On the Challenges of Adapting Beowulf and My Suggestions for a Richer Experience
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early 2000s and Michael Crichton's 1999 The 13th Warrior understood the visual nature of dramatizing epic heroism.
Having recently reviewed a stage adaptation of Beowulf, and found it lacking, I find myself thinking about the possibility of doing the work justice on stage. I have never seen a dramatic adaptation of Beowulf that truly lived up to the excitement I feel when I read or study it. This is not entirely the fault of the four live productions I’ve watched or the films, most of which I could not sit through. I would submit that the Beowulf many have been exposed or subjected to is not the lively, passionate, funny, and painful work of literature I know. I hope this essay will not be seen as the work of someone who thinks he knows better, but rather an attempt to no longer stay silent by a lover of the material who wants others to see the beauty in it that he does.
The most straightforward elements of the Beowulf narrative happen to be physical conflicts, fights between a man and a series of monsters. Stage fights can be handled well and creatures offer wonderful design challenges. It is possible to do these things well, but fight scenes, for people interested in character-driven conflict, need proper motivation in order for us to feel a stake in them. And in Beowulf, that’s a problem. The main character’s motivation in fighting these creatures is not personal and for that reason, Beowulf generally does not come across as a sympathetic character. His actual motivation in the story, furthermore, gaining fame for his king, is culturally bound up in the values of a Northern Germanic warrior society in the middle ages. For this reason, the character Beowulf will frequently come off as arrogant to modern audiences.
The most exciting writing in the parts of Beowulf that adapters choose to draw does not translate easily to stage drama because it lies in the physical description and sounds of the men and their armor. It is essentially the world building element of fantasy. Michael Crichton’s 1999 The 13th Warrior, to my taste the most successful Beowulf adaptation to date, understands and dramatizes this pageantry with a moving score. I always told students that Beowulf should always be imagined moving along with a stirring theme song. Unfortunately, nothing happens in these scenes, other than heroes moving from one setting to another, and that is difficult to achieve this on stage, which has traditionally been thought of as less a visual medium than an aural one because so much information flows to the audience through dialogue. In a way, the scenes from The 13th Warrior that dramatize this stirring element of the writing well, are similar to scenes from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and will also be among the most difficult to transfer to stage. Some of the most recognizable images from Jackson’s films are of a line of people walking, and are effectively montages in the films. It would be hard to imagine the films without these montages, which give dramatic weight to the imagery of heroism.
Neither Jackson nor Crichton had trouble devoting screen time to what these literary works privilege above drama that is derived from interpersonal conflict, but they also managed to include the variety of personal stakes that are to be found. Most of the opening of Beowulf is dedicated to courtly behavior, acting the appropriate way in the appropriate settings. Proper manners in Beowulf are probably more important than in Pride and Prejudice. If you can’t effectively show the exchanges between Beowulf and the various gate keepers, or show Hrothgar’s response to the visual presence of Beowulf, then you lose the human element of the story in an episode (the Grendel section) that is the hallmark of the story. I believe that these exchanges are also more difficult to carry off on stage because it requires the kind of support for the audience that curated shots can produce, but one does not get on stage.
That these elements have been cut from most of the stage versions of Beowulf I’ve seen, means that most of what Beowulf is as a dramatic story has not made it to the stage. However, as a lover of the entire literary work, let me point out how other significant moments of value never make the cut. Beowulf has been described as a miscellany as much as an epic story. Large portions of the text do not follow the rules of linear storytelling, but rather jump back and forth in time, introducing stories within the story. As I’ve shown, a major percentage of the most utilized sections of the story act almost as an etiquette book for would-be heroes. But the poem Beowulf is almost cluttered with passages about other emotionally explosive situations that no one seems to know how to include in a dramatic rendering of the poem. These moments, to borrow from theatrical parlance, are set pieces in the poem and most of them derive far more drama from human conflict than anything in Beowulf that has ever been shared with an audience.
The eleven o’clock number in Frank Loesser’s musical Guys and Dolls is “Sit down You’re Rockin’ the Boat.” It may be the most well known and beloved number from the musical and it helps keep the audience excited when the rest of the story is winding down. Yet, it is tangential to the plot and if it were as difficult to follow as analogous set piece passages in Beowulf, a shortsighted director might cut it from the show. The story of the last survivor (and I would argue the description of the funeral pyre of the Hildeburh scene, the father’s lament, and the Battle of Ravenswood) is just as important in Beowulf. An aged King Beowulf is about to die fighting the dragon and by this point in script development most adapters are probably hard pressed to argue to anyone why an audience needs to see Beowulf fight another monster, even if it is the end of the story. The dragon fight usually doesn’t make it into stage adaptations, which seem afraid to try to hold an audience for longer than about 50 minutes.
A Postmodern Take on an Medieval Poem
American 20th century theater was no stranger to narrative complexity, jumps that broke the Aristotelian unities of time and space. Willy Loman’s escapist jumps into past memories, which come with little warning or explanation, are an example of that. Surrealist moments in A Streetcar Named Desire, and many of the most popular musicals of the mid-century, offer more examples of a theater audience’s ability to navigate difficult narrative jumps. The tangential moments in Beowulf are at least as related to the main thrust of the tale as some of the stranger psychedelic moments of Gene Kelly films when Kelly is magically transported from the reality of the narrative, or even as related as Gene Wilder’s terrifying paddle boat scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. No one could argue for those scenes to someone who did not understand their import and yet it's hard to imagine those films without their alternate reality moments. The poem Beowulf interjects stories that are arguably linked to the main narrative more for thematic reasons than as a means to further the plot in a meaningful way. They are challenging to read because they include new characters and take place before the action of the main plot. They are separate, but several of them contain the dramatic conflicts that a modern audience finds lacking in Beowulf. Others are simply big dramatic set pieces that could wow an audience with all the potential ways to bring them in. All act as stand alone morality tales that would challenge an audience, but if you don’t challenge your audience, I question whether you have achieved much in a theatrical performance.
Because so much of the emotional drama of Beowulf is to be found in the episodes that are not about fighting monsters, I argue for including them, particularly if the production is already including music and original lyrics. One of my favorites involves a princess married to a foreign prince in order to save her people from bloodshed. The story ends tragically, with a fight breaking out between her husband and her brother and ends with both men and her son killing each other. The set piece is the description of the funeral pyre, where the woman burns the three men together with all of the other warriors. A modern audience can understand this woman’s loss better than anything Beowulf feels in the entirety of the poem. The design potential for a funeral pyre is great. The central image of the flames taking up all combatants also simplifies the details of the extra episode. The Princess Hildeburh's story is told in the poem by a bard after the slaying of Grendel and thematically sets the scene for Grendel’s grieving mother. Another important set piece is the story of the last survivor. Again, there is a central symbolic and unifying image in the pile of treasure, hidden away to rot by a people destroyed by the genocidal feuding that recurs in Beowulf, but never makes it to the stage. And again, it raises important human issues that set the scene for another monster fight. Neither Grendel’s mother nor the dragon can speak, but these other scenes speak for them.
It is likely that experimenting with the tales of Hildeburh and the Last Survivor would bring an emotional dimension to Beowulf that the hero’s battles with monsters and courtly interactions with Scandinavian thanes lack, but there are further tales in Beowulf of family and domestic drama to be mined for meaning. I would finally suggest that a Beowulf adaptation be presented as a series of stories surrounding a theme rather than the narrow story of a monster killer. Beowulf has been given credentials as a tale for the ages by the academy, but stripping it down to its physical conflicts will surely lead the theater-going to shake their heads and wonder what it is they missed.