Sci-Fi Why?

I have no problem with people who want to do new things with the Beowulf tradition. Having written a sequel, how could I? But the idea of a “sci-fi” take on the saga made me nervous, and the reality (aired January 13 on the Sci-Fi channel) justified my fears.

Can you imagine using the left-over monsters from Lord of the Rings and adding a “love interest” to create a dramatic re-telling? Don’t try!

This is a Beowulf re-jiggered to tell it from the point of view of a very young warrior who sneaks on the boat against Beowulf’s better judgment. That way he can fall in love with a flaxen-haired maiden in Hrothgar’s court and attempt to rescue her himself from the monsters. I guess that’s better than an exploration of Beowulf’s love life – but not much.

Grendel and his mother are, I’m sure, best left to the imagination. How, after all, can you depict a Grendel big enough to wolf down warriors in a gulp or two and yet small enough to have his arm ripped off by Beowulf? The made-for-TV movie provides a monster more than fierce enough to devour the Danes and then obviates the grappling problem by letting Beowulf hack the monstrous arm off with a sword.

This Beowulf cheats. Not only does he wear armor, which he said in the saga would be unfair, he comes on with secret weapons Saddam Hussein would have died for: a cross-bow with telescopic sight that shoots four-fanged arrows that burst into Greek fire when they strike and a catapult that hurls great balls of fire at the enemy – and hits!

Grendel’s mother, in this version, is a pterodactyl: she flies on great grey wings. That’s imaginative, but in the original Beowulf has to dive deep into a tarn to find her and struggle with her in an underwater cave. In the sci-fi version, Grendel’s mom flies around but lands to confront Beowulf in a forest glade with the New Zealand mountains in the distance. (We know from Lord of the Rings that the New Zealand mountains harbor monsters.)

The dragon never gets into this version of the story and Beowulf never dies.

The mountains of New Zealand sort strangely with Hrothgar’s hall. In the saga, we are told of a wooden hall, banded with iron. In the movie, it looks sometimes like the coliseum and sometimes like a medieval castle complete with ramparts – on the outside. Inside, it’s more like the Parthenon with polished marble pillars. I wasn’t too impressed either with a Viking ship that looked like the Mayflower.

As for poor old King Hrothgar, he confesses to having offered child-sacrifice to put off the monsters. He’s desperate, and it doesn’t help that his wife goes instantly mad when Grendel shows up and stays crazed until Beowulf solves the problem. “Everything I did, I did to save my kingdom,” Hrothgar tells us. Well, we’ve had rulers like that but they haven’t (unless you want to count Guantanamo) gone to human sacrifice yet.

I spent much more useful time last week watching Congressional inquiries into the President’s plan for Iraq. You have to suspend your rational faculty either way, but the Congress, now at least, does have some sensible voices being raised.


AnonymousJanuary 14th, 2007 at 6:34 pm

there are times I’m glad we don’t have cable at home. I think this is one of them!

AnonymousJanuary 18th, 2007 at 7:51 pm

Oh, dear. That really sounds bad!

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