Posted by: engl2220 | June 12, 2008

Beowulf Adaptations

There have been a fairly large number of adaptations of the Anglo-Saxon heroic epic Beowulf, though few if any have enjoyed much critical success.

A quick search on the Internet Movie DataBase shows the number of film adaptations of the text, here.
There was also a recent show, Beowulf: A Rock Musical; review here.

And, of course, there is always John Gardner’s book Grendel.

Take a few minutes to read about these different adaptations, and then compose a short comment, answering the following questions:

What is it about Beowulf that continues to capture the interest of people, even to this day? Why are people still interested in adapting the text and presenting it to a modern audience?

How would you characterize the themes and tone of Anglo-Saxon literature, and how would you depict these themes and tones in a modern adaptation (poem, novel, film, musical, video game, etc.)?

What would you include/exclude/add to an adaptation?

Why do you think that modern adaptations of Anglo-Saxon texts tend to fail? Is it because they alter the text and disturb the value and integrity of the text, or do modern audiences need the text to be altered so they can understand and relate to it?

Why is it so easy to satirize medieval texts and doctrines (think Monty Python here)?



  1. I think that the reason Beowulf is still popular today is because it is a good adventure story. Everyone likes to cheer for the epic hero as he goes off to battle the evil monster. Filmakers and writers like to try and reinvent Beowulf because it is a good story with some good plot. I think a lot of the Anglo-Saxon culture has to do with the comitatus group that values bravery, loyalty and revenge. These are all themes that these different adaptations play out. I think for any sort of visual adaptation (movie/video game) all the battle sequences and celebratory feasting are great things to incorporate into the story, because these things are fun to watch. As for written adaptations the themes of loyalty and exile should definately be expanded upon. I think a lot of modern adaptations tend to fail because it is hard to find a balance between telling the old classic story and finding a new way to make it interesting and different to a modern audience.

  2. Who wouldn’t want to read about a hero who saves a town from destruction? I think that anyone who enjoys the Harry Potter novels would enjoy Beowulf. The idea of a rock band playing and acting out Beowulf today is crazy. It wouldn’t be very successful in this day and age. A movie, on the other hand, is something that people are interested in. The themes of Anglo-Saxon literature include bravery, loyalty, and the value of treasures. An adaptation of my own might include more battle scenes, because people seem to enjoy action movies. I do think that the modern audience needs the text to be adapted to be understood. Times have changed, and so has the way people think and gain knowledge. There weren’t many forms of entertainment. Obviously, people had a passion for writing and reading mythical stories that include characters such as sea creatures and monsters.

  3. I believe that Beowulf is the type of story that everyone can relate to. People envy the hero and want him to succeed. These types of stories give you something to root for and look forward to as you read along. I believe that their are so many adaptations because our society as a whole continues to change. As the beliefs and views of our society change so do the things we are interested in. For example the infusion of Christianity into the adaptation we read in class which was not the original Anglo-Saxon view. As our society continues to change their will be more and more adaptations for us to accept or reject.

  4. I think people are still so interested in Beowulf because it is one of the earliest epic tales of good vs. evil. It tells a haunting tale of three different battles, each with their own obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. Even though everyone knows that good will prevail, we still doubt the hero because of those obstacles and because of the way the story is told. The story holds the classic themes of bravery, loyalty, courage, and chivalry. Making Beowulf into a movie deems to be a good idea, but the movie would have to hold true to the story while still keeping the audience captured. I think that modern adaptations fail because of the way they have been altered. For example, making Grendel’s mother look like Angelina Jolie instead of a sea witch, lessens the effect of the story, in my opinion.

  5. A story that is action-packed, thrilling, and mysterious immediately grabs the attention of most of its viewers. One thing I’ve noticed is that the Beowulf trailer incorporates the element of surprise and mystery as opposed to the foreshadowing presented in the epic. People still enjoy Beowulf because it is jam packed with action- will our hero make it? or will the monster triumph? Heroism is a dominant theme in both Anglo-Saxon and modern literature. Violence is also a common theme; our modern video games, tv shows, and novels sometimes depict full-contact battle and gore. It appeared as though the movie concentrated on the fighting aspect more so than the other 75% of the epic spent in Heorot. I also agree that Angelina as Grendel’s mother made the role seem somewhat errotic.

