Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf took a lot of hits for its perceived silliness, a verdict I could never quite sign on to. First of all, silly compared to what? Have these people seen the 1999 space opera Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert? Compared to that, Zemeckis's Beowulf is a sober meditation on the human condition. Have they seen the Gerard Butler clunker Beowulf and Grendel? Come on, guys: considering what the movies have done to this story in the past, last year's high-tech effort seems like serious business to me.
What about the source material – the ancient Old English epic poem upon which these movies purport to be based? If you've ever read it (or tried to read it), the perversions of the adaptations shouldn't surprise you. It's both begging for action movie treatment and impossible to faithfully adapt into anything resembling a compelling action movie. The story is credited with generating many of the archetypes we see in our fiction, and indeed, it's so archetypical that by modern standards, it's a skeleton; there's nothing there.
Seriously – you know how people complain about movies whose plots can be fully described in one sentence? A faithful Beowulf would take this phenomenon to new heights. A synopsis would read something like this: Beowulf beats up Grendel, Grendel's mom, and a dragon, and dies. The end. Some complained that the Zemeckis version distorted Beowulf, but I'd have liked to see their reaction to an undistorted adaptation. Trust me, it wouldn't work. There's a reason that all these screenwriters have scrambled to add elements to the story.
And as long as we're adding elements, I think that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, who adapted the poem for Zemeckis, added some pretty interesting ones. (Not surprisingly – the two of them don't really do boring.) Parts of their screenplay were ridiculed because they seemed so left-field compared to the source material, but in truth most of Gaiman and Avary's work was actually quite logical, and in the spirit of the story.
The movie probably took the most flack for recasting Grendel's mom as a dangerous, Siren-like seductress portrayed by an animated Angelina Jolie. At first blush that does seem goofy, considering that the conventional reading of Beowulf sees Grendel's mother as a more fearsome, wretched incarnation of the deformed monster that is Grendel. (There is some controversy about this.) But approaching it that way would have reduced the film to a pointless exercise in CGI one-upmanship. Grendel himself, as portrayed by a mo-capped Crispin Glover, was a genius creation, both scary and pathetic; even if the contortions to hide Beowulf's privates during the big naked fight scene turned silly (one thing the critics are right about), the movie's treatment of Grendel was admirable and impressive. But isn't it cooler, and scarier, to learn that Grendel's mom is a different kind of villain – an eternal temptress rather than just another computer-generated monstrosity? The poem means Grendel's mom to be a more formidable enemy than her son, and the film's take on the character seems like a logical and effective way to accomplish that.
And then there's the third act, which turns Beowulf into a sort of tragic figure, focusing on his dawning realization that his legendary reputation is manufactured and that his heroism is more perception than reality. (It also makes the fascinating suggestion that Christianity invidiously replaced heroes with martyrs, something I wanted to see explored further.) Some people thought this was drawn out and irrelevant to the story, but think about it: Beowulf is basically a non-person in the poem, an archetype rather than a character. Gaiman and Avary considered the implications of Beowulf's adventures: what they would do to a real human being. The screenplay adds a necessary dimension that the story, in its original form, simply didn't have.
Look, it's not a great movie. Its cartoony appearance belies its attempts at seriousness, the PG-13 rating is a major obstacle to a lot of what it wants to do, and some of it is – yes – a little silly. But it does genuinely interesting things with a legend that's celebrated more for its historical importance than for its merits as a narrative. I was bored to tears when I read Beowulf some years ago; the Zemeckis/Gaiman/Avary version didn't bore me for an instant.