Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Evaluating Beowulf Films

Anxiety about the new Zemeckis Beowulf movie is starting to jitter across the medievalist world. Ancrene Wiseass has identified a new disorder: Beowulf Anxiety Syndrome (BAS), which is probably best defined as the sense of foreboding before the release of a new Beowulf movie. LLCoolCarlIII is referring to the Zemeckis film as "Breastowulf," in the tradition of medievalists calling Seamus Heaney's translation "Heaneywulf." K.A. Laity, on the other hand, is using her blog to promote the new film. Meanwhile, AnSaxNet has had several bouts of grumping about the movie.

Some time ago I cautioned the Gaimanites (those who accept Neil Gaiman as their lord and personal savior) that his feet are 100% Grade A clay, just like the rest of us, and that they should not pre-judge the film sight unseen just because he slapped his brand name on it. Now I find myself on the other side of the fence, arguing that just because the trailer for the Zemeckis film looks like a porn spoof of the poem, complete with that ugly Polar Express-style motion capture and cheesy seductive dialogue, that doesn't mean the movie will definitely stink. For example, I thought that the trailer for Little Miss Sunshine looked like it was trying too hard to be "funny" in that lame forced-laugh-pretentious-indie-film-comedy way, but it was quite good nonetheless.

So, first of all, let's all just relax until we've had a chance to see the film, OK? Once we've seen it, though, on what basis do we evaluate it? Some of the posts on AnSaxNet have seemed to suggest that this new-fangled technology of moving pictures will only taint a great poem, what with Fatty Arbuckle's pratfalls and the Wurlitzer playing in the background. The only proper reaction is to hop on one's velocipede and go look at some stereopticons of World's Fair exhibits.

On the other hand, just because someone has slapped the spectacle of a big special effects budget on a story doesn't automatically make it better, or even good. Moving from one artistic medium to another is not a simple 1-1 conversion; many serious choices have to be made. Here, then, are Nokes's Criteria for Critiquing a Cross-media Adaptation.

Is is respectful of the source material? When I was a kid, I lived in an area with no cable access and without a lot of movie theaters, so I would often read the mass-market novelization of a film. All too often, the adapters clearly thought the source material was beneath them and were just trying to pay the next electric bill. An adaptation can faithfully follow the plotline, keep the characters intact, and preserve all the dialogue, yet still be disrespectful (or unrespectful). The first, primary problem with the Christopher Lambert Beowulf is that it has zero respect for its source material. The name "Beowulf" appears to be no more than a marketing ploy. Oh, Highlander, how could you have betrayed us so?!

Is it a quality work within its own medium? A film should be a good film, and a book should be a good book. Most people don't realize that The Maltese Falcon we all know was actually the third adaptation of the Dashiel Hammett book. I've only seen clips from the first two, and we don't remember them because they weren't very good. A respectful and faithful adaptation of Beowulf to film is of no value if the movie stinks. Indeed, it may even be worse -- I remember those awful film strips they used to show us in school, and I wonder if I might have read more great literature if all the pleasure hadn't been drained out of it by the same production companies that brought us such classics of dullness as, "So, You Think You Know About Plastic?" and "Low Tire Pressure: The Silent Killer."

Does the story keep the basic thematic elements? This is the hardest to pull off, because it often requires the adapters to make sacrifices and tough judgment calls. Take, for example, Peter Jackson's adaptation of Fellowship of the Ring. In order to create the sense of desperate flight, the filmmakers had to cut out such characters as Tom Bombadil, and also had to squish Frodo's flight from the Shire down from many months of planning and repast, transforming it into fleeing into the night.* If you are adapting Beowulf, then, you have to ask yourself first about what themes you are going to play up, and then use those themes as guidelines for all the tough questions before you: What do you do about the 50 years between Grendel's Mother and the dragon? Do you include any of the digressions? How do you explain so much that the narrator tells us without falling into excessive expostion?

Translating from one medium to another is tricky business. No matter how much we enjoy the other work of the adapters, or how much we love the work being adapted, we should try to keep out of the position of pre-judging. Now that the Breastowulf trailer is out for the Zemeckis film, I admit it looks dubious, but I'll withhold final judgment until I've had a chance to see the film itself.

*This is a good example of when the elements work together. In fact, the change doesn't make any logical sense in terms of the timeline of the film, because Gandalf seems to think he can ride all the way out to meet Saruman and be back to Bree before the Hobbits can walk there from the Shire. Most viewers, though, even those familiar with the geography of Middle Earth, don't notice this disparity because they are so caught up in the suspense of the chase of the Ring Wraiths. When no one seems to notice a continuity error you could sail the Queen Mary through, that's a sign that the story is kicking butt.


  1. Good advice. And I just found out that I won't need to report to Brazil until Dec. 12 for my LDS mission. So I will actually get to see it when it comes out!

  2. I'd have to disagree with your assessment of what makes a quality film adaptation. I like to think there are far more ways of interacting with texts that can be both fun and respectful without being slavish adaptations.

    Not that this particular adaptation looks anything like "quality"! I showed the trailer to two of my classes (each reading a different translation of Beo -- why do I do this to myself?) and both met it with "howls of derisive laughter."

    I do look forward to seeing the prehensile hair whip around. I wish I had prehensile hair!

    I think Beowulf, like Dracula, is destined to be filmed repeatedly without a glance at the source text despite any number of "true" versions. But faithfulness is not the only yardstick (unless we're talking relationships ;-).

  3. One of my favorite film adaptations is the 1963 Tom Jones. If you've ever read the book you realize how miraculous the film is.

  4. Kate,

    I think I didn't express myself right. When I say it should remain faithful to "basic thematic elements," I really do mean to the *themes* more than the characters, setting, etc.

    Dracula as an example: "Nosferatu" treats the story as one essentially about disease, so the vampire looks cadaver-like, the town he attacks responds as if the crisis is plague, and we get all sorts of images of microbes and whatnot. The vampire is disease, or the invisible killer.

    The Bela Legosi "Dracula," on the other hand, transforms that treat from disease to xenophobia. The Count is a sophisticated foreigner, who, at first glance, is the very essence of the suave European artistocrat. He is a foreign, Old World sexual threat to the modernity of London.

    These are two *very* different movies, but both, I think, are faithful to the book. They are so different, though, primarily because they are faithful to different thematic elements -- in this case, they interpret differently what exactly the threat is that Dracula poses.

    Now only if they would make a feature-length film about Count Chocula...

  5. Now only if they would make a feature-length film about Count Chocula...

    It would have to be filmed in Odorama!

  6. "Odorama"? Rather "Aromarama"!

    But what of Count C's "basic thematic elements"? There's deliciousness, of course; the rhetorical slipperiness of re-christening the dessert-staple "marshmallow" to the more ambiguous "sweetie"; the health benefits of a milk bath; the importance of being only one part of a nutritious breakfast; and, of course, never really acting like a vampire. See for yourselves, children of the morning...

  7. Anonymous11:20 AM

    TURNS OUT it was ebarrasingly bad.Cringe inducing. walked out. A travesty