  6. I think Beowulf continues to capture people of our time because it is the classic good vs. evil. We want to see if Beowulf will survive the monsters and defeat them. We also want to see how he goes about doing so. Most people like to step out of reality when reading/watching a book/movie and Beowulf provides that for them. The themes and tone of Anglo-Saxon literature tend to be about bravery, loyalty and violence. Fast forward to our time and we still have novels, films, music, etc. about bravery, loyalty and especially violence. I most probably would not include/exclude anything in an adaptation. I agree that modern adaptation fails because it lessens the meaning or integrity of the text.

  7. I think this story continues to capture the attention of many across the globe because it presents our classic hero vs. villain scenario with a little bit of action and gore to go along with it. Let’s face it, people these days are driven to follow a story if there’s even a hint of action. However, I think, technology is spoiling the whole underlying meaning of a story, such as Beowulf. When I watched the trailer for the version that came out last year I was turned off by the whole computerized setting, it just ruins what you might have pictured in your head while reading the original novel. The Anglo Saxon and modern theme of heroism still stands very strongly, appealing to anyone who believes in doing the impossible. However I think that it would be easy to make fun of a story like this one because there are critics who just don’t enjoy reading texts that have a lot of unreal scenarios.

  8. The epic story of Beowulf has appeal to many generations because its timeless themes are those debated by humanity for centuries: the struggle between good and evil, the hero’s journey, outcast versus society, pagan versus christianity, and curiosity of the supernatural. These themes are what compose good literature . . . and good entertainment. However, as society progresses, artistic license must be taken to communicate the saga in layman’s terms for each generation. Today’s culture has a love affair with fast paced, visual drama; therefore, I think that communicating Anglo-Saxon virtues and stories would work best with film and television. To do Beowulf and its complex social values justice, the story would be best communicated through a television mini-drama on a vehicle such as HBO or Showtime. This has worked well for several historical dramas, including HBO’s The Tudor (based on Henry IIIV England), and would allow modern viewers to garner a full sense of social and historical themes present in Anglo-Saxon times. It would be best to keep orginal wording to a minimum – Old English rhetoric might be lost on a modern audience. However, I would try and keep the integrity of the plot through clever use of storytelling and cinematography. Modern adaptations tend to fail when they water down the original story. Much gets lost, and a modern audience not familiar with the tale cannot make the connections as well – unless they are already familiar with the story. That being said, the fact that many modern students are familiar with these texts, as part of the canon, make it perfect for satirical representations – such as Monty Python.

  9. Beowulf is tells an interesting and entertaining story of a man who is almost inhuman. The text is composed of mostly Pagan with Christian references. The story relates somewhat to modern audiences because it presents different values and beliefs such as good and evil.

    I would depict the themes and tones of the Anglo-Saxon by creating a video game because you can have plenty of action and battling which is what Beowulf and his warriors do best. Plus, movies and novels have already been done.

    I would include the battle with Grendel and Beowulf and then the next level would be a battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

    I think they tend to fail because the language is not what modern audiences or used to, and most people like to read pieces they can understand and relate to.

    It’s easy to satirize medieval texts and doctrines because it makes fun of the text and if they know what they are talking about, the representation is very humorous.

  10. Beowulf is so popular because it’s a great example of a self less hero. He’s noble and brave, and people like to read about a hero like him. Bravery is definitely a prevalent theme throughout Beowulf, and if I were to make a modern adaptation of it, I would make it into a film. Modern adaptations don’t do Beowulf justice simply because they are unable to capture everything that happens throughout the story. There are so many details and occurrences, and this makes it difficult to make a worthy adaptation.

  11. Beowulf is a story of good and evil. While good and evil is never easy to define, i think that we all desire a sense of simplicity in being able to brand something as evil and overcome or destroy it and in doing so create a better world for us and to gain acknowledgement by others for doing so. Beowulf display this simplicity in branding grendel as “evil” and grendel’s defeat was a conquest for mankind.

    Possible themes in beowulf are: good always triumph over evil, action speaks louder than words, perfection is not something you speak of but something you do. The tone of anglo-saxon literature is one of condescension masked by an attitude of empathy. I think beowulf acted the way he did because he “knew” he was better than his brethren. In using the excuse of saving/ keeping everyone from harm, he seeks to prove his superiority to those he saves and demand they acknowledge his act of fame. If i were to adapt beowulf, i would make it into a video game because to me he is just a guy who recklessly swings a sword around, like a game character.

    I think that adaptation of the text fail because the value of heroism inherent in beowulf is one of selfishness. In today culture, i belief that there is a greater demand for the acknowledgement of individual contributions rather than “a team of one.” I think that the original beowulf still survives today is because its time and place is acknowledged before it is judge, so that its criticism is less than an adaptation of beowulf today, which would be like an “idolization” of the selfish heoric values set by the original beowulf.

