Beowulf (2007), and the passing down of stories and their values

Rated: 2 / 5

Do not foster pride, glorious warrior! The great fame of your might lasts but a little while. then soon enough will sickness or the sword deprive you of strength– or the grasp of flames, or the surging flood, or the slashing blade, or the flight of a spear, or horrid old age. The brightness of your eyes will diminish and grow dark, and then even you, great hero among men, will go down in defeat in death.

Beowulf, 1760-1768

So one thing that bothers me with films and adaptations is censorship. The primary reason for this being that I believe a censored version of a film is generally inferior in quality compared to its uncensored (ie originally intended by the creators) counterpart. Because when I watch a movie, I want to see the best version of it, which is usually the version originally released in theaters. There are some exceptions (such as Blade Runner), but that’s generally how it is. I usually prefer stories in their initial raw and unabridged form, as originally told, away from the hands of ethical (and/or overtly greedy) meddlers.

Take The Princess Bride for example. Now, and I may be shooting myself in the foot here this early on, I haven’t read the original source material. I haven’t researched how faithful of an adaptation the film is towards it. But the film does showcase the value of the concept of passing down old tales from one generation to another.

When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I’m gonna read it to you.

-Grandpa, The Princess Bride

Having the exact same story, unaltered, being told from one generation to the next, gives it a special meaning. It becomes culturally significant. The values it teaches important to those who read it (or watch it). It allows for familiarity between people who have heard the same story (let alone family). A story about the importance of love and fighting for it. About the importance of possessing traits of skill, strength, and intelligence. Setting values aside, one can recall the fun they had seeing the sword fights. The one-liners such as “Inconceivable!” The memorable characters and the things they did and said that made them memorable (and how they did/said them). Elements that make the story timeless, which is why it is passed down generation to generation, unaltered.

Unfortunately, not all stories have this benefit, especially ones that have to be translated into another language. Such as the story of Beowulf. Like King Arthur, and Robin Hood, this was a story initially told verbally, without being written down until it had gone through several generations of storytellers. Even then, the tale had branched out among different families, clans, regions, etc. Each time getting a new twist or minor changes that piled up. There are differing opinions on how it could’ve been, when it was first written down, etc. But one of the theories is that this started out as a tale purely Pagan. But later on, when medieval English Christian scholars got their hands on it, they began substituting Christian elements into the story for the Pagan elements. Until we have the version that exists today, where the version with the Christian elements in the only surviving copy.

If this version we have today is overall inferior to the alleged more Pagan version of the past, how I envy those who experienced the best quality version of the tale that no one else will be able to experience. Then again, you can also envy those who have a hold of a classic tale (any tale) originally written in a differing native language, that can only be appreciated in that native; but they don’t have the capability or time to learn that language in order to appreciate the story told in that style. Because the style of the language the story is told in has as much impact as the story itself (just ask those who watch anime).

Regardless, the version that does exist today is a classic, and considered the oldest work of English literature in existence. The story is simple, but very inspirational (as The Lord of the Rings likely wouldn’t exist without it). About a man who slays monsters to save the clans being threatened by them. The titular hero himself thus becomes a role model for readers, promoting the values of being strong and brave. Typical traits to promote, but they are typical because they are foundational. Plus this is one of the oldest surviving works in existence, so of course it’s going to be basic on the surface. A fantasy tale that has an inspirational hero.

Cue the 2007 animated adaptation of this story, which does something that was trendy during that time period (and likely still is today). It deconstructs heroism by showcasing that humans are flawed, and are never really capable of being heroes. In the process, this destroys the image of a hero others should be inspired by.

For example, this line is uttered by Beowulf in the movie, after he has chosen to give in to being seduced by a monster rather than slay it (the latter of which he actually did in the original poem):

The time of heroes is dead, Wiglaf – the Christ God has killed it, leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame.

Not just the heroes are dead. Not just that Beowulf doesn’t believe in heroes, nor does anyone seem to be inspired by him. But that “the Christ God” has killed the age of heroes. That’s definitely a slap in the face to the poem.

It’s easy to tell a film’s priorities when you see how it begins and ends. And by that I mean what you actually visibly see on the first and last frame, discounting the opening and closing credits. In the film’s case, it opens with an unhappy queen Wealtheow serving drinks to slobbering drunk men at a big feast. Right away, the film prioritizes a woman who is unhappy because of how the (patriarchal) men around her are acting like degenerates. Because she is above all that, is better than that, and deserves better than that.

