The Slaughter of Beowulf; or, Grendel’s Momma Still Kills Them in Hollywood

Well, I have not quite recovered from the horror that is Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, whose feats and defeat I witnessed at the local movie house yesterday evening. When I say “horror,” I do not refer to the digital violence that turns the screen’s silver to red; I mean the harm done to poetry. The manuscript of the old-English poem was very nearly destroyed in a fire back in 1731; but it was not spared the fate of being torn to shreds by corporate Hollywood. Visualizing a poem is worse than giving an a cappella number the orchestral treatment. It renders the magic of the spoken word powerless, especially if the poet’s tongue is being digitally removed and substituted by the kind of mouthings you expect to hear in a direct-to-video action flick, circa 1984.

Now, I did not see the 3D version; but this would hardly add dimension to the characters, who, in this kind of digital motion capture animation, remain as expressionless as the Botoxed cast of Desperate Housewives. What is the point of hiring potentially great actors only to replace their bodies with lifeless, charmless animation? Robin Wright Penn’s Queen Wealtheow is a taxidermist’s vision of Bo Derek, while Anthony Hopkins’s King Hrothgar is imbued with the emotive powers of a garden gnome. Apparently, even a man’s age spots are beyond the skills of current CGI designers. Then again, nobody remembers age spots in Hollywood.

Not that the voice talents could improve matters; at least not in the case of John Malkovich, who proved conclusively that he is unfit for such disembodiment. You could almost hear the script in the hands you never got to see. And while an attempt was made to recreate Old English in the laments of Grendel, the spoken word was not given a fighting chance to create an image in the mind’s eye. The world of Beowulf has to be adapted to remain intelligible; but you are better off with Seamus Heaney as a guide:

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved toward it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold.

The new and improved Beowulf is about as poetic as a Mr. Clean commercial reconceived as a slasher movie (the Grim Sweeper?). It is both vulgar and prim, showing you severed limbs but stopping short of giving you a glimpse of a man’s part, in a striptease that was tongue-in-cheekier in the coy cover-ups of Austin Powers and the Simpsons Movie.

Beowulf is truly a sorry spectacle, an ersatz best sat out. Whatever the reasons for the no-shows, it is gratifying that this would-be behemoth has proven so toothless at the box office. Watching it, I felt as if I had entered a computer game whose object it was to do in rather than do literature and to shout down the curse that, to the perpetrators of such high-infidelities, is the imagination of a reader lost in a line of poetry.

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