Inner Demons: Zemeckis’ Beowulf and Guilt Culture
Beowulf is one of the oldest works of English literature, perhaps first written in Old English by Christian monks, and it records what some scholars believe is a version of an older, orally performed tale about the pagan past of the Anglo-Saxon’s Scandinavian contemporaries. Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf, released in 2007 and written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, interprets the original poem as the creation of an unreliable narrator within a corrupted and biased society. While the movie follows the plot of the poem fairly closely, cutting some of the “digressions” and simplifying the politics so that Beowulf rules the Danes rather than returning home to rule the Geats, a few key alterations make this movie much more than a cinematic rendering of the Old English poem. The movie presents itself as the original and uncensored story of Beowulf, but it introduces themes of guilt not in the poem.
The Beowulf of this movie is a hero for the modern era, one who is flawed, guilt-ridden, and ultimately a martyr for his people. Gaiman and Avary initially conceived the story as a low-budget film on a much smaller scale, but the use of computer animation and motion capture technology caused them to rewrite the script for a much larger budget and scale. This creates an unusual tension between the script’s commitment to psychological realism and the film’s highly stylized special effects. In one scene Beowulf implores us to see him as a man “fallible and flawed” and in the next he rides clinging to the back of a dragon and uses a ship’s anchor to lasso its wing. Other reviewers have mostly focused on the movie’s special effects and appearance; Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times that they throw “everything they can think of at the screen, including lots of big: big noise, sets, moves, effects, stars and, yup, even big breasts.” Roger Ebert commented “to say the movie is over the top assumes you can see the top from here.” While most reviews condemn the motion capture acting as wooden, many praise the animation of the dragon and sea monsters as beautiful and dramatic.
However, while I found the visuals to be ridiculous, my real problem with the movie lay in the story’s reinterpretation of Beowulf as a character. Science Fiction World’s Gerard Wood claimed to have enjoyed seeing Beowulf as a flawed hero, saying that, “this is a hero for our less heroic times, but one with whom modern audiences can engage more readily than with the superman of the poem.” Zemeckis’ Beowulf tries to create a more psychologically realistic and relatable version of Beowulf, but I came away with an uneasy sense of watching something fake, and not just because of the blandly creepy motion capture acting. Essentially, the movie is the ultimate guilt movie in a shame culture, forcing modern ideas of sin and repentance into an Anglo-Saxon world defined by public shame and humiliation.
While Anglo-Saxon culture privileged boasting as public performance as a means of securing honor, the movie implies that Beowulf’s boasts are a form of vanity and egomania. Gaiman and Avary’s script makes liberal use of Beowulf’s penchant for boasting by including numerous scenes of storytelling. In their interpretation, any scene narrated not by the poet, but by a character, is a distortion of the truth. As Laurence de Looze has argued about the boasts in the poem, “difference of opinion concerns not the facts of the story but their interpretation.” In the movie, Beowulf alters or leaves out any part of the story that doesn’t improve his reputation. In both the poem and the movie, Beowulf recites the tales of his defeat of the sea-monsters and Grendel’s mother, but, unlike the poem, the movie visually shows us where Beowulf’s tale diverges from reality.
In the poem Beowulf claims he was pulled underwater by a sea monster that he later slew, saying “I slew nine sea-monsters with my sword” and describing how “a wicked beast dragged me down to the depths/… I struck my fierce opponent/ with the edge of my sword” (551, 529-532). However, the movie’s image of this event is that of Beowulf being attracted by a seductive mermaid and embracing it beneath the water, although his narration tells the same version of events as the poem. Similarly, the movie Beowulf verbally describes his confrontation with Grendel’s mother as a battle with an ugly hag, but unlike the members of Hrothgar’s court, the movie’s audience sees that the actual confrontation between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, here famously played by a naked Angelina Jolie, resulted in him again succumbing to sexual temptation. By keeping secrets from his audience during storytelling, the movie implies that Beowulf feels guilty about his sexual lapses and hides them by becoming an unreliable narrator.
However, the bards in the movie record Beowulf’s boasts as fact and his story spreads throughout the lands. Beowulf tells a Frisian soldier that he will only be remembered forever if he can defeat him, saying, “You want your name in The Song of Beowulf?” The movie implies that the poem we read today is this Song of Beowulf, a fanciful account of Beowulf’s life and deeds, rather than the true events that transpired.
