Beowulf on the Big Screen

November 7, 2007 | 2 min read

covercoverSeamus Heaney’s seminal 2000 translation of the Old English epic Beowulf brought the work, first put to paper by an unknown Anglo-Saxon about a thousand years ago, into the 21st century. Heaney considers Beowulf “one of the foundation works of poetry in English.” Now that cornerstone is getting the Hollywood treatment, and, as you might expect, some of its rougher edges have been smoothed over.

Most of us are familiar with the story: Beowulf, the Geat, comes to the aid of Hrothgar and the Danes by slaying Grendel, a man-eating monster that has been terrorizing the great hall at Heorot. I had a wonderfully illustrated version of Beowulf by Kevin Crossley-Holland and Charles Keeping that I would read and look at often growing up, and returned to the tale when someone gave me Heaney’s translation. But the illustrations in the book I had as a kid have defined the visual elements of the story for me.

In what I always considered a bizarre and chilling twist, Beowulf, after vanquishing Grendel, tearing the beast’s arm off with his bare hands, is forced to do battle with Grendel’s mother in her lair at the bottom of a miasmic mear. The beast’s mother? How weird, to use an Old English word in its modern sense. Keeping’s drawings of the she-beast in the illustrated book are indelible (a sample).

So imagine my surprise when I found that, for the motion picture adaptation of Beowulf, Grendel’s mother is played by… Angelina Jolie? That’s right, the she-beast has been scrubbed just a bit, as you can see from this still. Apparently the movie’s writers took other liberties with the story as it relates to the relationship between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Well, that’s Hollywood, and hey, a sexy makeover can make any mother’s day. But what I would really like to see is Jolie voyage to the Danish countryside and return with a hulking, hirsute, one-armed ogre with a taste for human flesh as the latest addition to her ethnically diverse brood of adopted children. Monsters need love too.

is a writer, musician, and amateur sportsman in Manhattan, living on the Harlem side of Morningside Park near Columbia, where he recently picked up a degree from the Journalism School.