Beowulf

Completeness is a lost cause.  Wikipedia lists about as many Beowulf adaptations as it does for Wuthering Heights, and its list includes almost nothing prior to 1950.  In contrast to the Victorian novels we’ve looked at, Beowulf seems to lend itself especially well to non-“faithful” adaptations—perhaps in part because the plot is quite simple and the characters have little interiority.

 

Here is Wikipedia’s list:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_artistic_depictions_of_Beowulf

 

Here is a long list of “Beowulfiana” compiled by John William Sutton, which has some items missing from the Wikipedia list (including a bunch of toys and knick-knacks):

http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/BeowulfBooklet.htm

 

There are numerous modern “retellings” of Beowulf, a sort of book that sits somewhere between adaptation and translation.  There have also been a number of novels that, like Gardner’s Grendel, attempt to give a new spin to the Beowulf story.  Sutton’s list has pithy descriptions of all the books he’s found, so I won’t create a new list here; however, I will note a few books that are related to adaptations in other media.

 

• Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead: The Manuscript of Ibn Fadlan, Relating His Experiences with the Northmen in A.D. 922 is partially based on Beowulf, with a 10th-century setting inspired by the accounts of the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan.  It was adapted into the film The 13th Warrior (see below).

 

• There is a novelization of the 2007 Zimeckis film, written by Caitlin R. Kiernan, as well as a comic book adaptation by Chris Ryall.

 

• Another complex case is Beowulf, an adaptation by Julian Glover of the Verse Translations of Michael Alexander and Edwin Morgan.  It contains the text used in a one-man show by Julian Glover, along with illustrations and a scholarly introduction.

 

Here is a list of film adaptations:

 

Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981) is an animated adaptation of John Gardner’s novel, starring Peter Ustinov (who we remember from last week) as the monster.  It is available here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBV6Yal_rOc&list=PLBBD04D0E7647A256

 

Beware: Children at Play (1989) is a low-budget horror movie about a group of cannibalistic children led by a boy who believes himself to be Grendel.  It looks pretty terrible, but if you want to watch, it is on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qkaI96Affc

 

• In 1998, BBC aired a short, animated film called Animated Epics: Beowulf.  It is available here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA

 

• John McTiernan’s 1999 film The 13th Warrior, which is an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, is on YouTube in full:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HftyKUbe00o&list=PLC30C1A9C502E2FC1

 

• Graham Baker’s 1999 film Beowulf is a sci-fi adaptation set in the future.  It can be found streaming on Netflix.  The (unmistakably of-its-time) trailer is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzLExiOSXcc

 

• The 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel can be found in full here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQTGQp9B_CE

 

Grendel is a 2007 TV movie released by the Sci-Fi channel.  It seems to be available on DVD in Germany, but not in Region 1.  Here is a clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L9ZFweQpmw8

 

• The 2007 film by Zemeckis can be found streaming on Netflix.

 

Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2008) is a low-budget Norwegian film.  It had a limited DVD release, but it would probably be necessary to get it through ILL.  Here is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPLcc5L2NaM

 

• The 2008 film Outlander is supposedly a sci-fi adaptation of Beowulf.  It is available at NYPL.

 

Some other interesting things:

 

• I found this paper arguing that Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a “retelling” of Beowulf:

http://faculty.uca.edu/jona/second/hobbeow.htm

 

• The Star Trek: Voyager episode “Heroes and Demons” (1995) features a holodeck program of Beowulf.  You can watch it with ads on Hulu here:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/441769

 

• Beowulf appeared as a character in several episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess.  There is a bit of info about this here:

http://hercxena.wikia.com/wiki/Beowulf

 

Beowulf Cartoon is a rebus-like book by Michael J. Weller, with a translation of the poem written in expressive bubble letters.  It does not seem to be easily attainable in the US, but there is a photo of it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beowulf_Cartoon_bookwork.jpg

 

Biowulf (2006) is a cyberpunk manga adaptation by David Hutchinson.  Nassau county library has at least the first volume.

 

• The Web comic Bob the Angry Flower did a multi-part adaptation/parody of Beowulf:

http://angryflower.com/rothga.html

 

• The Animaniacs comic book #49 includes adaptations of a number of “classics”, including Beowulf.  It may be possible to get this by ILL.  There is some info here:

http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Animaniacs_Vol_1_49

 

• The Creatures series of computer games has a species called the “Grendels”.  See:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creatures_(artificial_life_program)

7 thoughts on “Beowulf

  1. The Baker Beowulf trailer is fantastic, I’m definitely going to be checking out the full-film on netflix. Casting the Highlander as a kind of Roy Batty-esque Beowulf-from-the-Future makes sense to me, but the gratuitous back-flips do not.

