Thursday, November 29, 2007

Beowulf and Cholera

Every so often, I marvel at the (I don't even know what to call it: audacity? stupidity? madness?) of Hollywood. I mean, sometimes I really wish I could have been there when some group of people happened to be sitting around, shooting the breeze, and someone suddenly said, "I've got it! Let's make ____________ into a movie!" Actually, it's a good thing I've never been a member of one of these discussions (well, at least, during the over thirteen years since I last took a hit off a joint. Before then, who knows? Maybe I, too, would have been leaping at the chance to make Sally, Dick, and Jane or something into a movie). My response would be, "Are you out of your friggin' mind?!" (Thus, maybe "madness" is the appropriate word).

I can't believe that this Christmas season, we've got not one, but two movies that fit this bill, neither of which you'll catch me racing to the theaters to see. The first of these is Beowulf, with none other than Angelina Jolie starring as Grendel's mother. Yes, I am sure it's uncanny how many people read the epic poem for the first time to be haunted by Jolie-like images of Grendel's mother. Tell me the truth now. She's exactly what your imagination conjured up, isn't she? Nothing more ferocious to a bunch of Medieval heroes than the woman who's toting around hundreds of adopted children while keeping pretty boy Brad Pitt on a short leash these days. As my sister Lindsay so aptly put it the other day, "I'm so glad Beowulf is finally out" (thus proving that my sarcastic nature runs in the family).

Beowulf is one of my all-time favorite pieces of literature. Granted, I haven't read it since I was twenty-one, and it's high time for a re-read, but between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, I read it three times (twice for school and once for fun). I don't know about you, but I found my high school English classes to be extraordinarily boring, full of Shakespeare I was too young and inexperienced to understand and appreciate (come on. Why teach Romeo and Juliet to someone who has yet to experience the madness of her first requited love?); the worst, rather than the best, of the likes of Mark Twain and Edgar Alan Poe; and unimaginative textbooks and teachers who had no idea how to make these works relevant to sixteen-year-olds. To this day, I can tell you that only four other things that I had to read in my American high school (my English high school was a different story. I loved my English class there) were things that I truly enjoyed reading at the time: Spoon River Anthology; The Good Earth, Goodbye, Mr. Chips; and A Clockwork Orange. (By the way, I once had a friend of mine say to me when I narrated this list to him, "Were you schizophrenic in high school?")

Beowulf definitely stood out among the crowd here. We read it senior year, and up until that point, I'd never been exposed to anything like it. Anyone who's read this blog for any length of time knows that I must have been a knight in one of my previous lives, my fascination with castles and dragons being what it is. Although I couldn't read it, the Old English language grabbed my attention, as well. Till then, I'd never thought much about the evolution of language. I was intrigued from the moment our teacher began to introduce it to us. Then I started to read it. To say the twentieth century disappeared like a mere mortal in Grendel's mother's lair would be an understatement.

The magic of Beowulf, though, is that it's just that: magic. We are left up to our own devices, our own subconscious interpretations to bring it to life. Grendel is my very own monster, and I know what he looks like, but I'm sure he isn't yours. His mother is worse than the worst mama bear protecting her cubs. My dragon is bleak with a sad fury, not the type you see baring teeth and dancing in a Chinese New Year parade, as he might be for someone else. How dare anyone ruin my pictures of them by committing them to film? It's sacrilege, pure and simple.

Speaking of magic, anyone ever heard of magical realism? Any others of you stupid enough to have watched that pathetic excuse for a film version of a book The House of the Spirits, like I was? I hope, like I, after that experience, you saw the light and weren't the least bit tempted to see the film version of the oh-so-wonderful Corelli's Mandolin. After all, you'd realized that, despite the fact film seems like the perfect medium for magical realism, some things, once again, are best left up to the imagination. So, why on earth would anyone take Love in the Time of Cholera and make it into a movie? Granted, it's not One Hundred Years of Solitude, the grandfather of magical realism, but still.

I don't need to go see the movie to have a pretty good idea of what those in the film industry will have done to my favorite Garcia Marquez novel (another one, coincidentally, I've read three times) in order to try to make millions off it. I can just picture all the sex and the seductive whores and a complete missing of the boat when it comes to capturing the complexity of the novel and its exploration of all the many types of love we humans experience. Even People has trashed this one.

I have a confession to make now, though. I'm being very hypocritical. I'm the person who has always said, "Don't tell me how awful an author is unless you've read him or her." I obviously haven't seen either one of these movies. Maybe I should. Maybe Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother will add a whole new dimension to the text. Maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez should have started with films rather than with novels. Then again, if this is what the merging of film and literature has led to, maybe I shouldn't have given up smoking pot all those years ago.


Rebecca said...

Oh lord. I am way over-informed on the whole Beowulf thing because I read Neil Gaiman's blog, and he wrote the screenplay. Anyway, I think that it's not intended at all as a straight adaptation, it was definitely a reworking, hence the Grendel's mother thing. And there was a kind of interesting article here:

Now all that opens up the discussion as to what do we think of reworkings of classic texts, and that I tend to take on a case by case basis. In this instance, I think I will see Beowful, and in 3D at that.

But I completely agree about Cholera.

litlove said...

Emily I just adore it when you take a topic and shake it by the neck! I am still laughing over Angelina Jolie as Beowulf's grandmother (how? why)). And magic realism in the cinema is a very bad idea. Oddly enough it's the place where all those expensive special effects look impossibly plastic. I can't say that I am fond of Beowulf, however, as we did it as a play in junior school, an adaptation lovingly penned by our headmaster who gave me a special part because I was wearing a brace. That special part? A speaking snake. Oh how grown ups fail to understand children! I am scarred by it still.

Emily Barton said...

Becky, and of course, I'm being doubly hypocritical here, because one of the things I was thinking of doing in '08 is creating a graphic novels challenge basically as an excuse to read the graphic version of Beowulf. I think, though, that this movie version of Beowulf would have been better off if it had been called something else, but hyped as being based on the epic.

Litlove, oh I love the image of my shaking a topic by its neck -- so apt! And how awful to have been typecast in such a way. No matter what anyone might say, childhood, when one is completely at the mercy of so many unthinking adults, is a heart-wrenching period of life.

Anonymous said...

Now, I'm stuck trying to imagine Emily smoking pot :) .

I wasn't aware that Cholera was being made into a movie until Thanksgiving. I agree with you that it is going to be awfully hard to reproduce the mood of the book. Still, I think the filmmakers did themselves a favor by choosing Javier Bardem.

Emily Barton said...

Polaris, it's not a very pretty sight!