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Epics and Screenplays: The Problem of Adapting Beowulf for the Screen

Robert Spindler, robert.spindler@gmail.com

(via Old English Newsletter)

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This essay examines the problem of transforming the epic poem Beowulf into a commercially viable screenplay. It argues that the narrative structure of the Anglo-Saxon text demands significant modifications to match the pattern of a modern-day film script. The last section of the essay analyses two example films, Beowulf & Grendel (2005) and The Legend of Beowulf (2007) and how they tackle this problem.

Proof of the exceptional nature of the epic poem Beowulf in world literature is often sought in the continuing scholarly interest in the text over two centuries and the tremendous canon of secondary literature the work has inspired. If we were to find the truly exceptional quality of Beowulf, however, we might regard it less as an object of scholarly study than as a piece of literature that has entertained audiences even longer than it has intrigued scholars. I use the word ‘audience’ deliberately here, not only because the poem was originally performed before a group rather than read by individuals, but also to include audiovisual adaptations and interpretations of the text, because these (especially films) have a greater potential than any scholarly study to fulfil the purpose the original author had in mind when he composed the poem: [1] to reach and entertain as wide an audience as possible, so as to have his message conveyed and understood by many. [2] Of course, this idealistic message is somewhat obsolete today: the days when bravery in combat and recklessness in life-threatening adventure were the highest virtues are over. But that the poem’s subject matter is still considered suitable entertainment for a modern audience is suggested by the releases of two recent large scale films (which came out in a surprisingly short succession) – Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel [3] and Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf [4] – adapting the epic. However, they do so not without major configurations of plot and narrative structure of the original. There are numerous aspects, ranging from contemporary tastes and director’s intentions to marketability, which affect the way an adapted text is transformed into a screenplay. Ultimately, though, an antiquated text like Beowulf requires specific modifications to conform to modern screenwriting conventions – a necessary transition process to tailor the text for the cinematic genre. This essay considers which elements of the Beowulf poem are least compatible with contemporary screenplay patterns and likely to be changed. It then goes on to verify this theory by a case study of the two films mentioned.

At first sight, Beowulf has qualities which make it very suitable for being adapted on film. It has a clearly defined setting, a well-balanced action-dialogue ratio, and a charismatic protagonist. The poet’s powerful language gives action-packed moments a cinematic quality: when Beowulf fights Grendel, for example, we are given a poetic close-up of how Grendel’s arm painfully begins to separate from his body, and we imagine hearing the sound effects of sinews splitting and bones grinding. [5] Also narrative techniques that are now common in film are used. Flashbacks provide exposition at the exact moment it is needed. [6] The poem opens and closes with a funeral scene, which provides a visual and thematic frame. [7] And, as in a film, rather implausible information is often not directly presented to the reader, but a character in the text is made to believe it, which makes it then easier for the reader to accept it as well – for example, when Hrothgar’s court is convinced of Beowulf’s heroism through the debate with Unferth. [8] And at last, the fact that the poet tries to convey an idealistic message in the attractive wrapping of entertainment is not unlike what countless Hollywood productions do and have done for years.

Still, the poem is not a screenplay. And when being turned into one, it places screenwriters in the uncomfortable position of having to choose either between faithfulness to the literary model to pay tribute to a piece of art, creating a new piece of art by treating the literary model with artistic freedom, or adapting it to modern screenplay conventions and seemingly making the work of art more generic and more marketable. But, as the most expensive form of art, film requires great costs to be created in the first place, has a (theoretically) direct relation between expense and quality, and must have the potential to make a profit on these expenses (even most national film funds expect the films they support to be commercially viable). This makes every major film production art and business at the same time – only the proportion varies from film to film. So, if a film-maker decides to adapt Beowulf and demands high production values to have either the original poet’s or his own artistic vision realized, and wide distribution to have his piece of art publicly recognized, he will in all probability be forced (either by his producers, financiers, or by his own bank account) to comply with a number of conventions of the modern film business. These include the casting of bankable actors, a certain standard of audiovisual quality and production value, and the fulfilment of audience expectations by a screenplay structure within the borders of acceptability – all so that the masses of cinema goers will accept the film and pass the word on, and it can be a financial success (word-of-mouth is still considered one of the most effective factors deciding over a film’s success [9] ). And if it can be assumed that familiarity with the Beowulf poem among young people (the majority of cinema goers by most statistics) is limited, we may assume that only a minority of viewers of an adaptation will be able to appreciate a screenplay’s faithfulness to the original work – and the incentive to remain faithful to the original text diminishes to practically zero.

