Thursday, January 7, 2016

Beowulf-return to the Shieldlands.....

There’s a story, possibly spurious, that Rolling Stone Magazine once started a review of a Bob Dylan Record with the words ‘What is this shit?’

So to review a previous post: there’s a character called Beowulf, and there were stories about him. There’s a poem called “Beowulf” which is one version of that story. And since Seamus Heaney’s translation there seem to have been a few attempts at filming the poem.  I have no problems with retellings of the poem. 

Beowulf -Return to The Shield lands …..

The title itself rings alarm bells.  Leave "Beowulf" out for a moment and consider “The Shield Lands” at what point of history from the Greeks to the invention of the cannon could you distinguish a country by the presence of shields? Had this been called Big Hairy Bert and the Shield Bearing Sheilas it would be a bit of nonsense. But it’s called Beowulf.  So for the safety of our mental health let us consider the first twelve minutes. 

The first episode opens with an inversion of the film 'Beowulf and Grendel'. Instead of Grendel and his father being chased by Danes, Beowulf  and his father are chased along a beach by lolloping monsters. They kill the father, Little Beowulf kills the monster. Cut to later…portentous voice over: Beowulf is now the Big B.

But he’s riding to Heorot with his trusty sidekick, exchanging yo dude dialogue stolen from a cliche riddled western. And he’s not going to save Hrothgar. Although Beowulf has been previously banished under pain of death he wants to see the old man again…

Heorot is a hoot. It’s surrounded by a fence that wouldn’t keep yer average village idiot at bay but there are evil men with whips, (they must be evil, they have whips and are dressed in black leather courtesy of the local s and m suppliers) ) and there are monsters using some kind of treadmill the film 
makers must have found on the abandoned set of Conan the Barbarian.

Heorot looks like a cross between an Egyptian Mortuary, with Greco/ Roman/Persian Interiors made up as the lair of some evil dark lord for a crap fantasy film. I was expecting either The Rock as Scorpion King or Ayesha to appear. Neither happened. Hrothgar is dead. His wife announces she is now Thane of Heorot. (What’s Lady Macbeth doing in Denmark?)

So after ten minutes the film has announced itself as a terrible mess of generic borrowings. And while Beowulf fights a few armed men who are told to kill him….his trusty side kick is looking for a blacksmith to fix his blade. You can see the double entendres lining up and when we're introduced to the female blacksmith, which carries its own bad pun, they gleefully make their appearance.
At which point I stopped.

There is an obvious desire on the part of modern storytellers to try and create strong female characters.
But in medieval texts, within the boundaries of their cultures, there are already strong female characters. There are strong female characters in the poem 'Beowulf'.

1) Don’t sexualize them. They shouldn’t all conform to film standards of beauty.  And they shouldn’t be there as potential sexual partners/romantic interest for the hero.  You can’t have a strong female character and then treat her like a conventional trophy bride.
2) There’s nothing inherently wrong with a female smith, but you need an actress who has shoulders like an Olympic swimmer and arms that look like they spend all day belting metal with heavy objects.(See previous point.)
3) If you’re going to have strong female characters they can’t stop being strong and start yelling for help when the monsters turn up. Let them save themselves, and let them do it without male muscle.

And most importantly this means you have to reconstruct your model of male heroism.  You have to get rid of the idea of the Hero saving the damsel in distress in return for a quick roll in the hay afterwards. This doesn’t mean your male hero has to be gay, or your female chaste, it just means that the woman can look after herself. And be heroic. And your male hero has to find something else to be heroic about. Like killing monsters as an expression of loyalty, gratitude and service…which is what he does in the original.

Why is it that filmmakers are prepared to outlay money on sets and costumes and special effects but not on a decent script? Beowulf the poem survives as a good story. But no one seems to want to deal with it as a story on its own terms. Wherever this awfulness was first conceived there would have been a university with someone who knew about Anglo-Saxon literature who could have offered some advice.

But even awfulness can be interesting. Why does it have to be called Beowulf?  Either, you tell a story set in a vague dark age about a hero who kills monsters and call him Bert…and then you can do anything you like and rake in every generic cliché. Or you stick reasonably closely to the poem, or you create further adventures for Beowulf.  There’s a substantial gap between the second and third parts of the poem. It would free the  imagination to allow the Big B some new adventures. You could even follow the approach taken by The Thirteenth Warrior and Outlander…

But once the character is called Beowulf, and he’s travelling to Heorot, where he is planning to meet Hrothgar, the film is referencing the Poem.  The question has to be why?

The answer has to be commercial. If the number of lego Beowulfs on Youtube is anything to go by, mostly introduced with the words, I did this as a project for English,  the poem still features on the Curriculum in the United States. (We could pause to consider why you’d encourage someone to make a stop motion lego version of Beowulf as part of an English Project. Some of them are very well made. But wouldn’t the time and patience spent on stop animation be better spent thinking about the poem?) So obviously ‘Big Hairy Bert and the Shield Maiden Sheilas’ is not going to attract all those lego filming students and their teachers.

It could be argued that Big Hairy Bert and the Shield Bearing Sheilas is a silly title for a film, but it’s no sillier than the content of ‘Beowulf-Return to the Shield Lands”.

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