Review the Beowulf Movie

I hope some of you see the Beowulf movie this weekend and post a comment about how it was. 

A critic I really like, Stephen Hunter, has a good take on how the animation/real-life combo prevents any real acting or human emotions from happening. The same people who made this movie made “Polar Express,” which utterly creeped me out. Our faithful reader and commenter tODD usefully explained why, pointing us to this article about the “uncanny.”

Animation does make possible, though, effects of fantasy that are impossible to realistic drama. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien hated attempts to portray fantasy tales on stage, because in their realism they just could not pull it off, and phony special effects made it even worse. They didn’t think much of movies, either, though Lewis made an exception, interestingly enough, for the pioneering fantasy animation of Disney’s “Snow White.”

Mr. Hunter, for all of his good analysis, utterly misunderstands Beowulf’s times and the work’s literary structure. He obviously hadn’t read Tolkien’s definitive critical essay, “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics,” as evident when he says this:

When the original was assembled (written? collected? sung? chanted?) around the embers back in the good ol’ 700s or so, no theory of psychology existed, so there was no storytellers’ need to conjure coherent behavior patterns or fully realized plots. Man was so powerless and all nature seemed arbitrary, so stories could be arbitrary, none more so than the epic poem of the Anglo-Saxon peoples (even if it told of Scandinavian adventures): The great warrior Beowulf fights and kills first Grendel, then Grendel’s ma; 50 years later he fights a dragon.

Unacceptably episodic today. No arc. No growth. Where’s the reveal? What’s the back story? Thus, Gaiman and Avary root the thing in family dysfunction, and the two monsters, plus the fire breather, are the manifestations of alpha-male pathologies for which many innocent people pay in blood, even if the alpha male is the only one on the planet capable of dealing with the terror he himself has unleashed.

Episodic? As Tolkien points out, each encounter shows the Monsters getting stronger and Beowulf getting weaker, intensifying the heroism, in the Germanic sense of courage in the face of doom. We also see the progression of the hero as a young warrior in the prime of life, learning by experience, until at the final confrontation is he is an old warrior near death, still fighting dragons for his people when he is 80 years old, until a new generation rises to take his place. And we could go on. The unity of the tale is far richer than what we postmoderns could come up with in our “theories of psychology.” And those times were in tune with much deeper forces than we are.

My worry is that the filmmakers, though they seem faithful to the original plot, may also be oblivious to what it means. Still, Hunter lauds the fight scenes to the sky. And, in what I didn’t realize, many theaters are showing it in 3-D! Only with cool glasses! So, at the very least, it should be great fun. But I can’t see it this weekend, so I need you to tell me.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://4scores.blogspot.com Cap Stewart

    FYI: the movie, while rated PG-13, contains full female frontal nudity and obscured male nudity.

  • http://4scores.blogspot.com Cap Stewart

    FYI: the movie, while rated PG-13, contains full female frontal nudity and obscured male nudity.

  • Joe

    So PG-13 gets you full frontal nudity. That is absurd. 13 year old boys do not need to see suductive, naked women. I mean 13 year olds are already over stimulated. This could actually kill them.

  • Joe

    So PG-13 gets you full frontal nudity. That is absurd. 13 year old boys do not need to see suductive, naked women. I mean 13 year olds are already over stimulated. This could actually kill them.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m planning to go see it. I’ll let you know what I think, and post a review at the blog.

    I’ve always found A. Jolie entirely resistable. As far as I’m concerned, seeing her naked is like seeing a horse naked.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’m planning to go see it. I’ll let you know what I think, and post a review at the blog.

    I’ve always found A. Jolie entirely resistable. As far as I’m concerned, seeing her naked is like seeing a horse naked.

  • Booklover

    Oh Lars, thank you so much for my laugh for the day. I needed it after scrubbing ovens and scrubbing and waxing floors . . . . HAHAHAHAHA

    But I’ve always found a horse to be beautiful. :-) So maybe not a good comparison??

    I won’t be seeing the movie, although my hubby invited me. I’m just one for books. :-)

  • Booklover

    Oh Lars, thank you so much for my laugh for the day. I needed it after scrubbing ovens and scrubbing and waxing floors . . . . HAHAHAHAHA

    But I’ve always found a horse to be beautiful. :-) So maybe not a good comparison??

