Sunday, November 18, 2007

My take on the Beowulf movie

I wanted to put forth my thoughts on the movie while others in the blogosphere are still interested. For those who haven't seen it yet and would like to remain unspoiled, please just go to my last post and avoid reading any further. Otherwise, if you are interested in someone's reaction to the movie to decide whether or not it is worth your time and money...stick around. I will offer a different type of analysis of the movie than other reviews I have read.

I do not disagree with any of their assessments, but I wish to analyze through a lens focusing on drama.

First off, I will admit that I have not read the classic epic poem of Beowulf. I bought the Seamus Heaney translation and it is on my bookshelf in the "to be read" pile, but as of yet its spine is still pristine.

So I went into the movie without the expectations that fans of the epic poem had. I simply wanted to be entertained. I shall read it in the near future and see how they deviated from the classic tale.

I love engaging in that kind of analysis. I have read and dissected screenplays as well as take copious notes of movies scene by scene. There are choices to be made by screenwriters in translating source material to a different medium that deal with timing and narrative flow. Sometimes I agree with their choices and other times I disagree.

I have been delighted when certain aspects of books that I thought were particularly boring were cut or streamlined. I have also been disappointed when vital plot points or complexities in a story are cut in order to maximize action/adventure sequences. I feel that kind of treatment diminishes the overall dramatic potential of the material and confuses the audience.

I prefer deeply moving emotional scenes between characters over ones where I'm gripping the seat watching someone hang by their fingernails from a ledge or dodging the teeth from a monster for the umpteenth time. After a short while, I find myself annoyed with action/adventure sequences that seem to go on ad infinitum.

I feel the same way with car chases, fight scenes, etc. Very few do I think warrant the amount of screen time that they now receive.

Beowulf's action sequences fit that description. They went on too long for my liking, but that is not what bothers me the most about the movie. It is the lack of a sympathetic main character.

Beowulf was a jerk.

Not a hero. He was an ass.

He was brave and strong, but also vain and arrogant. He craved glory, but lacked honor.

He showed no attempt at trying to live up to the ideals of the Chivalric Code. He was a powerful warrior and king, but not a hero.

It is fine for secondary characters to have those qualities, but it should not be the main character in a story.

That I think is the fatal flaw in the movie. The audience is never allowed to care what happens to the lead character.

There is one scene in particular that illustrates to the audience how vainglorious our "hero" is. It could have been done much differently and achieved a different effect.

Beowulf decided that he needed to match Grendel in regards to arms and armor. That meant he chose to put them all aside. That is an honorable act. Similar to setting aside your pistol if you find your dueling opponent is wielding a knife.

However, Beowulf announced his plan to the queen as he began undressing while standing directly in front of her.

I found that scene to be an attempt to intimidate the queen. A woman he had been making eyes at all evening long.

Beowulf could have said gracious remarks about her singing and suggest that she turn in for the night as the fight would start shortly and he needed to ready himself. At that point he could have mentioned his need to divest himself of arms, armor, and clothes. She would then have had the chance to blush, leave and possibly sneak a peak at him after she left the room if she was so bold.

Instead he stripped in front of her as if daring her to not look down and assess his manly prowess.

Arrogance. Not a particularly attractive attribute in heroes.

Could that movie have saved with a different script? Maybe.

I tend to think it might have been a better movie if a better actor had been cast for the role.

The only way would have been in they had not cast merely a good actor, but a brilliant actor to play the title role. So that even if the main character was vain and arrogant, the audience would still like him.

It would be tough, but still possible.

I recall what I learned from the late great Michael Shurtleff. In his book Audition: Everything an actor needs to know to get the part he gave examples from his time as a casting director on Broadway. One was during the casting of Jesus Christ Superstar and the field was narrowed down to two actors to play the role of Judas Iscariot.

There were two camps of supporters for the different actors. The votes were evenly split with the musical director as the one to cast the deciding vote. Michael was asked by him why he supported Ben Vereen for the part.

Michael said that his reasoning was that even though both actors were very talented, Candidate A was "remote and disdainful" and Vereen was "lovable."

Here is his explanation about that subject of likability in performers:

"You're always ahead if you cast a performer who is likable. Unlikable performers can sometimes have long, even important, careers, if they have talent, fascination, sexuality, and uniqueness, but some odd chemistry always happens in their relationship to an audience. Frequently the audience does not know they don't like a performer, but they are disturbed by him (or her), and the elements work in a strange, frequently unpredictable way. I have seen too many productions in which the actor comes off with great notices and the project fails -- because the actor is arrogant." page 170 in the trade paperback edition.

