Beowulf ranks among the greatest works of literature in the English language, and holds pride of place as the first great work of English-language fiction. It is a powerful, profound, and mysterious text that continues to move and fascinate readers more than a thousand years after it was first written down.
Unfortunately, when film-makers try to translate the story to the big screen, this strange old tale thwarts their best efforts to produce a decent story. Beowulf (2007, dir. Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) is perhaps the worst adaptation of a piece of medieval literature I’ve ever read, and Neil Gaiman, who is normally a great storyteller as Sandman demonstrates, ought to be embarrassed that he wrote it.
Beowulf, as many who read it high school or college know, tells the story of the Germanic’s warrior’s three greatest battles. He is a Geat, belonging to a tribe that resided in what is today southern Sweden, a branch of the Gothic people. (Side note: ‘Geat’ is pronounced ‘Yat’ or “Yay-at’, not ‘Geet’.) He travels to Denmark to help the great Danish king Hrothgar. Hrothgar is a successful war leader, but he is outclassed by the horrible troll Grendel, who is harrying the Danes in their great hall, Heorot. Beowulf kills Grendel by ripping off the creature’s arm. But then Grendel’s unnamed mother (whom I’ll just call Mother) continues her son’s feud against the Danes, and Beowulf is forced to track her to under lair in the moor where he eventually kills her.
After that Beowulf returns home to Sweden and becomes the Geatish king. Fifty years later, a slave steals a cup from the horde of a dragon, who goes on a rampage, killed and destroying the Geats until Beowulf and his warband go to confront the monster. With the exception of the faithful Wiglaf (‘Wee-laf’, not ‘Wig-laf’), the warband chickens out and runs away, leaving Beowulf unsupported in his battle against the dragon. As a result, he kills the dragon but is mortally wounded. The poem ends as it begins, with the funeral of a great king. The Geats lament not only the death of their king but also the cowardice of the warband, because they are now vulnerable to the depredations of their neighbors. One woman predicts the destruction of the Geatish tribe, a prediction that eventually came true in the real world when the Swedes eventually conquered and absorbed the Geats.
While a great poem, Beowulf presents many puzzles to the reader. In a surface reading, the first two fights seem essentially unconnected to the third fight, and scholars have debated how much unity the poem actually has. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the poem as we have it (which survives in a single 11th century manuscript) may in fact represent the fusion of two unrelated poems. My personal feeling is that two halves of the poem are in fact a unitary whole, tracing as it does a hero from his early triumphs to his disastrous death. There is an underlying theme about the dangerous nature of violence. The poem is riddled with apparent digressions about unrelated acts of violence, but I tend to see these digressions as commenting on the nature of violence and highlighting Beowulf as a hero precisely because he understands when violence should and shouldn’t be resorted to. The cowardice of his men serves as a warning that sometimes violence is necessary, and Beowulf’s successful battle as an elderly ruler counterpoints Hrothgar’s earlier inability to triumph over Grendel. But that’s just one way to understand the poem.
As a result, the story presents a basic problem for modern audiences. The first two acts don’t connect to the third in any obvious way; there’s no through-line for the plot. Beowulf is a Germanic hero; he lacks the interiority and personal conflict that modern audiences tend to want in their heroes. His conflicts are mostly of a purely physical kind, although he does face social challenges as well, such as when he arrives as an outsider at Heorot and is challenged by the loud-mouthed asshole Unferth. And at a later moment in the poem, he is tempted by Queen Hygd to seize the Geatish throne, but refuses to do so, refusing to take it until King Heardred is killed in battle. (Like I said, he knows when to use violence and when to reject it.) But the moral universe in which he operates is drastically different from modern America, and that makes it harder to get modern audiences engaged with the underlying ideas in the poem.
When Gaiman and Avary were trying to figure out how to turn this story into a 3D animated film that uses motion capture technology, they clearly recognized the problem of the disjunction between the first two acts and the third. Unfortunately, their solution to the problem was to tie the third act to the first two in a way that shits all over the heroic qualities of Beowulf and Hrothgar. In order to explain what’s so wrong with their screenplay, I’ll need to summarize the whole film.
The film opens with a feast in the newly-built Heorot. The elderly Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is a fat, drunken slob who has to be carried into the hall and can barely keep his bed sheet wrapped around his otherwise naked body. His beautiful young wife Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) is disgusted by him and refuses to sleep with him. The feasting and merriment unsettles Grendel (Crispin Glover), who has very delicate ears, and so he rampages through the hall, killing men while the impotent Hrothgar proves unable to attack him.
