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Beowulf Versus the Draggin’: Director’s Cut Fails to Excite

by on February 26, 2008

Ever since the success of Lord of the Rings, Hollywood has been enjoying a euphoric—and surprisingly long-term—relationship with the sword and sorcery genre. It’s become a common industry practice lately to rifle through the fantasy-and-magic bin, pull out a few rusty swords, some computer-generated monsters, an aging English actor or two (preferably with a theater background), and to throw them together into a new epic.

The latest story to get this treatment, Beowulf, derives from an old English poem dating back to at least the tenth century. Born of oral tradition, it eventually made its way onto paper, before being adapted (several times) hundreds of years later for the Big Screen. Beowulf: The Directors Cut is the DVD release of the story’s most recent cinematic incarnation.

The film was released last year under the proficient direction of Robert Zemeckis, with a screenplay by comic-book legend Neil Gaiman and a star cast led by Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and Ray Winstone, all CG’d up to their britches. It was met with highly mixed reactions, and understandably so, as it was a confused beast.

I was fortunate enough to work last year illustrating a book on Beowulf, which required a long hard look at the story and its characters. Zemeckis’s world feels very much like the world I expected from my own research and recollection of the source work, beyond some slight alterations to some of the monsters.

Unfortunately, the animation of this fine world isn’t quite as on the ball. From the very opening shot, Queen Wealtheow looks positively like a waxwork, as do many characters throughout the movie. When Beowulf fights the nasty Grendel, his naked body swinging through action shot after action shot starts to look very computer animated. In fact, it looks naff.

In contrast, there are many occasions when the characters look very believable indeed. The illusion of realism is very powerful when we first see King Hrothgar standing outside his mead hall, and Beowulf’s debut riding the waves could easily fool you into thinking it is not an artificially mapped environment.

This hotchpotch of success and failures gives the audience a bumpy ride. In one moment the lighting of a scene and the expressions of the characters can match any real-life cinematic; in the next, the warrior gulping from a metal goblet looks like he’s swigging from a vessel as light as a paper cup.

As any discerning movie watcher will tell you, though, it’s the story, not the looks, that matters, and here too Beowulf stumbles.

As Mr. Gaiman himself admits, the challenges of bringing Beowulf to the movie screen were complex. The original tale is hardly written for Hollywood: there is little definition within the poem beyond a chronological biography of its hero. Other than that, the Beowulf of old simply wanders from one heroic deed to the next. The characters and events are all very linear and fairly isolated affairs. This naturally would make the transition to contemporary cinema difficult.

I was eager to see how the film finessed the transition from poem to screen, and I must say I found their choices a little disappointing. In comparison to the original tale, the alterations are so great it feels like a different story, even if it looks the part.

In the original, no one slept with Grendel’s mother—she was an abhorrent monster like Grendel himself. The film’s dramatic arc between Hrothgar, Beowulf and Grendel’s mother did not exist at all. There were no seductions, no hint of Christianity, no love triangles, and the Dragon was certainly, most definitely, not Beowulf’s son.

And as with Coppola’s Dracula, there has been a Hollywood urge to milk drama from a classic by making the monsters more sympathetic. Here, Grendel is as much an object of pity as he is an aggressor, taking him far from the simplistic, evil beast he originally was. Like her offspring, Grendel’s mother was equally vicious and carried none of the manipulative and intangible power she has in the film.

Certainly, writers Gaiman and Roger Avary have grafted the legend onto a more cinematic tale, and I can appreciate that a more pitiful Grendel might hold more audience interest than a rampaging monster. But in the end, the product isn’t really Beowulf anymore; it’s a fusion of a Greek tragedy with a small hint of Arthurian legend. The classic simplicity of the hero and his deeds are lost; Beowulf himself is no longer the strong-bodied, indomitable force; his honor and confidence have been shifted across the spectrum toward arrogance and pride. Quite honestly, even within the context of this version’s cocky and vain Beowulf, I wasn’t convinced that he would be seduced by the offerings of Grendel’s mother. This version of Beowulf has an overflowing pot of self-confidence and demon-hatred that isn’t that of a man who would accept any pact that he didn’t suggest himself. I especially can’t see him accepting one from someone he despises and distrusts.

To make things worse, the film is devoid of any dramatic contrast. There is very little to pull the movie out of the sombre tragedy it has carved for itself. While the original Beowulf focused on the hero’s victories, this version creates failures for him to wallow in. There is very little life in Zemeckis’s version, and it’s a downbeat film all the way.

That said, the film retains a certain freshness to its drama through its dynamic direction. Occasionally the director’s hand feels a little excessive, pushing too hard on the unorthodox camera angles and perspectives to counter the story’s lack of impetus, but overall one cannot ignore the energy Zemeckis’s talents bring to the film.

The film’s strongest element is its cast, and the voice acting in particular is enjoyable throughout. Winstone’s voice conjures up the power and authority I’d imagine in Beowulf, and Malkovich is wonderfully dry as Unferth.

The DVD itself is not quite the package it sounds. Certainly labeling it as “Directors Cut” is a little misleading, as it appears there are few changes throughout, and there’s nothing on the disk to indicates what makes this edit particularly Zemeckis’s vision. Expect more spatter, but little else.

The features, while informative, are far too short. I would recommend “The Origins of Beowulf” as it does give the writers a chance to justify and explain their alterations to this movie, but don’t expect them to talk for too long.

The deleted scenes offer some interesting snippets of story dressing and narrative cuts. Beware that these scenes are generated through very basic animation, so they are not easy on the eye!

This film is really a “try before you buy” affair. I have heard of people who were in total awe of the animated images and loved the tragic dressing given the tale. I personally have no problem with filmmakers making changes to source material, but in doing so you risk losing the identity of the story you are retelling, and you have to be pretty darn sure what you have in its place is rather special. I’m not so sure Zemeckis’s drastic revision of Beowulf holds up to, say, Scott’s equally intense reshaping of Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?

As much as I wanted to like this film, it neither succeeded at encapsulating the tone of Beowulf, nor did it stun with its pace or charm. It is not a terrible film, but it fails to hit the spot in too many places to really pay off with an ambitious retelling of England’s first classical hero.

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