Beowulf is a 2007 American fantasy adventure movie directed by Robert Zemeckis. The film was made using the motion capture process similar to that which had been used in Zemeckis' earlier movie The Polar Express while using live-action. The screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery is based on the anonymous Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the same name.
Plot[edit | edit source]
Years before, King Hrothgar had slain the dragon Fafnir and brought back a golden dragon drinking cup. In Denmark, a demon-monster named Grendel has been raiding and killing vikings in the drinking hall of King Hrothgar. Beowulf vows to kill the monster. When Grendel raids the hall, Beowulf tears the monster's arm off and drives it away. Beowulf finds that he must kill Grendel's mother, a demon spirit who had birthed Grendel after a tryst with Hrothgar. (It is implied that Fafnir had also been born from Grendel's mother). After Grendel's mother kills Beowulf's Vikings in revenge for her son's death, Beowulf goes in search of her. He tries to slay her-but as a demon/spirit she cannot be killed with a sword. She seduces him with the promise that in return for giving her a son, he will reign as King; as a pledge he leaves her the golden drinking horn. Beowulf then tells of how he killed Grendel's mother. Hrothgar leaves his kingdom and wife to Beowulf as his heir as he has none since his wife refuses to give him children as a result of his tryst. Hrothgar then commits suicide; his remains are consumed by demon fire in the sea.
After many years Beowulf is king but has no heirs by either wife Wealthow or mistress. Like Hrothgar, his tryst has left him sterile. A fire breathing dragon ravages the kingdom with a message to Beowulf: the sins of the father have come back. When Beowulf sees the golden drinking cup has been found and taken, he realizes the pact has been broken. He gives the cup to Grendel's mother to renew the pact, but it is too late. In a battle, Beowulf tears the dragon's heart out but is mortally wounded. With his dying breath, he tries to make right the legend—the dragon/demon is his son. Without heirs, Beowulf names his faithful retainer Wiglaf as King. As his ship funeral pyre is consumed by flames at sea, Beowulf is kissed by the demon spirit. Wiglaf finds the golden drinking horn and sees the demon spirit as a seductive woman. It is unknown if he will try to slay her or if he will be seduced as Hrothgar and Beowulf were and will father a demon monster that will revenge the land...
Cast[edit | edit source]
- Ray Winstone as Beowulf
- Crispin Glover as Grendel
- Angelina Jolie as Grendel's Mother
- Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar
- John Malkovich as Unferth
- Robin Wright as Wealthow
- Sonje Fortag as Gitte
- Rik Young as Eofor
- Charlotte Salt as Estrith
- Brendan Gleeson as Wiglaf
- Alison Lohman as Ursula
- Dominic Keating as Cain
- Costas Mandylor as Hondshew
- Leslie Zemeckis as Yrsa
- Julene Renee as Cille
Production[edit | edit source]
Development[edit | edit source]
Author Neil Gaiman and screenwriter Roger Avary wrote a screen adaptation of Beowulf in May 1997 (they had met while working on a film adaptation of Gaiman's The Sandman in 1996 before Warner Bros. canceled it). The script had been optioned by ImageMovers in the same year and set up at DreamWorks with Avary slated to direct and Robert Zemeckis producing. Avary stated he wanted to make a small-scale, gritty film with a budget of $15–20 million, similar to Jabberwocky or Excalibur. The project eventually went into turnaround after the option expired, to which the rights returned to Avary, who went on to direct an adaptation of The Rules of Attraction. In January 2005, producer Steve Bing, at the behest of Zemeckis who was wanting to direct the film himself, revived the production by convincing Avary that Zemeckis' vision, supported by the strength of digitally enhanced live-action, was worth relinquishing the directorial reins. Zemeckis did not like the poem, but enjoyed reading the screenplay. Because of the expanded budget, Zemeckis told the screenwriters to rewrite their script, because "there is nothing that you could write that would cost me more than a million dollars per minute to film. Go wild!" In particular, the entire fight with the dragon was rewritten from a talky confrontation to a battle spanning the cliffs and the sea.
Animation and visual effects[edit | edit source]
Zemeckis drew inspiration for the visual effects of Beowulf from experience with The Polar Express, which used motion capture technology to create three-dimensional images of characters. Appointing Jerome Chen, whom Zemeckis worked with on The Polar Express, the two decided to chart realism as their foremost goal.
