In recent years there have been two major attempts to bring Beowulf to a modern audience by way of the big screen. Both of them were awful.
One version of the story posited that Grendel had an unhappy childhood and was bullied by the Danes and that when he grew up, snacking on warrior was somewhat justified. This retelling is entirely based on the notion that there are really no enemies, just friends we haven’t made yet. I have not the space to address in detail just how wrong this is and will content myself with noting that this view has no place in a Beowulf adaptation.
Then there was the animated version, which left me frantically trying to find a way to fast-forward through the dialogue so I could get into first-person warrior mode. Again, the screenwriters felt the need to clarify why Grendel was such a bad guy – in this case it was a really bad ear infection. Add in the bizarre subplot where Grendel’s mother looks like a amphibian Angelina Jolie and any pretense of loyalty to the story was wiped out.
It was after watching both of these flawed adaptations that my wife suggested I have a go at a proper retelling, one that treated the story honestly, respecting both the narrative and the sensibilities of the original author.
Before getting started, I consulted J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal lecture on the subject The Monsters and the Critics. Tolkien reacted strongly against the then-prevailing view (in the 1930s) that Beowulf should be studied by historians, archeologists, philologists, mythologists and basically taken every way but as a work of poetic literature. I thought it more than a little ironic that while scholars have embraced his view of Beowulf as first and foremost a poem that should be studied as it is, not dissected like a lab specimen, the entertainment industry is now projecting its biases into an otherwise heroic narrative.
Thus inspired, I began the process of converting the narrative into a more accessible format, something modern people can relate to: space. As a culture, we are simply more comfortable dealing with people in space suits than chain mail.
There is also the problem of why anyone would put up with Grendel preying on them. Americans are rather mobile and have no problem with leaving a place when we no longer feel safe there. Maybe this is a Michigan thing – after all, we know all about outward migrations from dangerous city cores. When I first encountered Beowulf in school, the universal belief was that he should simply pack up and move. (A modern Michigan retelling would have Hrothgar set up shop in the suburbs – perhaps naming the place Hrothgar Hills.)
This ability to move simply would not apply in Beowulf’s time. The Spear-Danes were surrounded by hostile tribes making any migration fraught with danger. They clearly felt it was better to suffer as free men than risk enslavement by moving. Besides, Grendel didn’t eat all that much.
Only space – with its problems if distance – could give the same sense of isolation. The strangeness of an alien planet also allowed Grendel to resume his proper place as a terrifying and mysterious adversary, unmoved by the concerns of his prey. In our day and age, it’s still acceptable for aliens to be true monsters, beyond our understanding.
The result is for you to judge.