The major problem in turning Beowulf into a modern screenplay becomes fairly obvious when studying recent screenwriting handbooks and guidelines. Granted, the dialogue could be condensed in some parts and extended in others; scenes could be taken out (the Finnesburh fragment first and foremost) and some character depth and background would neither hurt the protagonist nor the antagonists. But all this, which has in fact been done in both adaptations discussed here, would not yet demand injury to the literary original. But (leaving aside for the moment the fact that Beowulf does not contain a Hollywood love plot) it is the narrative structure where it really gets critical. Changing the dialogue of a literary model, deleting a scene or two, or adding another one to give a character a more rounded character, might be frowned upon only by purists. But remodelling the whole plot line arguably does serious harm to an adaptation. However, the dramatic structure of Beowulf is exactly where it fits modern screenplay conventions least.

Contemporary screenwriting instructors generally agree that the essence of each screenplay, in fact any narrative, comes down to one basic dramatic problem, which is usually formulated in a simple way: “somebody wants something badly and is having trouble getting it.” [10] The somebody can be anybody, even several persons or an animal, and the something can be anything: a material value, a spiritual value, a status, and so forth. Through the division of the plot into acts, the protagonist’s struggle towards his goal (conscious or unconscious) alternately thrives or is thwarted by antagonist forces, until, at the climax, the protagonist either gets what he wants or does not. This straightforward three-act structure, often disapproved of as simplistic and formulaic, is still supported by most screenwriting teachers. [11] There is always the possibility of more than three acts, but three is the minimum to make a feature-length story work on screen. At the end of each act, a major reversal should have taken place, which is either a step ahead towards the protagonist’s goal, or a setback. However the climax works, whether it is an up-ending or a down-ending, less than three turns in the action seem insufficient, as Robert McKee observes:

Consider these rhythms: Things were bad, then they were good – end of story. Or things were good, then they were bad – end of story. Or things were bad, then they were very bad – end of story. Or things were good, then they were very good – end of story. In all four cases we feel something’s [sic] lacking. We know that the second event, whether positively or negatively charged, is neither the end nor the limit. […] The third turn is missing and we know we haven’t touched the limit until at least one major reversal occurs. Therefore, the three-act story rhythm was the foundation of story art for centuries before Aristotle noticed it. [12]

McKee then goes on to seek the very basic essence of story (anti-) design and considers all exceptions to the rules, so that he is even able to categorize the absurdity-stricken, and all but formulaic screenplay of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. [13] So, if Monty Python and the Holy Grail works on screen, why should the original structure of Beowulf not? And if the “foundation of story art,” as McKee calls it, was there for millennia before Beowulf was composed, how could the poem have had such a success for centuries if it had not adhered to these rules? First of all, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a satirical comedy whose very purpose is to pervert traditional story elements and crush audience expectations (except, perhaps, the expectation that it is going to be funny). So in this respect, it works. Beowulf is an epic, yes, but simply put it is an adventure story, evolving around an archetypal masculine hero, and it is meant to be anything but funny. These parameters, especially the adventure plot and the archetypal hero, are not out of place in contemporary cinema at all (rather the opposite), but they demand an equally archetypal dramatic structure in order to work for a contemporary audience and not to become unintentionally comic.