  2. I love the sound of Peter Ustinov singing as Grendel (Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981) ) and the visual style of the monster as somewhere between the Blue Meanies of Yellow Submarine and South Park. Who knew? And that reminds us that sooner or later we’ll have to confront the question of Why? Who needs those dozens of adaptations of “Beowulf” and what does it say about our culture that we seem to inhabit a place of simulacra and versioning?

    Other comments on Jeff’s list? It’s a very rich trove.

  3. Thank you for the postings, Jeff! I watched the 1998 BBC animation, Animated Epics: Beowulf, which was interesting- it was definitely closer to the original text than the 2007 movie. The portrayal of Grendel and his mother in this animation was that of a green-black amorphous monster, with no semblance of a face. This made the monster more removed from emotion, like the original monster in the text. In the 2007 Beowulf film, I felt sympathy for Grendel- he really seemed like a disfigured and misunderstood character who was plagued by the sensitivity in his left eardrum. It wasn’t his fault that he ended up being born like that. Did anyone else feel bad for him, or was that just me? I also wanted to point out that it was actually not a bad idea to have Grendel change sizes, since in the text he seems to change size as well.

    In Beowulf and Grendel, of course, Grendel is a man, which makes this version more “realistic” than the others. In the strange 2007 Beowulf, scenes of partying in Herot included women- partying with the men, drinking, and showing off their lady parts in their low cut dresses. This, along with the entire storyline of Beowulf sleeping with Grendel’s mother (and that strange mermaid lady) shows how this version emphasizes sex (as Hollywood does). There were clearly no women in the text except for the Queen. Considering both Beowulf’s and Hrothgar’s relationship with Grendel’s mother, I’m wondering if there is a “moral” to take away from this adaptation. Was it that Beowulf and Hrothgar had no choice? Should they have died instead of breeding with Grendel’s mother? Also, this version shows Beowulf lying about killing all the sea-monsters, since he was really feeling the sexy yet scaly backside of a mermaid, and he also lies about Angelina Jolie. Does this diminish his status as hero? Also why was everyone half-computer animated?

    I will blog about other adaptations later on- I am really excited to watch the Star Trek Voyager episode Heroes and Demons, which I will definitely do before class tomorrow. Also I think it would be interesting to find the article that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about Beowulf that apparently introduced Beowulf into what we now think of as the literary canon. I will try and find a copy and also read the article comparing Beowulf to the Hobbit.

  4. Jeff is spot on when he assigns the 1999 Baker adaptation as unmistakably belonging to its time – the film is that strange blend of steampunk, medieval-ish, and scifi action that many films from the late 90’s and early 2000’s displayed (here I’m thinking of this “Beowulf” in relation to “Van Helsing”, “Bloodrayne”, or “Pitch Black”) In the Baker, Beowulf is recast as an anti-hero; a demon hunter who is half-devil himself, being possibly descended from Baal, even though this would seem to confuse mythologies…

    Anyway, this adaptation takes a similar approach to the later Zemeckis film in that it posits Grendel as the bastard son of Hrothgar, establishing a direct line of relation and guilt, and exposing Hrothgar as a poor leader due to his succumbing to temptation. Having seen the 2007 “Beowulf” before, I thought it was interesting that this earlier film, although very different, likewise ascribes Hrothgar’s failure as a king to his unfaithfulness and sexual deviancy. Possibly the most perplexing part of the Baker, besides the practicality of fighting in the water clad in tight leather pants, is Grendel and his mother’s physical status in this post-industrial world. Unlike the later Zemeckis and Gunnarsson films, who figure the Grendels as devilish Cain offspring or neanderthalic “trolls”, with an earlier claim to the land Herot sits on, Baker’s Grendels seem almost metaphysical, existing in both nightmare and reality, capable of traveling through dreams and invisibly through real space.

    Depicting Grendel is always a challenge for film-makers, as the epic poem seems to purposely avoid a clear description of the loping monster, who can snatch 30 men up a time and yet also grapple with Beowulf one-on-one. Likewise, Grendel’s Mother is never described in full, but it seems both the Baker and the Zemeckis capitalize on the sexual undertones of Grendel’s Mother’s battle with Beowulf, bringing GM’s sexual threat – as – monstrosity to the forefront of their visual mediums. Casting, here, becomes significant, as Grendel’s Mother is portrayed by a Playboy bunny in the Baker and Angelina Jolie in the Zemeckis, but these appealing female bodies are actually masks for a “true” monstrous form, revealed in full in the Baker, but only seen through reflections and from the corner of the screen in Zemeckis. In the source text, Grendel’s Mother’s monstrousness need not necessarily be based on physical appearance or some inherent flaw, it lies in her subversion of the Anglo-Saxon warrior code and her ability to emasculate the ultra-male Danes and Geats with her superior strength. In contrast, these two modern GMs are sexual threats in a more literal sense, as seductresses and as misleading beauties that can subvert maleness not through greater strength but through “feminine wiles” (note Jolie’s dragon-like true form, and serpentine braid, locating her somewhere in relation to the Serpent or a sexy Mephistopheles). These portrayals would seem in keeping with a more contemporary sense of the femme fatale or the temptress witch, and less with a warrior woman, or avenging mother character type.

