when John Gardener was re-imagining Grendel as simply misunderstood and flawed, this reading was audacious. Now, it is simply boring and pedestrian. I find that my students are incapable of understanding Grendel as evil, or as an enemy of God.* This film advances that postmodern image. Our first scenes of Grendel are of a very cute child (with a beard) playing with his father, who is pointlessly cut down by Hrothgar and his men. Again and again, Grendel's refusal to enter into a dishonorable fight is drilled into the viewers' minds.
Beowulf too, is envisioned as a foil to the poem-Beowulf. He's not a boaster. Instead, he is full of humility, and grows weary of the over-praise of him. If I can use a comparison from Shakespeare, the poem-Beowulf is an Othello -- a man who never talks when he can act. The film-Beowulf is a Hamlet -- a man who never acts when he can talk. By the end of the film, peace is possible not because Beowulf has defeated evil, but because he has made peace with that which was considered evil. While I think this worked thematically for the film, it is obviously a reversal of the ideas of the poem. Evil in the poem is to be vanquished; evil in the film is to be understood.
Two themes, though, didn't work so well. One was the theme of Beowulf's fame leading to an exaggeration of his abilities, presumably leading to the epic we have today. Frankly, I'm getting sick of these materialistic, hyper-secularlized reimaginings (consider Troy, for example). What's wrong with having the gods? Even if I weren't grumpy about it, it still doesn't work for the film, and again it is a problem with consistency. OK, so Beowulf was just a normal man whose hero-myth got blown out of proportion ... then why have trolls be real? Why have sea hags be real? According to the film, Beowulf really did swim for two days in the open sea wearing armor. If he could do that, why then is he not really powerful enough to tear off Grendel's arm? Instead of magical realism, we get a film that can't decide if it wants magic or realism.
The other theme is the anti-Christian theme. An anti-Christian Beowulf could work, I think, if one replaced the Christian God with the Northern Germanic pantheon, or if you did a Thirteenth Warrior/Eaters of the Dead completely materialist Beowulf. In this case, though, it doesn't work at all. In the last scene, Thorkel is making the connections between Grendel and Cain -- connections that are essential to the poem because they allow the Christian poet to navigate through the shoals of having a pagan hero, and because they reinforce the theme of kinslaying. In the film, a character explicitly rejects the Beowulf poet's reading, referring to it as "shit." Well, OK, but THAT'S the way the poem works, not something later scholars added. By trying so hard with the anti-Christian theme, the film ends up rejecting Beowulf itself. This is, in my mind, a terrible, horrible choice, akin to making a re-telling the Odyssey in which marriage is shit, or Paradise Lost in which faithfulness is shit, or Gilgamesh in which friendship is shit. You can add and subtract characters, alter personalities, and change vital plot points, but you cannot reject the basic themes of a work when you are adapting it to film. For this reason, I think the film is ultimately an artistic failure.
Artistic failure though it may be, it is still an entertaining film, and also still the best film version of Beowulf I've seen to date. I recommend it for the entertainment value, and I especially recommend it to those who teach the poem, so that they can recognize where their postmodern students' prejudices lie.
*For more on this, see my article “Teaching Grendel as a Villain in a Post-Modern Age.” Alabama English 14 (2004): 6-17.