Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge

Doc Bushwell’s MST 3000: Beowulf

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    November 20, 2007

    The animation was “Shrek-like.” And what’s the deal with showing naked female breasts without nipples? That was just weird.

  2. #2 Mark P
    November 20, 2007

    I haven’t seen it and probably won’t until it comes out on DVD. If then. Is it possible the movie could be appreciated within its own context? That is, forget that it was ever a mythic poem and simply see it as a comic book? That lowers the bar. Of course, even movies based on comic books need to be true to and respect their own origins and material. That’s why some work, but some don’t. Another question – is it possible young men are going to see it because Angelina Jolie is reported to appear naked (if in animation and without nipples)?

  3. #3 pough
    November 20, 2007

    I quite liked it. Sure, sometimes I felt like I had dropped the controller to the game, but there were a lot of aspects I really enjoyed, particularly the way they made a cohesive story of it. I liked its theme, and much (though not all) of the animation was incredible.

    I also think the comparisons with LotR are completely unfair. Tolkien and the author of Beowulf didn’t mine the same fields; Tolkien mined Beowulf. He took some of the ideas, infused it with many more from other sources and made a cohesive (and very different) story out of it. This movie stayed far closer to the original (for obvious reasons), but it also turned it into a single story with a point, instead of a rambling, seemingly-pointless bunch of stuff.

    One thing I would like to do is get the screenplay, which is actually two screenplays: the original by the screenwriters and the one they eventually used, which was Hollywoodized.

    I wouldn’t give it a really high ranking, but I also wouldn’t consider it a stinker.

  4. #4 Alan Kellogg
    November 20, 2007

    No, I’m Beowulf!

    (Somebody had to do it.)

  5. #5 Doc Bushwell
    November 20, 2007

    The nippleless breasts were just about as bizarre as the Botoxed faces. Mark, yes, you can view the movie as a comic book. That’s what I did with “300” except that the latter movie was 10 orders of magnitude better than “Beowulf.”

    pough, my disappointment is derived from Zemeckis not stepping to the fore and imbuing the film with the mythos that the epic poem of Beowulf deserves. I felt like I was watching “The Sims o’ the Mead Hall.” The film makers tarted it up too much. Perhaps Gaiman did write good early drafts that were not Hollywoodized, but will we ever know?

    Alan – Ha! The three of us started hooting whenever Beowulf did his yell and “Is he gonna get naked?” was our mantra after a while. Not because of prurient interest but because nekked Beowulf seemed to be a major plot element. Laughter during dramatic scenes of a movie is not a good sign.

  6. #6 SDC
    November 20, 2007

    Sounds like another example of ‘the Uncanny Valley’. Maybe it would have worked better as a cartoon…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_Valley

  7. #7 Caledonian
    November 21, 2007

    The latter two LotR movies didn’t adhere to the spirit of the books at all – they were poor successors to the excellent first movie.

  8. #8 Doc Bushwell
    November 21, 2007

    SDC, the Valley of the Uncanny – that’s it exactly! Thanks for the link.

    Caledonian, first, Zemeckis’ work pales in comparison to Jackson’s, and cinematically, that is the point of reference that I believe Kamiya uses, and that I’m inclined to use myself. As noted, Jackson’s work amounts to a lavish illustration that falls into the realm of fan fiction. If I were to put on a hard-core canonical Tolkien hat, I’d say the FotR did not adhere to the “heart” of the legendarium (1) due to some canonical violations which were just as jarring as those in The Two Towers. However, I set aside such pedanticism and enjoyed all three flicks which need to be a) taken in as a whole and b) taken for what they are – an interpretation; I agree that the second was the weakest of the three.

    (1) As for the “heart” of the legendarium, I find that The Silmarillion is far deeper and complex in its themes than The Lord of the Rings and provides the foundation of the latter.

  9. #9 pough
    November 21, 2007

    But… I already told you that the script book has the pre and post-Hollywoodized versions.

