With swords and monsters all the rage, an ancient literary hero is now a hot showbiz property

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 13 2006


With swords and monsters all the rage, an ancient literary hero is now a hot showbiz property

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 13 2006




With swords and monsters all the rage, an ancient literary hero is now a hot showbiz property


It’s revered as the first epic work of English literature, although it’s written in what looks like a foreign language. And it has become the bane of English students everywhere, a book famous for being avoided. In Annie Hall, as Diane Keaton’s character leafs through a course catalogue, Woody Allen says, “Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf.”

Growing up in Vancouver, Sturla Gunnarsson was made to read Beowulf in Grade 12. He couldn’t finish it. He says he was more interested in cars and girls. But as an 18-yearold Icelandic immigrant whose second language was English, he remembers dipping into the Anglo-Saxon verse and being amazed by how much of it he could decipher. “Old English,” he explains, “is very close to Icelandic, and with great difficulty, I could read it. That was uncanny.”

Thirty-six years later, Gunnarsson, now a veteran filmmaker (Rare Birds, Such a Long Journey), has not only read Beowulf, he’s eviscerated it. With Beowulf & Grendel, which he shot in the barren reaches of his native Iceland, he’s created a revisionist spectacle that turns the story inside out—it portrays the monster Grendel in a sympathetic light, gives him a father, embellishes the plot with a whore who beds both the hero and the troll, and offers dialogue salted with profanity. Purists will be offended. But Gunnarsson’s movie tries to strip this sixth-century tale of a Scandinavian hero down to its pagan roots. And it’s surfing a wave of Beowulfmania that has torn a medieval epic poem out of the hands of academics and pushed it into the mainstream. Once a quaint scholarly fiefdom, Beowulf— a prototype for the Hollywood western and the horror movie, and an inspiration for The Lord of the Rings—is now a hot showbiz property.

Robert Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, is making a Beowulf blockbuster, a US$70-million fantasy employing a more advanced version of the performance-capture animation he used in The Polar Express. It’s due out next vear. Mean-

while, Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King) is directing Grendel, a new opera that will open in Los Angeles in May. But Gunnarsson’s epic, a $ 17-million Canada-IcelandU.K. co-production, is the first adaptation out of the gate, and the only live-action Beowulf ever filmed.

Blame it all on J.R.R. Tolkien. The author of The Lord of the Rings put the epic poem on the map with a landmark lecture in 1936— establishing it as a seminal work of literature, not just a curious artifact penned by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet. Since then, Beowulf has fuelled an academic cottage industry. The story has also found its way into children’s books, and Beowulf was reincarnated as a Marvel Comic superhero in the ’60s. In 1971, John Gardner’s novel Grendel



—the inspiration for Taymor’s opera—told the story from the monster’s point of view, recasting him as a bored existentialist. And in 2000, Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney crafted an exhiliarating translation of Beowulfthat became an unlikely bestseller. Then came Hollywood’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sagas of swords and monsters were suddenly in vogue. And as a relatively untapped source of Norse/Germanic mythology, Beowulf has acquired showbiz cachet.

While the Zemeckis movie will be entirely computer-generated, with animated images keyed to the actors’ movements, Gunnarsson boasts there’s not a single computer graphic in his picture. Starring Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera), Stellan Skarsgàrd (Dogville) and Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), it’s a ragged canvas of flesh and blood, costume and makeup. Its “special ef-

feet” is Iceland, an otherworldly landscape of glaciers and volcanic rock that was first settled by Vikings. With vistas of breathtaking beauty, Beowulf & Grendel does for Iceland what The Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand—but on a much smaller scale.

Over a pint of lager in a Toronto tavern, Gunnarsson talks of his own epic struggle to make the movie. He shot it during the fall of2004, when Iceland was battered by the worst storms in 60 years. “We were filming on the south coast,” he says, “with nothing but ocean between us and Antarctica. There were four hurricanes that year in the south. Those fronts hit the cold fronts from Greenland and they battle it out.” The director recalls standing on a mountain pass beside the mead hall, the film’s biggest set, and seeing the sky turn black with volcanic sand scooped up by the wind. “There was this black wall coming toward us. It missed the mead hall, but the roof blew off the hotel below us. The mead hall was shaking—it was built of logs and stone. We had Caterpillars holding down the roof with their shovels.”

With 160-km/h gusts picking up rocks and shattering windshields, the production had to be shut down for four days. And while the director fretted about the roof falling in, the financing collapsed in the middle of the shoot, threatening to scuttle the picture. But now Gunnarsson—who describes himself as “a Viking,” and looks the part with Baltic-blue eyes and flaxen hair—appears to relish the whole ordeal as some modern-day Norse saga. “The weather f—ed with us like you wouldn’t believe.

But it was so beautiful! The elements became an unwritten character in every scene.” Describing his movie as “a modern riff on an old tale,” Gunnarsson says he’s tried to repatriate the story to its pagan roots in the natural world. Beowulf is taken from a 1,000year-old charred manuscript, recovered from a fire in the 18th century. Though written in Old English by an unknown poet, the story is derived from Norse sagas. “It’s a campfire yarn that was told for centuries before it was written down,” says Gunnarsson. For those g who skipped their Old English homework in in school, here’s the gist: Beowulf is a prince c¿ from the land of the Geats (now southern ^ Sweden) who sails to Denmark to subdue Grendel, a savage troll terrorizing the Danes. \

After dispatching the monster, he has to sub¡¡j due Grendel’s vengeful mother (“that swamp^ thins from hell” in Heanev’s verse). Years 5

later, Beowulf dies a hero’s death fighting a dragon.

