So I’m trying to feed my brain for a story I want to write, that requires me to be jazzed up for gritty pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon goodness. Ergo, one thing I’m doing is watching lots of adaptations of Beowulf. And it occurs to me: thanks, perhaps, to the nature of the poem (which cannot be ported into cinema without changes; it would make a terrible film as written), the films I’ve seen have all taken distinct liberties with the text. As a result, I find that I can, without much hesitation, classify all three* of them as different varieties of Beowulf fanfic.
In order of release:
1. The 13th Warrior — Crossover fic. It’s Beowulf meets ibn Fadlan! Crichton apparently read the journal of an Arab traveler who met some Norsemen on the Volga river, and decided to use that as his connection point for splicing the Arab into the Beowulf story. Which probably looked utterly nonsensical to the many people out there who have no idea who ibn Fadlan was, and thought they were chucking an Arab in just for laughs. (Incidentally, the alteration of Grendel came about from Crichton imagining a relic population of Neandertals living into more modern times. I think Eaters of the Dead may be my favorite book of his, actually.)
2. Beowulf and Grendel — Sympathy for the devil, or whatever formal name it may have among fanfic writers. Grendel attacks Heorot because Hrothgar killed Grendel-Dad back when Grendel was a kid. Grendel-Dad was killed because, well, he took Hrothgar’s fish — I think that’s what Hrothgar said near the end of the film — and anyway, he’s a troll, a big hairy lug who can’t really speak, so that’s all the justification anybody needs. This story also sticks in an utterly non-canonical character, the prophetess Selma, for the purposes of illuminating its chosen theme. (Which would be annoying as hell if she didn’t get such good dialogue.)
3. Beowulf (the Zemeckis/Avary/Gaiman one) — Textual interrogation. This is the kind of story where the
fanficcers screenwriters looked at the original and started asking questions. Why does Grendel attack Heorot, but not hurt Hrothgar? Why does Beowulf bring back no evidence of having killed Grendel’s mother? Why does the narrative then leapfrog over decades and end with some random dragon? Then they invented their own reasons to plug what, from the viewpoint of modern fiction, look like narrative holes.
For the record, I think The 13th Warrior still stands as my favorite, but oddly — and in direct contravention of general opinion, I think — Beowulf and Grendel comes second. They filmed in Iceland, which I think claims the Oscar for Best Supporting Landmass**, and they do a good job with the muddy, shabby nature of even kingly life back then. More importantly, it’s got the kind of smart-ass lines I like in my Norse/Anglo-Saxon/whatever epics — delivered in a veritable Babel of accents, I might add, ranging from Selma’s American to Beowulf’s Scottish and on from there. The Zemeckis Beowulf, sadly, just didn’t engage me, despite the surge of glee I felt when Gaiman described their desired aesthetic as being “a kind of Dark Ages Trainspotting, full of mead and blood and madness.” I never warmed to the motion-capture CGI or felt it justified its usage, and the rampant*** phallic imagery got to be a bit much.
Time to go read the poem, I think, and try to poke this story idea into becoming an actual story. I need to figure out who dies at the beginning; without that, I don’t have much to go on.
* “Three” because I’m not including the science-fictional Beowulf movie with Christopher Lambert. I saw it years ago, and all I remember is that it was terrible enough that I don’t want to see it again.
** First awarded to New Zealand for The Lord of the Rings.
*** Yes, I chose that word on purpose.