‘Beowulf’ is an Old English story – a poem, actually – about a man called Beowulf, slaying terrifying creatures known as ‘Grendels’, until he’s killed by a dragon. It doesn’t really matter what happens to the title character, though, because you should see the poem for what it is; a poem, and like many poems, it’s not about what’s on the page, but what lies between the lines. That’s not my assessment, but that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, who wrote a paper on it in 1936 (a year before the release of ‘The Hobbit’). Nevertheless, the story has been an inspiration for many movies, novels, theatre plays, video games and comic books. Its newest adaptation comes from ITV.
The best known adaptation of ‘Beowulf’ probably is the 2007 movie. Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Walk) tried to fill the void left by the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings movies, but failed miserably. Motion capture wasn’t ready yet. Beowulf was an expensive exercise in filming great performances by the likes of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich, and turning them into wooden animated figures. A partnership with James Cameron would’ve been clever, because it was only 2 years later that Avatar hit (yes, it’s already been 6 years since ‘unobtanium’ was found) – and the rest is history.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands brings the poem back to life on the small screen, and it definitely doesn’t disappoint. It starts off strong, with a man and his son on a horse, chased by big scary creatures (Grendels, probably). The animation of these Where The Wild Things Are-like beasts is, well, undoubtedly animation, but good enough. And the special effects only get better as the show moves on.
The Body of Hrothgar
The man gets slapped, lands with his head on a rock and dies, but the son bravely kills the last Grendel standing. The boy’s name: Beowulf. Flash forward to the present, where the kid’s grown up (now played by Kieran Bew, Crusoe, Da Vinci’s Demons) and is travelling with Breca (Gísli Örn Gardarsson, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) to the village where he’s been banished from. He’s come to see Hrothgar (William Hurt). The man who took him in after his father died, who taught him to (sword)fight and, as a surprising plot point, in fact was his father, but for some reason no one could ever know. Beowulf’s come too late, though. Hrothgar’s dead.
When Beowulf (‘Bae’ for friends and family – too bad he has neither) and Breca ride into the village/settlement, they’re getting ugly looks from everybody. Of course, there’s a young woman as well, watching them arrive, and you know what that means: Bae’s Future Love Interest is present. Also present: a Grendel, working as a slave. Quite similar to the trolls that used to operate the Black Gate to Mordor, actually. I guess borrowing from Tolkien is currently completely justified, since Peter Jackson has run the franchise into the ground with the third Hobbit movie.
Beowulf steps into the palace, demanding to see Hrothgar, but he’s not allowed to see him. There’s a lot of exposition that’ll make more sense once you get to know the characters better. The only important thing to know for now is, Slean (Edward Speelers, Eragon, Wolf Hall, Downton Abbey) is the Joffrey Baratheon of the show, and he’s in love with Elvina (Laura Donnelly, The Fall, Outlander), the feisty nurse Beowulf’s got his eye on.
Then, a Gollum-like character appears on the scene, and kills Beowulf’s old training partner and frenemy Bayen (Nigel Cooke). Or did it? Anyway, Beowulf gets the blame for it, is sentenced to death, but escapes. If only to save Elvina, who’s being chased by the larger, hairier and more illiterate relative of Gollum’s, called a ‘Mudborn’. When she’s saved and brought back to the village, everything seems to be okay again. Everybody agrees Beowulf is one of the good guys. He still has to leave, though.
This series reportedly cost £17 million and is ITV’s biggest budgeted drama ever made. And it shows. In terms of special effects and scope, it certainly gives Syfy a run for its money, and it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise if Jaime Lannister and Bronn were to decide to pay a visit. They’d fit right in. The production’s very well done, but I have one question. Even though Beowulf takes place in a different universe and all, I can’t help wondering what’s up with all those perfectly clean-cut 21st century haircuts? If that’s the only distracting thing, I can live with it, I suppose.