In the wake of the massive success of The Lord of the Rings, little wonder that Hollywood’s been scrabbling around for other fantasy epics to bring to the big screen, now that the technology is finally good enough to create the kind of strange creatures with which such legendary settings abound. 2005’s adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – and its forthcoming sequel Prince Caspian – was an obvious choice, so similar are the two books, thanks to their authors’ friendship. The imminent arrival of a cinematic adaptation of Philip Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy was also a fairly obvious selection – albeit one insanely hard to bring to the screen.
But considering that one of the strongest influences on Tolkien was Anglo-Saxon and Old English literature, surely a big screen version of that classic Dark Age epic poem Beowulf should have happened already? Well yes, actually – because this is the second adaptation in two years, following the rather sub-par (and largely ignored) Stellan Skarsgaard and Gerard Butler-starring Beowulf and Grendell in 2005, not to mention the dire Christopher Lambert vehicle Beowulf back in 1999, shortly before the first Lord of the Rings film came out.
Beowulf remains one of the most enduring works of English literature – even if the English in which it is written is all but another language. The reason for this is simple – it contains everything that makes for a good legend: strong characters, dire danger, an epic quest, and vile monsters. Tolkien studied the poem at length, and drew much of his inspiration for his world of Middle Earth from its 3,183 lines, as well as forging his impressive academic reputation on its study and interpretation in a 1936 essay that remains required reading for students of the poem to this day.
It is, however, notoriously difficult to do justice to poetry when adapting it to another medium, be it a simple translation of Beowulf’s Old English to modern English, or in trying to adapt the story at the poem’s heart without losing its unique atmosphere and sense of place. Hence the failure of the two most recent screen adaptations.
So, have the current batch of filmmakers managed finally to succeed? Well, they’ve certainly given it a good go, bringing in a remarkable big-name cast, from Ray Winstone in the title role through Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar, the superb Crispin Glover as Grendel, Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother, and support from the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright Penn and John Malkovich. They’ve also picked a superb team to adapt the poem for the screen, with the pairing of cult fantasy author Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction plotter Roger Avary, and Back to the Future and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis at the helm.
The only slightly odd decision is that they’ve made the film animated, rather than live action with computer-generated elements. More-or-less faithfully rendering the faces of their stars via a computerised version of the old rotoscoping technique of old, you’ll recognise the likes of Jolie, Hopkins and Winstone, but by blending them fully into the animated world you’ll soon discover that Winstone is somewhere in the region of eight feet tall, or that Jolie’s body isn’t quite how you may remember it.
Computer technology isn’t quite good enough to create realistically-animated humans, so this technique does make some sense. Yet even after animating from filmed scenes, the expressiveness of the faces loses something – just as the expressiveness of the poem loses something in the adaptation. That’s not to say that this isn’t the best effort to date and worthy of a look for fans of the fantasy genre – but some works of literature, it would appear, are simply best experienced in the original.