BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—Fantasy author Neil Gaiman automatically turns down offers to rewrite others’ work for the screen, but in the case of “Beowulf,” whose 8th-century author was long dead, he made an exception.
His friend Roger Avary, screenwriter of “Pulp Fiction,” was stalled on an adaptation of the epic poem. It had a hero, monsters, battles, but sections of the narrative seemed to be missing. Why did a second monster, a fearsome dragon, come after the warrior-king Beowulf decades after he slew Grendel?
Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Crispin Glover, Brendan Gleeson
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 16 Nov 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 16 Nov 2007 (General release); 2007)
“Wouldn’t it be interesting,” Gaiman said during a phone call to Avary, “if Beowulf fathered the dragon with Grendel’s demon mother?”
After a pause, Avary replied, “When are you free?”
Flash forward a decade, past a beer-fueled, tag-team scriptwriting marathon on a Mexican beach, past several abortive efforts to mount the film as a live-action adventure, past several generations of computer-animation technology, and we arrive at the opening of “Beowulf,” the 3-D CGI IMAX version. With a roster of A-list talent including Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and director Robert Zemeckis, the Gaiman-Avary “Beowulf” will probably popularize the tale in a way that thousands of English Lit 301 courses couldn’t accomplish.
“What’s always been a problem with `Beowulf’ is, how do you make it story-shaped? How do you tack on the last act so that it’s still part of the first act?” Gaiman said. His most gratifying experiences publicizing the film have been conversations with medieval scholars who have blessed his revision as being entirely respectful to the source.
On the other hand, he said, he has had to beat back legions of fanboys who imagine that “Beowulf” is “300” in Viking horns.
“Our film has more in common with `The Lion in Winter,’” Gaiman said. “Beowulf is surely a hero. He does the deeds he set out to accomplish. And yet, no one is only a hero. The more you know about anybody the more you discover they have feet of clay. Because feet of clay is a condition of being human.”
Gaiman, 47, has done best-selling and critically acclaimed work as a writer of novels (“American Gods”), comic books (“Sandman”) and films (this summer’s romantic fantasy “Stardust,” a modest hit in the United States, has made more than $100 million worldwide). His tales often deal with the relationship between stories and their tellers, a central theme of “Beowulf” that he didn’t recognize until he saw the film for the first time on a towering IMAX 3D screen.
“I had been working on it for 10 years and failed to notice something about it. I said you know, this is absolutely a Neil Gaiman story because it’s yet again about the relationship between people and stories. It’s a story about a person who’s doing stuff in order to have a story told about him,” as Beowulf undertakes heroic quests so that his legend will live throughout eternity.
“But the gold, the glory, the castle, all the things he wanted, don’t mean what he thought it would. It’s all been tainted by the lies and the things he had to do and go through to get it.”
Writing the film gave Gaiman a sense of kinship with the bards of old, telling a story that would please the king who would give him money for the script, while worrying about monkish censors who want to take out ribald passages that might offend. The finished product pushes the boundaries of PG-13 moviemaking with violence, lusty humor and partial nudity.
Gaiman notes that the Vikings left a lot of obscene graffiti along the routes they traveled. “Just on that basis I don’t believe `Beowulf’ was a sexless story” in its original form, he said. “I love the shifts in tone. I love that you start out a scene like a drunken Monty Python routine and ends like `The Lion in Winter,’ and then goes into the most kick-a—dragon battle anyone has seen in cinema.”
Working with animated thespians, Gaiman’s greatest worry was that the technology would not be up to a story “in which the balance of what was important was unspoken. Looks and glances and pauses and the expression that flashes across somebody’s face when they’re not saying anything, was part of the story. The moments that made me happiest were the moments when you can look at the characters and you can read what they’re thinking in their eyes.”
Gaiman’s next screen project is “Coraline,” a stop-motion animated feature directed by Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”), and his next book is a story of a child adopted by ghosts. There is no work for hire on his to-do list. Living in the Midwest allows him the creative flexibility to decline assignments that don’t appeal to him, a choice that might not be available to financially overextended West Coast writers, he said.
“There’s a wonderful moment on people’s faces when they say, `Now, you live out near Minneapolis. Why do you live out there?’ I used to give long, complicated answers about my wife’s family and this that and the other.
“Now I say, `Well, it’s mostly because in 1992 I found myself able to buy an enormous Addams Family mansion and 15 acres of woodland and river, for $150,000.’ And that’s the point they go, `Oh. Are they still there?’”