    From Gaiman’s blog:

    There’s a script book, which contains our original 1997 script, two long essays by Roger intended mostly for film students about the realities of Hollywood (one on how he went into it in the first place, and then how I got involved and how we wrote the script together, and one on how he was persuaded to sell the script to Steve Bing and Bob Zemeckis), some of the storyboards for Roger’s original version, the shooting script we wrote with Bob Zemeckis that they went into the 2005 shooting with (which is of course different to what they wound up actually making) and an afterword from me about how and what a film script is and isn’t.

    http://journal.neilgaiman.com/

    In amongst the clutter of everything else Gaiman is involved in, there is more discussion of the movie and some links to reviews he claims get it. I’m about to read them now…

  10. #10 Doc Bushwell
    November 21, 2007

    Ack! Sorry, pough. I’ll claim geriatric forgetfulness as an excuse for my lousy reading comprehension. Likewise, I’m interested in reading the reviews Gaiman cites.

  11. #11 Rhapsody
    November 22, 2007

    You have to forgive me, but once I read benchmarking Beowulf compared to Lord of the Rings, all the credibility of the cited review flew out of the window. The core of a benchmark is that you compare apples with apples on key questions, but to compare apple Beowulf with pear Lord of the Rings is just impossible. If you want to write a better comparision with the true base of a benchmark, try to compare the Odyssee with Beowulf but leave Tolkien out of the mix, no matter if he wrote an essay on it or not. Moviewise Troy vs Beowulf is way more proper. The essay of Tolkien in its heart still bears the opinion of the professor and one should keep their hearts open to a different interpretation of an old poem. I read once a fabulous interpretation of Grendel by Gardner and never did I ever think: omg this is blasphemy, this is not what Tolkien wrote.

    I shall explain why the comparision is odd though: Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote a script version, it was altered or Hollywoodnised by Zemeckis and their crew. Tolkien pulled out a lot of Anglo Saxon, Norse, Celtic myths, shook hard and based his mythology that in an own created work. Beowulf was just a part of it, but was intermingled with other myths and legends for example die Walk�re and the G�tterd�mmerung.

    If you go to the movie and expect Tolkien’s interpretation on the screen, I bet you end up dissappointed because you expect something else. Also Boyens and Walsh staying true to the heart of the book??? I think I saw a different trilogy then you with just bad scriptwriting for especially the last two movies. I pray that they never ever get the hands on either the Hobbit or the Silmarillion because I truly expect a complete butchered script as they did with Lord of the Rings.

    So yes, I fully agree with Pough, in a nutshell.

    Since you asked how Gaiman responded to critics and reviews, this is from one of his most recent blog posts:

    Occasionally I get rather odd letters in on the FAQ line shouting at me for SELLING OUT TO MAMMON and WHY DON’T YOU WRITE NOVELS ANYMORE YOU HOLLYWOOD MOVIE SELLOUT, all the kinds of things that make me wonder why the people didn’t send the letters in back in 1997 when I went off with Roger and we actually wrote Beowulf (or at least in March 2005 when we did the rewrite) and I find them as strange as I do the people asking why I no longer write comics (“But I do,” I tell them. “In the last five years I wrote more comics than anything else.”) It’s weird being told you’ve sold out or gone Hollywood for work you did many years ago. Even so I found myself feeling peculiarly Hollywood at the London premiere, wearing my flash jacket and marching with Roger, Bob Zemeckis and the stars from cinema to cinema as Ray Winstone thanked people for coming and then added, cheerfully, “And I WILL kill your monstah.”

    (Relieved to see Beowulf’s been certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Some people really like it and some people really don’t, but the former outnumber the latter.)

    Here are all the entries from Gaiman (since he tags all his entries) on his blog. I read that daily (well with the NaNo only if I made my wordcount), just as the refugee.

    Oh and the 300 was delightfull eyecandy, I admit that, but don’t watch it for content, historical accuracy or plot. The plot is so meagre that it had to be compensated by those hunks ;) Otherwise, nah. And yes, I read the comic book too, its awesome!

  12. #12 Doc Bushwell
    November 23, 2007

    You have to forgive me, but once I read benchmarking Beowulf compared to Lord of the Rings, all the credibility of the cited review flew out of the window. The core of a benchmark is that you compare apples with apples on key questions, but to compare apple Beowulf with pear Lord of the Rings is just impossible.

    Ah, there’s nothing to forgive, because for one thing, it’s not my essay that’s published for the world to see in Salon (vs. this remote habitat littered with overripe bananas and bonobo scat) and for another, art and literature are highly subjective: one man’s transcendent aesthetic is another man’s stinker. You and I – and pough for that matter – all saw different movies when we viewed “Beowulf” and that’s cool.

