Smile and Nod

Smile and Nod: Beowulf DVD

Russ Pitts | 10 Mar 2008 21:00
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You have to give credit to The Originals. Steve McQueen, Ferrari, Coca-Cola and the straight razor all have a special place in my heart. Sure, the newer models are flashier, more fully functional and, perhaps, better, but The Original is where it all started; the inspiration for the new. Without them, we'd still be sitting on our hands wondering why nobody had ever thought of driving fast, looking cool or shaving.

So when I heard somebody was planning to make a movie out of Beowulf, I suppose part of me was filled with glee. And part of that glee was distilled from finally being able to wash the taste of that stupid Antonio Banderas version out of my mouth. The other part was the celebration of The Original.

Beowulf is one of the oldest stories in the world. And while not the oldest story, it's still up there. It tells the tale of a Scandinavian warrior named, of course, Beowulf, who helps his buddies in Denmark out with a little problem involving a hideous monster named Grendel and his equally hideous monster mother (named Grendel's Mother). The monster and his mother are terrorizing the countryside, ruining parties and killing everyone they can get their hands on. It's a bad scene.

In the story, Beowulf comes to town and immediately starts to kick ass. He rips off Grendel's arm, beats him with the bloody stump, and kills him. Then he hops down into the monster hole and kicks his mother's ass. Then he becomes a king and kills a dragon with his bare hands. The end.

Beowulf is a giant "screw you!" to the existential whining of stories supposing the gods hate us, therefore they take away the sun at night. It's pure Anglo-Saxon jingoism directed at the world at large. "We took over England, bitches," they're saying. "You want some of this?" And perhaps that's why it's endured for so many centuries. Braggadocio never gets old, especially when there's a bloody stump involved.

So any time you hear someone use the phrase "beat you with a bloody stump," know that Beowulf got there first. While everyone from Hemingway to Roddy Piper has now made a story about The Guy Who Comes to Town and Kicks Ass, Beowulf was The Original. He came first, did it best and everyone else is just following in his wake.

So, glee. And then I heard Neil Gaiman, the guy behind the wonderfully moody Sandman comics, and a few dozen other things, was involved and my glee went off the charts. Gaiman has a way with mythological figures. He turns them inside out, plumbs their psychological depths and spits them back out not so much changed as clarified. He's like reverse osmosis for stories. His take on Sleeping Beauty, for example, is divine.

And then I heard the guy who made Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis, was directing, and my heart sank a little bit. Sure, Back to the Future was a fun film and all, but it's about as far away from a bloody-stump declaration of badass as ... well, Polar Express, his latest film. And then I noticed a trend: Since his days of making flying cars hit 88 mph, Zemeckis has trended toward stories told with technological means. Polar Express was that film where they made the real life people into cartoons that looked like real life people, otherwise known as Night of the Uncanny Valley. My glee turned to slow, creeping dread.

And then I saw a trailer. Let me say this, there aren't too many ways you can screw up a story about a dude in a swimming contest near the arctic circle who has to stop, mid-ocean, to cut the head off a giant sea snake. But one of them is making snake and dude look like something out of a badly rendered cut scene in a Final Fantasy game.

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