Aaah. Rejection with such sweet words is not nearly as terrible as rejection with harsh words or none at all. Here is what I wrote for Bitch magazine. They want me to keep sending them stuff even though they've returned twice. I guess that's the way it goes. It is long though. I warn you. I wrote it before the movie came out.
SOMETHING IS ROTTEN IN DENMARK
(AND I THINK IT MIGHT BE AN APPLE)
Or, how a much-anticipated new movie fails to pass the bar for an enlightened (or just less obnoxious) view of womankind and how some movies you’ve probably never heard of do.
Awhile ago I was rooting around the movie section of a major chain bookstore when one of the films caught my eye. But when I flipped the DVD box to read the description for Beowulf and Grendel, I couldn’t help but feel a little confused. Sarah Polley as ‘Selma?’ The English major in me wanted to know just who this Selma was. Did I sleep through that part of the poem? The DVD box had only this much to say: “When Beowulf meets Selma (Sarah Polley), a mysterious and sensual witch, his understanding of revenge is further complicated.” So Selma’s, what? The Beowulf love interest? Despite a genuine admiration for all things Sarah Polley, I have a good laugh and run home to irreverently put the movie at the top of my Netflix queue.
At the time I was a neophyte. But looking back I can see how this little movie with its stunning cinematography and beautiful soundtrack has opened the door for me into the phenomenon that is the Beowulf Adaptation. What’s even more interesting, for our purposes, is examining what contemporary filmic versions of a very non-contemporary Anglo-Saxon poem (of which the only surviving manuscript dates from the eleventh century) can tell us about the roles available to women in twenty-first century media. Of all the Beowulf Adaptations out there, I will be focusing on the aforementioned Beowulf and Grendel (2005), and a futuristic sci-fi Christopher Lambert flick (1999) as well as the November 16, 2007 Robert Zemeckis film release starring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s dam and based on a screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Because the movie isn’t out at the time of this writing, I’m cheating by using the novelization (based on the screenplay) by Catherine R. Kiernan and published by Harper Collins. Since Neil Gaiman wrote the introduction, I’m presuming he endorses it. And after all, I think it’s fair to call this text an adaptation in its own right. (I am not, however, even going to gloss the misogyny inherent to the Michael Crichton/Antonio Banderas Beowulf knock-off, The 13th Warrior where ‘Grendel’ is really a group of cave-dwelling, mother goddess worshipping cannibals. Oh my. But by all means, check it out for yourself. Make sure to note the little Venus de Milo figurines the bad guys carry around on their belts.)
Of course it’s only fair to start with the poem itself. Written down by an anonymous poet sometime in the early eleventh century, the poem would probably have been told and retold from generation to generation before that. However, experts say historical events in the poem can be dated to the fifth century. Beowulf is the story of a hero who travels both far and near to deliver his people from suffering. First as a young man, Beowulf travels with a band of warriors to relieve his one-time benefactor, the Danish King Hrothgar, of a murderous troll and also kill’s the troll’s revengeful mother. Fifty years later, Beowulf sacrifices his own life to protect his people and slay a dragon. Set in a biblical context, the poem also deals in the Germanic tradition of reciprocity between a lord and his retainers and highlights the ideal role a queen should play among her people.
At this point, you may be having a good laugh along with me and asking where exactly Selma, the sensual witch, fits in to all of this. But before we turn again to the movie adaptations, it might be worthwhile to briefly check out some important roles the female characters in the poem do play. I consult Anglo-Saxon scholar Jane Chance’s book Woman as Hero in Old English Literature for a quick brush up on the role of queens and anti-queens in the Beowulf epic. Basically, a queen like Hrothgar’s wife, Wealhtheow, can be considered a peace-pledge between two tribes. Once pledged to her king, she in turn keeps the peace in the hall by preserving the social order among her lord’s retainers. The queen does this by offering a cup of mead from man to man in order of social standing. The Beowulf epic rebounds with several examples of good and bad queen-ship. The problem with Grendel’s mother, again according to Jane Chance, is that she entirely subverts the traditional feminine values espoused for Anglo-Saxon women. For example, she takes on a masculine role and actively seeks to avenge her son’s death. Nor does she promote peace on any other level. But women in Beowulf are not just lessons for female readers to mull over as they tend to their weaving and try to learn about their role as proper Anglo-Saxons.