    Completely setting aside anything concerning Tolkien, in spite of the title of Kamiya’s piece, the writer of the article articulates my problems with the movie pretty well in this paragraph.

    “Beowulf” doesn’t fail because it changes the story: It fails because it is so busy juicing up the story that it does not create a mythical universe. It has no transfiguring vision. It seizes upon an ancient tale, whose invisible roots run deep into our psyches, and uses it to construct a shiny, plastic entertainment. It takes a wild fable and turns it into a tame story. But “Beowulf” is the kind of story that is meaningless unless it is part of a cosmology. It is, in short, a myth.

    .

    I have absolutely no problems with a broad interpretation, and likewise, I loved John Gardner’s Grendel. I also thought The 13th Warrior was an interesting take (loosely) on the old legend. It may be that if I had not read Seamus Heaney’s recent translation of Beowulf and had not recently viewed “No Country for Old Men” (more on that below), I might have been more charitable toward Zemeckis’ vision. I can’t help but wonder what Gaiman and Avary’s (both fine writers) screenplay would have been like in the hands of another director and with a less distracting hybrid technology like that used in “300.”

    If you want to write a better comparision with the true base of a benchmark, try to compare the Odyssee with Beowulf but leave Tolkien out of the mix, no matter if he wrote an essay on it or not.

    The title of Kamiya’s article is misleading since the core of the article points to Tolkien’s analysis of Beowulf as literature instead of previous studies of the epic as an anachronistic mess of Ye Olde English. It’s fair to take Tolkien’s essay from Monsters and the Critics into account because he addressed the mythos of Beowulf. From the Salon article:

    Tolkien’s point is that the fantastic elements in “Beowulf” are ancient archetypes that have deep roots in human beliefs, fears and wishes — myths, in other words. And in “Beowulf,” he argues, these myths are an essential part of a tragic tale whose theme is “man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time.”

    This latest movie offering just isn’t suffused with any sense of myth at least for me, no matter what the interpretation. It is sort of fun and flashy – pretty to look at. The same plot of the movie would have been completely acceptable to me had more of mythic grandeur been present. I mean, how much mythic grandeur is conveyed when Grendel’s smokin’ hot, gold-dripping (but nipple-free) mama steps out of the pool primeval wearing what amounts to digitized Jimmy Choo stiletto heels? I could not suppress a guffaw at that point.

    It was readily apparent that Gaiman and Avary (l loved “Pulp Fiction”) were injecting parody and irony into the film, but it just didn’t work very well. Their nod to moral conflict as per the original work was most welcome.

    Also Boyens and Walsh staying true to the heart of the book??? I think I saw a different trilogy then you with just bad scriptwriting for especially the last two movies.

    By way of comparison, two words: Ralph Bakshi. Nothing – and I mean nothing – could be worse than that. I made a point of not reading the Lord of the Rings before the movie so I wouldn’t run screaming from the theater. I viewed all three movies as illustrations of the books and the cinematography and the effects felt “truer” to Tolkien for the most part. Well, except that the Elves reminded me of fussy Swedish hairdressers (OK, I stole that from a Boston Globe film critic), and I can never look at Hugo Weaving without thinking of Mitzi del Bra.

    As for Gaiman’s remark on the freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, there are a number of reviews that nearly pan the movie (see the NY Post) but then toss in a token sentence that says, oh, it’s a great romp. That constitutes fresh. However, he deserves accolades for “Stardust.”

    I have pretty low standards when it comes to films and TV; after all, I am thoroughly entertained by SciFi Originals dreck. But I think my expectations were too high for Zemeckis’ film. First, I was fresh off readying Heaney’s translation (probably a major mistake to read this so soon before the film) and I really, really do like Gaiman and Avary’s work so I was hopeful.

    Then I had recently seen “No Country for Old Men,” an incredibly good film. One might argue that comparing this to “Beowulf” is an apples to Texas-style barbequed ribs juxtaposition as opposed to apples and oranges, but it is fair to compare them as cinema. “NCfOM” has far better pacing and plot, and the Coen brothers have their blacker-than-black gallows humor well integrated into the film. As noted, the dark humor of Beowulf was less than seamless.

