Originally, when I heard a Beowulf movie was being made, I was excited. I'm an English teacher, and I teach Beowulf to my high school seniors. I was really looking forward to obtaining a version that I could show to my classes. Plus, I'm a bit of a nerd and have always liked the story. Beowulf is quite literally the quintessential Western hero, and when I teach Beowulf, I love to talk about how he is basically an ancient superhero, complete with super strength, super looks, and super values. Although he loves the gold a little too much and although he craves glory for himself, he is supremely loyal to his people and to his king. He's a boaster, but he's a boaster who actually lives up to his own hype. His story has inspired people for over a thousand years and continues to inspire me as I teach it to my students. The story itself is basically flawless. It has action, it has gore, it has everything teenagers love about adventure flicks... AND it also has amazing academic value. When you teach Beowulf, you have to teach Joseph Campbell and the hero's journey. You have to talk about the Anglo Saxons and their history. You have to delve into women's roles in that society and relate that to how the females in the story, especially Grendel's mother, are portrayed... and there's so much more!
But to get back to the movie, everything that I mentioned above-- all that I love about the original story of Beowulf-- was either deleted or destroyed in this version of the story. I knew that this version was going to be "different" when I saw that Angelina Jolie was cast as Grendel's mother, but I tried to have an open mind. Maybe they would provide an interesting interpretation of the story that I could discuss with my classes. I didn't see the movie in the theaters because I was too worried I'd be disappointed, but I encouraged my students to see it. Literally every student who saw the movie came back and told me that it was awful, which intrigued me. Normally most students like the movie versions of the books I teach simply because they are more visual and therefore easier to grasp than the original stories. I was curious why the students hated this particular movie so much. Months later when I finally got around to seeing it, I discovered what about the movie made it so terrible... and that was everything.
I mean what I say. The soundtrack was awful and made many scenes seem laughable. The CG was distracting and inappropriate. It made the story appear childish and stupid. And what they did to the story itself... as an English teacher, I was horrified. HORRIFIED! They took away everything that was good about the original story. For example, instead of Beowulf catching Grendel unawares, appearing to be asleep and then grabbing Grendel by the arm, Beowulf meets Grendel standing up as Grendel proceeds to kill three of his warriors. Then Beowulf uses a chain and the door of the hall to cut off Grendel's arm. In the story Beowulf does it with his bare hands. Now granted, one of the main points of this movie is that Beowulf is a braggart who says things happened that didn't, and I might have been able to accept that if the movie didn't continue in that vain and make things even worse. The "battle" with Grendel's mother in particular was such a travesty that I could barely continue to watch the film. Instead of fighting her, almost dying, and finally using a giant's sword to cut off her head, Beowulf only says he killed her and instead sleeps with her, siring a son who eventually becomes the dragon that he kills later in the movie. WHAT?! I mean, really? You had to change the story that much? The scene in which he gives in to her is so terrible that it's not to be believed. Grendel's mother promises Beowulf that she will make him a king and make his name last forever if only he will give her a son, and without much struggle, he just gives in. However, even the Beowulf from earlier in the film would never have done that. That Beowulf would have laughed at her and said that he could make himself famous, that he didn't need her to do anything for him. If nothing else, Beowulf should be confident in his own abilities. Why does he need to sleep with a water wench when he could bring himself glory without cursing himself and fathering a bastard demon child?
I can see what Zemeckis was trying to do with this version. He was trying to humanize Beowulf. He even has Beowulf tell Wealtheow, who somehow becomes his wife in this version (after Hrothgar kills himself!), to remember him as a flawed man, not a hero or a king. However, the appeal of the Beowulf story is that he IS a hero, that he's more than your average, everyday man. When he gives in to Grendel's mother in this version, part of me wanted to cry inside, if not yell and shake Zemeckis for destroying yet another hero, tearing him down from the heavens and rolling him in the filth of everyday, petty human existence. Heroes are supposed to be more than that. What Zemeckis did to Beowulf would be like making Superman a secret crack dealer or Batman a peddler in kiddie porn. Maybe most people have dirty secrets like that, but heroes aren't supposed to, and if they do, no one wants to hear about it, especially not me.
This movie seems to me to be exactly what is wrong with our post modern world. We say we want to know everything, that we don't want lies, and that heroes don't exist. They're too good. No one's that good. Yet the possibility of goodness does exist, if only we let our heroes show us the way. True, heroes may be flawed, but it isn't their flaws that inspire us. It's the way they overcome their flaws, and in doing so, they vanquish that which oppresses. They fight and fall and rise again. They live to fight another day, and they don't give up, nor do they give in. This Beowulf gave in way too easily. He wasn't a hero. He wasn't even that interesting. He gave in to a sexy woman, as most men might, and he lied about it. Sure, he killed a few monsters, but he exaggerated about how he did it. He was small-minded and greedy, too things that Beowulf is definitely not supposed to be. Beowulf is supposed to be larger than life, and from the first moment you meet him in this movie, Beowulf seems small and boring and normal... very underwhelming.
I'm a person who strongly believes that the world needs heroes, and I think our society is starting to wake up and realize that, too. Why else would superhero movies be making so much money these days? If anything, Zemeckis and company should have been smart enough to capitalize on that market. We all need someone to look up to, someone to believe in to make life meaningful. Superheroes give us that. They may not exist in real life, but what they represent does. They represent goodness and decency, and anyone can be good and decent if they really want to be. Beowulf is the original superhero. Why not make a movie that emphasizes that in some way? You don't need to change the story to make it great. It already is great, or else it wouldn't have lasted this long. Just tell the story as it's meant to be told. That's the version I'm waiting for, but unfortunately because of this crappy version, I'll probably be waiting for a long time.
In conclusion, don't see this movie. It's not even bad enough to be funny. It's just bad, and it ruins a good story that deserved better. If I had to give it a grade, I'd give it an F-.