Instead, the poem actually offers at least one instance where a woman steps forward to represent her people as a whole. When an unidentified woman laments over the funeral pyre of her king, Beowulf (lines 3150-3155 in the poem), she bears witness to the trauma of an entire people ravaged by tribal warfare. Others of undisclosed gender also wail in grief during this scene as the lamenter lays out some of the deepest fears a person of the dark ages might experience. Think invasion by foreigners. Think slavery. The lament itself certainly never appears weak or disgraceful. But unlike the original, the Neil Gaiman offering replaces the scene with a one of a male scop who sings instead of Beowulf’s glory. But maybe I’m being nit-picky? It just seems to me that if the screenwriters are going to take the time to include some sort of oral extravaganza over the funeral pyre, they might as well keep the original. Of course, my eyes could have glassed over and missed that part, which is entirely possible despite Kiernan’s fine writing. (Nope, they didn’t. I double-checked.) Hmmm. Just one of the reasons I think the saying ‘something is rotten in Denmark’ should also refer to some Beowulf Adaptations. But by all means, read on. We still have to get to the apple.
There’s something incredibly unsettling to me about the movie Beowulf and Grendel, the character of Selma, and the burgeoning relationship between Selma and Beowulf. The burning question on my mind is simply, “Who the f*ck is Selma?” But I’m no longer asking in an English major this-movie-isn’t-like-the-book sort of way. It’s apparent to me that Selma is important. But something doesn’t sit right. I can’t figure out what’s troubling me. I can’t figure out who she is.
Now we can get back to the movies. Obviously, with a slew of male warriors running about slaying monsters and dragons, one has to at least imagine the possibility that media falling under the ever-widening rubric of the Beowulf Adaptation may cough up limited opportunities for the female actors of our day. The current offering, starring Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s dam, may offer just another example of how a major motion picture can present even leading female characters in flashy but ultimately one-dimensional roles. (Huge Major Spoiler Alert.) Basically, Grendel’s ageless, super-sexy mother seduces King Hrothgar and gives birth to Grendel. (This most definitely does not happen in the book.) After Hrothgar breaks a promise he made to the otherworldly merewife, she looses Grendel on his court at Heorot. Beowulf comes with fourteen Geat warriors to save the day. Beowulf kills Grendel and has encounter with merewife Jolie in which, we come to learn, he does not kill her but rather makes a devilish bargain and inseminates merewife with what will become the dragon that eventually is his undoing. Hrothgar abdicates the Danish throne and passes off his wife, Wealhtheow, to Beowulf then promptly falls off a cliff. (I am typing from the fetal position right now. To say this does not happen in the book would be a weak and flaccid understatement.) Oh, and along the way Christianity comes to town and so does Ursula, the ‘young girl’ who brings sex and comfort to Beowulf’s old age.
Oh, I get it! Lust and greed will bring even a good man down, although selfless acts can bring about redemption. But let’s make sure and understand that even as lust is personified by the super seductive Jolie and even as Beowulf succumbs to her rampant sexuality, his desire for her is not necessarily associated with wanton sexual abandon but with capitulation under duress and as paired with Beowulf’s greed to be seen as a great man. Importantly, the sexual woman is standing in for something else entirely here. Playing on what she perceives to be Beowulf’s wish for glory, the merewife gets what she wants by being sexually provocative in a stereotypical mere-bimbo way. She even compliments Beowulf on the size of the magical ‘horn’ he’s carrying. “’It glows so …delightfully” we read towards the bottom of page 193. Oooo-kay. (Those ellipsis are in the original, by the way.) No doubt that line will get some chuckles at the theater. A few pages later, Kiernan tells us (again, based on the screenplay by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) “the merewife reaches down and runs her fingers along the golden horn, Hrothgar’s prize, Beowulf’s reward, then she slips her arms around Beowulf’s waist and draws him nearer to her. She kisses his bare chest and the soft flesh of his throat” (197-198). I don’t truck much with Freud (especially since he doesn’t seem to know much about women) but I get that whole phallus idea and I’m absolutely, definitely getting that here.
But it gets so much worse. According to my reading, Beowulf’s encounter with the merewife leaves him somewhat unmanned. Directly after the passage quoted above, we read as the merewife tells Beowulf that as long as she gets to keep the horn, the phallus he brought with him to the cave, he can be King of Denmark. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that saying a woman in charge makes a man less than he is need not be viewed as a compliment to women. And while Neil Gaiman is certainly not the first writer to personify the road towards desire and greed for more than one has in the figure of a woman, I can only hope he is the last. This tale has a long and arduous history and needs to go away. Ahem! Eve. The Book of Genesis. That whole apple thing. Just to drive home the point and seal the metaphorical deal, the end of the long braid worn by Grendel’s dam has a life of its own as a serpent. A serpent, I said. I don’t even read the Bible and I still get the reference.