  5. I really enjoyed the Bob the Angry flower version. He’s not someone I would’ve cast in an adaptation, but I liked the added element of mediation and calming that he brings to some of his scenes with Grendel. The framing device is a nice one, too, especially at the end – it twists the oral history tradition of the original Beowulf (or any faithful adaptation of Beowulf) on its head.

    I’m not sure we can get (many) comic books through ILL (or many comic books). I did find the Animaniacs here:

    Here’s the description of the Beowulf adaptation (called, naturally, “Brainwulf.”) (It’s located here: http://www.toonzone.net/comics/series/animaniacs/animish49.php#.UknIhcu9KSM)

    “Brainwulf and his assistant Pinknarf head off to defeat the beast Grendel, on the condition that King Hrothgar surrender the throne. They arrive at the palace, and after Brainwulf’s intricate trap fails, Grendel simply stubs his toe and runs off. Hrothgar gives Brainwulf the crown and leaves. Brainwulf notes that that seemed to easy, and he’s right—Grendel returns with his mother!”

    The site’s curator adds the following:

    “PINKNARF: Just one question about all this, Brainwulf…if Matt LeBlanc is Lost in Space, how does he show up on “Friends” every week.

    [Later, after Grendel steps on them.]

    BRAINWULF: He’s an actor, by the way. Matt LeBlanc was never in outer space. It was just a movie.

    Quote of the Story:
    BRAINWULF: [In response to Pinknarf’s moronic Matt LeBlanc question.]: There’re pixies and unicorns and free healthcare in your little world, aren’t there, Pinky?”

    Note: Austen fans might be interested in “Pride and Pigeon-ness” aka “Coo-less,” contained in the same volume.

    Several years ago, in a conference paper, I tried to take on David’s question above – of what it says about our culture that we seem to inhabit a place of simulacra and versioning. Under the lofty title “The Doppelgänger Artist: Reuse and/or Originality in Postmodernity and Popular Music,” I used Simon Reynold’s recent book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, as a way in to comparing different entertaimeant doppelgängers, as I called them, chiefly the (mostly unknown) blues guitarist Rocco DeLuca and his shifting resemblance to — and also tangible moves away from — Jeff Buckley. DeLuca, a current artist in the LA area, sounds so much like Buckley it’s disquieting. For me, what pulled him back around to his own identity was his otherworldly skill witht the guitar (I then started thinking about Robert Johnson). This isn’t an adaptation per se, of course, but I think it’s an interesting twist on some if the ideas we’ve been discussing this semester.

  6. Like Alexandra, I watched the BBC’s Animated Classic version, which is a fairly faithful retelling of the text (in earnest, Medieval-ish illustrations) in the general tradition of Exposing Children To Classics. Trimmed down to just under half an hour, there’s a lot missing (early Christianity, women in general, swimming contests, Frisians, etc.), but the basic three-monster structure is all there. In that way, it’s far closer to the original than either the Zimeckis film or the Gunnarsson. As an abridged-version-for-children, the Animated Classic seems to dodge having to deal with what seems to be one of the primary challenges for Beowulf adapters — how to make the three parts into a cohesive, narratively satisfying arc. Gunnarsson chops off the final aged/dragon episode all together and Zimeckis invents an elaborate, sexy story in which Grendel’s mother is the unifying link.

    But for its faithfulness, the BBC version is boring. Obviously, that’s not entirely fair — their project (to expose The Children to The Classics) isn’t designed for an audience who have already read/been assigned/vaguely remember once reading Beowulf. It’s intended, I think, as a first encounter. It does what it seems to set out to do. But the fact that it isn’t particularly interesting as a second/third/nth encounter raises some questions for me about faithfulness and adaptation. Specifically — do I want my adaptations “faithful”? And, to be overly blunt, what is the point of a faithful adaptation? (There is one, I’m just having trouble locating it.)

    Part of the pleasure of experiencing adaptations seems to come from watching what the adaptor will do with the original — I want to see sociopathic Claggarts and repressed Claggarts. I want to see Beowulf retold to hinge on Grendel’s seductress mother; I want Selma (I think?). Of course, any translation from one medium to another is making adaptive choices, and I’m certainly not demanding post-apocalyptic Great Expectations for everyone — everything, from cutting to casting, is a choice, etc. But I was startled to find myself so dissatisfied with the literalness here, and so started thinking about the appeal of (relatively) exact adaptations. If there aren’t going to be new moves re: plot/character/setting/focus, is the joy of going from book to film just the pleasure of recognition?

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