Eventually Beowulf (Ray Winstone) the ‘Geet’ shows up and promises to fight the monster. He is confronted by Unferth (John Malkovich), who points out that the only thing Beowulf has done of note is lose a swimming contest. Beowulf responds by explaining that he lost the competition because he had to take time to kill nine sea monsters. One of his retainers comments that the last time Beowulf told the story, there were only three monsters. And in the flashback to the event we see that Beowulf is lying; one of the monsters is actually a mermaid, who successfully seduces him, rendering him unable to kill her.
Beowulf clearly has the hots for Wealtheow, because as the feast is winding down, he literally takes off all his clothes while everyone watches. She is appalled by this and flees the room, so he just lies down to relax while his men keep partying. When the fight with Grendel comes, Beowulf rather inexplicably watches the monster kill most of his men before getting into the fight. He manages to trap Grendel’s arm in the door of the hall and smashes it off. As he later retells the story, he just ripped the arm off while wrestling with him.
After Mother comes to slaughter Danes in vengeance, Hrothgar offers Beowulf his greatest treasure, the Dragon Horn, an elaborate drinking cup, which he got when he killed Fafnir, a dragon. (Fafnir is the dragon from a completely different legend, the story of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, but whatever.) Beowulf inexplicably takes the horn with him when he tracks Mother back to her lair, and discovers that it glows in the cave (which is actually kind of a nice touch).
When he meets Mother, she turns out to be Angelina Jolie with golden body-paint, a sexy braid that is also her tail, and built-in stiletto heels. Instead of fighting her, she seduces him with a promise that as long as the cup remains in her lair, nothing will be able to harm Beowulf and he will be a great king. So instead of killing her, he bones her and then goes back to Hrothgar and claims to have killed her. Hrothgar is relieved, declares Beowulf his heir, and then commits suicide by jumping off a tower. By this point it has become clear that years ago Hrothgar did exactly what Beowulf has just done, and that Grendel was actually Hrothgar’s son.
The film jumps forward to years later. King Beowulf of the Danes is married to Wealtheow, who is as disgusted with him as she was with Hrothgar, so he needs to sleep with slave girls instead. He’s disgusted with himself, because he knows he’s not actually a hero but rather just a liar. There’s a hint that perhaps his deal with Mother has made him invulnerable to battle, so that he no longer feels any danger when he fights.
Unferth has inexplicably become a Christian. But his slave steals the Dragon Horn from Mother’s lair. A dragon, who is Beowulf’s kid, goes on a rampage, destroying the local church (which is several centuries too early for a film set in 6th century Denmark), and sending Beowulf a message that the deal is off. Beowulf returns the horn to Mother, but she refuses to accept it, and releases the dragon again. The dragon rampages, destroying the town and much of Beowulf’s castle. He eventually realizes that the dragon has a soft spot at the base of its throat, but for reasons I won’t go into, he has to partly sever his right arm in order to reach into the soft spot and rip out the dragon’s heart (I guess because he tore off Grendel’s right arm). They both plunge to the surf, where the dragon transforms into Beowulf’s son, and they both die.
Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) becomes king and Beowulf is given a Viking ship funeral. Right after that, Wiglaf finds the Dragon Horn in the surf. Mother appears to kiss Beowulf’s corpse, and then beckons Wiglaf to come to her, implicitly offering to repeat the cycle again. Wiglaf stares back at her, and the film cuts to black, leaving it unclear how he responds.
Words cannot express just how much I hate this mangling of the story of the poem. It’s only with great force of will that I am going to refrain from swearing as I dissect it.
The central problem is that instead of presenting Hrothgar and Beowulf as great heroes, which is exactly who they are in the poem, the film offers us two decidedly unheroic liars. Both men achieve their worldly success not by killing monsters but by having sex with Mother and then lying about it. It’s clear that both men are glory hounds who are more than willing to exaggerate their great accomplishments. They are both fundamentally weak men incapable of keeping their pants on when presented with the opportunity for hot monster sex. Their glory is purchased with the future slaughter of their own men because their pretended triumphs lay the foundations for the future crisis that will ruin them and wreak havoc on their people.
