Friday, November 30, 2007

Beowulf: How to take liberties with a classic and not get away with it

I had been looking forward to seeing Beowulf in 3D and finally I did it. So now, 450 pesos later (that’s 300 for the movie ticket and 150 for lunch – let me tell you, don’t attempt to watch a 3D film while eating lunch; I gobbled up my burger and fries 10mins before it started as I didn’t want to get distracted), here’s my verdict.


As usual, I didn’t read any reviews or join any discussions about the movie beforehand, but I did get wind that the story was a bit thin. No kidding, it should have been epic, it’s a classic piece of literature after all, a great hero story. It would have been so easy to make an animated feature of epic proportions, right? Well, apparently not. Don’t get me wrong, it WAS entertaining (I’m no purist) and it WAS a sight to behold (not perfect though), but what about the story?

Beowulf stands proud as one of the best known Old English hero epic poems in history. It’s a classic, and classics are called that because they are great stories. So with a base material like that, how can one go wrong? It is when one takes the risk of changing it. As it turns out, Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman took liberties with the plot, and oh mama, what huge liberties they were! (I am not sure though how much of Gaiman’s contribution was retained; I read that a rewrite was done somewhere along the way.) Now I don’t have a problem with writers making changes in movie adaptations (especially when I’m not intimately familiar with the original source material to begin with *cough*), as it’s always interesting to me to see if it will work or not. For this particular movie, I found that replacing the archetypal hero story – you know, great noble hero fighting many great battles against unimaginably formidable forces of evil and whatnot -- with a 21st century proclivity for anti-hero themes could have been so much more powerful than how it actually turned out. (I happen to be a fan of anti-hero stories.) It had potential which wasn’t quite reached.

If you like your heroes as perfect, infallible, noble warriors then you won’t like Beowulf at all. In the first half of the film, he is portrayed as this boastful, self-centered Calvin Klein-ish metrosexual (I don’t know, did anyone else get that vibe?) with a taste for hyperbole in the retelling of his heroic deeds. (But hey, it must have been a bitch being a hero in those times, being pressured into acting the part of a character you know would later be spun into songs and tales orally handed down from generation to generation for ages. If you were to be in a song or tale, wouldn’t you want to look good? I would have exaggerated too, heh. And on another less relevant note: that Ray Winstone sure sounded good, such great voice and delivery that I forgave him the annoying “I... am Beowuuulf!”) So uh, where was I? ...Ah right, Beowulf as the flawed hero. They could have made so much more of Beowulf’s burden, the king’s shame (both Hrothgar’s and Beowulf’s), the price of their ambition, and the demon (Grendel’s mother). Beyond the semi-naked Lara Croft in demon pigtails (hee hee) and heels (hwaar har), the only demonstration of evil shown was the visitation of her awesome power (which we didn’t even get to see, maybe it will be in the DVD’s deleted scenes? *sarcastic*) on Beowulf’s thanes in Heorot upon Grendel’s death. And uhm, oh yeah, I suppose seducing Beowulf, and more so, Anthony Hopkins, is evil. Seriously though, the notion that the greater demon is greed, pride, and ambition, that in itself could have been played much better. There were moments that could have been epic (e.g. the battle between the demon and Beowulf, Beowulf’s realization of his mistake as Hrothgar practically handed him the kingship, Beowulf’s death) but weren’t. In my opinion, the technology got in the way of telling and experiencing the story. If I hadn’t been so wrapped in the details perhaps I could have taken it more seriously. Instead I was thinking: Hmm, nice stones, very gravelly. Why are their garments so flat, hanging there like they were paper clothes on a 3-dimensional head? Oh look, Unferth has newly rebounded hair. John Malkovich, man, you act so much better in person. Never ever do this again. Ooh Anthony Hopkins, that was him – eww, I don’t want to see him naked thank goodness everything is CGI’ed. Why is Beowulf’s head old and weathered while his body is still Calvin Klein model-ish? Nice detail on Angelina’s face, soft down of tiny hairs. Eh, are my 3D glasses broken? Oh right, it’s a night scene, 3D doesn’t do those well.

I could go on and on here, but the long and short of it is, yeah it’s quite entertaining and engaging. I even turned my head away in reflex when a piece of wood hurtled my way (sitting at eye level is recommended). But don’t watch it for the story. Maybe Neil can do that better in graphic novel form. Also, here’s what I’m wondering: could Peter Jackson and WETA have done it so much better? Ahem.

1 comment:

jeeper said...

passing by, I actually liked the movie.

I tried to read the book again but I guess I've gotten stupid since I could hardly control myself from nodding (and I understood it when I was in High School). i like how they handled the story with how Grendel's mother placed a curse on Beowulf and his predesser and how the dragon truly is his son, it's a nice twist to the original stoy, me thinks.

the CGI are impressive only on some characters. Grendel's mother was so perfect it was almost unbelievable and she was naked but she had heels, that made us laugh. And they are too smooth and shiny even with some body hair on it.