The dramatic structure of the Beowulf poem is in fact archetypal story design: The Danes live in a harmonious community – things are good (to use McKee’s pithy way of expressing things). Grendel raids Heorot – things turn bad. Beowulf turns up and defeats Grendel – things turn good. Grendel’s mother wants to avenge her son – things turn bad. Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother, order is restored, the evil powers are destroyed, the protagonist has achieved his desire to save the Danes, and therewith also his inward desire to gain hero status and be recognized as worthy of being king – things turn good. Then the plot jumps to a point fifty years later in time: a dragon threatens Beowulf’s people – things turn bad. Beowulf moves out to defeat the dragon, manages to do so, but dies himself in the effort – things turn good with a negative twist. A story told in four acts, with a skilful ending of dramatic irony, sad and exalting at the same time, and teaching its readers a moral lesson.

But this dramatic structure seems to lack the formality and straightforward plot lines usually associated with the Beowulf-type hero in modern cinema. This hero-type of the reckless warrior, physically strong and skilled in the use of weapons, is no stranger to cinema-goers: think of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. [14] But the narrative structure of Beowulf deviates from the character-driven (or, rather, figure-driven) big studio production screenplays featuring this hero-type in a number of ways which are potentially disturbing to a conditioned mass audience: A) The antagonist forces are strong, but appear and vanish too quickly, hardly surviving one act (although Grendel and his mother are obviously related, but we will come to that later). B) The last act, Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, takes up a great deal of story time, but is barely related to the foregoing events and hence does not present a true climax where one should be (towards the end of the narrative). C) A consequence of the first two points: the protagonist is indeed clearly motivated at each point in the narrative, but his motivation changes, so that it is hard to conceive Beowulf’s ultimate desire or the aim he pursues from the beginning through to the end of the narrative. So the plot misses a true thread. I am not trying to diminish the narrative quality of Beowulf with this, but I simply want to point out that it does not conform to the simplicity and formality of modern screenplays featuring an action hero.

The subject matter of Beowulf has undeniable parallels in popular cinema. Carl James Grindley compares the Dirty Harry character to Beowulf; [15] the elements of the epic poem that influenced Tolkien have survived in the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings; and The 13th Warrior is based on a novel by Michael Crichton which is only a reconfigured version of the Beowulf poem. [16] The parallels between Beowulf and Conan the Barbarian are obvious, especially in the characterization of its taciturn protagonist, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. [17] And in the course of his career, Schwarzenegger’s roles often went on to be similar Beowulf-type heroes – fighting, for example, a gruesome Grendel (here an evil alien), with a band of reckless Vikings (here special force soldiers) in Predator. [18] However, major productions which are directly based on the poem are considerably rare, for the reasons I have suggested above: certain elements of the Beowulf poem are very much suitable for popular cinema, but a one-to-one transformation to screen would either risk devastating critiques for deviating from the original, or put the film’s financial success in jeopardy by sticking too much to it. In fact, only three direct film adaptations worth mentioning exist: Graham Baker’s Beowulf of 1999, [19] and the aforementioned Beowulf & Grendel and Zemeckis’ Beowulf of 2007 (simply Beowulf hereafter). Since the first of these, Baker’s Beowulf, sets the story in future times and transforms the ancient poem into a science-fiction film, it cannot be regarded as a direct adaptation and will not be taken into account here. In what follows I will take a close look at only the latter two films and examine how the makers of those have gone about the problem of adapting Beowulf for the screen.

Andrew Rai Berzins, who wrote the screenplay for the international co-production Beowulf & Grendel, handles the literary model quite freely, and varies the plot with little inhibition. However, it would be too harsh to claim he does so with the single perspective to turn Beowulf into a Hollywood-style action-adventure screenplay. Typically enough, Beowulf & Grendel was financed with support from national film boards and councils and cast no (at that time) A-movie stars. Its budget is claimed to have been 13 to 14 million US dollars, which would make it a low-budget film by Hollywood standards. [20] These facts suggest that the film is not necessarily mass-oriented, and might aim at an intellectual audience as well. Still, the significant changes to the plot Berzins undertakes help to generate a more conventional screenplay than a scene-by-scene adaptation of the poem would. In particular, they provide remedies for the major problems pointed out above: the inconsistency of antagonist forces, the incompatibility of Beowulf’s fight with the dragon, and the absence of a thread.

