When the word “stinker” was bandied about in reviews, I should have known better. Yet at happy hour last Friday, my two gal-pals and I made a date to see a Sunday matinee of Robert Zemickis’ Beowulf. My friends, a biologist and a chemist, had taken medieval literature as undergrad electives so they were curious, and having recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation and as a Tolkien aficionado, I thought the flick might be fun.
Ay caramba, man. The critics were on to something.
The performance-capture animation has improved somewhat, and the scenes in the movie were richly detailed. The atmosphere – cold, damp, dark – was perfect. Yet, the characters were still disconcerting to view. Human-like, but not so. Their eyes moved a bit, but otherwise, their faces looked as if they had been excessively Botoxed. Check out ‘Beowulf’ Defies Animation Label at Physorg.com for an article on this form of animation. I looked at those faces, and my neural recognition patterns said, “This just ain’t right.”
One of my friends said, the movie had some words in common with the epic poem, and yes, some old English was spoken, but otherwise, peeeee-yew! Now I really like Neil Gaiman’s work (fabulous graphic novels and the movie Stardust was highly entertaining), but I was ready to slap him silly for this atrocity. Well, that’s a bit strong. We all have to make a living, so I’ll just say that Gaiman and co-writer Roger Avary’s interpretation didn’t work for me.
Gary Kamiya, writing for Salon, beautifully articulates why Zemeckis’ (and Gaiman and Avary’s) Beowulf doesn’t work in his article “Beowulf” vs. “The Lord of the Rings:” One is a living universe, the other a 3-D voyage to schlockville. A great essay by Tolkien helps us understand why.
Excerpted are the first three paragraphs of Kamiya’s article. I couldn’t have said it better myself, but then that’s why Mr. Kamiya makes his living as a writer and I don’t.
Nov. 20, 2007 | Robert Zemeckis’ new film “Beowulf” gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “the sublime and the ridiculous.” Zemeckis took the oldest and most important text of our ur-language, and turned it into a 3-D Disneyland ride so cheesy he should have called it “Anglo-Saxons of the Caribbean.” Of course, there’s nothing new or surprising about this. Hollywood has been profaning history and literature since long before Cecil B. DeMille cast Charlton Heston as Moses. If the Bible isn’t sacred, why should the oldest poem in our ancestral language be?
But the “Beowulf” travesty is especially glaring, because of the obvious contrast with another work that mined the same ancient field: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” “Beowulf” isn’t just a bad, although visually spectacular, movie, it’s a huge missed opportunity. With enough imaginative audacity, Zemeckis could have created a mythical universe, one that finds the mysterious threads that connect the distant past to our time. Instead, he turned our shared cultural heritage into a cartoon. (This hasn’t hurt “Beowulf” at the box office: It was the highest-grossing movie in the country after its first weekend.)
Comparing “Beowulf” to Tolkien’s masterpiece is setting the bar high, but Zemeckis’ choice of “Beowulf” made that inevitable. There’s no real reason to take on “Beowulf” unless you want to go all the way. That’s true not just because it’s a canonical text, but because there’s no way to make a movie out of it. When you’re faced with the impossible, you’d better bring some magic to the undertaking. You need more than 3-D special effects — you need a 3-D imagination.
Kamiya strikes at the heart of why the latest Beowulf flick missed the mark when he brings forward Tolkien’s benchmark analysis: “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Kamiya hits the nail on the head when he states that Zemeckis/Gaiman/Avary fail not because they deviate from the story excessively, but because they try to juice it up excessively and totally miss the mythopoetic mark.
One might cry foul when the Zemeckis/Gaiman/Avary flick is compared to Tolkien’s rich literary legendarium, but it’s fair game to compare it to Peter Jackson’s magnum opus of “The Lord of the Rings.” True, the latter is homage to Tolkien’s books in the form of lavish cinematic fan fiction, but the reason that the latest film version of The Lord of the Rings worked is that Jackson and writers Boyens and Walsh were more true to the heart of the books.
Chris Mooney of The Intersection wrote a nice piece on Seamus Heaney’s translation: So. Beowulf. That is One Good Poem. Chris also provides a link via a comment to an article describing the technology used for the filming of the movie. Chris notes: “Basically: It (the movie Beowulf) could suck, or it could be awesome. Wait and see.”
I saw. It sucked.