Friday, October 26, 2007

Relax: let the movies explain it all to you

[Update: See Richard Scott Nokes's blow-by-blow account of one of the "activities" of this promotional item here. And he found the PDF of the poster online, so if you want, you can read the whole thing here.]

So yesterday in my campus mail I got a promotional poster/lesson plan (Meets National Standards! it says) for Beowulf the Movie. It urges me to let the fine folks at Paramount help me introduce a "classic of English literature" to my students. It has "activities" for K-12 and discussion questions for high school and college classes. I've got to scan part of this and post it here because it's too freakin' hilarious and troubling at the same time. One of my students, by the way, was outraged and offended that they'd send such a thing "to a specialist!" And it does seem that they sent it to me precisely because I'm a medievalist.

But aside from the whole problem of "Just show the movie -- they'll like it more!" issue, or the issue of the conflation of film adaptation and poem, I got fascinated by the "character description" of Grendel on this thing. They tried really hard to do an old-fashioned, 8th-grade level "character sketch" for him, which is funny in and of itself. But the weird bit was the "origin" section, which said Grendel was the offspring of Hrothgar and a succubus (a half-woman, half-demon, they said). Isn't that the same "back story" that the Beowulf and Grendel movie gave Grendel? Or no, wait, was it that Hrothgar and Grendel's human dad were friends and Hrothgar raised Grendel as a foster-dad? At any rate, I'm fascinated by the fact that both films need to give some cause-and-effect explanation for Grendel's murderous rage, a la a slasher film villain's motivation. Why? Doesn't that domesticate him a bit? Isn't he scarier without motivation other than his seething hate?

I had a similar experience when I watched the 13th Warrior* with a screenwriter friend (not the famous one, for those who know). This friend couldn't understand where the Grendel-inspired creatures were "coming from" (in the motivational sense) and found it a flaw in the film that there was no motivation for them. Given that Crichton (author of Eaters of the Dead, the basis for the movie) and the screenwriters had made Grendel into a race of proto-homo-sapien wild men, I thought it was pretty clear that they were supposed to express some atavistic quality in humanity or some primal element that we weren't as evolved from as we thought (much as Grendel and his mother work in the poem itself), but that wasn't enough for my friend, who needed a reason, preferably with psychological motivation to it.

Everyone wants to explain why bad things happen to good people, and to say that the things that go bump in the night have some logical explanation (even when it is a murderous monster). But the scariest works of literature and film -- including Beowulf the poem -- are the ones that realize our most irrational nightmares have great impossible truth to them.

*This is currently still my favorite movie inspired in part by Beowulf's plot, not counting the Beowulfian elements of Lord of the Rings. But I'm much more a fan of The 13th Warrior than Eaters of the Dead, which also has too much of that need to be deadeningly explanatory.


Karl Steel said...

This is currently still my favorite movie inspired in part by Beowulf's plot

Wait: how many films are you choosing from?

Agreed on motivation: motivation is just another way of saying relatability, and it's boring. Hilarious you should mention this, because I've just spent a morning trying to lead two classes away from amateur psychology and into literary analysis.

Dr. Virago said...

Well, I'm prejuding the Zemekis film, and including Beowulf and Grendel. So, three movies. OK, not much of a race.

And on amateur psychology -- apparently some of my colleagues *encourage* that! Ack!

Dr. Virago said...

Er, prejudging that is. And it's Zemeckis, isn't it?

The Pastry Pirate said...

you knew you couldn't post about 13th warrior and *not* have me comment, right?

i think the whole "need to reason/rationalize" is a distinctly modern and largely western thing. when i think of some of the places i've travelled, in the 'stans, in the middle east, etc., people have an "inshallah" attitude (sometimes literally) to whether and why things happen, something that i have the sense was also true in the west back in the day.

i think it's because we coddled modern occidentals are so used to everything being hunky-dory: the train arrives on time, your drinking water isn't full of rusty chunks, your car starts in the morning, you don't wake up to find marauders at your door with machetes, etc. when something is *not* perfect and safe and easy, we as a society tend to get not only excessively upset about it, but also demand a reason why it happened. how could this happen??? that's just *my* armchair pop psychology. it's also why i think those walgreen's ads about "welcome to perfect" are insidious, but that's another matter.

mmmmm... 13th warrior... thanks for reminding me i need to watch it again, for like the 8,700th time. it never gets old!

Ancarett said...

Oh, The Thirteenth Warrior? I do love that movie so danged much!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I agree with the Pastry Pirate, totally. I think we feel like we have so much control over our environment that if something goes wrong there has to be a REASON. Whereas I'm sure for medieval people, it was much more about figuring out to deal with the bad stuff because that had no pretensions of having control over everything (that's what God was for).

My funny Beowulf-the-movie tidbit: the AP got in touch with my current uni (who got in touch with my chair, who got in touch with me), looking for an "expert" on Beowulf stuff to talk to. I told my chair, sure, so she forwarded me the e-mail.

They don't want someone who knows something about Anglo-Saxon England (and ideally Old English lit, and, you know, the poem itself) - they want someone who can talk about sixth-century Denmark. Who can, you know, say whether the movie got it right. /headdesk

the rebel lettriste said...

What I'd like to know about the movie and "motivation" is this: what the hell is going on with the Grendel's-mother-as-love-interest subplot!? (I mean, Angelina Jolie emerging from a dark pool notwithstanding...)

Why does there have to be some "love" reason for why Beowulf and G.'s mother have such antipathy? I always thought it scarier--in the poem--that G.'s mother is such a formidable foe in her own right. She is in many ways a more serious enemy than Grendel himself, because she is female, mother, raging. And the link between her and Beowulf is GRENDEL, her desire to avenge his death.

It's scary as hell to confront meaningless terror--the kind that just comes in the night and eats you. But maybe that's why Beowulf gets called upon in the first place. To make sense of that fear, and make it somehow narrative, and meaningful.

Dr. Virago said...

PP & NK - You guys may be on to something. Though I think that western societies also tend to believe that their own time is scarier and more screwed up than in the past and they long nostalgically for a past that never was. I think both impulses -- the one you describe (thinking that everything's never been better and being easily shaken up by disaster) and the one I describe oscillate back and forth in every culture, sometimes in the same people. The cure for this (both cases)? Reading more old literature and history!! See, medievalists are good for society's problems! :)

Ancarett -- yay! Another 13th Warrior fan!

NK -- Your story about the AP request cracked. me. up. Please explain to the reporter that the poem itself wasn't aiming for historical accuracy. (Though maybe the filmmakers thought that should be their goal?) Or I dare you to say, with a straight face, "I don't know if dragons existed in 6th century Denmark. I'll have to look that up and get back to you." Te-hee!

RL - I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea that Beowulf makes sense of the fear by turning it into narrative!!! Awesome! I'm going to use that next time I teach it and credit it to a "a very smart friend of mine" (which is usually how I credit anything I read by an anon. blogger).

History Geek said...

Could I ask you to forward the email (geek.history at me? It be a great subject for our newly formed Medieval club at my school (and since I've already declared we're seeing the flim if only to mock it..).