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Arts and Entertainment

Holiday Movie Preview: Beowulf Just Might Be AWESOME

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The more I hear about the upcoming Neil Gaiman-penned Beowulf (slated for release in late November), the more reasons I have to believe that this film is going to be awesome. First of all, it's a classic story with bloody conflicts, a rugged hero, a despicable yet sympathetic villain, and lots of mead-drinking and speechifying. Even if you don't normally get jazzed about poetry, Seamus Heaney's Whitbread-Award winning translation is a satisfying read: Heaney masters the guttural but beautiful inflections of the original Old English while still maintaining an accessible, fast-paced tempo.

For those of you who skipped out on the first few weeks of Medieval Lit, here's a quick recap:

Beowulf is a bad-ass Dark Ages dude in the school of Bruce and Arnold. He rides into a neighboring Danish town to help out his friend King Hrothgar, whose happy meadhall has been terrorized of late by this crazy-ass demon, Grendel. Imagine Grendel as Gollum on steroids, and you've pretty much got the picture.* Beowulf and Grendel get into a wicked wrestling match; Beowulf tears off Grendel's arm (apparently there's Christ-imagery involved, but whatever), JOY IN THE CASTLE, end of part one.

Part two: Grendel's mom gets pissed off that this meathead mutilated her baby, and SHE starts terrorizing the castle. Beowulf has to track her down in her underwater lair (yes, the guy can breathe underwater, TOLD YOU he's awesome). Kills her with a magic sword, natch.

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Part three, many years later, we see Beowulf as an old and awesome king, but oh no! A dragon has been disturbed and is terrorizing his people! He's gotta put the smack down, but dies in the effort, bravely and without regrets. There is much tearing of hair and keening by the wimmenfolk; he gets sent off in a glorious blazing death-barge.

Pretty good, right? I'm hoping version of the film might just get it (unlike Beowulf and Grendel): first of all, Neil Gaiman is writing it, and if you grew up reading The Sandman like I did, you know that this man understands myth and culture and language and the ethos of honor in death. I'm predicting the filmmakers (Robert Zemeckis is directing) will probably focus on the first two episodes and either ignore or gloss over the Elder-Beowulf storyline.

Then, of course, there's the cast.

Angelina Jolie is Grendel's mother. The she-beast! The bitch-goddess! The revengeful soccer mom! No, seriously, it's an interesting casting choice; the few screenshots I've seen are depicting her as gold-tinted and super-hot, which isn't quite how I imagined the character. Interviews with Neil Gaiman and his writing partner Roger Avary have revealed that Ray Winstone's Beowulf (the name means "bee-wolf," a kenning for "bear" in Old English) will be getting quite intimate with Grendel's mum. Hot animated demon sex! With Angelina Jolie! The industry is catching on.

Anthony Hopkins is Hrothgar, head of Heorot meadhall and the other consistently virtuous male character - and oh yeah, Robin Wright Penn is going to be playing his wife, Wealtheow, who basically exists only to distribute large quantities of wine to the warriors - the original St. Pauly's Girl. But it's Robin Wright Penn! And she doesn't work in crap movies. Perhaps best of all, Crispin Glover is playing Grendel, an excellent choice: he will be able to bring the right amount of pathos and wyrd-ness to this twisted descendent of Cain.

They're doing the movie in a CGI-live action hybrid, much like Zemecki's The Polar Express. The special effects might just be a good fit for this story - imagine a whole movie populated by characters animated, but also genuinely acted, as well as Peter Jackson's Gollum. From the brief preview embedded above, though, it still looks more like a great cut-scene from a really expensive RPG video game - not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but I don't think this film is rated G, and our market still doesn't know what to do with edgier animated material yet - or do we?

But despite Stardust's recent mediocre reception, we're hoping Gaiman will really pull through with his interpretation of the source material. Beowulf is unquestionably one of the great and originary tales of Western culture, and it hasn't been made into a great film only because nobody's ever really tried that hard - but it's a story that deserve telling and re-telling.

*The comparison between the Grendel and Gollum is actually quite apt: J.R.R. Tolkien wrote one of the century's most influential pieces of scholarship on Beowulf while he was at Oxford ("The Monsters and the Critics,"), renewing scholarly interest in the poem. Much of Tolkien's own writing shadows the events, characters, and philosophy of the Anglo-Saxon literary canon. Dragons and dwarves, yo.