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Myths and legends belong to society – but individual filmmakers can retell them in their own unique way and claim creative ownership of a specific version of a myth. Does this apply to the English language’s first epic poem, Beowulf?
Can a myth be owned? It is a question well worth asking of 2007’s Beowulf. If you put the query to Paramount Pictures or Shangri-La Entertainment, they would probably give a straight-forward response: “We own it.” Their answer is true as far as copyright and litigation goes – but the original composer of the Old English poem might disagree. We will never know who he was, but the story he told of a Scandinavian superhero who battled monsters at a time when Christianity was reaching northern Europe has penetrated pop-culture’s subconscious for generations.
Yet there is a peculiar side to the Beowulf question. Where other legendary heroes like Robin Hood or King Arthur have no definitive ‘bible’ text to which we must hold any retelling, they nonetheless possess a check-list of elements we expect to see in any adaptation, be it Maid Marion or the Sword in the Stone. This permits filmmakers the opportunity to tell their own distinct stories featuring Robin Hood or King Arthur, as long as they adhere enough to the formula to justify their place in the pantheon of adventures featuring Arthur or Robin Hood; this is precisely how John Boorman’s Excalibur and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood manage to be faithful versions of familiar stories but in an entirely unique way that is associated very much with their personal visions. Beowulf, on the other hand, does have a text to which adaptations must always hold a candle – namely, the unique copy in a 10th century manuscript now housed in the British Library. Yet this copy was written by two anonymous scribes, who almost certainly were not the original poets. With no known author and no known traditions about Beowulf outside this one copy, is it possible at all for a poet or filmmaker to own the story of Beowulf?
It’s a problem that Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture epic struggles to solve. While Zemeckis injects many of his typical visual flourishes – like long, complex camera moves and a fascination with reflections – it never really feels like we are watching “Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf”. I attribute this largely to the film’s fidelity to the Old English poem: it hits all the same beats of the story structured around three monsters, and the hero’s preoccupation with glory over righteousness. Zemeckis does not really lend his own voice to the substance of the story: he just gives it a nice lick of paint.
Yet somehow it also never feels like we are watching “Beowulf: The Movie”. This is largely because of the work of screenwriters Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Their worthy efforts to ‘fix’ the episodic nature of the poem involve giving a motivation to the dragon’s desolation and transforming Grendel’s Mother from the poem’s terrifying beast into a complex, conniving villain. They also embrace cinema’s post-9/11 obsession with ‘grey’ morality, as well as complicating characters’ motivations and actively undermining the pro-Christianity message of the poem. Their adaptation therefore becomes a dark, revisionist medieval tale that sits comfortably amongst early-21st century blockbusters. Perhaps too comfortably, because its rather trendy revisionism threatens to be bland.
The writers also choose to exaggerate the poem’s surprising (for its age) respect for women: the film’s female characters are the only ones with real honour and dignity, and are ultimately the ones who control Beowulf’s society. This approach ignores the poem’s important theme of ‘good leadership versus bad leadership’ that binds its various episodes together. By painting all men as “fallible and flawed”, Gaiman and Avary simplify the poem’s message and effectively introduce their own interpretation of Beowulf’s murky mythical world. This disregard for the poem’s main themes and introduction of their own is the closest the film comes to having its own identity separate from the Beowulf legend: if Robert Zemeckis fails to own Beowulf, then perhaps Gaiman and Avary succeed.
Indeed, in promotional interviews Gaiman and Avary explained their changes to Beowulf as being part of a very old tradition of medieval poets changing popular stories as they retold them to a new generation. As such, it is unsurprising that the original Beowulf poet is anonymous; and it suggests that Beowulf can never be truly be owned by an individual because it has always belonged to the culture that developed each retelling. So while 10th century Anglo-Saxons were keen to hear the tale of a heroic warrior doing God’s work by slaying monsters, a 21st century audience is keener to watch an atheistic fantasy where the flawed hero’s sins are re-inflicted upon him in ironic fashion – the monster slayer’s personal demons become literal monstrous demons.
Taken on its own terms, Beowulf is a clever adaptation: visually spectacular, slyly subversive and appropriately modern. Yet it is still far from the definitive cinematic telling of the Beowulf poem – if such a thing is ever possible. Perhaps ultimately no individual storyteller can ‘own’ the legend of Beowulf, because his story is too enshrined to allow filmmakers to get away with substantially changing it, yet simultaneously too malleable for any one person to stake a claim. Ultimately, like all myths and legends, it belongs to the society that propagates it.