25 November 2007

What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monstah?

Having had the line 'And I WILL kill your monstah!' stuck in my head for the last few weeks, it was only ever going to be a matter of time until I went to see whether Mr Carder was right to damn Beowulf as he did, so I went along last night, having heard good things in advance from a couple of friends and from the Brother, who had enjoyed it despite being troubled by the occasional eerie blankness of the characters' eyes.

I loved it. Sure, the weaknesses of motion capture are most obvious in the quiet moments when people are talking and it's as though you're watching a rather dull computer game, but the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful at times, the action scenes are utterly exhilarating, and there's one heartstoppingly horrific moment where Beowulf wakes to a scene more nightmarish than that from which he's woken. And perhaps most importantly, it's a fine story.

I can sympathise with people muttering that it's not the same as the poem, that Beowulf should kill Grendel's mother rather than sleep with her, and that he should return to his own kingdom rather than inherit Hrothgar's. But the thing is, that's kind of what the film is about.

Much as I'd like to, I haven't read Beowulf: the Script Book, but even from watching the film once it's pretty obvious what Gaiman and Avary are trying to do: the film's a study in myth-making, implicitly purporting to tell the real story of Beowulf but showing the forces that will transform that story into the canonical version we all know.

Watch the ritualised dramatisation of Beowulf's fight with Grendel, noting how it's pretty much identical to the poem, and compare that with the fight as shown in the film. Think of Beowulf's description to all and sundry of his battle with Grendel's mother, and consider how Beowulf himself would have been the sole source for the story. Mightn't he have embroidered it somewhat? Bear in mind that he brought back no trophy to prove that victory. Look at Wiglaf's absolute loyalty, and his determination to preserve Beowulf's reputation no matter what, even if that means refusing to listen to his lord's attempts to remove the lustre from his legend. And finally, pay attention to the sprouting seeds of Christianity which will in time overcome this world of pagan heroism.

Certainly, the film is different to the poem. But it doesn't so much contradict it as encompass, foreshadow, and explain it. Referring to these differences on his blog, Neil Gaiman expressed disappointment in the official educational pack that had been done to accompany the film.
Part of the point of the Beowulf movie that Roger and I wrote is the places it diverges from the story of Beowulf, and the ways it explores the relationship between a person and a story about a person. I don't think they should be putting the stuff we made up on material intended for schools -- it seems like a way of justifiably irritating teachers, who have enough to put up with when they try to teach Beowulf without us making their lives harder. It would have been much more interesting to have put up either the original, or one that talked about the differences -- I'd absolutely encourage high schoolers to see our version and talk about what changed and why.
I'm hoping that when the DVD comes out it'll have a running commentary with the writers, who'll be able to explain along the way what they changed, why, and how. That'd be priceless..

After all, while Alexander is a spectacular pile of tosh, the DVD commentary with Oliver Stone and Robin Lane Fox is invaluable from an educational point of view; it's amazingly instructive to listen to the film's director and historical advisor try to justify their film's rather flexible attitude to historical orthodoxy. I can't imagine teaching a credible course on cinematic representations of the Classical world without having that as required viewing; I'm curious as to whether the DVD of 300 has any similarly mitigating features that might justify my purchasing that farcical bloodbath.

Beowulf
is a far superior film to Alexander, but I'm pretty sure that a decent DVD commentary would be just as fascinating and no less useful than that which -- to some degree -- redeems Oliver Stone's classical trainwreck.

1 comment:

Kyle R. Cupp said...

While on the one hand I want filmmakers to create a faithful rendering of a beloved literary work, on the other I prefer they do something different and create a new and separate work of art. After all, I can read, and don’t require movies to show me a story I can visualize just fine. Besides, there is much precedent for artists composing their own version of twice-told tales: Homer and Shakespeare come to mind. Why not Beowulf?