Backflips and Demons: A Review of Graham Baker’s Beowulf
As a poem, Beowulf has been beloved by audiences for centuries. Its story of a hero’s struggle against the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a fearsome dragon emphasizes the temporary nature of human existence and the importance of knowing one’s place within society through ancestry and social status. Beowulf is a human hero, albeit one of prodigious strength, and his motivations are human as well: pride and the desire for glory.
In his 1999 film, Beowulf, director Graham Baker took a look at those themes and decided that he could spice things up a bit. How? By setting it in the future, filling it with tired film tropes, and casting action star Christopher Lambert (Highlander, Mortal Kombat).
Over the course of 90 minutes Baker takes a hero whose story is fundamentally concerned with social hierarchy and turns him into a lone traveler with no companions. Beowulf’s humanity, ancestry, and motivations are completely altered as he becomes a half-demon who is forced to hunt down evil. Baker also cuts the story short, removing the dragon and any threat of death for the hero.
Heorot, the renowned hall of King Hrothgar of the Danes, turns into a clunky, futuristic outpost—part of the film’s blending of sci-fi and a historical Anglo-Saxon aesthetic. The effect of this is to confuse two genres that don’t fit together well. The film wants Beowulf to be both an Anglo-Saxon warrior and an American cowboy, but the film is still primarily set in a pseudo-medieval world, despite the sci-fi, so the American tropes seem out of place. The one way in which the sci-fi setting works with the American action movie style is it provides the opportunity for some cool props and weapons.
These changes fit with the rest of the film as well. A repetitive techno soundtrack and numerous battles (featuring backflips, futuristic weapons, and a high body count) make it clear that Baker was setting out to make a generic sci-fi/action movie. Beowulf, as a classic story of heroism and valor, seemed like the perfect candidate for Baker to adapt into an action film, since Beowulf, with his arrogance, charm, strength, and fantastic opponents, is basically the model for the modern action hero.
Of course, no film adaptation of Beowulf could be entirely faithful to the poem. It is impossible to perfectly translate 3182 lines of Old English poetry into a 90 minute film, but the problem with this movie is that it ignores the spirit of the poem and distorts the character to fit the model of a modern, rather than medieval, action hero. Everything essential about Beowulf’s backstory and motivation is replaced with its opposite in the film. A leader becomes a loner, a human becomes a demon, and a character with no apparent interest in sex gets his own romantic subplot.
So what changed about the character from the poem to the film?
First, in the poem, when Beowulf sets out to battle the monster Grendel in Heorot he brings his men with him: “He chose / from among the Geats the boldest / and keenest of warriors” (204-206). A voyage to a foreign land would require assistance from companions and it would be extremely problematic for someone in Anglo-Saxon England or medieval Scandinavia to travel and live alone as a wanderer. Identity was largely defined by one’s place in society for the Anglo-Saxons, which means Baker’s choice to present Beowulf as a lone mercenary in the film runs counter to the character’s identity in the poem.
In a two-star review published on Moria – The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review website, reviewer Richard Scheib recognizes the absurdity of Beowulf as a Western action hero: “Christopher Lambert is cast as a classic grim loner—the film even absurdly throws in a Sergio Leone twanging Jew’s Harp to accompany his entrance.” This choice is a film cliché that pays cursory homage to Westerns, but casting Beowulf as an American-style hero again seems out of place in the film’s pseudo-medieval setting.
Beowulf’s origin in the film may be the most drastic departure from the poem and its themes. In Baker’s version, the hero comes from an unsavory past: “They told me my father was Baal. God of darkness, lord of lies,” he says. This revelation is a big moment for Beowulf in the film. The line comes with only 15 or so minutes left in the movie and Baker has been hinting at it the whole time through allusions to Beowulf’s ability to sense Grendel’s evil presence. Yet the reveal is a letdown. Beowulf literally isn’t human in the film—he is equipped with a sixth sense that detects evil and he says he has no choice but to hunt down evildoers: “The only thing that stops me from becoming evil is fighting evil.” While this is a trope that has appeared in other films, Baker gives us nothing else to hold on to that would make Beowulf seem like a real human rather than a cutout action hero. In the absence of other character development Beowulf becomes all fantasy and no humanity, with little for the audience to relate to. The poem provides Beowulf with human motivations, like pride and the desire for fame, that make him a relatable character, but this depth is missing in the film.
Baker seems to think that by making Beowulf as demonic as Grendel he can emphasize the fine line between hero and villain, but this theme succeeds in the poem explicitly because of Beowulf’s humanity. The similarities between Beowulf and Grendel in the poem show how humans have the potential to perform monstrous acts of violence as well as great deeds, but if Beowulf is no longer human this message does not resonate in the same way.
