Rosemary Kelly discusses how Beowulf has been adapted to the medium of film in recent years.
Beowulf is best known as the impressive, monster-fighting, Scandinavian hero that may or may not have had lusty interaction with an animated Angelina Jolie, or that freakishly long poem I won’t stop writing about. The Old English epic has been reworked into translations, film adaptations, and even video games time and time again. Beloved fantasy writer and medieval scholar J R R Tolkien described Beowulf as a “heroic figure of epic proportions”, while Robert Morey states the famous fictional warrior is “most memorable in his capacity as the masculine warrior and king”. This status as an epic hero that faces down the kin of Cain, Grendel, bringing new hope to the Danes who have faced the onslaught of seemingly irreparable bloodshed, has been an attraction to filmmakers for quite some time. But what is it about medieval heroes that has captured the hearts of fantasy screenwriters, who aim to revitalise the aged poem into a 21st century macho face off?
The most infamous of film adaptations is owed to Robert Zemeckis, whose film Beowulf was released in 2007. The 3D fantasy-action film, spanning the length of one hour and fifty-five minutes, was viewed as a commercial disappointment, only making 190million dollars in the box office, 40 million over the film’s budget. While critics complimented the visual effects and voice acting, the plot’s diversion from the poem’s original narrative left it open for criticism. But despite this criticism, the image of Beowulf as a macho warrior continues to infiltrate films. Of course, the early episodes within the poem do show Beowulf as a violence prone, youthful warrior: his first words upon entering Heorot, the great mead-hall of the Danes, boasts of his disposal of a “family of ogres”. So, what might be the problem? Well dear reader, I’m happy to divulge.
The film features little to no women. While Beowulf is undeniably male-centred, the women that do feature play a significant role in the political domain within Scandinavia, with more recent scholarship recognising that Wealtheow (Hrothgar’s queen) is far more than a cup-bearing side character. There’s also the hyper-sexualisation of Grendel’s Mother, who although still successfully strikes fear into Hrothgar, has become the root cause of a creepy bastard son dynamic that most definitely does not feature in the original poem’s narrative. She has gone from an “ides aglæcwif” [noble lady, troublemaker], emphasising her significant role within the poem by associating her with aristocratic women, to a heavily sexualised crutch in the side of Danish men. While her grief over Grendel’s death is the undertone of her entire episode in the poem, this quickly subsides in the film as she moves to create a new strange lovechild with Beowulf himself.
This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg as Scandinavian or Viking based masculinity is (in the worlds of berserker expert Dr Roderick Dale) frequently “used and abused” in popular culture, or worse, in the political ideologies of the far-right. While enjoying strange film adaptations of an Old English epic certainly does not make one a Nazi, it is a slippery slope from inaccurate appropriations of medieval heroism and bloodlust into genuine political action and the spread of internet-based hatred towards minority communities. The bigger question is this: how much responsibility do filmmakers and other such content creators have when embracing a medieval fantasy setting? One must only look to the “shoe-string budget” adaptation of Beowulf, entitled Beowulf: Prince of Geats to see the risks that come with the modern use of the medieval. Created for a charity fundraiser, the low-budget film hired two black actors to play the famed hero; one in his youth and one in his old age, when he is finally king of the Geats. While the film generally remained loyal to the poem’s original storyline, featuring people of colour as the most significant character resulted in the online trolling and dangerous harassment of both the cast and director.
The hyper masculinity and over emphasis on Beowulf’s status as a pagan is an image that’s difficult to shake, despite the penetration of Christian ethos from the poet throughout the text. Right wing rallies from 2017 and an increase in online chatrooms and anonymous Twitter accounts reflect the dangers of aligning one’s central identity with singular lines of medieval texts. Medieval scholars now face their own epic battle to salvage Beowulf scholarship from the clutches of inaccurate film portrayals and militant, far-right political movements.