Unlike most people, I have fond memories of reading Beowulf in high school. Maybe that’s why I’m writing for GMR rather than some other site. But the tale of a hero riding in to save the day — and rip the arm off of a monster with his bare hands — was fantastic to my highschool D&D playin’ eyes. I like barbarians, what can I say? So I figured the script book would be just as interesting. The fact that Neil Gaiman is one of the scriptwriters added to my initial interest. I resisted the urge to grab a turkey leg (it’d set the mood, y’know?) and dug right in.
At the very beginning of the book is a map drawn by Roger Avary, showing Northern Europe at the time Beowulf would have been alive (if he had indeed been a real-life hero.) It’s a nice bit of information, as some of these tribes of men are referenced in the scripts. There’s a foreword by Roger Avary that describes the process of getting this film made, including his first “treatment” of the material, back when he was in high school (which was well done; no, seriously.) I’m glad that he mentioned the questions he’d had back when he first read the poem, because I’d had a few of those similar questions myself. Why didn’tBeowulf bring back the head of Grendel’s mother; why the head of Grendel? Beowulf had already killed that monster, why the additional proof with no proof of the mother’s death? The script shows a very interesting — and entertaining — possibility.
The first draft is riveting. It reads, for those of you who have never read a movie script, like a play . . . with more oomph. Not just because of the subject matter, but because the writers took the time to invest their characters with more than just primary motivations. There’s no black-and-white here, but the shades of gray are compelling nonetheless. The good isn’t completely innocent or pure (or even honest), and the evil? There’s enough background and characterization for readers to see that these monsters aren’t mindless killing machines; they have motivations of their own. Maybe not completely peachy-keen with the non-monster crowd, but they can at least be understood. This Beowulf is a self-involved, self-absorbed Big Man On Campus, seemingly uncaring about the men he loses, or the townspeople who get hurt when he’s doing what he does best. And Grendel is a monster, but is also painted as a childlike naif who acts out and needs to be kept by his mother. I’m sure there’s something Freudian in that, but that’s just me. The script itself is lyrically beautiful and drew me in immediately.
Before the second script, there are a few concept art illustrations; Grendel looks very, very Marilyn Manson in them, I’ve gotta say. They didn’t stick to them exactly in the final product, but you’ll get a general idea of what type of monster will be on screen (even more so if you’ve seen any of the bus/subway posters that are around right now.) I always pictured Grendel as a sort of Swamp Thing creature, but that’s because those were some of the comics I read back then. Roger Avery comes back with a “Middleword,” where he fills readers in on more of the film-making process, and how he let his option on directing the film go, not without some reluctance.
The second draft is closer to the final film than the first, of course, but there are plenty of scenes from the first draft thrown in to the final product. There are also a few changes outside of both scripts, which were probably last-minute rewrites and/or directorial changes. It’s pretty amazing to see where it started, where it finished, and how things finally wrapped, thanks to this book. The more visceral and vulgar parts were excised for a PG-13 rating (c’mon, this movie is available in 3D, so kid-friendly is a definite plus for the producers.) I caught myself saying “oh man, they’ll never let that into the final film!” And I was right. Sigh. Woulda been cool though. Some of the more intricate bits of characterization are also gone, which is a shame. The film itself doesn’t really suffer, but the characters do. Characters that were more realized would have made for a more compelling story. It’s still enjoyable action (3D or no); this tale hasn’t remained alive for over 1500 years for nothin’, you know. Just one or two lines from the script put in here and there would have shown a more empathetic Beowulf, a more intriguing Wealthow, and even more interesting “monsters.” Welcome to the Hollywood machine!
Some of you are probably wondering where Neil Gaiman is in all this. He’s out back, in the Afterword, dropping an anecdote or two. He’s quick to say that this is Roger Avary’s piece, though Neil’s voice peeks through in some places. The two writers blend very well in this effort (Neil is a fantastic collaborator; Good Omens, anyone?), but I gotta say I loved Neil’s “rude songs,” the lyrics of which are tacked on to the end of the book. Perfect for belting out on those drank-too-much-mead evenings. What? Like that’s never happened to you. . . .
This book, in toto, is a fantastic look at the film-making process from a viewpoint most casual lovers of the medium don’t see: the scriptwriter’s. Less than twenty bucks isn’t much to pay for a peek behind the scenes, guided by award winning (and let’s face it, just plain ol’ cool) writers. What was it that the Wizard of Oz said? Pay no attention to what goes on behind the curtain? Screw that. Pay these two every attention. You just may learn something. And if not? You’ll be entertained in any case. And ain’t that what the movies are all about?