The first problem is solved by extending Grendel’s presence in the story to such a degree that he becomes the major antagonist force all the way through from the opening scene to the end of the second act. Grendel repeatedly haunts Heorot while Beowulf and his men lie awake in anticipation, but the final confrontation is delayed until towards the end of the second act. To fill up story time, several sub-plots evolve around the central plot. Most significantly, an elaborate back story for Grendel is provided, making him more a tragic anti-hero than a flat, faceless monster: he has a motive for his attacks on the Danes (they murdered his father), he spares Beowulf and his men because they have not done anything to him (he only attacks them after one has crushed the skull of his dead father, which he keeps as a memento in his cave), and he has actually fathered a son by a witch, an outcast of the Danish community! Parallel to this, and to not much surprise, a quasi-romance develops between Beowulf and this witch (a character who is, needless to say, absent in the original poem), who tells him the whole story behind Grendel. For Beowulf, this adds an inner conflict to the simple outer conflict of his struggle with Grendel: does he have the right to destroy the monster? When Grendel, angered by the intrusion into his cave, finally attacks Beowulf and his men, he loses his arm in the fight with the hero, escapes, and bleeds to death. However, it is not Beowulf who rips off his arm, but rather Grendel himself, to escape from being caught by a rope. The rather short third and last act then consists of a revenge attack by Grendel’s mother on Heorot and Beowulf’s defeat of her. Finally, Beowulf encounters Grendel’s son, but spares his life, and history repeats itself: as Hrothgar once spared Grendel after killing his father, Beowulf spares Grendel’s son after killing Grendel. The film ends by leaving the question open: will Grendel’s son try to avenge his father one day?

As can be seen, these variations do away with the remaining two problems as well: the dragon episode is simply left out and we do not get to know the Beowulf of fifty years later. And a thread is provided by lengthening out and complicating the conflict between Beowulf and Grendel. Beowulf’s goal is to free the Danes from the evil threat, and he pursues it from the beginning to the end. One problem that remains from the original poem is the sudden change of antagonist from the second to the third act. Grendel’s mother appears almost out of the blue, and the external conflict more or less repeats itself, only with an antagonist with a new face. [21] To counteract this problem, Beowulf & Grendel employs some minor strategies. Grendel’s mother actually appears twice before the grande finale: both times her arm surfaces eerily from the sea to grab for Beowulf or one of his men, thus setting up her later appearance – a common technique in screenwriting. Furthermore, as we almost get to know a whole Grendel dynasty, with a family tradition of vendettas and body part-keepsakes, the viewer will more readily accept the intervention of Grendel’s mother. However, a crack in the story line remains.

The commercial potential of Beowulf is clearly some categories above that of Beowulf & Grendel. The production involves major Hollywood studios and distributors (Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures), stars leading international actors (Anthony Hopkins as Hrothgar, John Malkovich as Unferth, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother), and boasts state-of-the-art computer animation technique. No wonder the budget of this film was considerably higher than that of Beowulf & Grendel: according to Internet sources it is estimated at 150 million US dollars. [22] Thus it stands to reason that for this film the epic poem was adapted in a way to resemble a mainstream Hollywood production as closely as possible to maximize its popular appeal.

However, the filmmakers have adapted Beowulf with a surprising faithfulness to the original plot and narrative context. The film’s novel animation technique, its star cast, and the advertising seem to have been the foremost strategies for commercial exploit; Beowulf basically retains all the essential sequences and scenes of the poem. It deletes no major characters, and pays particular close attention to the narrative details of the poem. Hints in the film demonstrate the awareness of contextual elements which could not be woven directly into the plot: the character of Finn appears in a short scene; when Beowulf has become king, his adventures with Grendel are staged, accompanied by a singer who quotes the original lines of the poem in Old English; in the course of Beowulf’s adventures, the conversion to Christianity proceeds, and so forth.

