Yeah, Beowulf. So… this movie is one I wanted to see in Seattle, but didn’t. I should have trusted my instincts and gone alone… because this was better than three out of the four films I saw there (with the exception being A Scanner Darkly). It had a fascinating twist on the original, and maybe this owed something to John Gardner’s novel, Grendel — I don’t really remember the novel, though I know I read it once, long ago — that made all of the characters much more fascinating. For those who haven’t seen it yet, further blather will follow the cut.
The fact that Grendel’s father was killed off by the King of the Danes is one way that Grendel is deepened as a character, but the fact that he also has a son by the local witch, and that she thereby has sympathy toward him, and that Beowulf refrains from killing Grendel’s son, all of that feels natural to the story, feels natural in that the central turn is really something that makes it a family story — a story about a reviled family of monsters. To humanize the monsters is a simple and, these days, all too obvious step. Ypu really can’t have monsters without humanizing them a little, these days. But to extend the family, by introducing both a father and a son to Grendel’s family, that’s genius. And of course, those parts would get left out of the tale-as-we-have-received-it. In that sense, the film’s also a metafictional commentary on the text, on the way the acts of heroes and kings get remembered and inscribed, and all that juicy stuff.
One thing the film made me think of was the Stephen-Baxterian trope of the humans meeting Neanderthals… I sometimes wonder whether stories like that of Beowulf don’t link farther back, or aren’t at least on some deep level informed by, the very dim memories of meeting other hominids, hominids which we could tell immediately were not human, yet were so like us that we may have interbred, may have lived side by side, may have fought alongside one another, and may have also turned on from time to time. There’s a lot of hominid-hominid weirdness back there in our deep, slow history.