Thursday, August 18, 2005

Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary, and Robert Zemeckis are spitting on our grandmothers

ANSAXNET-L got wind of the Neil Gaiman/Roger Avery scripted and Robert Zemeckis directed Beowulf movie (see the following entries in Neil Gaiman's Blog for details: Jan. 21, 2005, Aug. 15, 2005, and Aug. 18, 2005). A number of people, as is usual, have begun bitching and moaning in the way that only those engaging in overly dramatic affected outrage can bitch and moan. "Is nothing scared [sic]?" one asked. Soon they will swing through the contradictory arguments that Hollywood has no right to try to make Beowulf a movie, that if Hollywood dares to make Beowulf a movie Anglo-Saxonists should be consulted, that it's impossible for Hollywood to make Beowulf into a movie, and that the poem would make a great movie as long as nothing of the poem is changed. Many of these arguments will be made by the same individuals.

I've never gotten why this is a problem. I didn't get it when the Christopher Lambert Beowulf came out, I didn't get it when The 13th Warrior came out (talk about indignant. Pointing out that The 13th Warrior was not supposed to be Beowulf but was instead based on Eaters of the Dead, a novel loosely adapted based on Beowulf, didn't phase them at all from bitching about how Beowulf was being ruined and how unfair it is that Hollywood is more interested in making movies for the unwashed masses rather than Anglo-Saxonists ). I didn't get it when they went off on Beowulf & Grendel, and I don't get it now. (I should note that all of this bitching and moaning is a small minority of the Anglo-Saxonist and Anglo-Saxon hobbiest population.)

So I asked, point blank, what the problem is. I pointed out that (1) no literary text can be tossed up on the screen as is, that everything we know about medium theory tells us that adaptation/rewriting/remediation is necessary, hence the reason why movies based upon other texts are called "adaptations." I pointed out that insisting that Beowulf be treated as a fixed, static text, as a text beyond adaptation, is not only print-centric (oral and scribal cultures, which pretty much sums up the Anglo-Saxon world, had no such notion) but a form of textual idolatry completely alien to both the Anglo-Saxons and the tradition which produced Beowulf. And I pointed out that regardless of quality, no matter how many movies made of or based on Beowulf, Beowulf nor Beowulf will be harmed. So, I asked, what's the big deal?

Apparently, making Beowulf into a movie is equivalent to having someone spit on your grandmother. I kid you not. The response I got, in its entirety, is as follows:
OK, John. How would you react if someone spit on your grandmother?

As an oral poem, as a poem that emerges from and takes part in oral tradition regardless of the actual circumstances surrounding the extant text's origin, Beowulf is by definition a poem to be rewritten by means of (re)performance. To (re)perform Beowulf is to keep it and its tradition alive. Adapting the narrative for the screen does no more violence to the poem and its tradition than did the person or persons who first committed it to writing. If there's any spitting on the text, any violence to the poem and its tradition, I would suggest that it would be found in the insistence that the poem live its continued existence locked in closure by the shackles of print culture. Such a claim is, however, a bit overly dramatic for my tastes.

ANSAXNET is the only listserv which I haven't put on nomail as I try to finish up my dissertation. I certainly hope I don't end up being driven to put it on nomail too.

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At 9:06 AM, Blogger Carl V. said...

I think most of this is much ado about nothing and similar sentiments were no doubt voiced when Peter Jackson decided to tackle LOTR, but I for one am more than thrilled that naysayers were ignored and PJ went forward with his vision.

I'm looking forward to the Gaiman/Avary's Beowulf and would hazard to guess that it will draw more attention to the poem and introduce it to an entire generation of readers who would not have sought it out otherwise.

At 2:14 PM, Blogger John said...

I expect it will draw much attention to the poem as well. I'd argued as much when there was a fuss over The 13th Warrior.


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