Sunday, September 23, 2007

Naked Beowulf? WTF?

This week's Entertainment Weekly features an article on the mini-trend in recent movies of men fighting for their lives in the buff. One of the upcoming instances of nekid wrasslin' they cite is the CGI version of Ray Winstone in Robert Zemeckis's adaptation of Beowulf. Winstone plays our eponymous hero and the nakedness, er, reveals itself in the fight with Grendel.

Um, why? Well, explains co-writer Roger Avary in the ET article (#956, Sept. 28, 2007, p.55):

In the original epic poem, Beowulf decides that swords and armor are just going to slow him down. So, he strips and waits for Grendel to come and then does some medieval ass-kicking in the buff. When we were first working on the script, Robert Zemeckis said, "Guys, does he have to fight him naked?" We were like, "Yes, actually he does -- it's in the poem!"
You know, I always half suspected that Avary was just riding Tarantino's coat-tails with his co-writer credit for the Pulp Fiction screenplay (and the Oscar it won) and now I'm more than certain. Where on earth does he get "naked" from without sword and shield (or armor, as he mistakenly claims)?? Does he think that because the men are sleeping when Grendel arrives that they're necessarily in the nude? All I've got at home is the Roy Liuzza translation, so if there's something in the Old English that suggests nakedness let me know (though somehow I doubt that Avary was reading Old English!). Or, more plausibly perhaps, is there a bad translation or adaptation he's getting this from? Or is it from one of the looser and interpretative parts of the Heaney translation? Here's what the Liuzza translation has in the relevant passages:
I have also heard that this evil beast
in his wildness does not care for weapons,
so I too will scorn -- so that Hygelac,
my liege-lord, may be glad of me --
to bear a sword or a broad shield,
a yellow battle-board, but with my grip
I shall grapple with the fiend and fight for life
foe against foe. (ll. 433-40)

[H]e knows no arts of war, no way to strike back,
hack at my shield-boss, though he be brave
in his wicked deeds; but tonight we two will
forgo our swords, if he dare to seek out
a war without weapons (ll. 681-5) know, maybe Avary thought that "so that Hygelac, my liege-lord, may be glad of me" could mean something a bit more risqué than the usual lord-thane bond.

In fact, I'd have no problem with Avary and his Beowulf in the buff if he'd said something like, "we wanted to emphasize the hyper-masculinity of this society, right down to male bodies, so that when Grendel's Mother appears and they're not ready, it's clear they didn't think a female creature was a threat" or something cool and interpretative like that. That I could buy. I could even buy a total queering of the poem if the interpretation had the courage of its convictions (and that would totally surprise me, too, coming from a mainstream Hollywood movie!). In other words, Roger, dude, don't be a boring literalist and a slave to your source material while also getting it literally wrong! Don't claim "it's in the poem!" if it's not; or, if what you mean is 'the poem suggests this' then say so. Learn the difference between text and subtext, if only so that those of us who teach the original poem won't have to deal with a generation of fan boys and fan girls who think they read that Beowulf was naked in those fights because he was in your movie version and you claimed "it's in the poem!"

But I have to say, now having gotten that rant out of the way, I'm really intrigued by Avary's misreading. Maybe it even falls into the category of Harold Bloom's "strong misreading." I mean, as I suggest above, it could work. (It only really bugs me that Avary lays the 'blame' on the poem, instead of taking credit himself -- though that's kind of interesting, too, in an arm-chair psychologist way. Roger, dude, why are you afraid to take credit?) Heck, I may end up using all of this a way to teach my students the difference between summary (whether accurate or inaccurate) and interpretation. Like many teachers, I spend a lot of time reminding them that they have to back up their arguments with the text, so that what I often get from the less strong students is an "argument" that "proves" the plot, and they end up doing something like Avary and saying "It's in the poem!" (albeit usually more accurately than he does). I could someday take the movie and say, "Look, naked Beowulf is not literally in the poem, but how might this make sense as an interpretation?" And then maybe we could talk about the hyper-masculinity of the poem, of the nakedness of Winstone's really buff body as the cinematic equivalent of the boasting, etc., etc. Who knows. As long as they know that the nakedness is not literally in the poem!


Matthew Gabriele said...

I wonder who the historical consultant was for the film and what he/she thought about the in-the-buff thing...

"No, that sounds fine. Does anyone have any tylenol?"

Anonymous said...

Same trend observed in Eastern Promises with Viggo Mortensen, which I HIGHLY recommend! (Okay, I found the naked fight horrifying rather than at all sexy, even though it takes place in a bathhouse which would lend itself to all sorts of homoerotic stuff, but I really don't think it does. The homoerotic stuff is all over the REST of the movie. Go see it!)

And no, this has nothing to do with Beowulf, it's just a Viggo fangirl moment, though I liked your post. ;-)

Anonymous said...

There's another potentially relevant passage but, like the two that you mention in your post, it does not come out and proclaim Beowulf's nudity. It just says that he took off some of his armor:

"He unlaced his chain-shirt, iron body-warden, / undid his helmet, gave his gold-wrapped sword, / finest iron, his gear to the steward, / bade him look well to that equipment" (Chickering, l. 671-74).

Nothing in the original OE for any of these three passages makes direct mention of Beowulf's nudity, either.

I'm right with you, Dr. V: it's one thing to interpret the poem--go for it. But it's entirely another to misrepresent it, as Avery has done.

Dr. Virago said...

G -- Thanks for that passage; I forgot about that one.

And now I'm thinking: Te-hee, maybe Avary thinks Beowulf went commando under the chain mail! Yikes!

Ancarett said...

Oh, lordie. This is like the whole debate amongst historians of warfare in ancient Greece over whether they fought with or without armor. I'm on the side that can't imagine a bunch of guys not making a minimal effort to secure their dangly bits when going into dangerous situations.

Given the passages you've cited here (and in the comments), I still don't see how one can read this as Beowulf going to battle Grendel in the nude. Unless someone's trying to claim that medieval men generally wore nothing underneath their armour except their skin.

For some reason, this makes me think, in a bad way, of the old Brooke Shields commercial where she swore that nothing got between her and her Calvin Kleins. Ouch!

History Geek said...

And 13th warrior will sadly still be the better moive.

John Cowan said...

People who make movies tend to the arrogant side, I think, and see only what they want to see. Compare this, where apparently the maker of the "Tales of Earthsea" movie explained to Ursula Le Guin what she meant by the book the movie was allegedly based on.

Chaser said...

Has anybody besides me ever noticed that England is, well, a little COLD for this sort of silly interpretation?

Prof. Persnickety said...

It's not so strange, really. Lots of medieval stories involve people being surprised while asleep, and most of them end up naked. Though we'll never know for sure, it seems like it was a commonplace in medieval Europe both to sleep naked and to share beds with several others. Usually same-sex beds it seems, except where men and women were married or related in some way that made sex unlikely: that is, a man might share a bed naked with his wife and children, but unlikely with women other than they.
In the circumstances of those days, where very few people had more than one room to live in, nudity was no big deal. Medieval life was far more frank about bodies and bodily functions than we are. What I find funny are the little loincloths the men in Beowulf wear while swimming--medieval Speedos. Pretty silly if you ask me--they'd just go naked! It's my guess that medieval men would have found modern male squeamishness about the naked male body as "queer" as some of the posters find the nudity itself. And I suppose I do too....

Anonymous said...