Animation supervisor Kenn MacDonald explained that Zemeckis used motion capture because "Even though it feels like live action, there were a lot of shots where Bob cut loose. Amazing shots. Impossible with live-action actors. This method of filmmaking gives him freedom and complete control. He doesn't have to worry about lighting. The actors don't have to hit marks. They don't have to know where the camera is. It's pure performance." A 25 × 35-foot stage was built, and it used 244 Vicon MX40 cameras. Actors on set wore seventy eight body markers. The cameras recorded real-time footage of the performances, shots which Zemeckis reviewed. The director then used a virtual camera to choose camera angles from the footage which was edited together. Two teams of animators worked on the film, with one group working on replicating the facial performances, the other working on body movement. The animators said they worked very closely on replicating the human characters, but the character of Grendel had to be almost reworked, because he is a monster, not human.
Over 450 graphic designers were chosen for the project, the largest team ever assembled for a Sony Pictures Imageworks-produced movie as of 2007. Designers at Imageworks generated new animation tools for facial, body and cloth design especially for the movie, and elements of keyframe animation were incorporated into the film in order to capture the facial expressions of the actors and actresses. The mead hall battle scene near the beginning of the film, among others, required numerous props that served as additional markers; these markers allowed for a more accurate manifestation of a battlefield setting as the battle progressed. However, the data being collected by the markers slowed down the studios' computer equipment and five months were spent developing a new save/load system that would increase the efficiency of the studios' resources. To aid in the process of rendering the massive quantities of information, the development team used cached data. In the cases that using cached data was not possible, the scenes were rendered using foreground occlusion, which involves the blurring of different overlays of a single scene in an attempt to generate a single scene film.
Other elements of the film were borrowed from that of others created by Imageworks: Spider-Man 3 lent the lighting techniques it used and the fluid engine present in the Sandman, while the waves of the ocean and the cave of Grendel's mother were modeled after the wave fluid engine used in Surf's Up. The 2007 film Ghost Rider lent Beowulf the fluid engine that was used to model the movements of protagonist Johnny Blaze. Jerome Chen worked to process large crowd scenes as early as possible, as additional time would be needed to process these scenes in particular. As a result, the film's development team designed a priority scale and incorporated it into their processors so graphic artists would be able to work with the scenes when they arrived.
So much data was produced in the course of the creation of the film, the studio was forced to upgrade all of its processors to multicore versions, which run quicker and more efficiently. The creation of additional rendering nodes throughout Culver City, California was necessitated by the movie's production. Mark Vulcano, who had previously worked on VeggieTales and Monster House, served as Senior Character Animator for the film.
In designing the dragon, production designer Doug Chiang wanted to create something unique in film. The designers looked at bats and flying squirrels for inspiration, and also designed its tail to allow underwater propulsion. As the beast is Beowulf's son with Grendel's mother, elements such as Winstone's eyes and cheekbone structure were incorporated into its look. The three primary monsters in the film share a golden color scheme, because they are all related. Grendel has patches of gold skin, but because of his torment, he has shed much of his scales and exposed his internal workings. He still had to resemble Crispin Glover though: the animators decided to adapt Glover's own parted hairstyle to Grendel, albeit with bald patches.
Zemeckis insisted that the character Beowulf resemble depictions of Jesus, believing that a correlation could be made between Christ's face and a universally accepted appeal. Zemeckis used Alan Ritchson for the physical model, facial image and movement for the title character of Beowulf. Avary had the idea to make Beowulf fight Grendel naked as a reference to Richard Corben's comic book Den, while also taking inspiration from legendary berserkers, who purportedly fought in battles while naked.
Music[edit | edit source]
The music for Beowulf was composed and conducted by Alan Silvestri. A soundtrack was released November 20, 2007. Silvestri was largely responsible for the production of the soundtrack album, although actresses Robin Wright and Idina Menzel performed several songs in the soundtrack's score.
Differences from the poem[edit | edit source]
One objective of Robert Zemeckis, Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary was to expand on the original poem as it has been recorded. Beowulf is generally considered to be a pagan tale written down by Christian monks, which for Zemeckis and Avary represented the possibility that the original story had been tampered with in order to better fit Christian sensibilities. They found this to be a reasonable explanation for critical elements to the story that are absent from the poem, like the identity of Grendel's father, why does he abstain from attacking Hrothgar, and the lack of proof that Grendel's mother had been slain.
