By Andrew Berzins

TUESDAY, JUNE 15, 2004


for starters

For starters, we aren’t doing the poem. The poem can’t be done. Okay? There are seventeen reasons why. Few of them follow. 

Okay – where this movie began:

1967, Niagara peninsula, Canada: I’m ten and my mom gives me a copy of Rosemary Sutcliff’s take on the Beowulf story – “The Dragon Slayer.” So, significantly, I come to the story before the poem. The story has the small band coming to save a tribe under siege. The severed heads. The torn-off arm. The creature.

As much as there is grace in the prose, there is fundamental power in the illustrations by the brilliant Charles Keeping. Whatever this creature is, he’s unlike anything I’ve seen.

A year or so later I run into a story of a “sasquatch” being seen in the Niagara peninsula. Sasquatches aren’t supposed to exist – not in the realm of natural history. But they do exist in myth – shitloads – and in modern anecdote, right up there with flying saucers. The thing though, there is fossil evidence of a creature called “Gigantopithecus”, a roughly ten-foot-tall free-standing primate, supposedly gone from this earth. I don’t believe in dragons. I don’t believe in angels. I do believe in fossils. The sasquatch lurks – if nowhere else – in the shrubbery outside my childhood window. Waiting to be reckoned with. Grendel’s kin.

I don’t come to the actual poem till 1976, a university course in Anglo-Saxon. Professor George Clarke utters and seethes and rolls the language off his tongue and through the smoke of his steadfast pipe. I take it in as best I can, with all the focus and rapture and analysis a hungover 19-year-old can muster at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday. I drop the course halfway through the year, bruised with falling too many times face-first in the fierce alliteration.

Fifteen years later I write a story in which, amongst other atrocities, an academic does his best to piss off an uptight Anglo-Saxon colleague with the assertion that Grendel is a sasquatch. He proposes a movie. Arnold as the Geat.

Another eight years pass. I’m working as a screenwriter and, in conversation with Sturla Gunnarsson, I mention my dream project: a film version of “Beowulf”, but just the first half – Beowulf and Grendel. The dragon, I’m hoping, can wait for the sequel. Sturla wants to shoot a movie in Iceland. We talk. It goes well. Talk, as it sometimes does, leads to action. Or just more talk. But in this case, it’s Beowulf and Grendel who are talking… and they got some issues!

NOTE: Some Beowulf fiend on the IMDB recently took us to task for referring to Grendel as a “troll.” This person was adamant: Grendel is not a troll! For me, troll is a word, a kind of naming. I would’ve used “sasquatch” but it doesn’t translate that well outside of the Pacific Northwest. So I used the word – troll. I figured I could easily see Hrothgar looking at the devastation of his hall, going – “what the fuck did that?!” And the closest word for the thing – the gigantopithecus, sasquatch, nightwalker, fiend – he could easily find was troll.

My Old Norse may be lacking.




Not surprisingly, every second comment I’ve received on this project has to do with the risks of [and my nerve in] trying to adapt this poem to a movie. I’ve even been asked which version I’m adapting, as though the translations varied that widely in content. Though neither a scholar nor a Beowulf expert by any stretch of even the most elastic imagination, I have read about six or seven translations, along with half-blindly crawling through the original almost 25 years ago. I believe you can do a respectful film adaptation [or – in our case – version] of the Beowulf story. I believe the poem is an entirely different creature. 

A few things should be noted: though several of the named kings exist in the historical record, Beowulf does not: he is a fictional creation. Not only that, but he is one of the most straightforward and uncomplicated characters in literature. Jesus of Nazareth is a Hamlet by comparison. In the poem, Beowulf suffers no doubts; he goes to kill Grendel as much to seek glory as to save the Danes. He is VERY VERY proud, at a time when pride is – not only not a sin but – a welcome quality so long as it is backed by acts. The central difference between honourable Beowulf and envious Unferth is that Beowulf has spilled enough blood to back up his boastings. But – no question – he is a boaster.

Then there are the various little problems with plausibility in the poem: for example, Beowulf, though living barely more than a day’s sail from the Danes, only finds out about Grendel 12 years after the latter starts his rampage! We’re talking trading seafaring cultures here. 12 years for the story to get from the Danes to the Geats? A walrus could have brought it in a week.

The Geats arrive after a one-day sail. Beowulf kills Grendel the first night. Now unless we’re playing real-time, that’s a pretty abrupt rush to climax. As I said, it’s fine in the poem. I don’t think such a time-frame suits a film.

Then there is the ‘dialogue’ of the poem: with very few exceptions [such as the Unferth/Beowulf friction at supper], it’s substantially a series of monologues by various characters. It is absolutely unwieldy in any conventional sense of film dialogue.

Several observers of our project have already expressed concern about the creation of characters who aren’t in the poem. If you’ve read the poem you know that there is only one woman – Wealhtheow – who gets to say anything. Not to knock the Beowulf poet, but I don’t take this as any sort of accurate depiction of the relations between men and women in that culture. Further, I’ve credited Beowulf – and his guys – with at least the awareness that they’re walking through a town predominantly of women widowed well before their time. So – yeah – I have added several significant characters. My position: for reasons made clear in the movie, they never made it into the poem.

Lastly, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, there is the fact that this story is not written down by a “pagan” Dane at the time of the purported events. It is written several hundred years later by a Christian Anglo-Saxon – someone removed in time, in language, in bias, in culture, and in religion from the characters about which he writes. And even those characters and story elements he’s working with have been passed down to him likely in oral form. Anyone who’s played “telephone” knows what sort of fidelity emerges from that.

So what are we true to? The bones of the story. The horror. The beauty. The doom… the weird.

If the Beowulf poet rolls over in his grave, I’m trusting it’ll just be to get a better view of the screen.