Believe it or not, I somehow managed to rifle through tons of mandatory literature in high school and college without hitting this epic poem. So I picked it up right before I went to see the movie and was surprised at how easily I got through it. To see my thoughts on both the book and film, read below.
This story about a hero and his battles and accomplishments was far more straightforward than I expected it to be. Granted, I likely would have benefited from a professor’s detailed notes and discussions to accompany the book, but as a standalone piece I was surprised at how much I grasped up front. It generally takes me at least two reads to really get what’s going on in Homer, or even Shakespeare. This story, however, is very simple. Beowulf is a hero, born and bred. He comes to the aid of King Hrothgar, whose mead hall Heorot is being attacked by the monster Grendel. After a fierce battle with Grendel, Beowulf incurs the wrath of Grendel’s mother, whom he confronts in her lair. Finally, the third act picks up Beowulf’s story fifty years later when his kingdom is threatened by a dragon. Overall, the story depicts the life of a selfless hero, who simply desires to protect and serve for the greater good.
There have been many adaptations of this story to film in the past, but this one was not only
the largest, most anticipated, and heavily promoted, but by the trailers it appeared to be the truest to the source material. Mostly it is, with the exception of incorporating Wiglaf into the story from the beginning (which I found an inspired way to avoid his sudden appearance that occurs in the third act of the original story), until the end of the second act. The film sticks to the books three-act format, however changes something major in the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother in order to weave an underlying plot that is constant through each part and leads up to a twist ending. The results are far more detrimental to the film than may have been intended: Beowulf’s character is transformed from a selfless hero to a
selfish, corrupt, and pretentious warrior. It also succeeds in changing Hrothgar, Queen Wealthow, and possibly, thanks to an ambiguous ending, Wiglaf into despicable versions of the original characters. Plus the dialogue’s stab at modernizing the ancient poem often makes for unintentionally laughable lines (“There have been many brave men who have come to taste my lord’s mead.”) All in all, the movie is only worth seeing for the stunning visual effects in fantastic 3D. That and the Coraline trailer that preceded the film and got me even more excited for one of my most anticipated films for 2008.
Since the poem is relatively short, there’s not a lot missing, just a lot that has changed. Beowulf no longer returns to his homeland Geatland for the third act, but stays in Hrothgar’s kingdom. Also, instead of introducing Wiglaf in the third act he is introduced from the beginning as Beowulf’s most trusted warrior. In the poem, Beowulf’s most trusted warrior, Eschere, is killed in the second act and Wiglaf is introduced in the third act as the only warrior who stays by Beowulf’s side as he faces the dragon. The introduction of Wiglaf sooner makes for a more relatable, and at times touching, relationship between Beowulf and Wiglaf.
From the moment Beowulf enters Grendel’s mother’s lair, all the way through the end of the film, there are a lot of new elements to the story. Grendel’s mother takes on a much larger
role and is not gone after her battle with Beowulf. When Hrothgar learns the true resolution to Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, he steps down from his post as king (literally, heh) and relinquishes his kingdom (along with his queen) to Beowulf. Thus changing the third act and some very important details that lead to the circumstances surrounding the appearance of the dragon.
It’s not necessary to update every story (especially the oldest story in our language) to conform to a typical Hollywood movie. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s out of style. This story would have been better off left alone, and tampering with it discredited the entire film. By weaving the acts together they have succeeded in making it a Hollywood film, complete with unlikeable characters who lack motivation, sex icons, and heroes with questionable morals.