I have reflected on his pearls of wisdom for years now and I recognize that as being the difference between good actors and brilliant actors.

Think of the television series M*A*S*H. I prefer the episodes with Charles Emerson Winchester III as the third man in The Swamp over the ones with Frank Burns because while Winchester was a pompous bore, you realized that he really did not want to be there either. His character was sympathetic. Burns was just an ass. There is nothing sympathetic about him. I cheered as Ferret Face bore the brunt of practical jokes and did not miss him when he left the series.

I feel that David Ogden Stiers is a far better actor than Larry Linville.

Getting back to Beowulf, I feel that Ray Winstone did not deliver on what was needed for the role.

The success of the movie hinged on the main character being someone audiences liked.

Another example I would like to mention is a movie where the pivotal role was cast appropriately: Thank You for Smoking.

Aaron Eckhart played Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for big tobacco, whose character said outrageous things, and yet, I laughed as he said them. Why?

Because he was charming.

The movie would not have worked with someone less talented.

It was imperative that Nick Naylor be played by someone who could smile with a wicked glint in his eyes while delivering logic that defied rational thought. It was wicked satire and it walked a fine tightrope, but it worked.

Robert Zemekis's Beowulf did not work.

And it was not because of the artistic choice of using motion-captured animation rather than live action, it was because the main character was unsympathetic.

It is imperative that audiences feel comfortable with the main character. If they do not care what happens to them or feel that the character deserves a tragic Karmic Fate - it does not bode well for overall audience satisfaction.

I cannot say that I would recommend the movie. Nor would I say that I am all that interested in watching it a second time. I would probably rent it on Netflix simply to see the extras, to see deleted scenes, audio commentary, etc. because I am adore that kind of information.

I would much rather watch Pan's Labyrinth again than Beowulf.



Winnie said...

Hi Linda,

I watched Beowulf yesterday and yeah, I didn't like the characters. I didn't know why until I read your post. Yeah, you're right. Beowulf's a jerk. But I also didn't like the queen, the king, and the multitudes of other nameless characters. Somewhere in the story, I even begun to root for Grendel's mother. She's a monster, but she's a loving mother monster. The most touching part of the movie, to me, was when Grendel's mother lamented her dead ugly monster son, Grendel, and laid him down, caressing him gently and lovingly. To the others, Grendel was a monster, to be slayed, to be killed, unwanted and hated. To her, he was just her son. I whispered to my friends while we were watching the movie, 'That's a mother's love for you.'

The one thing about the movie is its graphics. It's amazing; the details, the colours. Cinematic technology is a wonder to behold in this movie.

Your explanation about movie casting also made me understand why I like the cantakerous character of House and the super-annoying Michael Scott in The Office. It's because I like the actors playing those 'despicable' characters - Hugh Laurie and Steve Carrell.

What you say can be taken as a valuable lesson in life. Be likeable. You can get away with a lot more; or at the very least, you can make others feel good.

Warmest regards,

ps - I've not been around for a while. I don't have any excuse. I just have not visited for a while.

L.C.McCabe said...


Thanks for stopping by and for letting me know that my ramblings on this issue made sense to you.

It is after all just my opinion as someone who appreciates good drama and found the movie was lacking.

Being likable is important.

Oh and I love Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert. The old Even-Stephen segment on The Daily Show was fabulous.

They can both play pompous characters, but they do it with charm. Therefore, it works.

Others who are pompous...not so much.



K. A. Laity said...

As Oscar said long ago, ""It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." Charming people do indeed get away with a lot.

Thanks for linking to my review. I read yours with interest. While a medievalist, I'm not a purist on adapting tales -- they have to work for the modern audience. You hit the nail on the head: who would like this Beowulf? No one.

L.C.McCabe said...


Thanks for stopping by and for letting me know that you enjoyed my review.

I have started to read the epic (finally) due to my interest in seeing what was in the original source material.

I wound up confirming that it was the film makers decision to have Beowulf aggressively strip in front of Wealhtheow, not the original text.

The only upshot of having Hollywood put its spin on the classics is that it winds up selling books and finding a new audience. I think the resurgence in Jane Austen books can be credited to the spate of movies adapting her novels.

Just checking the sales ranking, Seamus Heaney's version is now ranked #519. Not bad for a book that isn't a new release.

