Beowulf and Grendel
2005Director: Sturla Gunnarsson
Cast: Gerard Butler, Stellan Skarsgard, Sarah Polley
he terrorist narrative has been hard-wired from the start. You don’t have to be an old English major for your mind to slide over to Beowulf in a dark theater when those two cops are caught in the grinding jaws of World Trade Center rubble. For English-speaking peoples, Al-Qaeda’s raid echoes our first story, what still stains our thinking. A year before 9/11, poet Seamus Heaney’s new translation of Beowulf, originally contracted by Norton for mild-mannered college lit anthologies, had jumped onto best-seller lists, fingering some ancient hair-trigger.
Even if you can’t quite see the Twin Towers as a modern-day Viking mead-hall, one version of this tale worth catching, despite some glaring faults, opened in the US in July. Filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson’s 2005 Beowulf and Grendel enjoyed a successful Canadian run, bracketed by sold-out festival appearances at last year’s Toronto and this spring’s Seattle fests. The film has going for it a thoughtful take on hatred, the inspired though wholly inaccurate decision to film in his native Iceland, and an appealing, if not very well-used, international cast—Gerard Butler (Phantom of the Opera, Lara Croft) as Beowulf, Stellan Skarsgard (Dogville, Ronin) as Hrothgar, and Sarah Polley (Dawn of the Dead, My Life Without Me) as the witch Selma, a newly invented character.
Gunnarsson’s movie, which he says comments on the US invasion of Iraq, shared Manhattan in July with Elliot Goldenthal’s opera at Lincoln Center. The opera is adapted from John Gardner’s 1971 novel, which Gardner specifically wrote to protest the Vietnam War. But Gardner’s Grendel—written from the monster’s point of view—also coincides more broadly with the birth of modern terrorism employed against the West, in the West. Since then, one Beowulf revival has followed another, with more coming down the pike.
This is an old story, set about 500 A.D. Beowulf, from what is now Sweden, flees to the aid of King Hrothgar, in what is now Denmark, finally killing Grendel (whose name means “grinder”). The monster had been raiding the king’s great hall at night like a refrigerator, eating his men alive, 70 at a time. While Beowulf had later opponents, too, in our day we’ve fixated primarily on Grendel, who took such pleasure in terrifying the Danes. Most versions have changed the story somehow, obsessed to explain Grendel’s viciousness—an on-going literary version of “Why do they hate us?”—beginning with the Christian monk who first wrote it all down and tacked on the idea that Grendel descended from murderous Cain. The Irish priest Brendan in Gunnarsson’s movie, who’s baptizing all those warriors in the river? He’s several centuries too early to be in that neck of the woods, but his presence makes the point about new faith’s appeal in uncertain times.
What’s right about this film includes location filming in Iceland, though that landscape is radically different from the green, heavily forested Denmark with its gentle coastline. Beowulf and Grendel is often quite beautiful, its cool, austere sweeps punctuated by scenes splashed with rare, welcome sunlight. Hrothgar’s warriors feared the deep, impenetrable forest, while today’s National Geographic-saturated audiences might not. Iceland provides a wilderness more suited to modern tastes, experience, even to our brands of fear—blank wastes that Beowulf calls “the end of the world,” icy seas, shrouded mountain-tops, looming cliffs overshadowing the strand, dwarfing men and monsters alike.
Gunnarsson contrasts this with what we might call a “revisionist epic” aesthetic, undermining the shiny, puffed-up human grandeur of other costume projects. J.R.R. Tolkien loved, taught, and borrowed from the original Beowulf, but Gunnarsson’s movie has no vast LOTR army hordes or fairy gauze. Life really is nasty, brutish, and short here—muddy and cold, too—for the few people huddled together on the coast against the gale-force winds.
This almost abstract setting alerts us to current parallels, much as staging MacBeth in modern dress has served to do through successive troubling political eras. What we find is rather more thoughtful than one might expect. Beowulf says he fights in a new way, contrary to the “berserkers” of his own time, who work themselves into a blood-frenzy. Not that he refrains from killing Grendel. Yet his curiosity about Grendel’s motive means he must learn who the monster is and what constitutes his complaint in order to kill him, contrary to modern warfare’s aim of turning the enemy into a faceless object fit for defilement.
In fact, there is a good deal of explicitly ethnic hatred in this film on all sides, expressed in classic terms of filth. Grendel can smell men coming from a distance, and he picks out wrong-doers by what they have touched. He contemptuously fouls the mead-hall’s doorway, an insult Beowulf’s men reciprocate when they find Grendel’s cave. No matter what kind of statesman-like things they are saying at official peace talks, if one side is calling the other “dirty,” you can count on such behavior in whatever territory is occupied. As a cultural expression, Beowulf and Grendel surely hitches a ride from a whole slew of recent films set in odd locales and times that play with how we define “human” and its opposite—Ripley in the Alien films, Terminator parts one and two, the Blade series and its relatives, and lately the resurrected zombie genre. That Grendel then has language and therefore a complaint astounds Beowulf. This discovery alone—so unlikely in Beowulf’s world—makes Hrothgar’s account suspect.
The engine of this discovery is Sarah Polley’s bizarre character, Selma. She reluctantly translates Grendel’s words to Beowulf. Polley has been an impressive actor and Selma’s presence gets a lot done plot-wise. But she’s as sadly out of place as the jarring slang that acts as filler in the dialogue. “Oh here we go!,” “That’s one beer-hall!,” “You can’t swim for shit!,” and Beowulf’s “It’s been a while!” during his mercifully short sexual encounter with her. But if you want a handle on how much 9/11 stirs up our crazy, low-down stuff, movies like this one offer a glimpse.
Beowulf and Grendel is currently available on DVD.