Lileks Also Thumbs-down Beowulf

The story contruded mightily with the original plot, too. “The Christ-god has made men martyrs, full of fear and shame,” says Beowulf.

“Hark – what is that? I hear yonder hoofbeats of revisionist authors over the ridge, my liege. What shall we do?”

“Casheth the check, Hmerlthsgird, and return unto Mal-A-Bue, where maidens and mead doth await, dothily.”

It was like that throughout the movie, and I can well imagine the first story conference: Gentlemen, we have one of the oldest legends of our civilization here, a tale full of robust heroism, a frank raw tale of a brave man against the dark forces of a demon-cursed land. Obviously we can’t have any of that.

Hear, hear, Mr. Lileks. I suspect you had a microphone in the conference room when Mr. Gaiman, the screenwriter, went to talk with them.

My opinion: BEOWULF was maybe the most malformed maladaptation of an original since WICKED.

While WICKED was an attempt by an imp of hell to slander and ruin our childhood memories of their cherished delight, motivated, I doubt me not, by sheer hatred of childhood and innocence, BEOWULF looks to me more like negligence: more a failure of the modern mind (sorry, Mr. Gaiman) to imagine things gone by than a hatred of them. The contempt of negligence, so to speak, rather than the contempt of ire.

Spoilers below.

In the original story, a hero fights a monster, and his monstrous dam, and, when old and weary and full of years, the aging hero stands up against a dragon, and meets his defeat when all his retainers, all save one faithful in the midst of ruin, flee in terror. That’s the plot.

The theme, depending on your scholarly position on the controversy, is one of pagan fatalism with a varnish of Christianity laid by monks over an original pagan poem, or else it is one of Christian fatalism with a sincere admiration for the Christian poet’s pagan forefathers. In either case, the Christian and pagan elements of the original poem work well together rather than jar: anyone reading C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien will recognize the savor of “Northern” Christianity.

The plot of the movie is that one king after another is seduced by a succubus, a she-demon, and, in return for the throne, her bastard children are allowed to ravage the country,  so that the monster in each case is the king’s own bastard.

The three episodes in the original are episodic; in the movie, they follow from a single plot logic, which is a point in favor of the film, I suppose. The theme of the movie is contempt for everything good in life, from religion to heroism to fellowship to honesty to generosity.

In the movie, the theme was “Film Noir.” Heroism and diabolical evil were rejected by the writer, the well-respected Neil Gaiman, for something more cynical and modern.

Two or three pointless slurs against Christianity are added for no plot reason.

The hero is a braggart, and a self-serving stealer of thrones and wives, an adulterer, a witch (I mean an old fashioned witch, not a cute moppet like Willow from BUFFY: what do you call someone who sells his soul to gain material wealth, and seals the compact with fornication with nonhumans?); the Gaets and Danes are drunkards and slobs; the king Hrothgar is a fool; the great hall Hereot, the fairest house in Middle-Earth, the mead hall with a roof of gold, is here portrayed by an unsanitary barn.

In the original poem, Grendel is driven to wrath against the men in beautiful Hereot because they harp and sing of the beauties of creation, and God’s work in filling the green lap of middle earth with forests and fields. Grendel is the son of Cain, an exile with all his race of ogres and elves, condemned for that first murder, and bitter against the halls and fields of men, from which his monstrous brood is barred.

In the movie, the monster is a college student with an ear ache, and his neighbors are playing their stereo too loud, and it hurts him, so he is sort of the good guy, I guess. I certainly was not rooting for the oaf who happened to have the same name, Beowulf, as the greatest figure of ancient epic literature.

In the original poem, the duties of kings to retainers, the generosity of reward and the loyalty of steadfast fighters, is a paramount virtue shiningly displayed by the great hero and the magnanimous king.

In the movie, Beowulf is looking out for Number One, takes a throne to which he has no right, ignores his kin back home, sleeps around, lies like a dog, and he himself is to blame for the attack of the dragon.

The final fight scene in which Spider-Beowulf swings on his webshooters, or whatever it was, up onto the dragon’s back for some aerial-Jackie-Chan-acrobatics was simply too silly for words.

The one loyal retainer in the poem, who stands by him when all others flee, in the movie cowers outside the cave Beowulf descends into. Sickening.

Grendel’s mother is not a monster he slays, but a sizzling-hot sex-babe who seduces him. Ridiculous.

The computer graphics were interesting enough, if you want to see a stageplay acted by waxworks.

I was listening to a disk of the new translation of BEOWULF by poet, scholar and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. I was driving my nine-year-old to a Cub Scout meeting, but I let the disk play. I was balanced between the worry that the matter would be too esoteric for so young a lad, or too bloody, or that he would not understand the point of what was happened, and the hope that my son might come to appreciate truly great and ancient poetry. He heard just a minute or two of the rolling syllables of the master poet. When it came time to get out of the car, I shut off the disk, and my boy yelled “No!” He then demanded of me when he could hear the rest.

He understood what the poem was about.

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had 
     courage and greatness.
We have heard of these princes’ heroic

Needless to say, I am not taking him to a movie that mocks my religion, mocks heroism, mocks honesty and courage and true-heartedness all the rest of those good old fashion Norse pagan values, where every character is a creep, and the only amusement value comes from seeing Beowulf (or a waxworks version of Angelina Jolie) naked.