As might be expected, though, numerous scenes and essential plot elements have been added freely. To the filmmakers’ credit, one has to underline that no major characters have been invented (as in Beowulf & Grendel). However, the present characters are ascribed features and life stories which deviate strongly from the original poem (for example, Beowulf falls in love with Wealhtheow and marries her after Hrothgar’s death). Basically, the writers of the screenplay have attempted to add a back story to the narrative that aims to close all the “holes” inherent in the literary model, in order to give the story more continuity. They add a theme of heroic tradition with the underlying message that epic narratives tell only a part of the story, and much more happened that will never be known by future generations. By keeping all the elements of the original poem and only adding complexity to them and connections between them, the claim is that the story that will be told of Beowulf lacks continuity only because it is not the whole story. The motivation for adding this back story can again be sought in the three main problems in adapting Beowulf for the screen listed above.

Simply put, the back story of the film Beowulf is the following: Grendel’s mother is a sea monster who can change its shape to that of a ravishingly beautiful woman (hence the casting of Angelina Jolie). She had once seduced Hrothgar, and the product was Grendel, so Hrothgar is actually Grendel’s father. When Beowulf kills Grendel, she seduces him as well (promising great riches, power and invincibility in addition) to have another son as a replacement. The product of this union is then the evil dragon which Beowulf fights in the end (and which lives in the same cave as Grendel did and his mother still does). This simple (and, to some, outrageous) innovation of making Grendel’s mother a man-eater in the metaphorical sense of the word – seducing mighty thanes to father her monstrous sons – solves all three problems at once: A) There is a greater emphasis on the relatedness of the antagonist forces, which all spring from Grendel’s mother, the stronghold of evil in this film, present all the way through to the very last scene. If we compare this to Beowulf & Grendel – where Grendel is the main antagonist throughout the film, and his mother appears only in the shortened last act – it is the other way round here, where Grendel appears only in the first act, but the threat of his mother is present throughout. This ties in with the second problem: B) The dragon episode is less cut off from the preceding events, because the dragon is Beowulf’s offspring by Grendel’s mother, who appears again, for even greater continuity. And this again ties in with and solves the third problem: C) The thread of the film is Beowulf’s struggle to come to terms with what Grendel’s mother has done to him. This involves not only the terror and destruction among his people and the Danes, but the demonstration of his own weakness and fallibleness. Beowulf is thus his own greatest enemy: His vanity, lust, and desire for power and riches generate a monster which threatens to destroy his people. His goal throughout the narrative is to become, or be, a hero. Throughout the acts, he first gains hero status by killing Grendel, loses it by letting himself be seduced by Grendel’s mother, then regains it, when he loses his life in the fight with the dragon. Of course, this is his self-perception, which does not always correlate with how his people see him: they see him as a hero throughout his kingship, whereas he himself knows he is only indestructible because he gave in to the temptation of Grendel’s mother’s promises. Only in the end does he become a true hero. However, it is suggested that the one character who is aware of Beowulf’s flawed character, Wiglaf, will keep silent about Beowulf’s misdeeds and take care that only his heroic adventures will live on in legend and in the epic poem as we still have it today – in which Beowulf is a hero without faults.

It may also be noted here how the writers have attempted to close some other holes in the narrative with this back story, and by adding other details. Wiglaf, for example, is introduced early on in the first act, where we get to know him as a warrior loyal to Beowulf. This adds continuity between the Grendel- and the dragon-episode, and removes the necessity to introduce an important new character late in the film (a solution often criticized by screenwriting instructors). The screenplay also explains who the father of Grendel is, and why he does not appear to slaughter the Danes as well – a question which a reader of the epic poem might well ask. Beowulf also plays on the fact that Beowulf has neither witnesses nor clear proof that he has actually killed Grendel’s mother in the poem: nobody sees him fighting her, and he brings back only Grendel’s head as proof, not his mother’s. [23] In the film, Beowulf is portrayed as a notorious boaster, tending to exaggerate the accounts of his adventures (his own men doubt the credibility of Beowulf’s version of the swimming contest in the scene where Unferth quarrels with him), and we recognize this boasting again when he tells of how he killed Grendel’s mother – which he actually did not.

