A Roundtable Reviewing Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007)

The High School English Teacher

The movies frequently dumb-down literary masterpieces, or even mediocre books, but this film is a rather extraordinary example. It is, in fact, deeply flawed in almost every possible way. In my opinion, as both a fan of the Beowulf poem and as a teacher of British Literature for eleven years, this film is not really suitable for classroom use. Notwithstanding, the eye-candy “study package” provided by the studio as a way to encourage teachers to use the film, there is really very little of use for the classroom here — with one possible exception. But before I explain what this one exception is, and before I specifically spell out what is so problematic about the film, let me first explain something about the way in which I’ve taught Beowulf. Like any text students might think is an “old book,” if you simply toss it at high-school students and expect them to read it, decipher it, and like it, you’re not going to get very far. I like to give an entire week’s worth of background materials and context for the poem. We talk about the history of the Germanic migration/invasion into Britain, the social structure of the cyning and thane, the concepts of the comitatus, wergeld, wyrd, and of course the scop, the poet, and the mead halls. We look at examples of Anglo-Saxon riddles, and humanize the disembodied speakers from the past. We look at passages of Old English poetry in Old English and look for trace words, still commonly used today. Then, and only then, are we ready to read Beowulf, and by then, most students are intrigued, particularly the young men who are in most instances the most difficult students to “sell” poetry to. Furthermore, we don’t simply READ it, we actually LISTEN to it. I read aloud to them from Burton Raffael’s translation (over some really cool “cave sounds” music by an ensemble called The Deep Listening Band), as they follow along. We stop every couple of pages to linger over kennings, or good examples of references to wyrd or comitatus. By the time we’re through most students are pretty impressed by what the tale has to offer.

Last fall a colleague of mine secured a number of free passes to see a sneak preview of the new film, Beowulf. A number of my British Literature students also secured passes from this teacher, and we agreed in class to “compare notes” the next day. The bizarre moments of the film which had me shaking my head in disbelief – – when, for example, Hrothgar, king of the Danes, names Beowulf king and runs off the edge of a cliff – – got responses from the audience around me as well. From the back of the darkened theater came cries of “Bullshit!” Others chuckled. The next day in class I announced that we would have our planned discussion, but that I would not say anything about the movie until every student who had attended it had spoken. I was impressed with their astute and knowledgeable dissections of what we’d seen. And yes, I have to admit, I was proud when one of my students asked, “Did you hear us shout ‘bullshit!’ when Hrothgar jumped off the cliff, Mr. Dwyer? What was up with that?”

Indeed, what WAS up with that? This movie veers so far from the themes, tone and meanings in the text that it was downright befuddling. My view is that the poem Beowulf, properly introduced and ‘administered’ doesn’t need such clumsy, confused additions as these filmmakers felt were necessary. On one hand, it’s strange that such a compelling story of fighting men, heroes and monsters, blades and battles, has been so poorly served by the medium of film. On the other hand, maybe the power of the poem is truly non-transferable to another medium. I’m inclined, however, to believe that it simply has yet to find a knowledgeable and sympathetic film-maker.

But rather than dally over the pros and cons of earlier attempts to film this great story, I’ll get straight to my list of major problems with this most recent attempt. I should point out that some of the 3D effects were captivating: particularly the pouring water in the opening credits, and one later shot when the camera pulls back from Heorot and up and into Grendel’s lair. Also, Crispin Glover was excellent as the voice of Grendel. But as for the rest? I actually took notes during the film and so this list of grievances should read as fresh as when they first irked me. My biggest complaints are not just about the “modifications” necessary to adapt an epic poem into a film, a difficult process to which I’m not unsympathetic. However, these modifications actually destroy the specific merits and strengths of the poem. First of all: King Hrothgar in the poem is not a big fat party animal, but a noble and gracious lord. Wiglaf can’t arrive with Beowulf and the group of Geats at the beginning because this undermines the tragedy of the last battle and the fate of the Geats. Beowulf isn’t a liar. He also never becomes the king of the Danes. In this film they’ve made him both. I’ve already mentioned Hrothgar’s suicide – – truly a baffling moment for those familiar with the poem and Anglo Saxon culture. Lastly, and worthy no doubt of another three pages of commentary alone, there is the character of Grendel’s mother. Of course, I understand the Hollywood concern with sex appeal, and I could even accept the idea of Grendel’s mother as a shape-shifter, though it’s not in the poem. But to make the dragon Beowulf’s son by Grendel’s mother goes beyond all logic. There’s a good paper waiting to be written about this film’s bizarre desire to superimpose a Freudian reading – – think of the Darth Vader’s famous line in Star Wars: “Luke, you are my son — onto a perfectly good epic. In my opinion this is a poem about the futility and destructiveness of the blood feud. The film instead descends to moments of Austin Powers-esque farce. Your students will see enough lousy movies in life on their own. My advice is: don’t waste your precious classroom time on this one!