    I won’t be seeing the movie, although my hubby invited me. I’m just one for books. :-)

  • SimDan

    Titianic also had full frontal female nudity and was PG-13, so this isn’t a first. Actually this one is even more sad, as I understand it, it is computer generated nudity, though animated using the real thing as a close reference.

    What does this mean for our society when cartoon nudity can be passed of as close to the real thing?

  • SimDan

    Titianic also had full frontal female nudity and was PG-13, so this isn’t a first. Actually this one is even more sad, as I understand it, it is computer generated nudity, though animated using the real thing as a close reference.

    What does this mean for our society when cartoon nudity can be passed of as close to the real thing?

  • SimDan

    Another thought,

    With the extravagant makeup and Photoshop work that real models get I guess we have been making a “cartoon” of the real thing and then passing it off as real for years anyway. With computers we can now skip working with the real thing to begin with and jump right to the fake stuff.

  • SimDan

    Another thought,

    With the extravagant makeup and Photoshop work that real models get I guess we have been making a “cartoon” of the real thing and then passing it off as real for years anyway. With computers we can now skip working with the real thing to begin with and jump right to the fake stuff.

  • Iohannas

    Spoilers follow. The film did abandon the original arc for a large part. If you’re familiar with the screenwriters work then the story changes won’t be too shocking, especially if you’ve seen the trailer. Grendel’s mother is never slain, and the dragon is Beowulf’s offspring through her. This plays out better than it could have, but it still feels hollow compared to the classic themes. I saw the film in IMAX 3D which gave the benefit of novelty to what I would otherwise consider a middle of the line film.

  • Iohannas

    Spoilers follow. The film did abandon the original arc for a large part. If you’re familiar with the screenwriters work then the story changes won’t be too shocking, especially if you’ve seen the trailer. Grendel’s mother is never slain, and the dragon is Beowulf’s offspring through her. This plays out better than it could have, but it still feels hollow compared to the classic themes. I saw the film in IMAX 3D which gave the benefit of novelty to what I would otherwise consider a middle of the line film.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I enjoyed it. That doesn’t mean I always liked what was being done. The animation process produces effects that are just weird in places, and extremely effective in others places. I have a suspicion it won’t age well.

    What intrigues me most is that there are (anachronistic) references to Christianity in the movie, and generally negative ones. But the story is largely informed by a world view that assumes the Christian teaching that power and riches can be a snare to the soul. There’s nothing of that in the original poem.

    Still, I thought it worth seeing.

    Don’t take the kids. It should have gotten a more mature rating.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I enjoyed it. That doesn’t mean I always liked what was being done. The animation process produces effects that are just weird in places, and extremely effective in others places. I have a suspicion it won’t age well.

    What intrigues me most is that there are (anachronistic) references to Christianity in the movie, and generally negative ones. But the story is largely informed by a world view that assumes the Christian teaching that power and riches can be a snare to the soul. There’s nothing of that in the original poem.

    Still, I thought it worth seeing.

    Don’t take the kids. It should have gotten a more mature rating.

  • http://clearwaterlutheran.org Joe Abrahamson

    The advertising for the movie Beowulf gives ample evidence for not watching it: Angelina Jolie stars as Grendle’s Mother. If the directors, writers, and producers care so little about the nature of the monster: If they have so little faith in their own “re-creation” of the story that they need to depend on a flesh-pot to capture an audience; for what could one hope that any part of this early Christian literary epic would convey any portion of the faith, morals, devotion, and integrity of service represented by the original.

    Why bother? The advertisements and chat have made it clear that the main attraction is the showing off of flesh (both of Grendle’s mother and that of Beowulf).

    Being aware of and being able to speak authoritatively on postmodern culture is one thing. Indulgence in culturally acceptable pop porn is another.

  • http://clearwaterlutheran.org Joe Abrahamson

    The advertising for the movie Beowulf gives ample evidence for not watching it: Angelina Jolie stars as Grendle’s Mother. If the directors, writers, and producers care so little about the nature of the monster: If they have so little faith in their own “re-creation” of the story that they need to depend on a flesh-pot to capture an audience; for what could one hope that any part of this early Christian literary epic would convey any portion of the faith, morals, devotion, and integrity of service represented by the original.

    Why bother? The advertisements and chat have made it clear that the main attraction is the showing off of flesh (both of Grendle’s mother and that of Beowulf).