When I express frustration about my reading material to the roommate who loaned me the novelization in the first place, he tells me that Neil Gaiman deals a lot in archetypes and that may be the reason I think some or all of the characters are a bit…non-dimensional. (In this case, the ellipses are mine.) Well, that’s fine, I say. If archetypes can bring us to a fuller understanding of humanity then by all means. But if the archetypes in use serve instead to limit our view, I daresay they ought to be done away with. And I think it’s fair to expect even an animated film to indulge itself in a little complex characterization.
It might be somewhat interesting to discuss what archetype Neil Gaiman had in mind when he was originally conceiving the movie’s two Beowulf love interests, but judging from the novelization, I think it is called ‘Somewhat Passive.’ Or maybe ‘Mildly Adversarial but Ultimately Ineffective,’ in the case of Wealhtheow. ‘Young and Sweet’ for Ursula. (I’m going to spoil some more of the movie for you now.) Basically, Wealhtheow gets handed off to Beowulf and somewhere along the way turns Christian and (consequently?) frigid. We are aware that she knows at least about Hrothgar’s association with the merewife and probably suspects Beowulf. Beowulf, in his old age, turns to the much-younger Ursula. Somehow King Beowulf has got hold of his horn again, both literally and figuratively. This is where we are when the dragon comes.
And come he does. Fire all over everything. Pathetically, Ursula and Wealhtheow get trapped in a dangerous situation. They run back and forth along a bridge, eventually caught between two burning towers. One by one they become frozen by fright at the horrific sight of the dragon, but egg each other on in displays of sisterly solidarity. However, they do not save themselves. Wiglaf, Beowulf’s male retainer, carries the day in the end. But still I have to ask myself if those displays of solidarity (as well as Wealhtheow’s promise to look after Ursula when Beowulf is gone) save this movie after all, at least in the sense of how female characters are portrayed and the agency given them by their creators.
I have already discussed how twenty-first century writers leave out a powerful female voice from a really old poem. The scenes I described above take place nowhere in the original poem nor in other adaptations I’ve seen. Therefore, I suggest we read them as products not of “historical context” but of the twenty-first century pop culture mind. And I don’t think, after a lot of reading and mulling, that those scenes between Ursula and Wealhtheow need be read only as sisterly solidarity. There is no question from the text that Beowulf considers himself to love both women, and that both women, in their way, love Beowulf. Maybe, instead, we should at least consider the possibility that whatever ‘solidarity’ Ursula and Wealhtheow may espouse also signifies a kind of passive acceptance of the one-man-two-women situation. We might see Jolie’s character as the female inversion of this stereotype, but I don’t think we have to. As far as we know, she only gets her men one at a time.
I start to figure Selma out. She’s the outsider. She is the only one with enough perspective to see the larger picture from the get-go. She is defiant in her refusal to validate Beowulf’s participation in a culture of violence. And under her tutelage, Beowulf is like a man waking up. But somehow, to me, the role of edifier seems stereotypically feminine. Just look at Hermione. And most of my teachers have been women, after all. But then I realize something about Selma the umpteenth time I watch the film, looking for that kernel of what draws me back. In the end, Selma rejects the role of teacher. She turns away from Beowulf and forces him to manage moral predicament on his own. That he does so may signify the strength of her example.
Although IMDb folks have only thought to give the Graham Baker directed Christopher Lambert Beowulf film three and a half out of ten stars (as opposed to six out of ten for Beowulf and Grendel), I’m willing to give it ten more than I would give to the current Beowulf offering. The film takes place in the futuristic/medieval setting of the Outpost, where Hrothgar, his daughter Krya, and a band of trusty soldiers battle a supernatural monster night by night as their numbers dwindle and outsiders prevent them from leaving. Right away, the film tips the viewer off that we may be dealing with some bad cinema. In one of the first scenes, an escapee from the Outpost runs down a hill in such a state of sexy dishevelment I think I can only call it dishabille. I dare say red stockings and garters and a provocatively torn skirt have less to do with fighting monsters than with how weirdly sexy the whole scenario is, especially when it turns gruesome and we watch as a captor reveals her bare, muscled stomach in order to more accurately cut her in half. The film also succumbs to the mere-bimbo storyline. (Someone please ask Neil Gaiman if ‘mere-bimbo’ is an archetype.) And in a move that screams ‘Holy Opposite of Star Wars, Batman!’ screenwriter Mark Leahy writes Hrothgar as Grendel’s father once again. Grendel’s dam (Layla Roberts) is Playboy bunny sexy. Here though, she’s pissed because the Outpost is built on land that used to belong to her. So at least that’s something. And Hrothgar’s seduction seems purely sexual. She seduces him. They engender Grendel. Kyra’s mother commits suicide. No using the sexual lust of a man for a woman to stand in for something else. But, you might say. Just look at Kyra (Rhona Mitra), you might add. She walks around the whole time in a bustier. And you’d be right. But it’s what she does in her bustier that really counts.