James Dwyer has taught Humanities (Literature) and British Literature at Ann Arbor Huron High School (since ’97). He recently received his Masters in Literature from Eastern Michigan University.

The Medieval Film Specialists

Why is it that, in American culture, men with six-pack abs are portrayed as cretins?  Has World Wrestling Entertainment so limited our imaginations that we have become unable to consider the possibility of the well-conditioned man who speaks softly and also has something to say?  Certainly Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007), written by the team of Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, indulges the fantasy of the muscular moron.  Its characters are bombastic blowhards; they shout rather than speak. R. E. Kaske took great pains to demonstrate that the eponymous hero of the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, embodies the Augustinian virtues of sapientia et fortitudo, wisdom and strength, qualities that make him both an effective monster killer and a good and just king.  Zemeckis’ Beowulf is an oversexed and intellectually underpowered doofus. He bellows, “I am Beowulf,” so frequently you would think that, were it not for these constant reminders, he might forget.

It is not Beowulf’s mind that interests Zemeckis, of course.  Rather, the primary focus of the film seems to be on Beowulf’s penis.  From Queen Wealhtheow’s gasp on seeing Beowulf exposed – – demonstrating conclusively that her husband, King Hrothgar, is lacking in gasp-inducing equipment – – until the film’s conclusion, Beowulf’s manhood seems to be directly associated with the size of, well, his manhood. As the naked Beowulf beats on Grendel during the climactic fight scene, his own stature increases as the monster seems to wilt.  And yet, for a movie so interested in male genitalia, Beowulf is positively prissy.  In a move that can seem only unintentionally hilarious after the Michael Myers’ Austin Powers oeuvre, Zemeckis carefully hides Beowulf’s gasp-worthy equipment (did we mention that Beowulf inexplicably fights Grendel in the buff?) behind a series of increasingly obvious objects.  We can almost hear Grendel’s mother asking Beowulf, “is that your sword or are you just glad to see me?”

The film thus reduces any potential discussion of gender in Beowulf to a series of crude jokes directed, apparently, at the adolescent male demographic so desired by studios.  But Beowulf also taps into the anxieties of this demographic, offering Grendel’s mother as a castrating sea-witch and the dragon as an Oedipal son returned to take revenge on his absent father—as Beowulf fights the dragon, he is carried over a series of trees, spikes, and spires, all of which hold out the promise of anal violation should he release his grasp on the monster.  While the medieval poem is only tangentially interested in the lives of Anglo-Saxon women, it nonetheless recognizes that they function within a wide range of social possibility. The film imagines queen Wealhtheow and her serving maiden – –  Beowulf’s sometime mistress – – as, at best, damsels in distress, while peasant women are little more than large-breasted bimbos.

If you are looking for an interesting meditation on the Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic, Zemeckis’ Beowulf is not for you. It is hard to imagine how – – or why – – even the most creative educator would choose to teach it. Zemeckis’ Middle Ages are much the same as the Middle Ages found in a series of silly credit card commercials from Capital One, which portray a gang of medieval marauders descending on modern suburbia.  The commercials, because they are shorter, likely offer more pedagogical possibility.

