I have never read Beowulf. I own a recent paperback translation (w/ explanatory footnotes) by Howell D. Chickering, Jr. but owning is not the same as reading. For one thing, I don’t even like regular poetry, much less epic Olde English poetry of unknown origin. But mostly I am just lazy. Every single day I have to make a decision between reading Beowulf or doing any of a hundred other things, and I know I probably sound insane, but somehow those hundred other things keep winning!
That being said, you don’t have to be a corduroy-blazer-with-leather-arm-patch-wearing Beowulf scholar to recognize that a feature-length computer animated action-adventure adaptation starring Angelina Jolie is a fucking terrible idea.
Beowulf tells the ancient tale of a kingdom in Denmark during the 8th-11th century (somewhere in there) whose beer hall is constantly being attacked by a monster named Grendel. Not cool, bro! Leggo my beer hall! Then, Beowulf, a fabled (and arrogant!) hero warrior, arrives and promises to kill Grendel. In return, the king of the village promises to give him a golden drinking horn with a dragon handle, which was the 8th-11th century equivalent of an iPhone 3GS, that is how highly it was prized. That night, Beowulf takes off all of his clothes, because he knows that his weaponry will be useless against the monster. Grendel shows up and starts killing fools, and then Beowulf does a backflip off of one of the support beams and lands on Grendel’s back and begins punching him in the ear. Then he gets a length of chain from a swinging chandelier and ties Grendel up with it Die Hard style and as Grendel tries to escape, Beowulf slams his arm in the door over and over until his arm falls off. Grendel goes into the mountains to die, and Beowulf is the hero who slammed the monster’s arm in the door so much. Grendel’s mom, though, is so pissed about all of this. So she goes into town and kills everyone, and so now the king asks Beowulf to go kill Grendel’s mom and Beowulf is like “whuuuuuut! How many of these clowns do I have to kill,” and the king is like “I’m Anthony Hopkins, and I will be in any movie anyone asks me to be in, ever.”
So Beowulf goes into the mountain with his trusty drinking horn, and he uses the Flashlight App to light his way into a cave where he meets CGI Angelina Jolie. She tells him that as long as she can have the drinking horn (I am telling you, the wait list for those things was nutz) she will make Beowulf the king and she will also make him immortal. And then she fucks him, I guess? And it kind of turns out that she also fucked the last king? And that Anthony Hopkins was Grendel’s dad? Got it. So Beowulf goes back to the village and lies about how he killed the mom monster and everyone is like “yay!” and Anthony Hopkins is like “if anything ever happens to me, like, say, for example, jumping out of this window as soon as I stop talking, you can be king,” and then he jumps out of the window, and now Beowulf is king.
FAST FORWARD A BUNCH OF YEARS (direct translation from the original text probably), Beowulf is an old king and everyone thinks he’s such a hero, but then one day a slave discovers the golden horn and brings it to him and he’s like “oh fuck, it’s that magic horn,” and so people start dying again because now there is a new monster, which is a dragon, but also Beowulf’s son with CGI Angelina Jolie. The world was a much scarier place when dudes could just have dragon babies if they weren’t careful. So Beowulf goes to kill the dragon, and he is filled with shame for having lied to everyone and for having been the dad of a dragon, and he rides the dragon and stabs it and stuff and eventually he does kill that dragon, but at the loss of his own life, and as they both lie there dead on the beach, the dragon morphs back into a man, and Beowulf holds his hand, and Will Smith’s “Just the Two of Us” starts playing (that part is not true). Right before he dies, Beowulf tries to tell his best friend and trusted adviser (who is also king now) about his treachery, but his friend refuses to listen. Then, as they send Beowulf off into the ocean on a burning ship, Viking-style, the new king sees Angelina Jolie floating in the water, and he finds the golden horn on the beach, and you don’t know whether he is going to learn the lesson of Beowulf or repeat his mistake. FIND OUT NEXT TIME IN BEOWULF 2: THE EDGE OF REASON.
So, here is the thing: Beowulf, it turns out, is kind of a great story! It’s weird that so few people have ever heard of it. You would think this could be a real adventure classic! Oh well, another great work lost to time. We’re just lucky that Robert Zemeckis brought this unknown gem to everyone’s attention before it disappeared again forever. Sarcasm. But the point is that Beowulf isn’t the worst movie of all time for the simple fact that its source material is an incredibly important classic full of resonance and dramatic intrigue, and even though it has been fucked in the face by a tone-deaf computer, it is strong enough to withstand the nightmare that it has become. Somewhere, deep within this stupid, terrible movie, is the tiny seedling of the original Beowulf for us to all cling on to.
But man oh man. There is a lot of garbage piled on top of that seedling! I understand that a movie adaptation can’t be completely (or even “very”) faithful to the original text when the original text is an ancient epic poem, but some of the liberties taken with this are insane. Some changes are relatively benign. For example, in the poem, Beowulf is buried in a tumulus, but in the movie he is cast out to sea on a sailboat. Why? Why not just bury him the way he was buried in the original? Nevermind, that is the least of our concerns. A much more important question would be IS GRENDEL’S CAVE-DWELLING DEMON MOTHER WEARING ANCIENT MAGIC HIGH HEELS?
Hahahahaha, are you seri–[gunshot]
A fun party game to play while watching this movie, though, is to imagine that everything that happens in the movie IS a direct adaptation of the original text. Like, “then Beowulf was riding on the dragon’s back, but they were flying too close to the trees, and now you could see the trees from Beowulf’s point of view, and one of the trees hit him in the crotch, and he grunted, but he kept holding onto that dragon.” Or: “Beowulf descended from the moorings of his ship and walked towards the outrider. He was feeling tense from all that being a hero, so he cracked his neck, tough-guy-style.”
Or my personal favorite: “Grendel was chasing Bewoulf through the beer hall and smashed a table that Beowulf was standing on, but Beowulf ran vertically up a support beam and did an awesome back flip and landed facing Grendel like ‘OH SNAP!’”
Stupid. This movie is stupid. Whoever wrote Beowulf is rolling in his tumulus.