In Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen famously counseled Diane Keaton never to take a college course in which she was forced to read Beowulf. He didn’t say anything about watching the movie, however.
The dilemma: which version? At the time of Annie Hall, there had never been a major film based on the early medieval classic, presumably because of limitations imposed by trying to depict the epic’s various monsters. Filmmakers today, of course, have no such problem, though it’s still necessary to have a credible story with interesting characters, a basic requirement too often overlooked by F/X mavens.
Since Annie Hall, though, there have been several celluloid treatments of Beowulf, three in particular deserving recommendation. None will get you through a quiz devised by your diabolically clever English teacher, but each will reward you with a thoughtful, exciting reimagination of the classic, and should make you want to read the book. (I confess — in my other life, I am a diabolically clever English teachers.)
The 13th Warrior (1999), based on Michael Crichton’s novel, fared poorly with critics upon its release, but it’s actually much better than that would suggest. Director John McTiernan was hot at the time with Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and two Die Hard movies to his credit, but initial screenings of The 13th Warrior proved disastrous, as buzzards eagerly circled — despite the film’s costly production. Several re-edits and even uncredited reshoots by Crichton were unable to quell most reviewers’ venom.
Today The 13th Warrior plays as an intelligent, exciting, “realistic” treatment of the Beowulf narration, the production values and graphic action scenes about as good as it gets. Antonio Banderas plays Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan, an Arab ambassador to the wild Northmen, who unexpectedly becomes the 13th member of a troupe of Vikings led by Buliwyf. Their goal is to rid Hrothgar’s land of seemingly demonic creatures, The Wendol, or “Eaters of the Dead” (Crichton’s book title).
The story transforms the monsters of the epic, including Grendel’s mother and the dragon, into quite human, incredibly barbaric savages, which Buliwyf and his men ultimately defeat at great cost, preserving the valor and courage at the heart of the original poem. A curious emendation by Crichton removes all of the original Christian elements from the tale, making Ahmed a devout Muslim to whom (presumably) will fall the task of preserving Buliwyf’s story for the ages. Given the actual text of Beowulf, that doesn’t make much sense, but The 13th Warrior most definitely succeeds as a tribute to the original legend’s endurance and flexibility.
Beowulf & Grendel (2005), an Icelandic/Canadian co-production, takes a similar “realistic” approach to the heroic tale, providing a backstory in the opening scenes to explain Grendel’s hatred of Hrothgar and his fellow Danes. Not an ordinary man by any means, Grendel is still not the Troll his enemies would claim, but rather a big guy with a big chip on his shoulder.
Summoned by Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgård) to rid his kingdom of the curse, Beowulf (Gerard Butler) and his fellow Geats find their task complicated by a near-fanatical Christian monk and Selma (Sarah Polley), a beautiful young woman deemed a witch for her peculiar ways, just as Grendel is branded a Troll for his strength and brutality. Becoming a hero, Beowulf learns, involves more than slaying monsters.
Astonishing location scenery in rugged Iceland, along with outstanding production values, make Beowulf & Grendel a treat for the eyes. More than that, the film is yet another intelligent and quite different reimagining of the original tale, proving once again the classics endure because they really are classic.
Finally, there’s director Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf (2007), which preserves the film’s original title as well as its three monsters — Grendel, his mom, and a dragon. Apart from those elements, however, this might be the most curious and original reinterpretation of the saga. Not too surprising — the script was co-written by Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman comics, Coraline, and other fiction and film delights).
Using the same kind of animation as in The Polar Express, Zemeckis makes a boastful Beowulf who literally rips off Grendel’s arm after a savage battle in the mead hall, but from then on, he’s not so much a classic hero as a “flawed and fallible man,” as he declares before fighting a final battle with the dragon.
Lending their likenesses and voices to the characters is a star-studded cast including Ray Winstone (Beowulf), Robin Wright (Wealthow the Queen), Anthony Hopkins (Hrothgar), Brendan Gleeson (Wiglaf), John Malkovich (Unferth), and Angelina Jolie (Grendel’s mother; definitely not a hag).
The animation technique is impressive, but a possible put-off for purists (though it’s hard to imagine anyone faulting the director’s kinetic camera movement). The script is a penetrating, incisive apologue about how the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. In this version, Grendel is not the spawn of Cain or the devil, but of a weak man (Hrothgar) who makes a poor choice. Beowulf’s no saint, either, though he does become a hero, eventually.
When you’ve finished all the films, read the long poem — it’ll make your English teachers (past and present) proud.