While the poem has a decidedly positive view of Christianity, it still upholds the values of the older Germanic culture that privileged shame over guilt. As George Clark explains in The Beowulf Handbook, “In cultural terms…the poet, the Anglo-Saxon audience, and the poem’s actors belong to a world that rewards right conduct with honor and punishes wrong conduct with shame.” The movie, however, pays lip service to a more realistically ancient pagan rhetoric, while in actuality it relies on Christian ideals of guilt and sin. The movie again tries to reinterpret the poem as a biased version of a true story. Zemeckis shows through the passage of time how Christianity is introduced to the Danes and eventually becomes the dominant religion. While the poem’s narrator describes God granting Beowulf victory against Grendel and his mother and deciding the fate of the Danes, the movie’s Christianity comes from Unferth, a cowardly rival to Beowulf who attempts to bring Christian worship to a pagan society where multiple characters exclaim, “Thank Odin!” and make sacrifices to the Norse deities. Beowulf is pagan in this version, lamenting, “The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf. The Christ-God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs.” However, by the end of the poem Beowulf also becomes a “weeping martyr” as he defeats the dragon by sacrificing his own life and atoning for his sins
The main alteration this movie makes to the Beowulf plot is the story of Grendel’s mother. The poem describes her vaguely as “both woman and monster” with strength almost equivalent to
Grendel (1250). However, in this adaptation Grendel’s mother becomes the primary antagonist of the piece, and one who eventually wins. Angelina Jolie portrays Grendel’s mother as a siren-like temptress who preys on the lusts of heroes to create more monsters. Hrothgar and Beowulf fall victim to her temptation and are eventually killed by their own monstrous offspring, and the movie strongly implies that the next king, Wiglaf, will eventually succumb to her power. This change gives Beowulf an interiority he lacks in the poem, showing that his thoughts and feelings are driven by lust for power, gold, and women. Further, it gives him a hubris that eventually destroys him. His later rule is ridden with guilt, making his death at the hands of the dragon karmic justice. These changes give the structure of the story greater clarity, showing the rise, corruption, and eventual fall of a hero brought down by a fatal flaw. Beowulf is recognizably a modern hero, driven by internal desires and guilty about his faults. The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf does not indicate a sense of interior thoughts or motivations except through his speeches, and these speeches are never implied to be lies.
Ultimately, I found that this movie failed as an adaptation not because of the unreliable narrator approach, but because it seemed only half-committed to telling the “true” and “uncensored” version of Beowulf. While the audience is shown the secret story of Beowulf’s corruption by Grendel’s mother, we also witness wildly fantastic physical acts that the narrative never casts doubt upon. When fighting sea serpents, Beowulf is eaten by one, but he bursts through the top of its head and escapes to continue the fight. During the fight with Grendel, Beowulf swings from the rafters and snares Grendel’s arm using an elaborate chandelier trap that recalls old episodes of Tom and Jerry. Finally, the fight with the dragon involves a wild flight around the castle, under the water where Beowulf uses an abandoned anchor to lasso the dragon, and ends as the dragon bites off huge chunks of the castle to get to Wealhtheow while Beowulf severs his own arm to swing close enough to the dragon’s throat that he can cut it. In the context of a gritty exposé of Beowulf’s bragging and self-aggrandizement, these absurd fight scenes seem out of place and contradictory to the tone of the script.
The restructuring of the poem also detracts from the overall story. Avary claimed in an interview that by making Beowulf’s Faustian bargain with Grendel’s mother an impetus for the dragon attack, “suddenly the two halves of the Beowulf epic, which had always seemed so disjointed, made perfect story sense.” Adding the bargain does make sense of the story, giving it a more familiar narrative structure and more motivation to characters like Beowulf and Hrothgar, but in a way it makes the story too neat. It takes whatever unique views the Beowulf poem offered and transforms the narrative into a traditional tale of a tragic hero ruled by modern notions of guilt. I love the Beowulf poem because of its ambiguity. The poem shows examples of Beowulf as a great hero while still suggesting that he possesses a monstrous form of strength, it crosses between a Christian worldview and a pagan context, and it shows us many types of monsters without wrapping the threads neatly together and presenting us with an obvious moral. It is a story of a man who defeats three monsters but ultimately is destroyed, just as great civilizations rose and fell over the course of history. Zemeckis’ Beowulf only shows us the story of a flawed man acting the part of a hero and eventually paying the price for his sins. The movie simplifies and adds Christian ideals such as guilt and punishment to a poem that has the potential to be a complicated and unique story that does not conform to typical Hollywood structure. While Gaiman and Avary’s script occasionally captures the tone of Beowulf and Zemeckis’ visuals are often aesthetically pleasing, I think that the movie still fails as a whole. By trying too hard to put a unique spin on a classic, the movie subsequently becomes more generic.
—Eleanor Griggs ’15 is an English and History major whose Tolkien obsession naturally led her to the study of Beowulf. Her distrust of horrible dead-eyed motion capture animation in no way biased her against this movie.