Listen! Can Beowulf ever work on screen?

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 14 January 2016. This was the article which really helped me break in at the OCR, and to this day I’m quite proud of it, and especially grateful to my editor John Wadsworth for helping to make my terribly undisciplined first draft into the finished article.

The monster battles in ITV’s new series, Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, are all but a formality. In the Old English epic that acts loosely as the show’s source material, such encounters are singular, world-shattering events that can only be counteracted by a man equally monstrous. The CGI beasts of Shieldlands, conversely, are an obligation of a certain type of genre storytelling. They are the result of a formula, concocted by Russell T. Davies for Doctor Who’s relaunch in 2005 and widely copied since: take the ‘monster-of-the-week’ model of children’s television, then magnify it with higher budgets and longer running times. The structure has been since pilfered by Robin Hood, Merlin, and Jekyll and Hyde, with varied results.

In recent years, the dynamic has shifted slightly. Game of Thrones is now the fantasy series to beat, and Return to the Shieldlands appropriates its superficial trappings. The title sequence comprises similarly grandiose pseudo-medieval animation, and the first episode makes a show of introducing a large supporting cast. By borrowing techniques from other franchises in this way, Shieldlands adopts an approach akin to the poetic techniques of the original Beowulf text.

The Old English poetic term ‘wordlocan’ (literally ‘word-locker’) refers to a compositional technique wherein the majority of text consists of pre-existing stock phrases. The poet’s skill was judged based on how well these were rearranged to create something inventive. Shieldlands’ tendency to appropriate bits of other popular shows can be understood in this light, as a kind of textual fealty: a televisual ‘wordlocan’, in which the programme-makers’ skills are appraised on how well they re-work the existing texts of popular culture. Unfortunately, even on these terms, Return to the Shieldlands has its failings; its bag of stolen tricks results in a lumpen, unengaging show. To find a more successful execution of this approach, we must turn to one of the most ambivalently received adaptations in recent memory.

2007’s Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone and directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a knowingly ridiculous film. The plot is an excuse to generate increasingly elaborate, gory monster fights, and the dialogue is ludicrously over the top. The possibility that this may have been deliberate has been entertained by few critics, despite the two fine screenwriters – Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary – behind the action. What both the film and the ITV series realise about the original text is that it is ill-advised to adapt it faithfully.

zemeckis-4

Beowulf is barely an action-packed poem. It may include three giant battles, but the pace is slow and contemplative. It takes over 700 lines before the hero introduces himself, and the bulk of the text is taken up with speech acts rather than physical ones. Moreover, Beowulf has been so influential that a straightforward adaptation would likely seem rote and dull in the context of everything that has come after. Any adaptation has to work around the fact that, as written, Beowulf does not work for a modern, visual medium.

Both versions solve this problem through imitation. But where Return to the Shieldlands is a dreary recitation of clichés, Zemeckis’ film takes an infectious glee in shunting together inappropriate signifiers. The high fantasy design clashes with pantomime dialogue and unnaturally quick camerawork. Gaiman and Avary are savvy about what to steal, and Zemeckis’ direction is playful too. A good example is Beowulf’s fight with Grendel. Presented as an extended riff on Austin Powers, the battle unfolds with various bits of scenery conveniently obscuring Beowulf’s genitals as he confronts the rampaging monster. It’s a dynamic piece of visual comedy, which feels completely out of place in a standard action scene.

What is rarely mentioned is that this may be entirely the point. The encounter between Beowulf and Grendel follows the trends of the archetypal monster fight, and is no more interesting in its own right than confrontations with the troll in Harry Potter or the goblins in The Hobbit. The film-makers keep the material fresh by filming it in ways that such scenes almost never are. It assumes a viewer relatively versed in contemporary film – the gag works if one is able to recognise that Austin Powers and Beowulf are not part of the same milieu, and is thus able to enjoy the wrongness of their juxtaposition. Where the ITV show hopes for an inattentive viewer who will happily accept recent genre conventions with little tinkering, the film invites us to enjoy subversive play with both the original text and the centuries’ worth of visual storytelling that has come after.

Although Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands will likely come and go with little fanfare, its existence at least gives us the opportunity to revisit a remarkably under-appreciated literary adaptation. What ultimately dooms Return to the Shieldlands isn’t the production choices, the flaws of its direction, or the fact that ancient epics do not tend to suit regular ad breaks. Its downfall is that the wordlocan from which it draws is restrictively small.

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