Although the dramatic matter of Beowulf has much cinematic potential, direct screen adaptations have been comparatively rare. The two most outstanding ones are the recent productions Beowulf & Grendel and Beowulf. Both modify their literary model significantly, and for similar reasons: the narrative structure of the epic poem does not adhere to modern screenplay conventions, but modern screenplay conventions are a kind of safety net for producers to keep their films from becoming financial disasters. The two films undertake these modifications quite differently, but both try to find solutions to the three main problems when adapting Beowulf for film: The variation of antagonists, the incompatibility of the dragon-episode, and the absence of a consistent desire on the part of the protagonist. Beowulf & Grendel extends the role of Grendel and eliminates the dragon-episode completely. Beowulf invents a back story that connects all three antagonists (Grendel, his mother, and the dragon), and adds an inner conflict to Beowulf in his consistent struggle to be a hero. Up to this day, the two are the most serious attempts to bring the Beowulf epic to the big screen. It remains to be seen if more will follow, and whether other solutions to the dilemma of adapting the epic poem will be found, in order to give this piece of world literature a greater chance of public recognition through the powerful medium of film.


[1] The writer is aware that the century of origin is still a matter of debate.

[2] Hans Jürgen Hube, Beowulf: Das Angelsächsische Heldenepos über nordische Könige (Wiesbaden, 2005), pp. 420-1.

[3] Beowulf & Grendel, adapted by Andrew Rai Berzins, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, performers Gerard Butler and Ingvar E. Sigurdsson (Movision, 2005), Motion Picture.

[4] Beowulf, adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, directed by Robert Zemeckis, performers Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, and John Malkovich (Paramount and Warner Brothers, 2007), Motion Picture.

[5] Beowulf, lines 815-8, ed. and trans. by R. D. Fulk (Cambridge, MA, 2010). All references to Beowulf are from this edition and are cited by line in the text and notes.

[6] E. g., Beowulf, lines 532-581, 874-915, 1197-1214.

[7] Beowulf, lines 26-52, 3137-3182.

[8] Beowulf, lines 499-612.

[9] Lucie Bader, Sehen und Gesehen werden: Filmmarketing in kleinen europäischen Filmländern (Vienna, 2000), p. 23.

[10] David Howard, Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay (New York, 1995), p. 22.

[11] E. g., Howard, Tools, p. 25; Philip Parker, The Art & Science of Screenwriting (Exeter, 1998), p. 27; Lew Hunter, Screenwriting (London, 1993) p. 93-94; Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York, 1997), p. 218ff.

[12] McKee, Story, p. 218.

[13] Monty Python and the Holy Grail, written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (Python, 1975), Motion Picture; McKee, Story, p. 47.

[14] See also Hugh Magennis, “Michael Crichton, Ibn Fadlan, Fantasy Cinema: Beowulf at the Movies,” Old English Newsletter 35.1 (2001), 34-38.

[15] Carl James Grindley, “The Hagiography of Steel: The Hero’s Weapon and Its Place in Pop Culture,” in The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy, eds. Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray (Jefferson, 2004), pp. 151-166, at pp. 158-9.

[16] Lord of the Rings Trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson (New Line, 2001-3), Motion Picture; The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan (Touchstone, 1999), Motion Pciture; Grindley, “Hagiography,” p. 160; Magennis, “Beowulf at the Movies,” p. 34.

[17] Conan the Barbarian, directed by John Milius, performer Arnold Schwarzenegger (Universal, 1982), Motion Picture.

[18] Predator, directed by John McTiernan, performer Arnold Schwarzenegger (Amercent, 1987), Motion Picture; Magennis, “Beowulf at the Movies,” p. 34.

[19] Beowulf, directed by Graham Baker, performer Christopher Lambert (Capitol, 1999), Motion Picture.

[20] “Sturla Gunnarsson speaks of Beowulf & Grendel,” MoviesOnline, accessed January 4, 2012, http://www.moviesonline.ca/movienews_9557.html.

[21] Cf. Beowulf, lines 1251-1309, pp. 168-173.

[22] “Box office / business for Beowulf (2007),” IMDb.com Inc., accessed January 4, 2012, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0442933/business.

[23] Beowulf, lines 1557-1650, pp. 188-195.