    Being aware of and being able to speak authoritatively on postmodern culture is one thing. Indulgence in culturally acceptable pop porn is another.

  • http://chaz-lehmann.livejournal.com Pr. Lehmann

    What I found interesting is that the original epic poem is kind of a prototype of the English form of tragedy in which all of Beowulf’s virtues are for nought when his pride causes him to be slain by the dragon at the end of his life.

    The movie makes Beowulf into more of a 21st century sort of hero and gives him redemption… and it does it by making the epic poem into a piece of propaganda. It doesn’t get much more postmodern than that. ;-) Lots of hermeneutic of suspicion going on.

  • http://chaz-lehmann.livejournal.com Pr. Lehmann

    What I found interesting is that the original epic poem is kind of a prototype of the English form of tragedy in which all of Beowulf’s virtues are for nought when his pride causes him to be slain by the dragon at the end of his life.

    The movie makes Beowulf into more of a 21st century sort of hero and gives him redemption… and it does it by making the epic poem into a piece of propaganda. It doesn’t get much more postmodern than that. ;-) Lots of hermeneutic of suspicion going on.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Pr. Lehman, I don’t see that at all in the poem. One of my observations on the differences between the poem and the movie is that in the poem, Beowulf is purely heroic, with no significant faults. He falls, as all Germanic heroes do, because his fated time is up. The movie adds the element of guilt/fatal flaw, which came to northern European culture from the Greeks, by way of Christianity. (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, by the way, does the same thing. The real Hamlet, if he existed at all, would have lived around the same time as Beowulf).

    Which means, it seems to me, that the filmmakers have taken an essentially Christian approach to the material, whether they intended to or not.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Pr. Lehman, I don’t see that at all in the poem. One of my observations on the differences between the poem and the movie is that in the poem, Beowulf is purely heroic, with no significant faults. He falls, as all Germanic heroes do, because his fated time is up. The movie adds the element of guilt/fatal flaw, which came to northern European culture from the Greeks, by way of Christianity. (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, by the way, does the same thing. The real Hamlet, if he existed at all, would have lived around the same time as Beowulf).

    Which means, it seems to me, that the filmmakers have taken an essentially Christian approach to the material, whether they intended to or not.

  • jgernander

    I am still waiting to hear the movie get blasted for turning Grendel’s mother into an object of desire for Beowulf, and turning the dragon into his progeny. I have not seen the movie. But upon hearing that this is part of it, I have no desire to see the movie. I probably wouldn’t want to see it anyway because I love the poem so much and could only ever be disappointed by a movie version. But this seems totally irresponsible. (Of course, the current Bourne movies are irresponsible in the same way, if one goes expecting to see a movie version of the books.)

  • jgernander

    I am still waiting to hear the movie get blasted for turning Grendel’s mother into an object of desire for Beowulf, and turning the dragon into his progeny. I have not seen the movie. But upon hearing that this is part of it, I have no desire to see the movie. I probably wouldn’t want to see it anyway because I love the poem so much and could only ever be disappointed by a movie version. But this seems totally irresponsible. (Of course, the current Bourne movies are irresponsible in the same way, if one goes expecting to see a movie version of the books.)

  • spicedparrot

    I saw it an enjoyed it for its entertainment value. I also thought it was a bit deeper than I had initially anticipated. In addition, the world-view of the movie was pure contemporary post-modernism. Christianity was a negative, but tolerated along with paganism, etc. and the “anti-hero” eventually reaps the consequences of his actions while the “heroine” is mostly miserable her life.

    IN short I called it a bit of Beowulf mixed with plenty of Derrida, a little Nietzsche, and a dash of Michael Bay!

  • spicedparrot

    I saw it an enjoyed it for its entertainment value. I also thought it was a bit deeper than I had initially anticipated. In addition, the world-view of the movie was pure contemporary post-modernism. Christianity was a negative, but tolerated along with paganism, etc. and the “anti-hero” eventually reaps the consequences of his actions while the “heroine” is mostly miserable her life.

    IN short I called it a bit of Beowulf mixed with plenty of Derrida, a little Nietzsche, and a dash of Michael Bay!