Kyra has all the courage and integrity of a kung fu heroine. She wants to play an active role in the defense of her father’s people. She does not accept Beowulf sight unseen when he shows up at the Outpost but somehow manages to invert the traditional feminine role of hostess in order to give ever-so polite voice to the misgivings of herself and others in her role of ironic interrogator. “I’m not afraid. I can’t afford to be afraid,” she tells Beowulf at one point. She refuses sanctuary to fight and her decision saves her life when passive resistance proves futile. She bears weapons despite her lack of armor. Kind of silly, just standing there with her spear and bustier. But also kind of noble. And then she throws her spear. Kind of fierce. Despite her lack of choices and her constant proximity to death, doesn’t settle for sex or romance with male friend she loves as a brother. Mourns friend when he dies. Never vamps or tramps. We find she’s the victim of domestic abuse who killed her attacker in self-defense. Lives under the personal torment of thinking Grendel represents her dead husband come to extract revenge. Reveals her romantic feelings to Beowulf with honor and openness. When all with Grendel is said and done, accepts Beowulf’s unknowingness about the future. Makes her decisions for herself. Accepts the unknown.
In other words, Kyra’s not just an add-on to an old text for the sake of a love interest. Instead of Neil Gaiman’s cookie-cutter shapes of Wealhtheow, Ursula, and even Grendel’s mother, we are left with a character with personality, motivation and volition of her own. And although the Christopher Lambert Beowulf certainly has its foibles, just the fact that the filmmakers did not—according to IMDb—include a gratuitous scene of sexual contact between Grendel and Kyra because they felt it didn’t add to the movie may be a sign that this film may at least have its heart in the right place. But when I consult Box Office Mojo I can’t find a listing for the film. When I double check on IMDb, I learn that the film actually won three Video Premier Awards for best art direction, cinematography, and visual effects. Does ’video premiere’ mean this strong female lead never even made it to the theater?
I find out on Box Office Mojo that Beowulf and Grendel opened in only two theaters and has a total lifetime gross of $92, 076 worldwide. That’s not a lot of money. I fear another portrayal of a strong, complex woman has fallen by the wayside. The thing is, I like Selma. I’ve gotten over my English major angst to see that Sarah Polley plays her as a strong, complex woman who doesn’t know exactly who she’s dealing with in the figure of Beowulf. She makes choices based on who or what she has to protect but never slips from her role as the film’s moral center. Rather than detract from what ‘really’ happens, Selma fleshes this story out.
Something tells me that the new Robert Zemeckis Beowulf Adaptation isn’t going to just fall by the wayside. There are posters all over town. I’ve seen the trailer, and I’m pretty sure Angelina Jolie looks pretty darn hot. There’s something (not just literally!) seductive about the power her character seems to hold over the hearts of men. Who hasn’t dreamed at least once of taking on the dominatrix role as the Beowulf-or Hrothgar-like gimp bends to our will? But as a friend in the know once pointed out, in most non-illegal S&M activities the gimp actually has the safe-word and therefore the power to end the entire interaction. I would argue that whatever ‘strength’ anyone might see in the domination Grendel’s dam espouses lies really in the willingness of her victims to capitulate. And isn’t that the nature of Eve, of seduction? Leave it to the little movies with barely a box office to give us the inner strength of a Selma or a Kyra. In the future we might take a long hard look at why a hugely marketed film resorts to unpacking unintelligent silhouettes of women (and men, but that’s another story) while two much smaller movies with little income or distribution manage to serve up human beings. For now, though, I’ll offer up something else for the future. At some point during the last few paragraphs, I became an aunt to a niece. Here’s hoping our attitudes can shift as a culture just a teensy-tiny bit so she can grow up in a world where Angelina Jolie continues to be a badass humanitarian but ‘Eve’ is just the opposite of ‘Day’ and apples are a tasty afternoon snack.