Protesting the emasculated Beowulf

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By: John Shi <jshi@hilite.org>

When I saw Zemeckis’s theatrical rendition of Beowulf last week in 3-D (the only way to appreciate it, in my opinion), I was disappointed to find that the glory, power and sheer testosterone-driven story was tempered by modern liberal influences that are clearly at odds with the masculine-dominated culture of middle-age England, the breeding ground of the original work.

Don’t get me wrong, much of the movie does great justice to the original poem. Fire-breathing monsters, remarkable feats of strength, beer and sexual innuendo constitute major elements of the plotline as they well should in accordance with the original piece. Beowulf himself (played by Ray Winstone) is a powerfully chiseled specimen of manliness, grunting his way into battle and showcasing his awesome strength by brutally destroying all that stand in his path in order to achieve gold, glory and women.
The values that the original poem represents are certainly contrary to post-Christian values of humbleness, charity and abstinence (virginity was also important during Beowulf’s culture–but only for women). And in that sense, the glorification of wealth, power, pride and self-righteousness is evident in the film; Beowulf is drowned in gold pieces after slaying Grendel, he becomes the king of the Danes and conquers the weak to advance his kingdom and estate.

Yet, the portrayal of these events is not quite parallel to what the original Beowulf poet would have intended in his work. The differences aren’t immediately obvious but are nonetheless important testaments to Hollwood’s and our society’s political and social views. For example, in the original work, Grendel is portrayed as the epitome of evil, contrasted against Beowulf, the embodiment of all that was celebrated as right and good.

But in a society and age in which masculinity is de-emphasized and revisionism looms large, the testosterone-charged story with a clear-cut good v. evil theme gets a subtle reworking by Hollywood. Gone is the clear dichotomy between darkness and good. Instead, we are encouraged to relate to the humanity of the monsters and conversely to sense the subtle monster in Beowulf.

There is a scene in which Grendel is crying to himself while being comforted by his mother after being given a vicious pounding by Beowulf; here, Grendel seems less like a monster and more like a big baby who has been unjustly injured by an unstoppable bully. And when Grendel’s mom cries out in despair and rage, the film asks us to understand her sadness and desire, to understand her quest to avenge her son’s untimely demise.

Our historic hero, Beowulf, also undergoes a character transformation more fitting of today’s liberal world-view. No longer the shining knight and crowning prince of goodness, we are encouraged to discover the darker side in the blameless man represented in the original work. He becomes seduced, is unfaithful, struggles with his morality and greed, and at one point even remarks that he is weak, something our historical Beowulf could never have said.

Our society might find this rendition of a more sensitive, less macho Beowulf to be apropos in light of our modern tendency to critique all history in an egalitarian light.

But I disagree. This liberalization of the original Beowulf story strikes me as unfortunate bias and a disservice to the image of the hero as the author originally intended. And even if we don’t celebrate the same values that Beowulf’s society did, I take issue with the revisionist interpretation of the original work. In the original poem, Beowulf slays Grendel’s mom in a powerful triumph of good over evil. But in the movie, Beowulf instead falls into adultery (even stranger, Grendel’s mom turns out to be highly endowed and attractive).

This discrepency sets the stage for an entire film that departs perhaps too much from the original work–a case of Hollywoodization gone awry. I can understand adapting a literary work to appeal more to modern audiences, but this isn’t about adding extra romance, action, or humor; what Zemekis has done is to fundamentally restructure the message of Beowulf in an effort to pander to today’s liberal mindset. That I take issue with. John Shi is a managing editor for the HiLite. Contact him at jshi@hilite.org.

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