    I think it is easy to satire old literature because the values between old and new literature are very different. I think that in our ignorance of how things used to be, we think we are wiser than our predecessors and look down on their work as the product of a more “infant” mind.

  12. The best features of Beowulf is that it is the original culmination of modern stories. A great hero is almost always a sure hit. Beowulf is so great that he travels across seas and people know the legends about him. In addition to them knowing about him, he crosses these seas and cures them of their ailment. How AWESOME is that. There are many different tones of Anglo-Saxon literature. Such as: First you have got evil theme music, then the evil doer, next the hero stands on a mountain with the wind blowing through his hair with his special theme music. The two cannons collide, which would be the battle. The hero, of course, prevails. The music may be somber while the hero takes a few blows. Then everthing gets really cheery at the party! I would make this into a novel. Poem form is not horrible but a novel could easily capture the detailed scenes that this story could have. I would also exclude the moral on life part, where Beowulf is sort of being lectured. He has a big head and the lectures really do not seem to bring him down out of the clouds of self-achievement. Let Beowulf party and boast, he deserves it. Modern texts fail because they modernize it too much. They start branching off until they get completely off the path. Don’t stay too close but wandering off can be very bad to the point of the story. It is easy to satirize works like this because it relates to our modern ways yet it doesn’t. It relates enough for us to understand the humor of it, yet is not close enough to make us want to change something, really just enough for us to find it humorous.

  13. The reason Beowulf has stood the test of time in my opinion is because it is the classic tale of the popular guy vs. the outcast. Everyone can relate to the story. Everyone wanted to be the popular person in high school and even if they were they can still relate to the outcast that just wants to fit in. In Beowulf, he is the popular guy. Everyone loves him, wants to be him, and wants to be his friend. At the same time, you feel sorry for Grendel. He did not choose to be evil, he was born that way. The fact that he was always shunned is what added to his evil ways which outcast him even more.

    I feel the reason other adaptations have not been as good, is they lose key elements about Beowulf and Grendel. No one was able to achieve the balance the original author did. In some adaptations Beowulf is too egotistical and others he much of the hero. The original author of Beowulf made him just enough cocky but still likable. This likability is lost in other adaptations which take away the association the reader has with Beowulf.

    The same thing occurs with Grendel. In the original Beowulf the reader finds empathy for Grendel, no matter how evil he is. However, in the adaptations he is just evil. The reader finds no empathy in Grendel. So instead of being the outcast that had no choice but to be bad, Grendel is just evil.

  14. Beowulf’s allure held over audiences for more than a millennia stems from the epic poem of a hero and his battles with foes. The literary devices used throughout the epic poem allow the tale a greater depth than it would in prose form. These devices allowed Beowulf to survive time similarly to other epic ballads – such as the Illiad and the Odyssey.
    The continual modern adaptations stem from these devices and the meaning held behind the story within the poem.
    Fate and destiny, along with values of humility and great valor and deeds dominate the themes and tone of Anglo-Saxon literature. In modern adaptations the medium dictates how the themes would appear. In more visual mediums, the focus on great valor and deeds will have a greater effect, while examinations of humility and fate would play out better in literary adaptations.
    Modern adaptations stray from the factors that make the original tales such an epic. These tales targeted an audience accustomed to oral presentations as opposed to visual images or shorter ‘insightful’ lyrics. Further the meaning behind characters and events in the tales often are overly warped in adaptations to appeal to a new audience. These differences in the culture allow for direct transition for satirical adaptations.

  15. Most people enjoy a great good vs. evil story. It doesn’t matter how old the story happens to be, we are still going to enjoy watching it. I am going to go out a limb here and say that most of the poeple to day making different views and interpretations of this story are looking for some type of recognition as “The Best.” So many people have already tried to make thier mark on this story, and yet more and more try to improve upon it, and gain the title of “The Best.” Who’s to say the million people that have treid before them haven’t done a great job?

    I would characterize the themes and tones as Chivalric with a dark side. Most of what we have read has some type of chivalry in the poem, whether past or present in eyes of the author. All of the poems depict some type of war or battle, even the cross is doing battle in the “Dream of the Rood.” When you think of battle in the days before guns, you think of swords and shields. I think these themes and tones can be depicted in a movie.

    I don’t know why the modern translations tend to fail…who says they are failures? I liked the movie I watched. It could have been better, but I would not call it a failure.

    These older stories are easy to satarize because they are so darn old. Many of the things they said back then are looked at as corny or nerdy these days…Monty Python was hilarious…

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