Whether Hrothgar was ever a great man is entirely unknowable, because we don’t get enough evidence to tell whether anything in his version of events is true. Beowulf shows signs of being a potentially great man; he does basically kill Grendel nearly single-handedly, albeit not the way he later claims. Whether he actually kills any sea monsters is left uncertain; he’s clearly an unreliable narrator and it’s entirely possible that he lost the swimming contest because he decided to get busy with a mermaid and then made up the sea monsters to explain his failure. But in his fight with Grendel he literally just watches Grendel butcher his warband until it’s pretty much only Wiglaf left. So in contrast to the poem, which emphasizes the mutual obligations between war leader and warband by showing the failure of the warband in the battle with the dragon, it’s Beowulf who fails his men.
It’s only at the end of the film that Beowulf gets truly heroic by confronting the dragon and severing his own arm in order to kill the dragon, well aware that he will die when the dragon he’s clinging to falls from the sky. It’s a heroic moment, but sharply undercut by the fact that the whole disaster is his own fault.
Instead of being a film about heroic men doing great deeds, this Beowulf is a story about lying faux-heroes discovering that glory is ultimately hollow and emasculating. Hrothgar’s response to this discovery is to drink himself into a stupor and eventually kill himself, whereas Beowulf manages to rise above himself and finally do the right thing. In other words, the film is about the falseness of heroism far more than its possibility. All heroic inspiration is a falsehood rooted in boasting and deceit. And Wiglaf’s final comment, “He was the bravest of us. He was the prince of all warriors. His name will live forever” reads more as an ironic commentary on the impossibility of true heroism. If the greatest of all heroes is basically a liar and braggart who barely deserves his acclaim, what possibility of heroism is left to the rest of us lesser men?
Seeing the film in the theater in 2007, I was struck by how much the film read as a critique of contemporary American politics, with political leaders whose “Missions Accomplished” are little more than hollow boasts covering up miserable failures that got lots of good people killed. But maybe that was just the mood I was in at the time.
And Then There’s the Women
The film has three female characters, Wealtheow, Mother, and Ursula, Beowulf’s concubine (who’s mostly there to demonstrate the failure of Beowulf and Wealtheow’s marriage). Wealtheow is on the surface a strong women, refusing to sleep with either of her husbands because she is disgusted that they both slept with Mother. But she’s like a day-old sink full of dirty dishes and brackish water; the moment you poke the surface, you’re assaulted by the nasty stench underneath.
It’s hard to see her disgust as anything other than sexual jealousy. She’s angry that her husbands both slept with a woman who is incomparably more beautiful than she is. And her disgust appears to be the reason that both her husbands are emotionally broken men. She has driven Hrothgar to drink and left Beowulf bitter with his life. It is her failure to adore her husbands that forces them to see the hollowness of their victories, because neither man understands the long-term consequences of sleeping with Mother until long after they’re broken men. So basically, if Wealtheow wasn’t such a jealous shrew, these men would have been happy and able to enjoy their false victories. She is the cause of most of their man-pain.
What makes this worse is that she’s also the Woman as the Prize. Hrothgar literally gives her to Beowulf when he declares Beowulf his heir. So Beowulf’s reward for apparently defeating Mother is a kingdom and a beautiful young wife. But that beautiful prize turns out to be a viper that gradually poisons him by refusing to have sex with him. The film treats this as entirely natural, and is completely oblivious to the fact that Wealtheow clearly has no attraction to Beowulf. She’s his prize and ought to put out for him, and her persistent refusal to do so is part of his ruin.
She’s also incapable of saving herself. When Grendel menaces her, she is saved by Hrothgar distracting Grendel, and when the dragon attacks and she is about to fall off the castle’s bridge to her death (because Ursula isn’t strong enough to pull her up), it’s Wiglaf who saves her. And, inexplicably, the older Wealtheow has grey hair but no wrinkles; her skin seems as dewy fresh as it does at the start of the film. So she’s literally four of the worst cinematic tropes about women rolled into one. She has no agency and exists purely to drive home the plot lessons for her husbands.
