Beowulf wrestles with Grendel, Lynd Ward (1939).
There’s nothing new in pointing out Hollywood’s crimes against literature, the film business has been screwing up book adaptation since the earliest days of silent cinema. But sometimes the wound is so grievous you can’t help but speak out, in this case against Roger Avary’s Beowulf which is released next month. This is another CGI-heavy confection along the lines Polar Express, with the actors being given digital bodies via motion-capture, and it’s something I’d probably have ignored until I saw this picture of Grendel, the story’s principal monster. Beowulf is one of the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems and Grendel, the bloodthirsty creature which Beowulf battles, is one of the ur-fiends of English literature, along with his equally monstrous, lake-dwelling mother and the dragon which fatally wounds the hero. The trio give us a peek back into the dark imagination from a time before recorded history and Grendel especially has always had something raw and primal about its character. So when you see a beast with such a history portrayed as little more than a diseased muppet you wonder what’s going on. Are the creators inept? Ignorant? Were studio restrictions at work? How does an industry with the talent to give splendid life to the trolls and Balrog of Lord of the Rings, or Davy Jones and crew in Pirates of the Caribbean, screw up so badly?
Illustration by Michael Leonard (1970).
The grim demon was called Grendel, a notorious ranger of the borderlands, who inhabited the fastnesses of moors and fens. This unhappy being had long lived in the land of monsters, because God had damned him along with the children of Cain. For the eternal Lord avenged the killing of Abel. He took no delight in that feud, but banished Cain from humanity because of his crime. From Cain were hatched all evil progenies: ogres, hobgoblins, and monsters, not to mention the giants who fought so long against God?for which they suffered due retribution.
Grendel is described thus in the David Wright translation, my first contact with the dread beast when we read the Panther edition at school in the early Seventies. I’d guess it was that book which also introduced Neil Gaiman (co-writer of the new film) to the story, since we’re both about the same age. The book caught me at the right time since I was already besotted with Norse mythology via Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths and Legends of the Norsemen and I loved the way that Michael Leonard’s stylised cover illustration (which wraps around the book) hints at much but still allows room for the imagination. Beowulf marks the point when the old myths of monsters and dragons become subject to an increasingly obtrusive Christian morality. The rationale for Grendel being one of the “sons of Cain” has always seemed laboured and unconvincing, however, as though the new religion had been written over something far older and far darker. It’s never quite clear what Grendel and his mother are, which is a great part of their attraction; as with HP Lovecraft’s monstrosities, our imagination rushes to fill the void left by the sketched outline.
Illustration by Michael Leonard (1973).
Having said that, there’s no doubt as to Grendel’s nature in this tremendous representation (highlighted with gold ink), also by Michael Leonard and a great example of Picador book design at its height. It’s a shame that Gardner’s book, which tells the story of Beowulf from the viewpoint of the monster, fails to live up to the promise of the illustration, which does justice to a creature described as killing fifteen men while they sleep. Gardner’s narrative is more a satire than a horror tale with the creature in a perpetual state of bemusement at the antics of the men he preys upon. The book has its supporters but I found the jokey tone and anachronisms increasingly annoying. Jeff Sypeck points out some flaws in Gardner’s approach here.
As an aside, I didn’t realise Michael Leonard was a gay artist until I did a search to see what he might be doing now. In common with many illustrators, he’s left the field to pursue more personal work, in this case hyper-real still lifes and finely-rendered figure studies like the one below.
Against the Glass (2001).
I haven’t seen the science fiction film version of Beowulf from 1999 or Beowulf and Grendel from 2005, and going by the silly caveman/hobo look of Grendel in the latter I’d say that was probably a good thing. It’s possible, if you want to stretch the point, to see HR Giger’s creature in Alien as another incarnation of Grendel. Why? Because of the moment when the crew of the ship realise they have a killer on board and Ash calls it “Kane’s son”, Kane being the unfortunate crew member who gives birth to the beast.
The most interesting adaptation to date is The Thirteenth Warrior, a flawed film but one that holds together despite its troubled production. This was based on Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead which takes the demystification route but in a consistent fashion, with Grendel becoming the Wendol, a tribe of head-hunting evolutionary throwbacks who prey upon an isolated village. Despite explaining away the story’s supernatural qualities, the film has its own chills, especially when the “fire snake” appears (whose true nature I won’t spoil here). The most surprising aspect of the film now is the role played by Antonio Banderas, the thirteenth warrior of the title and also a Muslim hero, something that wouldn’t be allowed in a big-budget Hollywood film today.
At home with the Wendol: The Thirteenth Warrior (1999).
Antonio Banderas came to prominence with his eye candy roles for Pedro Almodovar and it’s perhaps fitting that a gay artist should have illustrated Beowulf at least once, muscle-bound epics having what you might call a dual appeal. Bearing that in mind, there’s this curious statement given by Roger Avary to Entertainment Weekly about the new film, which sees portly Ray Winstone as the hero, slimmed down to a gleaming, six-packed action figure:
When I wrote it, I envisaged the character of Den in the Heavy Metal comic. Den was a character by Richard Corben, who was easily one of my favorite artists. [Den] was this muscular guy with a gigantic schlong. He would always go into battle and beat the hell out of people, totally in the buff. He never wore clothes. That kind of stuck with me. I love it when somebody takes something like a fight?or really any event?and twists it to the point where you’re naked doing it. Also, there was a proud tradition of berserkers going into battle naked. It just shows how fearless you are. I don’t know about you, but if someone came at me, like, ”Aaaaargh!” naked, I’d be, ”Whoa!” Had we done it [like] Richard Corben’s Den, the MPAA would have had huge, huge problems. As it is, I think the movie is going to have to achieve a more tempered rating. I don’t think that we’re going to be [seeing] Beowulf’s gigantic, you know, baby’s-arm-holding-an-apple-sized schlong onscreen. However, because this is performance-capture, it’s not inconceivable that, at some point down the road, they simply re-render, widen-out shots, move things out of the way and put together a hard-R or NC-17 version of the movie.
Er, okay Roger, do you have something you want to tell us? As with the egregious Frank Miller and 300, which managed the feat of being homophobic and homoerotic simultaneously, there seem to be some unexplored issues at work here. Well I’m afraid even the addition of CGI schlongs is unlikely to make me want to watch Avary’s film (sorry Neil). The Thirteenth Warrior is grittier and closer to the spirit of the original tale despite its radical reworking and I’ll take the real Antonio over a plastic Ray Winstone any day.
The Lynd Ward picture at the top of this page comes from Beowulf: A New Verse Translation for Fireside and Classroom, Heritage Press, 1939. I looked at Ward’s God’s Man back in August and Eddie Campbell noted recently that his work is featured in a new collection. You can see the rest of Ward’s marvellous Beowulf illustrations here.