The Beowulf legend has endured for centuries, having been retold time and time again. Dating back to the 8th century, this epic heroic poem employs many features that have long appealed to countless storytellers, authors, graphic novelists, and filmmakers. In Robert Zemeckis’s film Beowulf, modern technology allows a centuries-old story to be retold in a vivid, dynamic way. Still, in this day and age, it would be nearly impossible to translate a literal translation of the poem to the screen without making certain changes. Zemeckis’s film is no different. Some of these changes are obvious, while others remain curious diversions from the text.
Whatever the case, each new retelling of Beowulf says as much about the time when it was created as it does about the narrative aspects that have survived throughout the centuries. Zemeckis, who has done similar experiments with computer-generated storytelling in his film The Polar Express, apparently believes that Beowulf is ripe for a contemporary facelift. While the actors and action are all animated, the technology is not the only thing that is advanced. The story has been updated as well, keeping some aspects intact while completely rewriting others.
The film retains the complex family lineages and historical contexts that root the poem in reality. It also keeps most of the main characters (Beowulf, King Hrothgar, Grendel, Grendel’s mother) but explains their motivations in ways the poem did not. One of the major differences between the film and the original poem is the treatment of Grendel and Grendel’s mother; when Beowulf kills Grendel, the monster is reduced to a sniveling, frightened child. It is also worth noting that Beowulf fights Grendel in the nude, which is not described in the poem.
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The comparisons between Grendel and the Biblical Cain are completely thrown out as well, making Grendel more of a misunderstood Frankenstein’s monster than a true monster, ugly inside and out. The fifty-year gap between Beowulf visiting Grendel’s mother’s cave is also depicted in the film, whereas it is only alluded to in the poem. This allows the filmmakers to expand the poem into a feature-length film, in order to “fill in the gaps” with what they imagined occurred. This calls into question if Beowulf, who tells his story in the poem, is actually telling the truth.
His relationship with Grendel’s mother is far different than in the story, wherein she is simply slain. Grendel’s mother is drawn as a strangely beautiful woman (Angelina Jolie) who seduces Beowulf. This change, like the others, is played for entertainment purposes. Like Beowulf’s physique, Grendel’s mother is his equal in physical form and advertising value. The film also makes a curious addition in that Hrothgar is the father of Grendel and Beowulf is the father of the dragon, which make sense in a Hollywood sort of way, but do not add anything new or powerful back to the original poem.
These additions are simply to give characters more motivation, though it is difficult to say whether they gain any new depth. Most mentions of God and allusions to Biblical characters have been stripped away, despite the kingdom of Beowulf becoming Christian. It is as though Zemeckis has tried to make Beowulf as “un-literary” as possible. He has turned an epic poem into a comic book adventure. In many ways, the poem almost becomes secondary to the spectacle. Zemeckis desperately wants to render the world of Beowulf into one that fans of Lord of the Rings can identify with.
The becomes more a springboard for special effects. The poem’s narrative is stretched so thin that it is impossible not to add to the original story, though the changes never add anything that matters. The story is sometimes as hollow and empty as the animated characters; it is all superficial. Beowulf never celebrates the poem as being truly great and proves that films can never been grander than their source material. Works Cited Beowulf. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie. Paramount, 2007. Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York : W. W. Norton & Co. , 2001.
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