BEOWULF & GRENDEL
For all its stature as probably the first work of what we know as heroic adventure fiction, Beowulf has had an erratic history on film. In fact, up until the millennium there had been no actual screen adaptations of the legend itself but peculiarly several deconstructions of Beowulf the Australian animated film Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981), based on John Gardners novel, which retells the story from the point-of-view of Grendel; the Troma film Beware: Children at Play (1989) where the leader of a group of killer children believes himself to reincarnation of Grendel and the epic plays out in modern day; the Star Trek: Voyager episode Heroes and Demons (1995), which turns the story into a holodeck simulation; Beowulf (1999), which was a retelling of only the first third of the poem that relocated it to a world that was a peculiar mix of Mediaeval and post-holocaust; and The 13th Warrior (1999), based on Michael Crichtons novel Eaters of the Dead (1976), which explains the story away as an encounter between Viking warriors and surviving Neanderthals. The 00s however saw a sudden crop of Beowulf adaptations with this version being first up, followed by Grendel (2006), an adaptation for The Sci-Fi Channel; the low-budget American-shot Beowulf: Prince of the Geats (2007); Robert Zemeckiss high-profile performance capture animated Beowulf (2007); Outlander (2008), which told the story in science-fiction terms with Grendel as an alien monster; and the British tv mini-series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (2016). Almost certainly, this sudden cinematic interest in Beowulf came about as a result of the renewed popularity of epic fantasy on screen after the success of Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Beowulf & Grendel comes from Sturla Gunnarsson, an Icelandic-born director who has been resident in Canada since the age of seven. In Canada, Gunnarsson has mostly worked in tv and directed a handful of features with Gerrie & Louise (1997), Such a Long Journey (1998), Rare Birds (2001) and Air India 182 (2009), none of which seem very well known outside of Canada. Gunnarssons screenwriter is Canadian tv writer Andrew Rai Berzins whose one previous genre entry was the oddball vampire film Blood & Donuts (1995) and subsequently wrote the future-set tv movie Borealis (2013).
Sturla Gunnarsson reportedly conceived Beowulf & Grendel as a work that would make full use of his Icelandic homeland (even though Iceland is technically some 1300 miles away from where the story of Beowulf is located). One can see that Gunnarsson is clearly attempting to do with Iceland the same that Peter Jackson did with New Zealand in The Lord of the Rings that is to say use a country that is renowned for its raw, natural scenery to represent a primordial land of myth and legend. (Although, if anything, Icelands landscapes look far more raw and primal than New Zealand did in The Lord of the Rings). On the minus side, Gunnarsson clearly does not have the stratospheric budget available that Peter Jackson did (or for that matter Robert Zemeckis in his high-profile adaptation that came out not longer after Beowulf & Grendel). The sets built are minor ones Heorot is not the mighty meadhall that one imagines from the legend; the battle scenes never extend beyond a couple of combatants swinging swords in practice combat; and there are no CGI effects at all.
Far more so than The Lord of the Rings, what one suspects inspired Sturla Gunnarsson and Andrew Rai Berzins was not the idea of creating another fantasy film but making an historical epic. Beowulf & Grendel has far more in common with the recent fad for historical films such as Gladiator (2000) and in particular Braveheart (1995) than it does a fantasy film. As with other recent historical epics like King Arthur (2004), Troy (2004), Tristan + Isolde (2006) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), Beowulf & Grendel is notably an adaptation of a classic work of legend that has stripped all the mythical/fantastical elements out and retold the work as a realist historical story. In the original Beowulf, there is considerably more in the way of fantasy elements than there is here Grendel has a magic invulnerability that protects him from damage; Beowulf is given Hrunting, a magical sword, to combat Grendels mother. More noticeably, while Beowulf & Grendel is generally faithful to the original text, it has dumped one third of the entire original story the part that deals with Beowulf returning home to become king and then fighting a dragon that is terrorizing the kingdom, losing his life in the process. There is not much left in the film that could be construed as fantasy any more Sarah Polleys witch who appears able to see the future and Grendels mother, a Valkyrie-like sea hag, who appears from beneath the water to drag men to their doom, both of which are ambiguously fantastic.
In his telling, Andrew Rai Berzins takes a much more sympathetic view of Grendel. In the original, Grendel is considered a creature of evil and is said to be descended directly from the Biblical Cain the unknown author takes an unambiguous black-and-white view in regarding Grendel as evil. However, Berzins approaches from a position of moral relativism and makes Grendel far more of a human character he is not a monster, simply someone (who seems more a human giant than a monster) that is exacting vengeance against the Danes because of Hrothgars murder of his father (an aspect that does not exist in the poem). Indeed, Andrew Rai Berzins deconstruction of Grendel is such that in the film the story of Beowulf is no longer so much one about a hero confronting a monster than about a hero exposing an injustice a kings casual cruelty and the vengeful wounded hurt of a social outcast. This element concerning social outcasts runs throughout the film and is reinforced elsewhere in the characters of Sarah Polleys witch and of the intellectually handicapped man that Beowulf saves from being stoned by children.
One of the great academic debates about Beowulf has always been whether it was conceived as a Christian or a pagan work. Although Biblical references exist in the work, the poem seems to be neutral about such matters and most scholars seem to agree that it was probably originally a pagan legend that was subject to rewriting by a Christian author. Andrew Rai Berzins manages to not only reinterpret Beowulf but to dig beneath it into the bedrock of a great many academic issues that exist about its authorship and to cleverly make these into the historico-cultural locus of the film. Like fantasy films of the 1980s such as Dragonslayer (1981) and Excalibur (1981), Berzins sets Beowulf & Grendel on the cusp between the end of paganism and the emerging new ideology of Christianity. Certainly, this is not an element that is present in the poem there is no character of Father Brendan or equivalent thereof in the original, for instance; neither does the character of the pagan witch Selma (played by Sarah Polley) exist in the original legend; and neither do King Hrothgar and the Danes convert to Christendom.
At the time he appeared as Beowulf here, Gerard Butler was just emerging as a name actor. Here he has a role that allows him to rise to heroic strength and does well with the part. Both Stellan Skarsgård and Sarah Polley give solid and reliable performances in their roles.
Sturla Gunnarsson next went onto direct the science-fiction film Ice Soldiers (2013) about Soviet super-soldiers.