    Oh and the 300 was delightfull eyecandy, I admit that, but don’t watch it for content, historical accuracy or plot. The plot is so meagre that it had to be compensated by those hunks ;) Otherwise, nah. And yes, I read the comic book too, its awesome!

    Arguably, Zemeckis’ movie had more to it than “300,” but putting on my aesthetics-technology hat here, the hybrid blend of animation with real faces – in spite of the laughable rock-hard abs and nipple fest (at least they were given nipples) – was far less distracting that the pure performance-capture technology of “Beowulf.” Plus, I went into “300” with SciFi Originals expectations. I expected to see nothing more than an imitation of a graphic novel. The film makers had no more pretension than that either. With “Beowulf,” I had my familiarity with Gaiman�s history of decent writing, Seamus Heaney’s masterwork, and the Coen brothers’ adroit take on Cormac McCarthy’s southwestern “secondary world” fresh in my head. My mistake.

  13. #13 Rhapsody
    November 26, 2007

    You and I – and pough for that matter – all saw different movies when we viewed “Beowulf” and that’s cool.

    Well I still have to view it, because a) it premiered on the 22nd here b) we won’t most likely be able to see it in the theatre because we’re having babysit probs. and we do get finally a new cinema (after doing 5 years without one) which will open, if all goes well in December. So DVD it is. I am not that lucky. Yet, I do follow reviews and reading Gaiman’s blog faithfully, so yeah.

    The title of Kamiya’s article is misleading since the core of the article points to Tolkien’s analysis of Beowulf as literature instead of previous studies of the epic as an anachronistic mess of Ye Olde English.

    Oh very muchly and since I cannot access the Salon articles, I couldn’t see the parts that you cited in your comment.

    By way of comparison, two words: Ralph Bakshi. Nothing – and I mean nothing – could be worse than that. I made a point of not reading the Lord of the Rings before the movie so I wouldn’t run screaming from the theater.

    I thought it was cute :)

    I can’t help but wonder what Gaiman and Avary’s (both fine writers) screenplay would have been like in the hands of another director and with a less distracting hybrid technology like that used in “300.”

    They have it published, to cite Gaiman

    There’s a script book, which contains our original 1997 script, two long essays by Roger intended mostly for film students about the realities of Hollywood (one on how he went into it in the first place, and then how I got involved and how we wrote the script together, and one on how he was persuaded to sell the script to Steve Bing and Bob Zemeckis), some of the storyboards for Roger’s original version, the shooting script we wrote with Bob Zemeckis that they went into the 2005 shooting with (which is of course different to what they wound up actually making) and an afterword from me about how and what a film script is and isn’t.

    So you can read the original script or even the shooting script and make a film in your head and see how it differed from what made it to the screen. (I found a review of the book at http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07320/834312-44.stm — for some reason, none of the Amazon or Harper Collins sites make it clear what kind of thing the script book is.)

    I feel for the guys, they seem to get the most venom directed at them. But that is the thing with novels being brought to the screen or even well-written scripts being Hollywood-nised: lots of quality is being cut, ignored or simply purged for the big bucks.

    First, I was fresh off readying Heaney’s translation (probably a major mistake to read this so soon before the film) and I really, really do like Gaiman and Avary’s work so I was hopeful.

    I learnt long ago not to have high hopes to see your favorite mythology’s being brought to the screen. First Knight being the most worse experience of all of them, these days when I sit down for a movie based on the Arthurian myth: I simply expect the worst even if it seemingly is carried by a top notch director or my fav actors. I often wondered, also with this trend going on in the movie production business why good and well written tv shows that are just different, but nonetheless so fresh (I am still amazed that Pushing Daisies got a renewed!) are being cancelled after 3 episodes because it is placed in an near impossible timeslot. I sometimes think people who make the calls are more interested in the big bucks than if it is actually good material. How does it at the box office, then the thoughts go to: how well will the DVD’s sales going. Are they afraid people will not go to a movie that will challenge them more? Based on that shows like Firefly and alike are carried by the fans and the dvd’s sales are just impressivem so there is proof that people indeed do like it.

    As for 300, many told me it was such a good movie, a must see. Knowing the graphic novel of Frank Miller, I felt that I was let down immensely by it.

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