Guest Author - Peggy Maddox
Beowulf and Grendel (2005)
Director: Sturla Gunnarsson
Screenplay: Andrew Rai Berzins, based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf
Hringur Ingvarsson: Young Grendel, a cute little blond troll child with a beard.
Spencer Wilding: Grendel's gigantic troll father
Stellan Skarsgard: Hrothgar, a brutish Viking with little resemblance to the gracious king in the epic.
Ingvar E. Sigurdsson: Grown up Grendel; apparently trolls belong to the same species as human beings since they can interbreed.
Gerard Butler: Beowulf, a skilled fighter who is uncomfortable with his heroic reputation
Rory McCann: Breca, one of Beowulf's companions; not, as in the epic a non-appearing example of Beowulf's superior strength
Elva Osk Olafsdottir: Sea Hag who revenges Grendel. Now this is how a hag should look!
Olafur Darri Olafsson: Unferth, one of Hrothgar's men; he belittles Beowulf.
Sarah Polley: Selma, a witch who has to live apart from the community; her American accent really makes her stand out in this presumably ninth century setting.
Eddie Marsan: Father Brendan, a Christian missionary who persuades the Swedes and Danes to be baptized as a protection against the troll.
Benedikt Clausen; Grendel's son; I thought he was a girl.
Because of my background in literature, my first reaction to films based on classic works is always "But that's not the story!"
As a movie fan, I can appreciate that even when the original has been surgically altered the result can be entertaining cinema.
In the case of Sturla Gunnarsson's Beowulf and Grendel, the filmmaker is within his rights to tell the story according to his own interpretation. He's just one more scop (bard, minstrel) in the oral tradition.
The Beowulf I think of as the "original" is just one telling of stories about Beowulf, Hrothgar, and their kinsmen. The stories had been in circulation for hundreds of years before some Christian scribe wrote them down in England around the year 1000 C.E.
In the oral tradition stories change every time that they are recited. They vary according to the education and world view of the teller, and his understanding of what his audience likes and expects in a story. Movie making is very much in the oral tradition.
A pagan storyteller would not have mentioned Cain and Abel as does the scribe who wrote down the eleventh century version that we have. The characters in Beowulf are pagans, but the scribe saw their actions from a Christian perspective.
The twenty-first century secular story teller keeps the characters as pagans, but tells the story from the perspective of popularized Freudian psychology. The Christian references are explained away as later embroidery.
In general, modern people are not comfortable with the idea of Evil. They want to explain bad behavior by pointing to childhood trauma. They don't believe in literal demons that live in dark places.
Audiences farther in the past had no difficulty with the concept of good King Hrothgar being persecuted by the demon Grendel who did it because he was miserable and evil and didn't like to see anyone else having a good time.
Modern people feel that Grendel has to have a humanly understandable reason for picking on Hrothgar so the modern story teller shows us Grendel as a cute little blond troll child playing happily in the company of his loving troll father. Then along come the heartless human beings who kill the father in retaliation for his theft of a fish.
As the song has it, "He had it coming!"
Modern audiences reject the concept of the hero. Brecht said it way back in the last century: "Unhappy the land that needs heroes." Trailers for the new summer blockbuster Hancock show a character that is socially repellant in every way as a "new kind of hero." It's not surprising that in the Gunnarsson film Beowulf is uncomfortable being called a hero. There's more to him than just killing monsters. He's a sensitive guy who wants to understand where his enemy is coming from emotionally.
Modern audiences are skeptical. Trust in public figures, institutions and formerly respected professions is at an all time low. Modern children prefer true crime stories to fairy tales. "Ripped his arm off at the shoulder? Dude! Couldn't be done!" So Gunnarsson has Beowulf accomplish this feat with the help of winch and pulley.
No, Beowulf and Grendel isn't your English teacher's Beowulf, but it's aptly told for a 21st century audience.
This Canadian financed film was low budget ($14.5 miillion) compared to Robert Zemeckis's 2007 cartoon Beowulf ($150 million), but it is a better film because live actors humanize the stylized story and the Icelandic landscape provides an atmosphere that cheesy digitalized special effects can't touch.