Friday, October 05, 2007

Walter and Drout on the Beowulf Movie

John Walter has developed the theory that, in the Zemeckis Beowulf, Grendel's Mother is the dragon ... that for some reason, Beowulf doesn't really kill Grendel's Mother, and she comes back nastier. Michael Drout, commenting on that theory, agrees that it would be a reasonable way to tighten up the narrative.

Much of this is speculation gleaned from the bits found in trailers, so let's keep that in mind. That being said, I think Drout has hit upon the most difficult matter for any film adaptation of Beowulf: narrative tightness.

The pacing of the poem isn't like the pacing of a film, or even like the pacing of a novel. Beowulf shows up, stays a few days to kill some monsters, then we jump ahead in time to when he's an old man. This is a problem for a film, because the dragon episode isn't just an extended denouement; it's the climactic ending.

Now, if it were up to me, I'd film it as a trilogy based around each monster, because I think audiences would have a greater tolerance for that leap in time if it were a different trip to the movie theater or a different DVD. That's in the ideal world, though, in which I had both an unlimited amount of money and talent as a film director. In real life, filmmakers have to compromise.

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats tightens things up by presenting the story as told by Unferth years later, after Beowulf's death. Between these two versions, I think we see the two of the three most obvious solutions to the narrative problem of Beowulf: either tighten it by framing the story with an external narrator (probably a scop), or tighten the timeline by having Beowulf fight the dragon while he's still young.

Then, of course, is the third option: leave out the dragon altogether. Some anthologies commonly used in high schools treat Beowulf as a series of excerpts without the dragon episode. I'm not a big fan of this approach, but it's acceptable, I think. Consider, for example, John Gardner's Grendel, which, I think it's safe to say, is probably the only Beowulf adaptation to win nearly universal acceptance among Anglo-Saxon scholars. Gardner's narrative only covers the story through the death of Grendel, with Grendel's Mother and the dragon appearing as secondary characters -- though the dragon does foretell his own death in prophecy.

I think you need to include the dragon just because, darn it, it's a dragon. As far as the spectacle of film goes, which is more visually stunning, a couple of trolls or a dragon?

And, on a side note, have any of the Wordhoarders seen D-War: Dragon Wars? The reviews were bad, but the story is supposed to be based on some Korean legend I've never heard of before.


  1. Greetings!
    Good to hear that you have your
    thinking caps on again. I like
    your ideas - alas my not being a writer, of the Beowulf kind that is, - I can't put pen to paper.
    But I hope someone else does. In
    the meantime I'll enjoy what is already out there and think of other scenarios/trilogies! (good idea) to come.
    YES I really like that trilogy idea. Do you hear that Scott Wegener? :) NOT to put our current BPOG on the back burner, but rather more to follow...
    just as long as I'm part of it!!

  2. Good Professor,

    I share John Walter's interpretation regarding how Grendel's Mother is portrayed in the trailers. It does, in fact, seem to hint that she is the Dragon. It seems it might be an interesting way to tighten the narrative, but it also misses out on the potential to demonstrate how Beowulf's legendary abilities increase in the narrative.

    First Beowulf is a great swimmer, then he defeats the Grendel, it's mother, finally he meets his end defeating a dragon. Beowulf ends on a high note, no straw death for him, he (unlike Achilles) dies ...well... epically.

    As for D-War: Dragon Wars, I had more fun than the critics, but I largely agree with my Geekerati cohost Bill Cunningham's assessment.

  3. Anonymous3:27 PM


    Been a 'shadow reader' for a while, but now I feel compelled to finally leave a comment.

    A fourth option I thought of would be to have Grendel and Mum be a story told in flashbacks in Beowulf's mind as he prepares to fight/fights the dragon. If I remember right, Beowulf recalls both battles to his retainers as he goes to fight the dragon anyway.

  4. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Years ago, when I took Beowulf from T.A. Shippey, one of our take-home final essay questions was to explain how we'd rewrite the story as a movie. I went the scop route, and, in a nod to John Niles "Locating Beowulf in Literary History," with the performance taking place during a diplomatic mission to the Danelaw. I think you're absolutely right that the time between the action in Heorot and the dragon is too vast to work as is in film.