The 2007 film Beowulf varies from the original Old English poem in that it drastically changes the perception of the central character from epic hero to fallible fraud. What does this transition say about our modern society?
In the poem, the titular Beowulf comes to the aid of the Danes by slaying two particularly troublesome fiends who threaten the drinking and merriment of Hrothgar and his people. What makes Beowulf so remarkable is that he is driven solely by the glorification of his name, and introduces himself to the Danes first by recanting the astounding annihilation of several sea beasts, and then by promising to defeat the invulnerable Grendel. Not only does he slay the seemingly untouchable demon but he does so completely nude, remarking that his armor and weapons would give him an unfair advantage over the fiend. Beowulf then redoubles his glory by defeating Grendel’s mother, and returns home to become king of the Geats. In his old age, his kingdom is threatened by a rampaging dragon, and though he defeats the creature he is mortally wounded in the process, and dies a hero three times over. The poem paints a very vivid, convincing picture of the infallible hero—he is strong, brave, and unyielding to his baser desires (there is no mention of a female counterpart for Beowulf).
And while the film does include most of the pivotal battle scenes of the poem in dazzling computer-generated animation, it tears down the epic hero and his deeds. The Beowulf of writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s creation is lustful (he sleeps with one of the sea beasts, as well as with Grendel’s mother), deceitful (he makes a pact with Grendel’s mother to gain the Danish throne and Hrothgar’s attractive bride), and ultimately weak (he gives in to his baser desires rather than killing the creatures he sets out to slay). Strength to kill Grendel and a dragon? Yes. Strength to refuse sex with strange, albeit alluring, female beasts? No.
In the film, Beowulf defeats Grendel, as in the poem, but there the story changes. The film reveals that Grendel is the offspring of Grendel’s mother and Hrothgar, who (surprise, surprise) gains his throne by sleeping with the demon. Beowulf then sets out to defeat Grendel’s mother, and—oh no! unsurpassable sexy woman!—sleeps with her just as Hrothgar did, giving her a child which eventually becomes the dragon that Beowulf must later destroy. Not only this, but sex with Grendel’s mother appears to leave men impotent, and so the only offspring that Hrothgar and Beowulf have are the demonic children that they are forced to face in battle.
The film closes with Wiglaf, long-time comrade of Beowulf, taking his fallen friend’s position as king (as if that follows any reasonable line of succession), as he faces Grendel’s mother. There is the suggestion that Wiglaf might fall prey to the same circle of sex, deceit, and death that destroyed Hrothgar and Beowulf. The poem seems to suggest that mankind is strong and has the potential to create great champions. It presents readers with a hero to admire, a man who rises for glory and honor to protect the interests of the people. Meanwhile, the film depicts an inevitable sequence of lies that is covered with a veil of epic poetry.
In reviewing any adaptation that brings the ancient into the modern day, one must consider the implications on the current society. What does it say about us that our “hero” Beowulf is so unworthy of the songs sung about him? What does it say about us that studio executives think that, rather than enjoying a direct retelling of the poem, we would much rather watch as our champions are torn from their pedestals and revealed as frauds? The film implies that the inspiring tale that passed for entertainment in the Middle Ages must necessarily be replaced with weak, fallible men who lie and gloss over their failures with impressive stories that hide their secret shame. The archetype is no longer enough for the modern viewer, who has such easy access to stories of all shapes and sizes, and in every conceivable venue of entertainment, but is it truly the archetype that no longer piques our interest, or is it that we no longer have time for the perfect, infallible hero. He is too banal for our fast-paced Hollywood. Like Beowulf, that perfect, infallible hero is dead.