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As a reward for his heroism, the Viking hero Beowulf (Winstone, left) is offered a precious gift by the grateful King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins)

Epic changes

Movies | Beowulf takes clever liberties with the classic tale and is ambivalent toward the dawn of Christendom

Issue: "Not angry anymore," Dec. 1, 2007

It's probably foolish to expect the new Beowulf to be a respite from this film season's unremitting violence, but since the movie is PG-13 and a CGI cartoon, one might be forgiven for hoping so. Sorry, Ratatouille it ain't. Beowulf earned its rating for "intense sequences of violence" in addition to some sexual material and nudity. The violence is all computer-created, but try telling that to your stomach.

Unlike the video games it so strongly resembles, though, Beowulf is both complex and knowledgeable, retooling the life of Beowulf (a de-paunched, re-cheekboned Ray Winstone) with a number of structural twists that never quite contradict the poem, but take clever liberties with it instead. It's at least the third time screenwriter Neil Gaiman has told the story (once in the jokey Hollywood-mocking poem "Bay Wolf," once in his novella, "The Monarch of the Glen"), and he keeps finding new things to say.

The story is set at the rise of European Christianity and suggests that monsters like Grendel (Crispin Glover) and his alluring mother (Angelina Jolie) are being slowly banished from the world by belief in Jesus. The religious commentary provides the story with an interesting perspective on the text of Beowulf: Since the epic poem is a folk story preserved by monks who rewrote parts of it to include Christian themes, one of the film's characters explains these differences.

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Unferth (John Malkovich), an early Christian convert, retells Beowulf's early battles late in the film, changing the bloody half-truths into morality tales. It's one of many smart ideas here, like old-world representative Grendel speaking in bastardized Middle English. I just wish the film's token Christian were less obnoxious.

Gaiman and director Robert Zemeckis seem ambivalent about the dawn of Christendom. On the one hand, there's a lot of suffering and terror that is coming to a close; on the other, all the wonderful stories that come out of the old, strange world will be gone, too. This is a cute but false dichotomy; other medieval poems like "The Dream of the Rood" paint Christ as a courageous, heroic figure, and Christ Himself told wonderful stories.

But what of those whose kids are suddenly interested in classic literature? Aside from Angelina Jolie's largely unclad seductress, Beowulf fights Grendel au naturel, with a variety of coincidental concealments to cover his shame that eventually verge on the comic. There's also plenty of bloodletting (as there is in the poem, it must be said), and the Grendel monster is just disgusting.

A distinct lack of sexual restraint is now apparently "period" for films set in the Middle Ages (though Beowulf is hardly a trailblazer there). None of this-except the newly attractive Ma Grendel-diverges from the original text, but concerned parents would do well to remember that classic literature does not always a family film make.

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