Gunnarsson’s movie, which tries to avoid the supernatural, omits the dragon entirely. And it depicts Grendel as a large but plausible humanoid, a kind of Scandinavian sasquatch (although his mother still lurks underwater like some phantom sea creature, a great white hag with claws). The film’s Canadian screenwriter, Andrew Rai Berzins, also concocts a backstory for Grendel, giving him a therapylode of psychological motivation. The movie opens with Grendel as a child—a macabre troll tyke with wisps of white beard—seeing his father decapitated by King Hrothgar (Skarsgârd). The boy keeps the severed head, and nurses a grudge. Beowulf's poet branded Grendel the misbegotten spawn of Cain, “malignant by nature.” Here he becomes an avenger in a blood feud, a misunderstood monster.

The poem portrays Grendel as a maneater, a Norse King Kong who (in Heaney’s translation) “mauled a man on his bench, bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps.” But in the movie, although he bowls with human skulls, there’s no evidence of him eating his prey. He does, however, have sex. The movie plants a love interest on the story’s masculine tundra, a sexy seer (Sarah Polley) who bonks both Beowulf and Grendel. There were jokes on the set about “troll-on-girl action,” says Gunnarsson. “I said, ‘Sarah, the good news is you don’t have to f— ’em both at the same time.’”

The director says he wanted to tear down the Christian scrim through which the poet filtered Norse sagas. “Beowulf is a western hero,” he says. “Buddy rides into town, slays the evil-doers and rides into the sunset. But when you look at the sagas, you find a more ambiguous morality. It’s not monotheistic. The heroes are flawed and the villains are interesting.” The movie even invents a character to represent Beowulf s author—a crazed Irish priest who bewilders the locals with talk of Christ and Cain. As for the profanity, it may sound modern, but Gunnarsson points out that those four-letter words are among the oldest in the English language.

Scholars, meanwhile, have been supportive of the film, including Andy Orchard, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Medieval Studies, who has taught Beowulf

for 25 years. “It’s a very interesting film,” he says. “I’ve got seven shelves of books on Beowulf The interpretations don’t stop, which is good. Otherwise I’d be out of a job.”

While trying to reanimate the poem’s pagan roots, Gunnarsson also aimed for some contemporary resonance. His Beowulf goes overseas to fight a war on terror. When he gets there, like a soldier with a peacekeeping streak, he begins to unravel root causes. “The impulse was to take a hero myth and turn it into a story of tribalism and ethnic cleansing,” says the director, “although it was never meant as a contemporary allegory.” Berzins says the war in Kosovo was on his mind as he wrote the screenplay. And even Heaney evokes Kosovo and Rwanda in his Beowulf introduction: “vengeance for the dead becomes an ethic for the living, bloodshed begets further bloodshed, the wheel turns, the generations tread and tread and tread.” Ultimately, Gunnarsson’s epic is just a movie, which is how it will be judged. And like the original poem, it presents a challenge. The dialogue, written as a harsh cadence of English words with Norse roots, is often difficult to catch. As the story’s dissolute king, Skarsgârd is a raving enigma. And Polley, who speeds through her lines in an incongruous Canadian accent, seems to be in a movie all her own. But Butler has real power. “He’s the hot Scot,” says Gunnarsson. “It’s hard to find a charismatic leading man who’s unambigu-

ously masculine, who knows how to swing a sword, and who can act.” Butler is all of that. The actor, who will star in 300, a Hollywood epic about the battle of Thermopylae, looks poised to be the next Russell Crowe.

But the real star of Beowulf & Grendel is the Icelandic landscape. Tableaus of stern beauty show a small band of warriors venturing over barren crags and glaciers, as if braving the edge of the known universe. More than anything, it’s those images that bring Beowulf to life—what Gunnarsson calls “a story of primal fear and people huddled together against the unknown.” Heaney writes about Beowulf's “emotional and imaginative geography,” which has “no very clear map-sense of the world, more an apprehension of menaced borders.” The mead hall—the tavern—is the only refuge. And it’s hard not to see something deeply Canadian in this vision of a wide, empty land where the chief comfort is beer.

The only Canadian film that Beowulf & Grendel remotely resembles is Atanarjuat (2001), Zacharias Kunuk’s Inuit epic. It, too, fishes a saga out of the depths of tribal legend—another tale of a primeval blood feud— and takes us to a northern land that looks like another planet, where humans are brush strokes on a vast horizon. The difference is that Atanarjuat's saga is distilled from an unbroken line of oral storytelling. Beowulf has been mediated by countless translations, from campfire to Christian scribe, from scholar to screenwriter. By the time Gunnarsson found himself leading a squad of actors through a howling gale in a remote land he once called home, his movie ceased to be an adaptation. It’s an expedition, a heroic quest confounded by its own gods and monsters. M