In order to restore those points, they offered their own interpretation for motivations behind Grendel's behavior and for what happened in the cave of Grendel's mother, justifying it by arguing that Beowulf acts as an unreliable narrator in the portion of the poem in which he describes his battle with Grendel's mother. Avary described their goal as, "to remain truer to the letter of the epic but to read between the lines and find greater truths that had been explored before," while Gaiman commented, "the glory of Beowulf is that you are allowed to retell it" due to the presence of many other adaptations that offered their own take on it.
These choices also helped them to better connect the third act to the second of their screenplay, which is divided in the poem by a 50-year gap.
Some of the changes made by the film as noted by scholars include:
- The portrayal of Beowulf as a flawed man
- The portrayal of Hrothgar as a womanizing alcoholic
- The portrayal of Unferth as a Christian
- The portrayal of Grendel as a sickly-looking childlike creature (somewhat similar to Tolkien's Gollum character), rather than savage demon monster
- Beowulf's funeral
- The portrayal of Grendel's mother as a beautiful seductress, more of a succubus rather, who bears Grendel as Hrothgar's child and the dragon as Beowulf's child (this is also the case in the plot of the 1999 film Beowulf, with the exception that the dragon is entirely absent there)
- The fact that Beowulf becomes ruler of Denmark instead of his native Geatland
This is not the first time that the theme of a relationship between Beowulf and Grendel's mother was explored by Gaiman. In his 1998 collection of short stories, Smoke and Mirrors, the poem Bay Wolf is a retelling of Beowulf in a modern-day setting. In this story, Beowulf as the narrator is ambiguous about what happened between Grendel's mother and himself.
Themes[edit | edit source]
The film has been acknowledged to draw extensively from the philosophy of Freud, Kristeva, Lacan and Jung, as well as Žižek. In particular, the portrayal of Grendel and his kin appeals to multiple forms of sexual unease, among them the castration anxiety, the monstrous feminine and the challenging of traditional gender roles. According to Nickolas Haydock, the film reflects the "American obsession with sex as the root of all evils," to the extent to compare Beowulf's and Hrothgar's portrayals to Bill Clinton and the history of sexual misconduct that caused his political decline. Nadine Farghaly also argues the story makes the point that unbridled desire only causes ruin.
Grendel's mother is represented in the film as a castrating, monstrous female who threatens masculinity. While Beowulf embodies phallic power through his physical strength, recurrent nudity and usage of a sword, all those prove useless against her, as she symbolically emasculates him by subsuming his phallus into the feminine power. This is metaphorized by Beowulf being seduced in her womb-like cave, where his sword strike magically fails at harming her body. After copulating with Grendel's mother, both Hrothgar and Beowulf find themselves unable to maintain fulfilling sexual relationships with Wealthow or other women, becoming aged, bitter and even feminized in their impotency. In turn, Grendel's mother remains immortal and young, and through her offspring she proves capable to wield herself the robbed phallus. Grendel and the dragon act as extensions of her will, "mindless embodiments of feminine aggressiveness" who represent their fathers' emasculation and loss of patriarchal power.
Later Beowulf claims to have vanquished the mother, having supposedly rendered dead with his sword in her cave, but the falsity of this only translates as a wishful, pretended triumph of the male over the female. His defeat to her, as well as his bargain for prestige and glory, transmits that male power "not only comes from the feminine, but remains eternally subject to it." However, authors have noted that he ultimately breaks the Oedipian triangle caused by his destructive son, as he manages to kill the dragon and seemingly thwart the cycle at the cost of his life. This has been interpreted as a last exaltation of masculinity, electing to die in self-sacrifice rather than living in his impotent, feminized state. He refers to himself as already "dead long time ago" in a previous scene. The film still underline the irresistibility of female power, as even Wiglaf, who had been shown to be abstinent from lust in contrast to his partners, is hinted to be similarly seduced by Grendel's mother.
The film contrasts those points to the original poem, using the "postmodern techniques of metatextuality and deconstruction". Whereas in the poem the heroic values of ancient warrior culture is reaffirmed, in the film it is shown to be in decline, even explicitly failing along with Beowulf. In the film, the character laments the old, heroic pagan religion is being replaced by Christianity, "leaving humankind with nothing but weeping martyrs, fear, and shame." In the poem Beowulf slays Grendel's mother and defeats her challenge on gender roles, but her film version is victorious over him, also using seduction instead of strength, which updates the ways in which the story views female power. The gold covering her skin and the Faustian bargain she offers embody similar modern views on the relationship between wealth and sex, particularly societal compulsions to enjoy them at the fullest, "not prohibited but demanded, which becomes a postmodern variation of Freud's death wish".
