In viewing the film version of Beowulf, how did the story adapt and change? Was that a cultural adaptation?

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Beowulf is a 2007 film adaptation of the Old English epic poem. It was directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, and starred Ray Winstone as the title character. Since every adaptation is interpretation, there will always be differences and changes. As Gaiman said, "The glory of Beowulf is that you are allowed to retell it." The first significant difference is that all the characters are speaking contemporary English, whereas the anonymous poem was written in Old English, a language incomprehensible to all but scholars. This makes it sound more modern and up to date than it is, even if the writers attempt to write in an "archaic" style.

The other major difference is that the filmmakers attempt to make the story into a fantasy adventure epic, much in the vein of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. As such, it has a much different feel than the poem, which conjures a shadowy, iron-clad world of honor, death, and monsters. Speaking of monsters, the look of the adversaries, Grendel and Grendel's Mother, were widely derided by critics. The film uses motion capture and was released in 3-D, making the monsters look incredibly cheesy and fake. Crispin Glover was cast as Grendel, and he looks more silly than scary, somewhat like Gollum. Angelia Jolie plays Grendel's mother, and though there's not a detailed description of her character in the original, the film makes her into a sultry, temptress-like figure.

A final difference is that the cultural context of the poem is almost totally lost. It was composed sometime in the 10th century, although the story had probably been around for much longer, and is set in Scandinavia. There is little cultural/historical specificity about the film, which turns the epic into a jumbled mess of garish swords and sorcery spectacle. If you want to look at the actual poem, I'd suggest the Seamus Heaney translation.

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In Beowulf (2007), the main characters are less noble and honorable than they are in Beowulf the poem. Not only do they conspire and sleep with Grendel's mother, but they also plot against each other and give in to temptation throughout the film. In the original poem, the characters are noble, work together, and don't ally with monsters for any reason.

King Hrothgar is not as noble in the movie because he is the father of Grendel. The demon that haunts his hall is actually the result of a tryst he had with Grendel's mother. Once Beowulf returns from bargaining with her—saying that he killed her—Hrothgar kills himself. None of this takes place in the poem.

Beowulf is no less tempted by beauty than Hrothgar. Not only does he have an attraction to Hrothgar's wife, but he also conspires with Grendel's mother. He agrees to copulate with her for the promise that he will become king. In the poem, he simply slays Grendel's mother, who is not a beautiful woman and who does not tempt him with offers of power. He does take Hrothgar's place as king in the movie. In the poem, he becomes king of Geatland on his own merits.

In the movie, Beowulf is the father of the gold dragon. This isn't the case in the poem. He also is married to Hrothgar's widow, has a mistress, and isn't the good and faithful king he's portrayed as in the poem.

The changes in the movie are a cultural adaptation inasmuch as they show what the filmmakers thought the modern viewers would value and enjoy. They didn't believe that a straightforward tale of nobility and bravery would sell tickets to the movie. Instead, they had to include betrayal, seduction, and other, more modern themes. It makes the relationships between characters more complicated, and the characters themselves more complex because they aren't always going to do the right thing.

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Since you do not specify which version you mean, I will assume you're talking about the most recent movie adaptation from 2007, which changes quite a bit about the story.

The film adds a dimension of grey morality to the story. This could be perceived as a culture-based adaptation change, since modern society is less comfortable with a belief in pure good versus pure evil. For instance, Beowulf and Hrothgar are presented as good warrior-kings in the poem, while in the film, both men are presented as flawed and power-hungry, seduced by Grendel's mother and impregnating her with beasts that threaten their people (Grendel is now Hrothgar's illegitimate progeny; the Dragon is Beowulf's). At the end of the movie, the heroic Wiglaf is implied to fall prey to the temptation of Grendel's mother as well, subverting not only his noble characterization in the original poem, but the poem's ideas about heroism in general.

Film Grendel is less a vicious, antisocial beast than an outcast wronged by society, which is a more postmodern way of looking at the character. Contemporary fiction and film often recast traditional monsters like vampires or werewolves as misunderstood victims of social intolerance, so that could be seen as a cultural change as well. By complicating the motivations of the characters, the filmmakers seek to retell the epic in a way which they feel will connect with a modern audience less likely to buy into stark moralistic duality.

The tension between paganism and Christianity is also multiplied in the film. In the poem, the poet narrator is a Christian telling a story of pagan heroism. As a result, there is a contrast between Christian mercy and faith in an all-loving god, and the individualistic heroism of the pagan warrior-kings. The film brings this understated idea explicitly into the narrative, making Unferth a Christian and showing the influence of Christianity gradually overtaking Beowulf's pagan society.

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