The film-makers can blow me. They not only promote her as the more wise, controlled, and moral individual out of everyone in Heorot, but they do so at the expense of everyone else. It’s ridiculous, and it goes to ridiculous lengths to make this point. Even going so far as to not allow the viewer to have fun with the festive men due to the tone this sets (and the debauchery they indulge in), as opposed to the book where they can drink and be merry, and bond, and share tales of prior exploits, enhancing the culture they live in. Let alone the shot it takes at Christianity (a main feature of the only real adaptation the poem in existence), with the men using it as an excuse to act the way they do (they literally mention the value of Christianity while taking a drunken piss). It changes the reasoning of Grendel coming in to slay people from being that of hating the noise of happiness and joy, to being a form of retribution from the sins of the king and his men. It completely disgraces the image of Hrothgar himself, which the poem built up to be an honorable man. I mean, this isn’t exactly living up to the standards set by a poem that endorses Christian values.

Anyone who truly admires the poem itself would want to walk out of a showing of this film within the first 5 minutes. It’s not that, on occasion, men wouldn’t indulge in such impolite behavior. It’s that the original tale for this story is intended to have role models that inspire men to do be more like them. So that they can strive to do better than what’s shown in this film. Leave the dishonorable acts for all the other stories and films out there not explicitly based on classical works, there’s more than enough of them out there.

Ever seen a film, especially one in this medieval setting, where a bunch of men can drink and be merry, while still maintaining enough self-control to not go overboard with it? Probably not, especially considering the women behind the prohibition movement of the late 1910s. You just can’t have scenes of men being men and having a good time with mead, without some hint of criticism over it. As opposed to the original Beowulf tale which showcases that women can be into this sort of thing:

The queenly daughter of Haereth went round the high hall with vessels of mead, showed love to the people, sharing the drinking cup among the heroes.

Beowulf, 1980-3

Let alone those lines 1168-90 with Wealthow’s statements towards Beowulf, her king and husband, and her sons. I seriously doubt the poem intended to depict men as drunken fools. Can’t we have something with a bunch of men being responsible drinkers, and just being lively and fun? Fucking movie, making men into assholes and women into bitches. Give me the old-school tale any day that portrays men and women enjoying each other’s company, and thus inspire readers to have the same sort of parties and companionship.

But anyway, so the story changes the notion of Grendel not able to harm the king directly due to him being protected by God (and some of his men), to it being because Hrothgar is the father of Grendel (yuck). The film not only does away with the notion of Christianity, but also states that it is useless to pray to anyone for help, that they must help themselves. I mean, if they wanted to go all-in on Paganism at the expense of Christianity in an attempt to recreate a theoretical telling of how the tale of Beowulf could’ve gone, that’s fine. But it’s not going to convince me that it’s intentions are noble when it wants to make this story about something that deconstructs heroes, something I seriously doubt the original story, in any incarnation, ever did.

More on fucking Grendel. In the poem, he’s equated to being a demon from hell that has nothing else going for it other than to cease men’s joy. In the film, when Beowulf has Grendel at his mercy, Grendel states that it isn’t a demon from hell. And the way it yells, it’s like the film wants you to feel pity for it, along with it’s pathetic-looking figure. Going along with this trope that was started around that time period of learning to feel sympathy for antagonists that were once more simple and two-dimensional. We can’t have just straight-up evil monsters anymore (unless they’re nazis, then that’s ok, they can’t ever be anything other than irredeemable evils). Like Maleficent, they’ve got to show a more sympathetic side to them, even if they have to retcon the source material to do it.

You know, the one case where the film made a change that could’ve worked was with Grendel’s mother. Turning her from another demon clone into a very seductive creature. It would get a tad bit monotonous if the film was just about killing one demon after another if they were similar creatures, so that would mix things up. Except in the poem it does mix things up, because Beowulf fights Grendel with his bare hands and no other weapons, while he not only fights Grendel’s mother with actual weapons, he does so under the mere (ie underwater, under a swamp-like place). Changing up the environment and the weapons utilized (let alone the tactics) would be enough of a mix-up to not make things monotonous.

But anyway, and I have seen others, such as Damian Black, make this argument, which does have merit to it, on why this change to Grendel’s mother is for the better. Because she represents the dangers of being tempted with lust by a devilish woman. Because a malicious woman can do more harm to a strong heroic man than anything else in the world. They have ways of slowly draining away their strength, their resolve, their straight line of thinking, and the traits that made them heroic. And this is a theme that has been utilized in many ancient tales (your average Greek mythology story is bound to have it, from The Iliad, do some of the stuff Greek Gods did, to Samson from the Old Testament, Merlin from the tales of King Arthur, etc). Would’ve been more effective, however, if the film didn’t show that Beowulf had been seduced by a creature in the past prior to his encounter with Grendel’s mother, which is even more insulting to the poem because it undermines his heroic struggle against the sea monsters during a swimming race.

I know that underneath your glamour, you’re as much a monster as my son, Grendel.

