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Beowulf Essay

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One of the most important works of English literature was once on the verge of disappearing from our hands. Beowulf, a classic heroic epic story from the Anglo-Saxons about a Geatish warrior who defeated three creatures: Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon, was almost destroyed. Only one manuscript survived during that era, which was nearly burned. Thankfully, numerous translations and adaptations of this story have been created to make this influential epic a widely spread influence that has impacted future pieces of literature. Seamus Heaney made a translation of the original Old English poem into literature that is accessible to the contemporary English reader. The most recent adaptation was director Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf, which starred actors such as Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie. Using “performance capture technology”, the movie uses digitally enhanced live action to make a world that looked animated. The movie stays faithful to the old story with the characters and events, but there are many differences that separate the film from the book. King Hrothgar is depicted not as a noble king, but a miserly man full of guilt. Rather than being portrayed as a noble hero, the Beowulf in the movie is a flawed character who succumbs to his desires. Grendel’s mother is a seductress who tempts Beowulf with promised wealth in Zemeckis’s version, and was originally a ferocious creature akin to Grendel. Compared to Seamus’s literature version, director Robert Zemeckis’s film Beowulf introduced humanistic flaws of sin and guilt through his portrayal of Hrothgar, Beowulf, and Grendel’s mother.
One of the characters that changed in the movie version of Beowulf was King Hrothgar. In the literature, he was a respected and noble king who was admired by his countrymen and was generous in rewarding his troops. Full of wisdom and knowledge, he served as a role model for Beowulf, inspiring him to become king later on in the story. In the movie, he is portrayed as an alcoholic, womanizing old man. He is shown to have an unhappy relationship with his wife Wealtheow. When Hrothgar demands a son from Wealtheow, she replies “how can I ever lay with you, knowing you laid with her?” Hrothgar is discovered to be the father of Grendel, whereas the father was not known in the literature. Hrothgar is given more personality to his formerly one-dimensional character by implementing this plot point. Here the noble king is seen as a man who committed the sin of lust, having a romance with Grendel’s mother long before the events of the movie. When he learns of Beowulf’s deal with Grendel’s mother (which will be mentioned later) he hands him the throne by committing suicide. No longer do we have a king who served as an inspirational mentor to Beowulf. The one in the movie is a wretched bum who carries guilt from his sinful action of lust and seduction all the way to his death.
Far from the original text version, the noble warrior Beowulf is portrayed as a man with weaknesses in Zemeckis’s movie. In an interview with Ray Winstone, the actor who portrays Beowulf, he said:
“I had the beauty of not reading the book, which I understand portrays Beowulf as a very one-dimensional kind of character - a hero and a warrior and that was it. So, I didn't have any of that baggage to bring with me to the script and I attempted to bring something else to the character.” In the literature, Beowulf exemplified the ideal hero with an incredible strength and courageous behavior. He gained reputation as a brave, loyal warrior by accepting King Hrothgar’s challenge of defeating and killing Grendel and Grendel’s mother. From his heroic actions to becoming king until his death against the final battle with the dragon, Beowulf remained a flawless character who inspired with his deeds of facing insurmountable odds. The hero displayed no other qualities besides valiance and pride, which made him appear god-like. However, in the movie, Beowulf is depicted as a humanistic character who succumbs to his weaknesses.
One of the movie’s most notable differences from the book was the battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. In Seamus’s version, Grendel’s mother was devastated over the loss of her child, angrily stormed upon Heorot and killed King Hrothgar’s best friend, Aeschere. To avenge him, Beowulf courageously seeks after her, showing no fear of death.
“If I should fall and suffer death while serving your cause, would act like a father to me afterward. If this combat kills me, take care of my young company, my comrades in arms. And be sure also, my beloved Hrothgar, to send Hygelac the treasures I received” (pg. 39).
Beowulf was selfless; a man who put his country and his comrades above his own well-being. Alone, he ventured into the deep abyss where Grendel’s mother resided. He fought a vicious battle against her, and was nearly overwhelmed from her titanic strength and legion of sea creatures. She was a much stronger opponent than Grendel, surpassing Beowulf’s weapons and might. Eventually, Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother with a giant sword residing in her lair. Defeating her along with Grendel gave Beowulf a reputation of bravery and showed that he had the qualities of a true hero.
In the movie, Grendel’s mother is portrayed by Angelina Jolie as a beautiful temptress rather than a creature like Grendel. Upon entering the Grendel’s lair, Beowulf encounters a naked succubus, rising up from the misty waters and dripping with golden liquid. Instead of engaging in a physical battle, Grendel’s mother tempted Beowulf with power and wealth.
“Give me a son, brave thane. Stay with me. Love me... Love me... and I shall weave you riches... beyond imagination. I shall make you the greatest king that ever lived. As long as you hold me in your heart... and this golden horn remains in my keeping... You will forever be King. Forever strong, might... and all-powerful. This I promise. This... I swear...”
Grendel’s mother presented an opportunity for Beowulf to acquire his dream and aspiration to become a legend, on the condition that he love her. The movie gives Beowulf a moral dilemma. Rather than killing her to avenge his people, he accepts her offer for his own gain. With this plot change, the Beowulf in the movie is no longer the selfless hero as he was portrayed in his text. He shows a thirst for power when he gives in to temptation, no longer appearing god-like but instead more human with weaknesses and desires. Originally a warrior filled pride and honor, Beowulf became a character that is corrupt and selfish.
Grendel’s mother plays a much bigger role in the movie than compared to the book. In Stephen T. Asma’s review of Beowulf in The Chronicle he points out that
“By transforming Grendel's mother into a femme fatale seductress, they've found a way simultaneously to further demonstrate Beowulf's flaws, give the female lead more dimensionality (albeit uncharitably), and connect the denouement to the earlier story.”
She is integral to the plot and ultimately becomes the cause of his downfall with the dragon. In the text, the dragon that kills Beowulf towards the end had no real connection with him. A thief had awoken the dragon by attempting to steal the treasure it was protecting. In anger, the dragon terrorized and unleashed destruction on Beowulf’s people. As the honorable king of his homeland, Beowulf sacrificed himself for the good of his people to kill the dragon. However, in the movie, it turns out that the dragon is the child that Beowulf and Grendel’s mother produced. This change in story creates a connection between the second and third act by relating the characters and providing causes for the events, whereas the text had not. The movie explains that Beowulf became king due to Grendel’s mother and that the dragon was after him because he had broken his promise that he would always love Grendel’s mother. For his unfaithfulness when he had sex with a young mistress, the dragon arose in anger, and sought to kill Beowulf. The “sin of the father” was what led the dragon to Beowulf, and ultimately to his demise.
Robert Zemeckis’s film version of Beowulf adds humanistic flaws to the story that give more dimension to the characters. He depicts an alternative retelling of what had happened when Beowulf fought against Grendel’s mother. Originally a noble king, Hrothgar was portrayed as a lustful alcoholic. Beowulf is depicted not as fearless hero but as a man who gave in to temptation. Grendel’s mother played a bigger role when she was changed into a beautiful temptress from a powerful creature. These changes reflect an adaptation modernized to the standard of our current century. With so many adaptations, Beowulf is a story that will remain throughout time.
.

Works Cited

Beowulf. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, Anthony Hopkins. Warner, 2007. DVD

Carnevale, Rob. "Ray Winstone - Beowulf." BBC. Nov. 2007. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2007/11/12/ray_winstone_beowulf_2007_interview.shtml>

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: a New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print.

Asma, Stephen T. "Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?"The Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 Dec. 2007. Web. <http://chronicle.com/article/Never-Mind-Grendel-Can/1974>

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