three kinds of fanfic

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.

0 Responses to “three kinds of fanfic”

  1. elizaeffect

    I was in a workshop once in which we fanficced the hell out of Beowulf and some fairy tales. It was the worst workshop I’ve ever attended, but only because of (most of) the other people in it. The reasearching-other-adaptations and writing parts were awesome, and I loved the way Beowulf could be retold so many different ways.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s crossed my mind that I’d like to do a workshop — or maybe just an online idea-generating meme — that requires people to make a list of stories and settings and styles they find awesome, write them on bits of paper and toss them into a hat (or some other randomizing mechanism), and then pull out pairings until they get one that makes their backbrain light up. Because I keep hearing about stories — like Mrissa’s Aesir noir novel, or Vandana Singh’s story I haven’t gotten to yet in Clockwork Phoenix, that mashes biomorphing sf together with the Ramayana — that make me think the world needs more out-of-left-field mashups.

    • mindstalk

      Have you read Gaiman’s “Bay Wolf”? “Beowulf retold as a futuristic episode of Baywatch for inclusion in an anthology of detective stories” starring Larry Talbot, from A Night in the Lonesome October by way of an earlier story of Gaiman’s, both classifiable as “no he didn’t die damnit!” fanfic.

  2. kateelliott

    Seeing these films as fanfic is a great way to look at them. I found #2 boring (couldn’t finish watching it), and didn’t see #3 because I couldn’t bear to once I learned what the schtick was (he’s his FATHER!).

    However, I love The 13th Warrior. For one thing, I think the film totally gets the whole Viking attitude (I just love the dudes), and although the women have very small roles, they are real people with real competencies. Also, really. . . .Antonio!

    • Marie Brennan

      #2 gets off to a slow start, but for some reason I just warmed to the characters when Beowulf is hanging out with the fisherman at the beginning. Something in the style of the dialogue, starting with Beowulf saying “a storm ate our ship.” For me, it echoed some of the things I love about The 13th Warrior, which are mostly the things you name: the Viking attitude (“Run and hide in a hole, if you like . . . .”), the women (who contrast nicely with the kind of pathetic Wealtheow in the Zemeckis film), etc.

      But Beowulf and Grendel doesn’t have Antonio Banderas, which will forever be a strike against it. <g>

      • kateelliott

        I liked the opening of Beowulf and Grendel for *exactly* the reasons you cite, but then got bored and gave up. One of the odd things to me about The 13th Warrior is what mediocre reviews it got when it was released, and yet it’s a film I’ve watched 3 times with enjoyment, something I’m not often able to do with films.

        I just don’t think I will be able to watch the Zemeckis film.

  3. khet_tcheba

    I was that weird kid who actually looked forward to reading Beowulf in high school because I didn’t have to fill the inside covers of the book with notes and I’d gotten such a kick out of reading The Legacy of Heorot – yet another Beowulf fanfic – beforehand. The original poem isn’t the tightest narrative known to man, but there’s clearly some good material in there somewhere.

    • Marie Brennan

      Exactly: it’s the kind of text that lends itself perfectly to this kind of fanficcing/adaptation. Great material in it, but full of spaces in which to play.

      And hey, I got a weird kind of enjoyment out of filling the inside covers with notes. Maybe because I had my brother’s and ‘s to work from, and therefore set myself the goal of having the best-annotated copy in Texas.

  4. mmegaera

    You’ve made me think of The 13th Warrior in an entirely new way, one I should have thought of myself long ago. Thanks.

    a 13th Warrior fan

  5. kurayami_hime

    All I remember from the Lambert one was that it was just this side of soft-core (with a ghost?) for no good reason.

    What I remember from Ibn Fadlan’s writing is even less than that, which I find enormously sad.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think you’re right about the soft-core, and for some reason the ghost rings a bell.

      . . . we have watched WAY too many crappy movies together.

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