Danel Griffin of the website Film as Art has a different take on what the change of Beowulf’s origin means for the movie. He says Beowulf’s inhumanity “elaborates on the supernatural, biblical traditions of the poem” by recalling Grendel’s biblical ancestor, Cain, and other biblical human-demon hybrids. Griffin argues that this actually adds to the character’s humanity: “The change also raises the stakes for Beowulf, making him a much more tragic, human character: He desperately seeks to become more human, and can only do so by betraying his natural tendency towards evil.” While this is an interesting concept, Beowulf’s story arc in the film is not that of a tragic character, but of an action hero. The film never indicates that Beowulf is in serious danger or that his life is at risk, so the audience doesn’t fear for the hero—they’re just there to watch him beat up some villains. On the other hand, the poem is deeply tragic, dealing with Beowulf’s mortality through his eventual death, and presenting him as the kind of tragic, human character that Griffin mentions.
The film also changes Grendel’s origins, turning him into the illegitimate son of King Hrothgar (Oliver Cotton). Hrothgar had an affair with Grendel’s mother — a demon who can assume human form — which resulted in the birth of the horrific monster, Grendel, and led to the situation we are introduced to in the beginning of the film, where Grendel’s repeated attacks on the castle’s residents leave them terrified in their own home.
In the poem, Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, is remembered fondly by the Danes despite being exiled by his own people. “My father was well known among the people / as a noble leader of the vanguard. / His name was Ecgtheow. … / Throughout the wide world, / every wise man remembers him fondly” (255-257, 259-260). This prior relationship with Ecgtheow gives the Danes a reason to approve of Beowulf, in addition to the boasts he makes about his prowess as a warrior. Removing this relationships gives the Danes one less reason to trust the stranger at their door, and I didn’t find it very believable that they would take in such a suspicious character with no introduction, especially when they are also under threat from an outside siege line. The line given in the film, “We can always kill him later,” seems to show that they in fact don’t trust Beowulf and that letting him in the castle may not be a wise move.
There is also the matter of the film’s casting of a former Playboy playmate (Layla Roberts) as Grendel’s mother and sexualizing a character who is, in the poem, decidedly non-sexual. The threat of Grendel’s mother changes, then, from vicious monster to dangerous temptress. In effect, her sexuality becomes what is terrifying about her, as she is able to seduce Hrothgar and give birth to Grendel. In the poem, Grendel’s mother is a fearsome warrior who nearly defeats Beowulf. Her identity in the text is based on the violence she can inflict and her status as a grieving mother. The film, on the other hand, bases her identity on her ability to seduce, subordinating the role of mother and monster to her sexuality, which is at once tantalizing and frightening.
The inclusion of Hrothgar’s daughter, Kyra (Rhona Mitra), as a romantic counterpart to Beowulf also feels like another attempt to shoehorn action movie tropes into the poem’s saga. She seeks to be a relevant character by trying to fight Grendel, but she is not allowed to do so. Her character does create some tension between Beowulf and the castle’s beefy warrior, Roland (the film’s Unferth character), since both are interested in her romantically, but this puts her presence at odds with the poem, where the topic of romance is never brought up for Beowulf. In the film, Beowulf initially refuses Kyra’s advances, but gives in to her later on as he struggles to claim his identity as a human.
Indeed, Kyra’s main purpose in the film is to humanize Beowulf, following his descriptions of himself as inhuman:
“I’ve never wanted a family,” Beowulf says.
“I thought it only natural to desire home and family,” Kyra responds.
“Then I have no natural desires,” he says.
This interaction works for Baker’s model of Beowulf—the monster who finds his humanity—but in the poem, humanity is not something that you need to strive for through romance. When Beowulf sleeps with Kyra it’s supposed to be the climactic moment of the hero finding his humanity (and human desires), but it still ignores the themes present in the poem where humanity and social worth are determined through deeds, not through desires.
I also think Kyra is indicates the filmmakers’ attempt at creating a more gender-inclusive cast, but this could easily have been done by incorporating Wealhtheow (Hrothgar’s wife in the poem) into the film as an active character. Instead, in Baker’s version, Wealhtheow committed suicide years prior to the events in the film out of grief at Hrothgar’s affair with Grendel’s mother.
Finally, there is Beowulf’s death, or lack thereof. The film ends with Beowulf riding off into the sunset with Kyra, but in the poem, the warrior’s final battle is with a dragon intent on terrorizing his country, and he doesn’t survive:
For the king
that was the last victory by his own deeds,
his final worldly work. The wound
the dragon had given him began to burn
and swell. He realized that a grave affliction
welled in his breast, venom within (2766-2771).
Beowulf’s death is a crucial element in the poem: it shows that all humans, no matter how powerful, will eventually die. Baker’s film presents a different character arc—that of a monster searching for, and finding, his humanity. While this is an interesting story, it is not the story of Beowulf from the poem. The intentional replacement of the poetic themes in Beowulf with an action-filled alternate storyline in Baker’s film shows that the director chose a version of the story that emphasizes the hero’s struggle to overcome monstrosity rather than the limitations inherent in his humanity.
—Stephen Gruber-Miller ’15 is an English major and European Studies concentrator who has had an unhealthy love for Beowulf since performing a section of the poem in a high school speech competition. He is excited to have an academic outlet for his obscure passion.