Retrospective

15 years ago, Neil Gaiman wrote the most preposterous monster movie ever

What good is a 1,300-year-old story if you can’t add gratuitous nudity?

The motion-captured adaptation of an Anglo-Saxon epic poem by the man behind cuddly caper The Polar Express? On paper, 2007’s Beowulf didn’t seem like the type of film to spark a multiplex stampede of hormonal teenage boys. Yet while the original text’s 3,182 alliterative lines were unlikely to have been appreciated by such a demographic in an English Lit class, they were made far more palatable while interpreted alongside the sight of a near-naked Angelina Jolie.

Yes, despite its PG-13 certification, Robert Zemeckis’ retelling of the oft-translated tale – generally presumed to have been composed around 700 AD – still met the main requirement of most male adolescent entertainment. Even Jolie herself, whose most titillating scene sees her rising from a lake with only some dripping gold liquid protecting her modesty, was surprised at how much the shoot left her feeling exposed.

The Oscar winner’s Daniel Craig moment wasn’t the only time Beowulf sexed up its Old English source material. Writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary enhanced the seductive powers of Jolie’s water demon, not only allowing her to survive the battle with the title warrior (Ray Winstone) but also tempting him into an affair that results in a dragon offspring. Fans of Gaiman may recall how his 1998 short story collection Smoke and Mirrors explored the sexual possibilities between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

The academic response to all this meddling was divisive, with some scholars arguing Beowulf had leaned too far into the trope of the “monstrous feminine” and others applauding how Grendel’s mother now reflected the poem’s overall seductive pull. Despite making Beowulf infertile, killing most of his army, and birthing a fire-breathing reptilian that leads to his death, the closing scene suggests she can still tempt lieutenant Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) into a similar pact.

Angelina Jolie, wearing about as much as she will for the entirety of the film. Paramount Pictures

Grendel’s mother isn’t the only character who spends the film in a permanent state of undress, as Beowulf is nothing if not an equal opportunity objectifier. Blessed with the chiseled features of a Norse god and the kind of six-pack that would get Mark Wahlberg racing back to the gym, Mr. Wulf strips off at every opportunity (watch out for the unintentionally amusing Austin Powers-esque ways the film has to obscure his genitals).

Just like Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s sexual prowess is also amplified. As the action moves half a century on, we learn the protagonist has married widower Queen Wealhtheow (Robin Wright Penn), and also has a much younger mistress named Ursula (Alison Lohman) who offers him sex on a plate. Elsewhere, there are scenes of cleavage-licking, crude drinking songs, and talk of loud orgasms, while King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) spends most of his time pestering his poor wife to fulfill her marital duty and give him an heir.

As if those not old enough to buy a jug of mead hadn’t been catered to enough already, Zemeckis also ups the ante when it comes to blood and gore. Barely a scene goes by without some form of limb-ripping, bone-crunching carnage, and there are multiple burnings, decapitations, and hangings for good measure. It’s little surprise Jolie admitted during the promotional tour she wouldn’t be giving her own kids a home viewing any time soon.

Beowulf, who is too cool for armor.Paramount Pictures

The kind of monster you’d expect from an R-rated creature feature, Grendel (Crispin Glover) is a truly hideous creation, from the gelatinous substance that covers its enormous frame to its disfigured jaw, exposed eardrum, and twisted tendons, not to mention its piercing shrieks and penchant for eating its victims. In a film that displays the capabilities of motion-capture animation far more effectively than Zemeckis’ previous effort, Grendel is its visual crowning glory.

Did all the sex and violence have the desired effect? Well, Beowulf did knock a slightly less savage animation, Bee Movie, off the box office top spot on its opening weekend. Despite a respectable worldwide gross of $196.4 million, the picture was still hailed as a commercial disaster: Bankroller Steve Bing reportedly lost $50 million.

Crispin Glover’s Grendel testing the PG-13 limits. Paramount Pictures

That didn’t deter Zemeckis from persisting with Beowulf’s style of filmmaking, though. Just two years later, he added to the never-ending list of Charles Dickens adaptations by giving Jim Carrey’s Ebenezer Scrooge the motion-capture treatment. As a story that needed actual humans to express actual human feelings, A Christmas Carol had purists shouting, “Bah humbug.” But while Beowulf’s game cast – which also includes John Malkovich as the ill-fated servant Unferth – fully commits to bringing the 6th-century characters to life, the movie is always far more about the schoolboy-focused spectacle.

On that front, Zemeckis more than delivers. The poem had been given the cinematic treatment before: See everything from 1999’s Beowulf, a corny sci-fi which bizarrely transported the action to a Mad Max-inspired post-apocalyptic landscape, to 2001’s No Other Thing, the Hal Hartley indie which reinvented the tale as a contemporary Beauty and the Beast. This far more successful version, however, realizes that sometimes all you need is gigantic bloodthirsty trolls, insanely ripped dragon-slayers, and more heaving bosoms than you could shake an engraved pagan sword at.

Related Tags
Share: