In college, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf–or more specifically, on what happens to the narrative structure of the poem when it is adapted as Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, and then when that novel is adapted into the film The 13th Warrior.
The 13th Warrior was a huge flop, and so far, Troy, King Arthur, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven haven’t exactly been doing gangbusters. Of the huge sword-wielding epics, only Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings have warranted this slavish studio attention to these sort of films.
Now there are no less than two Beowulf films coming out this year. One, which supposedly comes out in October, I hadn’t heard anything about until today. Beowulf and Grendel stars Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley, so it isn’t necessarily going to be a B-film. From the photos and information on the site, it looks like it could be good. On the other hand, after a look through the site’s discussion forums, it looks like there may have been some significant changes to the story, so we’ll see. Having tried my hand at adaptating literary works to film, I have sympathy for the screenwriter.
It also seems there’s some question whether the film will even be released in the U.S.–here’s hoping. It may only get a limited release, but fortunately, I live in Boston, so there’s a good chance it will play here.
But that’s not all. Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman are also working on a script for a Beowulf film, currently scheduled for release in 2007. There are a lot of rumors floating around on the Internet, so I’m not sure what’s true and what isn’t, but allegedly the film will be animated.
Beowulf’s been having a pretty good run lately. I’m very fond of the “HBO Animated Epic” version of the story–a half-hour animated short that features Joseph Fiennes and Derek Jacobi as voices, among others.
I still may try my hand at some Beowulf-related writing, someday. Technically, I already have–but good luck tracking that down.
As for all these other films–why did Lord of the Rings and Gladiator succeed where the others failed? Well, in the case of Gladiator, I think Russell Crowe–an actor at the height of his popularity–helped an awful lot. Also, the story, while not exactly Shakespeare, had a lot of visceral, entertaining aspects–it was essentially the modern equivalent of watching real gladiatorial combat.
As for Lord of the Rings, well, I think those films are their own deal entirely. They’re well-made films with a great cast; they deserve their acclaim without need for talking about trends or audience psychology.
As for Troy and King Arthur–I think these films did themselves a disservice by neglecting the mythological or supernatural elements of the stories they were based on. Excalibur did well in 1981, so it’s not as if audiences don’t want to watch Arthurian films. As for Troy, I think avoiding the mythological elements was a bit cowardly on the part of the filmmakers. They wanted to make one of those sword-and-sandal epics from the fifties and sixties, and that’s exactly what they did–made a sword-and-sandal epic from the fifties and sixties. Being honest to the supernatural element, or finding an interesting and compelling way of making those elements work and be relevant to modern viewers, would have made for a braver and more contemporary adaptation. Just my two cents.