Beowulf, as we are all taught in school, is the earliest known story written in English. It’s Old English and you’ll never understand it, but it’s English. I’m afraid that my only contact with the story is a translation in my literature textbook in seventh grade. Obviously, I don’t remember much about it, but if I recall it only dealt with the first part of the story–the battle with Grendel. That’s the best part with all the silent murders in the hall after the hearth fires have gone out. They wake up and see bodies hanging from the rafters.

Oddly enough, Robert Zemeckis downplays that aspect in his film adaptation. Here, Grendel blasts open the hall door and starts ripping people apart. It’s graphic and kinetic but not something that will send eerie chills rippling up and down your spine.

Which I think is emblematic of Beowulf’s problem. It uses the same motion capture process used in Zemeckis’s earlier The Polar Express, and while Beowulf certainly looks more realistic than that, it still looks stiff and sterile. I’m not even going to comment on the performances in this film because you don’t see many facial expressions. The frustrating thing is that motion  capture can work. Just look at Lord of the Rings or King Kong. The process used in Beowulf and Polar Express should be discarded as a dead end. My guess is that Zemeckis was so preoccupied with trying to get his process to work that he neglected other elements of the film.

The screenplay is by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, two of the best screenwriters working today. They alter the original tale–I won’t tell you how–trying to make a point about the unreliability of of storytelling and mythmaking. But the change they made is just as fanciful as the original tale which undermines their point. What’s more, the dialog is uninspired and the attempts at psychological depth are unconvincing.

If there’s anybody out there who’s waiting for a good movie version of Beowulf, you’ll have to keep waiting.


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November 2007
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