However, the main difference from the poem is portraying Beowulf as a flawed hero destroyed by his own negative qualities, like lust for power and unchecked male desire, which raises questions about the morality underlying heroism. Despite the superficial characterization of the Water Demons as Others, the film blurs the line between heroes and monsters, as Grendel can talk, and the dragon's human form resembles Beowulf himself, representing his repressed wishes. In turn, Beowulf and Hrothgar are rendered impotent just like Grendel, who lacks genitalia altogether, and then Beowulf ends up losing an arm like Grendel does. At the end, although the men from the film pretend to be champions against demonkind, they are ultimately revealed to be only its very originators.
Release[edit | edit source]
At Comic-Con International in July 2006, Gaiman said Beowulf would be released on November 22, 2007. The following October, Beowulf was announced to be projected in 3D in over 1,000 theaters for its release date in November 2007. The studios planned to use 3D projection technology that had been used by Monster House (another motion-captured animated film that Zemeckis was involved on, but only as an executive producer), Chicken Little, and 3D re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but on a larger scale than previous films. Beowulf would additionally be released in 35mm alongside the 3D projections.
Originally, Columbia Pictures (which also distributed Monster House) was set to distribute the film, but Steve Bing did not finalize a deal and instead arranged with Paramount Pictures for North American distribution and Warner Bros. for international distribution. Beowulf was also set to premiere at the 2007 Venice Film Festival, but was not ready in time. Instead, the film's world premiere was held in Westwood, Los Angeles on November 5, 2007.
Critics and even some of the actors expressed shock at the British Board of Film Classification rating of the film — 12A — which allowed children under twelve in Britain to see the film if accompanied by their parents. Angelina Jolie called it "remarkable it has the rating it has", and said she wouldn't be taking her own children to see it. In the United States, the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film a PG-13 rating for "intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity".
Marketing[edit | edit source]
To promote the film, a novelization of the film, written by Caitlín R. Kiernan, was published in September 2007. This was followed by a four-issue comic book adaptation by IDW Publishing released every week in October 2007.
A video game based on the film entitled Beowulf: The Game was released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC and PSP formats. The game was announced by Ubisoft on May 22, 2007, during its Ubidays event in Paris. It was released on November 13, 2007, in the United States. The characters are voiced by the original actors who starred in the film. On November 1, 2007, Beowulf: The Game was released for mobile phones. The side-scrolling action video game was developed by Gameloft.
Several cast members, including director Robert Zemeckis, gave interviews for the film podcast Scene Unseen in August 2007. This is noteworthy especially because it marks the only interview given by Zemeckis for the film.
Home media[edit | edit source]
Beowulf was released for Region 1 on DVD February 26, 2008. A director's cut was also released as both a single-disc DVD and two-disc HD DVD alongside the theatrical cut. The theatrical cut includes A Hero's Journey: The Making of Beowulf while the single disc director's cut features four more short features. The HD DVD contains eleven short features and six deleted scenes.
The director's cut was released on Blu-ray Disc in the United Kingdom on March 17, 2008, and in the United States on July 29, 2008.
The Blu-ray edition includes a "picture-in-picture" option that allows one to view the film's actors performing their scenes on the soundstage, before animation was applied (a notable exception to this is Angelina Jolie, whose scenes are depicted using storyboards and rough animation rather than the unaltered footage from the set).
Reception[edit | edit source]
Box office[edit | edit source]
Beowulf ranked #1 in the United States and Canada box office during its opening weekend date of November 18, grossing $27.5 million in 3,153 theaters.
At the end of its theatrical run, the film had grossed an estimated domestic total of $82,280,579 and a foreign box office total of $114,113,166 for a worldwide gross of $196,393,745.
Critical response[edit | edit source]
The film was met with mainly positive reviews. On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, Beowulf received a rating of 71% based on 197 reviews, with an average rating of 6.55/10. The website's consensus reads, "Featuring groundbreaking animation, stunning visuals, and a talented cast, Beowulf has in spades what more faithful book adaptations forget to bring: pure cinematic entertainment." On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 59 out of 100, based on 35 reviews, indicating "mixed or average" reviews. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B-" on an A+ to F scale.
