So I saw Beowulf last week. (What, you want timely? This is a history blog. Timely is not a priority.) I had been threatening to drag my wife to it for weeks, and every time I did, she would threaten to drag me to some Jane Austen Knitting Club movie in retaliation, until we were sitting in a Barnes and Noble coffee shop across from a Beowulf book display, and the following conversation occurred:
HER: Why didn't you tell me that Neil Gaiman wrote the screenplay?
ME: I'm pretty sure I did.
HER: No, you would just point and say "I'm dragging you to see that."
ME: Well, it's been mentioned in every single ad.
HER: We could go this weekend.
(Postscript: my wife went home and watched the trailers. Contrary to what I led her to believe, there is no booming voice that says "Screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary." But, you know, the credits were still there.)
A friend who came with us called it "Monty Python on steroids." Me, I'm still cogitating. I liked it. I liked it a lot. The story moved, the actors were excellent, and the 3-D got oohs and aahhs. But there was a lot going on. It was animated, basically. Motion capture of live action, but every frame had clearly been computer-generated. And I don't know why, but I really thought that helped the tone. This is basically a big, gory fairy tale. If it had been live-action, it would have lost a little of the fairy-tale quality. If it had been more Shreklike, it would have been harder to take the mature content seriously. (As was, I think some of the audience had a hard time downshifting from the comic first act to the tragic third act.)
The plot took quite a few liberties with the poem. (It had to, if it were going to be filmable.) What I was impressed by was how Gaiman and Avary kept so many of the main elements (Grendel, Grendel's mother, the dragon), and played with the minor elements to make it a more unified story. In the poem, for example, Wiglaf is only around at the end, for the dragon parts. In the film, he's Beowulf's loyal sidekick. It worked. While the poem takes the approach "There was this guy Beowulf, and this is what happened to him," the film adds a few things in on the margins to give his story (I can't believe I'm saying this) an emotional arc -- gloryhound makes good, maybe, before dying violently. (This spoils nothing. The movie's been out for a week, the poem for more than a thousand years.)
My wife, who is far more literate than I (she's read the poem, in the Olde Englishe), assures me that several plot elements were lifted from John Gardner's Grendel, which I have on my "To-Read" shelf. Guess that will come down sooner rather than later. Meantime, I'm working my way through the poem (which I have never been able to finish). More on that when I do.