Oh, and you are welcome for the link. I'm wondering why it didn't show on the bottom of your Blogger page yet. I also realized I forgot to leave a response on yours and shall remedy that shortly.


Dr. Richard Scott Nokes said...

I can't believe I haven't had your blog in my subscriptions. It's going in immediately!

L.C.McCabe said...

Professor Nokes,

Thank you, that is very kind of you.

I enjoy reading your blog for it helps clue me in to the Medieval blogosphere.

Have a great day.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit that having seen the film and being somewhat of a movie buff (if I do say so myself) I beleive your view of the film is utter rubbish.

You don't see Beowulf as a hero???! Are you mad? what you were expecting some knight in shining armour to save the day score with the lady, feed the poor and heal the cripples?!

Understand that this is a story of torment, bad decisions, and living with the consequences. Beowulf is a conflicted character, he longs for fame beyond his own lifetime and will pursue this goal by any means necessary. He is egotistical, narcasistic, desperate and weak... all the while being an incredible warrior who doesn't fear death and probably longs for it so that his story might be sung by the bards!

Even though the cgi paints Beowulf as a 2D character please don't let that spoil the depth of the inner torment that can be seen any time he is on screen.

Beowulf is not the wise man that he is made out to be in the poem, instead he is foolhardy and driven by simple means. He allows himself to be fooled by Grendal's mother just as the king had done before him. Beowulf lives with the shame of that action for the reest of his life. Heavy is the crown that rests on his head, not only becase he is king but because the manner in which he became king could at any point rear its ugly head and expose him.

This film is about a superhuman warrior who falls from grace and has to watch himself wither away with every passing year. His final attempt to resurrect himself taking on his son in the final battle utilises all the strength he has left and will power he can muster to rediscover who he was years ago... the warrior, the hero, the man !

L.C.McCabe said...

Hello Anonymous,

Here is my reply in case you should you ever stop by again to see if I responded.

In my original post I predicated that the distinction of what I feel distinguished the character of Beowulf in Zemekis' movie from being considered to be heroic:

"He was brave and strong, but also vain and arrogant. He craved glory, but lacked honor."

I stand by that assessment.

There are many kings, presidents, strong men, etc., the world over who rule and some of them are worthy of admiration and others are not.

It comes down to honor versus glory.

I went into the movie without many expectations. I wanted to be entertained by a classic tale.

In the end, I was disappointed and I am not interested in ever seeing it again.

Why? Because I did not sympathize with the main character.

Perhaps a better actor could have pulled it off and made me care, if he were brilliant. Ray Winstone's acting job was pedestrian as far as I'm concerned.

The role as it was written for this film is filled with a lot of internal conflict, guilt, etc., which should make any actor salivate with the chance to tear into it and show his acting chops. However, not every actor can make a villain you love to hate.

Some villains you just hate.

And, when it comes to main characters who are supposed to be heroes, you really shouldn't feel disinterested in whether they live or die.

Which is how I felt at the end of the movie. I felt unmoved by his death.

That should not have been the emotion that the filmmakers were angling for and if it was, I have to wonder why they would go for that emotion.

Ennui is not an emotional state that makes people leave a movie theater and say, "Yeah, you gotta see this one!"

As for the technology of the movie being CGI...that didn't bother me. Personally, I prefer the artistry in Pixar movies over what was in Beowulf but that's superficial criticism at best.

What I look for is heart in a movie.

All of Pixar's movies have heart in them and I do not consider them "kids' movies" but rather movies that are appropriate for all audiences and will entertain all ages.

Tom Hanks played the character of Woody the Cowboy brilliantly. Woody was "the hero" at the beginning of the movie, but he became consumed with jealousy and turned from "the hero" to something less. The difference is that Tom Hanks is a brilliant actor and we cared about him, even when he was acting like a jerk to Buzz. Then the character transformation occurred when faced the greater danger of Sid and realized he needed to work with Buzz and needed to lead the toys in Sid's room into a revolt.

Beowulf's character in Zemekis' film was never what I would consider to be a hero.

Brave? yes
Strong? - hell yes
Arrogant? yup
Sexual morality of a cat in heat? yes
Someone whose qualities I would want my son to emulate? NO.

Here's another actor who might have pulled that part off: Jack Nicholson.

He's played a lot of unsympathetic characters in movies and audiences are still drawn to him. Why? Because he's a brilliant actor and well worth the money he's paid.

Winstone is not of that caliber and the movie is not what it could have been.

So if you wish to enjoy watching and rewatching the DVD of Beowulf have at it.

I will not be.