It’s been almost ten years in the making, but at long last, the wait is over and the Gaiman–Avary “treatment” of Beowulf has hit the theatres.
In a desperate attempt to see it without anyone spoiling it for me1, we dragged ourselves out on a work night to see it. In 3D, on an IMAX screen2. While I knew not to expect regular “live” action, it was still a little disconcerting to see [such-and-such actor in movie] in avatar form. But my brain quickly adjusted, and the way the rendering was done made the environment believable3. A certain realism pervaded the atmosphere, which grounded the re-telling of one of the oldest myths. The story of the hero: flawed, human, brave and yet vulnerable.
The setting also made the monsters believable; realistic even. I’m glad we saw the film before we’d seen any images of Grendel or any trailers. I’d hate to have missed out on the many “Oh my goodness, they did WHAT to Beowulf?!” moments I had. I’d hate to give the game away here and fill this with spoilers. But let’s just say I was amazed with how they depicted Grendel: physically and as a figure in the story. I love Neil Gaiman’s take on stories. He always finds a different perspective from which to view things. His published treatment of the Grendel character in the Scottish Shadow short story within Fragile Things foreshadowed this version for me4. I don’t know if the foreshadowing of so many things in the film version were just good set-ups within the film, or leakage from my own reading of the Beowulf poem or Beowulf-inspired stories I’ve read over the years. Ooh, it’s so difficult to write of the absolutely fantastic story-telling without giving the whole thing away. I so, so loved how two linked revelatory moments were built-up subtly. One appreciates it all the more when a well-loved old tale is in the hand of masterful storytellers6 and sympathetically brought to life by an extremely talented team of film-makers.
And as Andrew discovered, the script indeed takes liberties with the written poem. But I must say, while the facts have been changed, the story is better. So many things in this movie, I could not, in my wildest imagination, have teased out from the bare bones of the epic poem. My own vivid imagination could never have “seen” the seedy interpretation of the story. Grendel’s mother. What a piece of work (and not just in the clichéd sense). The Hoard. The dragon. Oh, the dragon. Where do I begin with the implications? This wasn’t just a re-telling of the Beowulf story alone. It was a complete reworking of all the myths we draw from, all the stories ever told.
Without the story, the angle, the movie would not have worked. But with that, and fantastic cinematography and other movie-making dazzly effects5 to immerse us in a believable world, Beowulf – The Movie was an extraordinary experience.
1 I’m still annoyed about the way trailers give away the “clever bits” of a movie. For example, the trailer for the latest Will Smith one-man-show I Am Legend would have been perfect if they’d just stopped before they gave the whole game away. It was tantalising until they spoilt it for me. That’s $20 I won’t be spending then.
2 Though not as large and all-encompassing as the Science Centre IMAX screen of my childhood. Incidentally, the 3D goggles for IMAX are not very comfortable for a nearly 2 hour movie: they were a bit tight and definitely didn’t sit well on top of my work-day spectacles.
3 For a given amount of belief. There were clunky moments, but not enough to jar you back to reality.
4 In publication order at any rate. If he wrote the script to Beowulf in 1998, it could well have preceded his Scottish Shadow short story.
5 I use this generic term because a crap load of different things make a movie. I am a simple biologist; pardon the ignorance.
6 I should mention here that the script was the fault of both Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. But since Gaiman has written more books that I’ve read, I’ve been a little biased in my blethering praise. If you want to know more about the script’s history, a good place to start would be searching the Gaiman archives or the Avary blog that I’ve not learnt how to navigate.