So, this week I taught Beowulf for the first time since the movie came out, and so I had an opportunity to think through and then talk to my class (about half of whom had seen the film) about what I thought were the problems with the movie, or rather, What They Got Wrong ™.
Leaving aside completely the arguments about the quality of the facial animation, and the technical merit (or otherwise) of the film’s special effects, the woodenness of the acting, the oddness of the accents, or whether the penis-covering scene is funnier than the penis-covering scene in The Simpson’s Movie, I really just went to the heart of the narrative adaptation. And there I do have a couple of insurmountable objections.
Before your squeaks of protest get too loud, let position myself. Yes, I am generally a Gaiman fan, although not because of Sandman. The first Gaiman book I read was Stardust, and I read that because it was recommended by Diana Wynne Jones. (I think this came up in the context of both of them having written books which were in some way inspired by Donne’s “Go and Catch a Falling Star,” but it might have been because someone pointed out that Gaiman has a cameo appearance in Deep Secret.) I love Stardust, both in book and movie versions, and I was delighted to find that Gaiman is an author who can really read aloud, too. I follow his blog a bit, I’ve read and enjoyed American Gods, Anansi Boys and Neverwhere. Generally pro-Gaiman, okay? Got it?
I’m also not having a stereotypical kneejerk English Professor The Only Way to Read Beowulf is in the original Anglo-Saxon moment, either. (Although, having said that, Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon as presented by the eccentric Benjamin Bagby is pretty awesome.) I don’t have conniptions about the “hibernicisms” in Heaneywulf; I teach the poem in translation, and I do what I can to help students see what it means by relating the arc of Beowulf’s battles with increasingly impossible monsters to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I’m not offended that the movie strayed from the original text, and I do understand the idea behind the adaptation. I’ve read a couple of the reviews that Gaiman says capture his idea about what they were trying to do (I’ve read some of the other kind of reviews, too). I actually think the idea that Gaiman and Avary had of turning the poem into the “public” version of the story and having their version tell the “real” story is an interesting one. It certainly provides a better answer to the question “Why did Beowulf bring back Grendel’s head after he killed Grendel’s mother in their underwater home?” than anyone else has come up with.
So, what’s my problem? It’s that Gaiman and Avary present sex and kingship as the things that Grendel’s mother uses to tempt Beowulf. Beowulf, in the original poem, is not that kind of guy. He’s not perfect, and he has a fatal character flaw – he has buttons to push, all right, but sex just isn’t one of his buttons. In the poem, after he has killed the Grendels, Beowulf is rewarded by both Hrothgar (the king he has rescued by slaying the monsters) and Hygelac (his own king). The kings give Beowulf all of the traditional rewards suitable to a hero – money, treasure, weapons, land – except for one. Neither of them offer him the hand of a princess in marriage, and Beowulf passes up not one, but two obvious opportunities to ask for a wife. There are women in the poem who make eyes at him, but Beowulf doesn’t see it, and his failure as a king to produce an heir seems tied to his inability to see himself as anything but a single hero. In fact, he’s so disinterested in the women who are in the background in the mead hall sometimes students ask if it’s possible to read him as gay, but he seems oblivious to the boys making eyes at him, too. (Wiglaf, in the movie, might be one of them.)
Kingship is thrust upon Beowulf; the explanation of how he becomes king is brief, and then, suddenly, in one line, it’s 50 years later, and there is no mention of a wife, or heirs. The poem is silent on the topic, but it’s easy to read an implied criticism of Beowulf as king in this silence; he should have a dozen grandsons eager to go and fight the dragon, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t express regret over this mishap of fate; instead, he charges out – sword in one hand, cane in the other – to fight the dragon himself, as if he is still the young tough he was at the beginning of the poem. In essence, Beowulf’s death at the end of the poem comes about because he never was able to exchange his identity as a hero in order to be a king.
Fundamentally, then, it makes no sense for Beowulf to give in to the temptation to have sex with any woman, no matter how much her bosoms are defying gravity, in order to be rewarded with a kingdom. He doesn’t want a kingdom, and he doesn’t want to have sex with her either. He should have had no trouble in resisting temptation. That’s where I have a problem with the adaptation – Gaiman and Avary went for the most obvious Hollywood cliché – and the really irritating thing about it is, Beowulf really does have a flaw that could have been exploited, and it might have made the movie more interesting.
What is Beowulf’s Achilles heel? It’s his desire to be famous for his deeds. The poem ends with a description of the hero, and the final word of his epitaph sums him up perfectly. He is lofgeornost: the most eager for glory.
You can’t tell me that’s an alien concept in the movie industry.