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Halfway off topic, but it really rankles me to see a movie that is calibrated to appeal to the most juvenile, junior high school urges of people getting a “mature” or “adult” rating. Say what? Somehow it’s become a sign of maturity to peep into Mr. Pitt’s bedroom to see his wife? (or whatever he calls Ms. Jolie)

    You want to know why we have trouble keeping people away from X rated entertainment? Maybe part of the problem is that we’ve allowed the industry to associate itself with adulthood in the same way that wearing long pants and working for a living used to be a sign of having grown up.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Halfway off topic, but it really rankles me to see a movie that is calibrated to appeal to the most juvenile, junior high school urges of people getting a “mature” or “adult” rating. Say what? Somehow it’s become a sign of maturity to peep into Mr. Pitt’s bedroom to see his wife? (or whatever he calls Ms. Jolie)

    You want to know why we have trouble keeping people away from X rated entertainment? Maybe part of the problem is that we’ve allowed the industry to associate itself with adulthood in the same way that wearing long pants and working for a living used to be a sign of having grown up.

  • http://faithandgender.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    Just got back from seeing it. Took my senior-in-high-school daughter and wife.

    My daughter tells me that in her English class (which has Beowulf in its curriculum this year), they’re taught that the poem in which we have it is not original, that it was transcribed by Christian monks, who “spun” it, so that it was heavily tinctured with Christian symbolism, values, etc.

    Not having enough background to interact with that analysis of Beowulf, I simply observe this: the film released this past week alters the tale (as others have noted), and in doing so, it produces a tale that is far more overtly Christian in its values and themes than the text that comes down to us from centuries ago.

    I can’t (or, won’t) argue this assessment here, as it would take too much space and would involve a lot of spoilers. What’s intriguing to me is this: in remaking the tale into something overtly Christian, were the writers/director aware of what they were doing? Or, were they so heavily intoxicated by the momentum of Christ in Western culture that they couldn’t help themselves?

  • http://faithandgender.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    Just got back from seeing it. Took my senior-in-high-school daughter and wife.

    My daughter tells me that in her English class (which has Beowulf in its curriculum this year), they’re taught that the poem in which we have it is not original, that it was transcribed by Christian monks, who “spun” it, so that it was heavily tinctured with Christian symbolism, values, etc.

    Not having enough background to interact with that analysis of Beowulf, I simply observe this: the film released this past week alters the tale (as others have noted), and in doing so, it produces a tale that is far more overtly Christian in its values and themes than the text that comes down to us from centuries ago.

    I can’t (or, won’t) argue this assessment here, as it would take too much space and would involve a lot of spoilers. What’s intriguing to me is this: in remaking the tale into something overtly Christian, were the writers/director aware of what they were doing? Or, were they so heavily intoxicated by the momentum of Christ in Western culture that they couldn’t help themselves?

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Since all the explicit mentions of Christianity (anachronistic, by the way–Christianity would be barely heard of in Denmark for a couple more centuries) are dismissive, I have to assume the writers did it unentiontionally.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Since all the explicit mentions of Christianity (anachronistic, by the way–Christianity would be barely heard of in Denmark for a couple more centuries) are dismissive, I have to assume the writers did it unentiontionally.

  • http://faithandgender.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    I think I’d disagree, Lars. What is “explicit mention” in the film? The words? Yes, they are dismissive, but they are always put into the mouths of pagan exponents. Meanwhile, as the film unfolds, the first person to mention “the new Roman god Christ Jesus” converts to that faith and appears later as a monk or (depending on how you interpret his garb) a Christian priest. And, the appearance and increasing sizes of the cross on the garb of Hrothgar’s wife — is this accidental?

    The departures the film makes from the textus repeptus of Beowulf is unfortunate for the way it obscures the original. But, for those who know the original, Hollywood’s emendations are regrettable for the way it keeps them from acknowledging just how much MORE overtly Christian the film is than the original legend.

  • http://faithandgender.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    I think I’d disagree, Lars. What is “explicit mention” in the film? The words? Yes, they are dismissive, but they are always put into the mouths of pagan exponents. Meanwhile, as the film unfolds, the first person to mention “the new Roman god Christ Jesus” converts to that faith and appears later as a monk or (depending on how you interpret his garb) a Christian priest. And, the appearance and increasing sizes of the cross on the garb of Hrothgar’s wife — is this accidental?

    The departures the film makes from the textus repeptus of Beowulf is unfortunate for the way it obscures the original. But, for those who know the original, Hollywood’s emendations are regrettable for the way it keeps them from acknowledging just how much MORE overtly Christian the film is than the original legend.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X