Beowulf & Grendel

on June 16, 2006 by Annlee Ellingson
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Not since the publication of John Gardner's philosophical fable "Grendel" in 1971 has the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon poem "Beowulf" experienced such a resurgence of interest in retelling the tale. In addition to this live-action cinematic adaptation, this summer Julie Taymor directed an opera by her partner Elliot Goldenthal based on Gardner's book, and in 2007 Robert Zemeckis will follow up "The Polar Express" with a motion-capture version of the story. With these innovative approaches to the mythological saga on tap, this "Beowulf's" reality-driven approach suffers for lack of scope and questionable poetic license.

The basic premise remains the same: Set in Northern in Europe in 500 A.D., the medieval legend centers around a troll named Grendel (Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson) that for years has terrorized the kingdom of Hrothgar (Stellan Skarsgard), king of the Danes, until Norse thrill-seeker Beowulf (a paunchy Gerard Butler), out of affection for his father's friend, travels from Geatland to Hrothgar's aid. In this interpretation, however, the beast is less a monster than a deformed man, giant and slow-witted (although an unclear sense of scale confuses the matter of his size). A brutish, gruesome story, the film sacrifices its potential impact by playing it safe with the depiction of onscreen violence.

Some of the movie's departures from the original text, which render the telling no more compelling, are relatively minor. For example, rather than a regal king, Skarsgard's Hrothgar is a drunk old fool who greets the arrival of Beowulf and his warriors in his jammies. Others are an attempt to make the story more palatable to modern audiences who demand that even antagonists have motivation. Like Gardner's book before it, this version is discontent to allow Grendel to simply be an embodiment of evil. But where the novel used the monster as a metaphor for human beings' inherent combative nature, the film fashions a clich├ęd childhood incident that is the source of the creature's vengeful wrath.

Most egregious, however, is the addition of the witch Selma (Sarah Polley, sounding entirely too modern), a pagan clairvoyant who is said to be able to see people's deaths. It's in her mysterious relationship with Grendel that the film takes its greatest liberty, ultimately underlining its theme with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Starring Gerard Butler, Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson, Stellan Skarsgard and Sarah Polley. Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. Written by Andrew Rai Berzins. Produced by Paul Stephens, Eric Jordan, Sturla Gunnarsson, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan and Anna Maria Karlsdottir. A Truly Indie release. Fantasy adventure. Rated R for violence, language and some sexuality. Running time: 102 min

Tags: Starring Gerard Butler, Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson, Stellan Skarsgard and Sarah Polley. Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. Written by Andrew Rai Berzins. Produced by Paul Stephens, Eric Jordan, Sturla Gunnarsson, Jason Piette, Michael Lionello Cowan, Anna Maria Karlsdottir, Truly Indie, Fantasy
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