I read Beowulf for the first time since British Literature One because of the recent film -- I picked up the Norton Critical Edition with the Seamus Heaney translation and the essays at the back. I recommend this book if you want to read Beowulf. The translation is great and the essays at the back -- including a great one by Tolkien -- give you some perspective on the issues at stake.
Here I want to simply list a few things that jumped out at me reading the poem with the film in mind. Very haphazard stuff, but that is what blogs are for.
I forgot about what Heaney, in his introduction, calls the poem's "claustrophobic and doomladen atmosphere." He writes "All [the characters] conceive of themselves as hooped within the great wheel of necessity, in thrall to a code of loyalty and bravery, bound to seek glory in the eye of the warrior world. The little nations are grouped around their lord; the greater nations spoil for war and menace the little ones; a lord dies, defenselessness ensues; the enemy strikes; vengeance for the dead becomes an ethic for the living, bloodshed begets further bloodshed; the wheel turns, the generations tread and tread and tread..."
So the cyclical doomladen tone of the film fits right in here -- except the doom in the film is figured as cosmic rather than social.
Heaney talks about the importance of gold in the poem: "Gold is a constant element, gleaming solidly in underground vaults, on the breasts of queens or the arms and regalia of warriors on the mead-benches. It is loaded into boats as spoil, handed out in bent bars as hall-gifts, buried in the earth as treasure, persisting underground as an affirmation of a people's glorious past and an elegy for it. [But] by the end of the poem, gold has suffered a radiation from the Christian vision. It is not that it yet equals riches in the medieval sense of worldly corruption, just that its status as the ore of all value has been put in doubt."
In the film, gold HAS become a symbol of worldly (and moral) corruption -- the golden dragon who is also the golden man, a gold man played by Winston, who lies dead next to the dying Beowulf (also Winstone) who is silver in his old age -- less valuable by any standard.
Ximena, who I saw Beowulf with, was surprised that Grendel disliked the harp music as much as the banging and clatter of the party. In the poem it is clear that he hates the music because it accompanies the Christian story of the creation from Genesis. The poem identifies Grendel as a spawn of Cain, and so an enemy of God, who hates to be reminded of Him.
The characters in the poem are pagan, but the poet is Christian and has attributed Christian aspects to Beowulf and his people, sometimes oddly. The fact that the poem is in a kind of transition period is marked by the film with the Malcovich character.
Hrothgar is not so corrupt in the poem as he is in the film, although the poem does describe him as "stricken and helpless, humiliated."
In the poem Beowulf's crossing the waters in his journey to Hrothgar is a pleasant one. But of course this will not do in a film for the introduction of a hero.
In the poem Beowulf removes his armor to fight Grendel, to keep things fair. His total nakedness in the film is an interpretation of this detail.
Formal boasts are part of Beowulf's culture. He describes how he will win his fights in the same way Babe Ruth called shots. The film interprets this to make him a braggart more in the modern sense -- it is not just an invention of the film.
In the poem Beowulf's accomplishments are almost immediately put to song, so that the poem, like the movie, emphasizes the translation of the life into the story -- though the film puts much more weight on the differences.
In the poem Beowulf's sword fails him against Grendel's mother, but then he finds a giant one "only Beowulf could yield in battle." The film ironically plays with this by making the symbolism overly explicit, in a fun way. An overtone of sex is already in the scene -- the film just turns the volume up.
In my last post on Beowulf I mentioned the Beowulf-Alien connection but forgot the detail that caused me to put it together in the first place: Grendel's mother (and/or Grendel) HAS ACID FOR BLOOD, which melts the metal of the sword till it is only a hilt. The film again uses this passage, and the earlier established symbolism, ironically as Beowulf's "sword" melts into liquid for a very different reason.
In the poem the Dragon is awakened because someone goes in a steals a single cup -- this establishes how absurdly greedy the dragon is (as opposed to Hrothgar who gives his gold to his warriors). The film picks up and re-inserts this dragon's cup, but it does so, in part, I think, because of the literary destiny of this scene -- this scene is at the root of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and the film, coming hard on the heels of Jackson's movie, does not want to repeat this origin.
Beowulf has no sons in the poem (partly to emphasize on the the poem's themes, which is that Beowulf's heroic actions leave his people unguarded). The film investigates this lack of sons, provides a different reason, then projects this reason back to Hrothgar into order to hold the story together.
In the poem Beowulf goes home and becomes king there, and fights the dragon there -- the film makes this all happen in one country, for unity of place.
A brief cursory judgment -- the film makes a lot of changes but they are not necessarily all arbitrary: they are rooted in the poem itself, exaggerations and extensions of what is already implicit. The whole family romance aspect, for example, so offensive to many, is just thinking a thought found in the poem all the way to its logical end.
Finally a brief note on Tolkien's essay on Beowulf. First, it rejects the myth-criticism which is ironically so often applied to The Lord of the Rings by over-eager graduate students who do not know what a cliche it is:
"The comparison of skeleton 'plots' is simply not a critical literary process at all. It has been favored by research in comparative folk-lore, the objects of which are primarily historical or scientific."
Thank you Tolkien. AND Tolkien insists, against those critics (and they were many) who rejected a story about "monsters" as contemptible, that "There is no inherent magical virtue about heroic-tragic stories as such, apart from the merits of individual treatments. The same heroic plot can yield good or bad poems, and good and bad sagas." These are especially great quotations if you care about superhero comics. The connections between Beowulf and superhero comics is a whole other post, but it would be a good one, I think.