And Mother is even worse. She’s an eternally young and hot sex kitten, who never bothers putting clothes on. She is literally the cause of all the evil in the film. She is the mother of Fafnir, the dragon that Hrothgar confronted; the mother of Grendel; and the mother of the unnamed second dragon who is Beowulf’s son. Presumably she seduced Fafnir’s father the way she seduces Hrothgar and Beowulf, and the film ends with the very real possibility that she will seduce Wiglaf and repeat the cycle. (In fact, I think the film makes it likely that she does seduce him; Wiglaf has just declared that Beowulf is a far greater man than he is, so if Beowulf has fallen to Mother’s temptations, it is likely that Wiglaf will give in as well. He’s a helper, not a hero in his own right, even by this film’s tawdry standards. And his reception of the Dragon Horn just a moment before acts as a symbol of his impending seduction, since both Mother and the Horn are passed on from Hrothgar to Beowulf and now apparently from Beowulf to Wiglaf.) So the locus of all evil in Denmark is Mother’s irresistible sexuality; she has been birthing monsters since before the film begins and will apparently continue birthing monsters after the film ends. Her evil triumphs over all male efforts to stop her, and no women can apparently stand in comparison.
She is also an emasculating figure. In the poem, when Beowulf ventures into the lair, Unferth gives Beowulf his ancestral sword Hrunting. The sword turns out to be unable to hurt Mother, and she melts the blade down to its hilt. In the film, as she seduces Beowulf, he holds up Hrunting and she begins to stroke it with her hands, causing it to melt even as he has sex with her. So the film directly associates the sword with Beowulf’s penis, showing it softening when he yields to her.
And lest I be accused of getting Freudian without warrant, the film repeatedly draws parallels between swords and Beowulf’s dick. When Beowulf strips naked before the fight with Grendel, the film has a running joke of various things obscuring his penis: Wiglaf’s arm, smoke, a candlestick, and finally and most blatantly a sword. When he confronts the mermaid, he drops his sword just as she embraces him. At the end, as he is trying to reach the dragon’s heart, he drops his knife and its only then that he can reach in and rip the heart out with his hands. So the film has an odd pattern in which being swordless is somehow a metaphor for sex and heroism. It’s a clumsy image; how can he get Mother pregnant if his sword has already gone flaccid? But it’s definitely there. So the film seems to say that having sex with Mother is going to lead to his impotence.
And of course, Mother sends her son the dragon out to kill when her deal with Beowulf is broken by the theft of the cup. So she gets her son killed because she’s angry with Beowulf. Grendel goes out on his own, not at her instigation, but when Beowulf comes to the lair the first time, she actually decapitates Grendel’s corpse for some reason. So just as she ruins the men she sleeps with, she also seems to ruin her children and treat them as pawns.
When you combine Wealtheow and Mother as images of femininity, we’re left with a view that women are simply destructive to men. Their power is profound, corrosive, irresistible, and ultimately enduring. Both women survive the film.
I get it. I understand why Gaiman and Avary decided to make the plot of the film fold back upon itself by linking the dragon to Beowulf’s mother and using the cup/Dragon Horn as a recurrent symbol of Mother’s seductive power. I’m sure they thought that resorting to the cliché of the Hero’s Redemption would produce a satisfying twist on the original text. But I’m baffled by why Gaiman, who is normally a subtle and perceptive author, didn’t recognize what a moral sludge the story becomes as a result of these choices and how deeply misogynist the film’s treatment of its female characters are. And he failed to recognize that the poem’s continued power grows to some extent from the fact that it doesn’t follow contemporary notions of story-telling. It produces a satisfying story of a great hero doing great deeds despite the lack of a through-line plot and the directness of the hero’s personality. And it’s not as if American action films aren’t brimming over with morally simplistic heroes whose heroism mainly consists of killing all their opponents. There must have been other ways they could have made the story engaging for modern authors than just pissing all over the entire notion of heroic valor.
Still, there’s one thing I take comfort in, no matter how much this film infuriates me. As Gaiman wrote in Sandman 13, “The Great Stories will always return to their original forms.”
Want to Know More?
If you really want to see this crappy film, you can find Beowulf on Amazon. Better yet, read the original. The Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition) is popular these days, but honestly, I think it’s terrible, constantly introducing Irish terminology where it doesn’t belong and horrible to read aloud. Burton Raffel’s Beowulf (Signet Classics) is a prose translation, but does an excellent job of translating for meaning. A much better poetic option is Dick Ringler’s Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery (Hackett Classics), which is meant to capture the way the poem would have sounded. (Full disclosure: I was a student of Ringler’s in grad school–he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had the privilege of taking a class with.)