Grendel’s Mother, from the movie

But here’s why this twist of Beowulf ultimately becoming seduced, and there-bye killing off his aura of heroism, fails. It’s not just that it makes him fallible when he shouldn’t be for a story like this. It’s that it results in something completely at odds with the film’s story itself. Grendel’s mother seduced Herothgar to beget Grendel, that resulted in the birth of a monster that looks like a pathetic deformed humanoid, indicating that this results when one gives into lust and betrays what they stand for. The ugliness of what such a sin can conceive, coming back to haunt future generations (which, again, fits with the theme of what damage malicious women can do, where their temptations, should one give into them, can result in harm extending far beyond just the man she seduced). So then why the fuck did Beowulf fucking her wind up with their union conceiving a big-ass fucking dragon (or golden boy from Space Adventure Cobra)? What the hell is that supposed to imply? That it’s still represents a terrible thing to conceive from such an unholy union, but it’s more bad-ass and terrifying because Beowulf is more badass than Herothgar? That’s just stupid. And if that wasn’t the intention, that’s even worse, because then they couldn’t maintain a consistency with these liberties being taken. Nevermind it just being straight up weird that the mother thinks this is the best way to avenge her son. “Yes. Yeeeessssssss. I’ll fuck the man who murdered my son. That will show him that revenge is a dish best served cold, just like my moister oyster.”

Of course, they make her overpowered too. In the poem, she chose to be sneaky about how she attacked, and even then she only killed two people from the hall. In the film, she kills everyone. The film has all the tropes of the women being superior to the men, in spite of what heroic deeds the men do manage to do. Because the one thing films like this will never do is to show women as fallible. Men, oh that’s no problem, they’re fallible as hell. But women, not so much.

And the biggest takeaway line from this movie has to be the one that demonstrates the Hollywood agenda that’s been around since the 70s, from films such as Robin and Marian (1976), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988):

Keep a memory of me, not as a king or a hero; but as a man: fallible and flawed.

Beowulf, the movie

Just because having someone portrayed as fallible makes them more relatable and multidimensional, that doesn’t mean you should do that with classic tales of legend. These stories are intended to have infallible heroes for inspiration. But this subversion of culture and icons that’s been going on the past few decades wants to remove them all, so that there are no heroes left to inspire others to achieve infallible perfection. The only thing worse than subverting the infallible hero, is what they replace them with. Not necessarily with fallible heroes per-se, but with infallible women who aren’t as heroic and inspirational as the storytellers who promote them think they are. Because they primarily exist to promote some form of guilt complex, and/or basically say, “I’m better than you are.” At least in the original Beowulf poem it was about a man who saved people from a few monsters for the sake of living up to not only the expectations of society that is in want of a hero, but of his own standards of being a hero.

“Death is better for all noble men, than a life of shame!”

Beowulf, 2890-1

The worst part is that a film doesn’t need to be made that so explicitly makes Beowulf out to be fallible, because he actually is shown to have a fault in the poem. He is so obsessed with himself achieving fame, and glory, and protecting others, all for good intentions mind you, that it come back around onto him in the final battle against the dragon. He’s overconfident in his ability to take on the dragon, even in his old age, that he fails to do it on his own, and needs help from another to finally slay it. But this comes at the cost of his own life. He shouldn’t have been in the battle, considering he is king of his own land at that point. Considering that someone else helped him slay that dragon, that proves that others are capable of fighting and killing monsters. But because he was only thinking of his own fame and glory, he failed to pass that on directly to others, training others to become his better in battle. Because of that, just about everyone abandons him in his time of need, as they had been so reliant on him and his heroics when it came to protecting the people of the land from evil. And because he died, now his kingdom will be under threat from other clans that harbor hatred for his. So there is a lesson to be learned. Heroes should not be so prideful as to keep their heroics to themselves and keep everyone reliant solely on the lone hero. Heroes need to inspire others directly to become their successors. They need to directly help others, train them, teach them, show them what their experience has taught them. Otherwise the hero’s people will be left without successors to defend their land as well as their past generation had. They will be lucky to find someone who just so happens to be good enough to possibly take his place.

And did this movie have this lesson? I think not! It was all just, “Boohoo, heroes will disappoint you, so don’t even try to be one, just be fallible men, and prepare to be seduced by demon women.” Because that’s sure going to give people a better chance at survival.

If you want to see a decent adaptation of Beowulf, I can recommend the 27 minute animated film from 1998. It may be brief and on the short side, and a bit strange, animation quality iffy, but it’s still the definitive way to see it to this day. Until something better comes along, which hasn’t happened yet.

PS: And don’t even get me started on the whole concept of Beowulf fighting Grendel naked, and going against his mother without armor.

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