Giving Beowulf three out of four stars, Roger Ebert argues that the film is a satire of the original poem. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss describes the film as one with "power and depth" and suggests that the "effects scenes look realer [sic], more integrated into the visual fabric, because they meet the traced-over live-action elements halfway. It all suggests that this kind of a moviemaking is more than a stunt. By imagining the distant past so vividly, Zemeckis and his team prove that character capture has a future." Corliss later named it the 10th best film of 2007. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers argues that "The eighth-century Beowulf, goosed into twenty-first century life by a screenplay from sci-fi guru Neil Gaiman and Pulp Fiction's Roger Avary, will have you jumping out of your skin and begging for more... I've never seen a 3-D movie pop with this kind of clarity and oomph. It's outrageously entertaining."
Tom Ambrose of Empire gave the film four out of five stars. He argues that Beowulf is "the finest example to date of the capabilities of this new technique [...] Previously, 3D movies were blurry, migraine-inducing affairs. Beowulf is a huge step forward [...] Although his Cockney accent initially seems incongruous [...] Winstone's turn ultimately reveals a burgeoning humanity and poignant humility." Ambrose also argues that "the creepy dead eyes thing has been fixed." Justin Chang of Variety argues that the screenwriters "have taken some intriguing liberties with the heroic narrative [... the] result is, at least, a much livelier piece of storytelling than the charmless Polar Express." He also argues that "Zemeckis prioritizes spectacle over human engagement, in his reliance on a medium that allows for enormous range and fluidity in its visual effects yet reduces his characters to 3-D automatons. While the technology has improved since 2004's Polar Express (particularly in the characters' more lifelike eyes), the actors still don't seem entirely there."
Kenneth Turan of NPR criticized the film, arguing: "It's been 50 years since Hollywood first started flirting with 3-D movies, and the special glasses required for viewing have gotten a whole lot more substantial. The stories being filmed are just as flimsy. Of course Beowulf does have a more impressive literary pedigree than, say, Bwana Devil. But you'd never know that by looking at the movie. Beowulf's story of a hero who slays monsters has become a fanboy fantasy that panders with demonic energy to the young male demographic." Manohla Dargis of The New York Times compared the poem with the film stating that, "If you don't remember this evil babe from the poem, it's because she's almost entirely the invention of the screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman and the director Robert Zemeckis, who together have plumped her up in words, deeds and curves. These creative interventions aren't especially surprising given the source material and the nature of big-studio adaptations. There's plenty of action in Beowulf, but even its more vigorous bloodletting pales next to its rich language, exotic setting and mythic grandeur."
Academic response[edit | edit source]
Scholars and authors criticized the changes done upon the poem's story. Southern Methodist University's Director of Medieval Studies Bonnie Wheeler is "convinced that the new Robert Zemeckis movie treatment sacrifices the power of the original for a plot line that propels Beowulf into seduction by Angelina Jolie—the mother of the monster he has just slain. What man doesn't get involved with Angelina Jolie?' Wheeler asks. 'It's a great cop-out on a great poem.' ... 'For me, the sad thing is the movie returns to…a view of the horror of woman, the monstrous female who will kill off the male,' Wheeler says. 'It seems to me you could do so much better now. And the story of Beowulf is so much more powerful.'" Other commentators pointed to the theories elucidated in John Grigsby's work Beowulf and Grendel, where Grendel's mother was linked with the ancient Germanic fertility goddess Nerthus.
However, there were also positive academic reviews. Philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma argued that "Zemeckis's more tender-minded film version suggests that the people who cast out Grendel are the real monsters. The monster, according to this charity paradigm, is just misunderstood rather than evil (similar to the version presented in John Gardner's novel Grendel). The blame for Grendel's violence is shifted to the humans, who sinned against him earlier and brought the vengeance upon themselves. The only real monsters, in this tradition, are pride and prejudice. In the film, Grendel is even visually altered after his injury to look like an innocent, albeit scaly, little child. In the original Beowulf, the monsters are outcasts because they're bad (just as Cain, their progenitor, was outcast because he killed his brother), but in the film Beowulf the monsters are bad because they're outcasts [...] Contrary to the original Beowulf, the new film wants us to understand and humanize our monsters."