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.

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