In a collaboration that has spanned more than twenty years, Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman have written King Arthur and the Myth of History (Florida, 2004) and articles that have appeared in several journals, including Signs, Arthuriana>, and Arthurian Literature. Their edited collections of essays include a special issue of Arthuriana on “Symbolic and Sexual Economies in Arthurian Literature’ (1998) and Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers (Cornell, 1987).  They have recently completed Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film, forthcoming from The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Old English Specialist

My initial reaction to Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf (2007) was irritation that, with the talent and tools at his disposal, he chose not to create a film more consistent with the Old English poem. I remain unsure whether my impatience sprang from comparing the film with the poem I have studied so long or from my conviction that I could find no way to use it in class. However, Professors Finke and Shichtman have thrown down the pedagogical gauntlet, remarking that they can’t imagine how or why anyone would teach this film. As an Anglo-Saxonist who also teaches ancient epic, I am well versed in rearguard defenses (doomed to failure) and so cannot resist the challenge. Acknowledging that they are absolutely correct that the film does not offer anything like “an interesting meditation on the Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic” – – in the extra material section “A Hero’s Journey: The Making of Beowulf,” Zemekis proudly proclaims that his film “has nothing to do with the Beowulfyou were forced to read in junior high school” – – there are a number of things one could teach with this film; unfortunately, few of them have much to do with the actual poem or the Middle Ages.

The opening scenes of revelry in the mead hall suggest a medieval Delta House, with Hrothgar as a doddering and drunken ex-frat boy, complete with toga. The younger men have taken over the house, but the elder hangs on, a bathetic buffoon. Zemekis admits that the film is “all about eating, drinking, killing, and fornicating”; some students will find this appealing, certainly, but others will be put off by the violence and crude behavior. Perhaps an attempt to make the Middle Ages accessible, by reducing the attitudes and behaviors of the warriors to nothing more than drinking, belching, and wenching, the film initially robs the characters of any complexity that might make them interesting; by the time we glimpse such complexities, the film is rushing toward a Hollywood conclusion that has little to do with the poem, save that both Beowulf and the dragon die, each by the other’s hand (talon?). As the hero, Winstone’s Shatnerian delivery of his lines makes it difficult to take him or the action seriously, even when buckets of blood cue us that the action is very serious indeed. Perhaps the best pedagogical use of this film is not as an iteration of the poem, but as a foil to it; in challenging them to find the discrepancies between the basic plots, and to account for those differences, students might be forced to wrestle with the broader assumptions upon which both works operate: the nature of heroism, loyalty, and virtue; how relationships are mediated by class, gender, or blood ties; the interplay of illusion and reality, and the desirability of each.

Certainly for this last, the performance-capture medium of production raises interesting questions regarding the unrealistic expectations of the ideal human form in contemporary culture. In an increasingly Botoxed world, we may come to regard such plasticized perfection as the norm, but at present there are too many of us lesser mortals cluttering up the landscape. Students could be asked to consider potential effects of such portrayals and of the assumptions that underlie them.

Despite my reservations about its representation of the poem, the film could be used to give students an idea of the material culture from the early medieval Germanic world, which the artists recreate quite well. The appearance, if not the size, of Heorot coincides more or less with surviving descriptions of such halls; though the palace structure is an anachronistic castle; tableware, weaponry, and other implements resemble archaeological finds; and articles of dress are consistent with textiles from the era.

Apart from visual fidelity to known artifacts, the film is concerned not with the Anglo-Saxon poem, but with ourselves. The narcissism of its contemporary preoccupations, thinly veiled as historical drama, renders it almost useless for teaching the poem; paradoxically, that very narcissism may be potentially instructive in discussions of modern American culture. Having attempted to make a pedagogical silk purse from a sow’s ear, I confess that I am unlikely to use the film to teach the poem, beyond perhaps short scenes or stills; even there, photographs of actual artifacts or replicas of them from the British Museum and other websites would be just as helpful and more congenial to me, because I would not have to watch the film again to find them.

Mary K. Ramsey is an assistant professor of English specializing in Old English language and literature at Southeastern Louisiana University. She edited Imagined Realities: Meaning and Textuality in the Middle Ages (2003) and Beowulf in Our Time: Teaching Beowulf in Translation (2002), and has co-edited with Eileen A. Joy The Postmodern Beowulf (2006). A long-time reviewer for the Year’s Work in Old English Studies, she has just completed “Dustsceawung: Texting the Dead in Old English Elegies,” a consideration of the relationship between Anglo-Saxon mortuary monuments and Old English poetry (forthcoming in Laments for the Lost: Medieval Mourning and Elegy).

Original Citation:The Once and Future Classroom, Volume VI, Issue 1, Spring 2008

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies