“Woke” Storytelling in 2007: How Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf Reveals the True Problems in Film Criticism

Much of modern amateur film criticism has been dedicated to discussions on progressive themes and intrusion into popular cinema and art. It’s not hard to see why. Whatever your opinions on Marvel movies, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, comic books, video games or otherwise, the quality of modern pop-art seems to be declining in proportion to the degree that political active writers are taking the reins of producing them.

The narrative goes that we’ve reached a point in our cultural discussion where these writers hate the material they work with (or at least don’t have strong emotional attachment to it) and just want to use it to force an agenda down on the populace through popular art.

As someone who’s written semi-professionally as a film critic for almost seven years, I find this narrative somewhat naïve for several reasons. A lot of the disdain just comes down to the different processes and ways that fan culture and art criticism engage with entertainment on an intellectual level. In practice, I find the problems cut a bit deeper. 

For one, I’m not offended by progressive storytelling. Plenty of the greatest films in history have had a progressive slant and film fans usually just look the other way because they like the stories. They Live is one of the most political films in history and action movie fans love it! The same goes with most of the major Hollywood films people still go back and watch. Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Brazil, Blue Velvet, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, Psycho, The Road Warrior, The Matrix, Clint Eastwood’s westerns and even the original Star Wars are tinged by the liberal and transgressive politics of their time.

Take a popular example: Ghostbusters was partially intended as a sardonic parody of The Exorcist that was aping off the popular satanic panic paranoia of the religious right. Politics shows up everywhere in film.

I’m not a believer that “the politics is personal” but politics does tend to show up in minor ways in most Hollywood films and usually it’s tolerable. Progressive intrusion has been happening for decades and it wasn’t criticized this severely up until quite recently. People certainly complained in the 1970s about “liberal Hollywood” but the critique was never as angry as it is now among young film writers. The myth of a recent progressive take over is just that. Even before the 1970s, progressives controlled half of Hollywood going back to the beginning of film. The “Liberal Hollywood” of Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda and Humphrey Bogart was infamous for their political pandering. Even so, they produced plenty of great movies! 

The term “woke” has become a catch all in film discourse that’s become deeply abused. Much like the left throughs around the term “fascist” and “Nazi” too much, “woke” in a descriptivist sense seems to mean “everything I don’t like in movies that I would declare vaguely political”.

Usually, storytelling problems in film go deeper than simple issues of progressive vs. non-political. When people go on for hours about the “woke” themes in Star Wars and modern films, I can’t help but roll my eyes a little. The only reason Disney allows for these themes is because they think the money right now is in pandering to moderately left-of-center audiences. Disney is still too timid to put outright gay or black characters in their films though because they know they’ll offend religious Americans and homophobic/racist Chinese audiences.

Political themes have existed in modern art since before 2012 when Anita Sarkesian started criticizing “sexism in video games” and too many of the works of pop-art that modern audiences love do have political subtext to them. Bunching up all the ideas you don’t like under the term “woke” or “SJW” doesn’t serve to address the real problems. It only obfuscates the problem and makes the progenitors feel vindicated given that anti-progressives aren’t actually engaging with the criticisms they’re levying. Blithe dismissal can only work for so long in a debate. 

The level of discourse over “woke” storytelling is amateur and superficial. I’m not a great expert on art but I’ve written about film for seven years now and I can tell you I know the difference between real film critics and posers. Real film critics don’t unironically use the term “Mary Sue” as a main critique of a film. That term really only exists as a way to dismiss indulgent fan-fiction at its face and doesn’t capture much nuance in art criticism.

The problem isn’t that the term isn’t in some ways accurate or that it’s sexist. The problem is that it’s reductive. Rey in Star Wars being a powerful character from the outset was not the problem in the new movies. The problem was that J.J. Abrams didn’t know how to write a story about a character who wakes up one morning and discovers she’s an all-powerful space wizard prodigy. It’s a screenwriting problem, not a “woke” problem.

The people working at Disney obviously weren’t trying to purposely “destroy Star Wars“. They just rushed the stories out and fired their smartest directors so they could get the movies out on time. As a result, Solo and Rise of Skywalker both sucked.

So much of modern “film criticism” online can be summarized as surface level nitpicks and logic surfing. The problem with most films isn’t that they’re not-100% logically consistent or filled with plot holes but that their storytelling doesn’t engage you enough for you to NOT think about the logical implications of the story logic. That’s the reason we look the other way on illogical stories and plot-holes like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator 2, Inception and The Dark Knight. It doesn’t matter how many plot holes the story has if you’re engaged with the film. 

Nobody watches a recent film like Snow Piercer and thinks “there’s no logical way a train could operate in a post-apocalyptic Earth”. The point of that film is the political satire and moment-to-moment tension of Bong Joon-Ho’s story.

If you want to seriously engage in storytelling you have to engage with the films on a thematic and emotional level. On those terms, those movies are perfect and they all speak to some aspect of the human experience albeit in the form of a massive dumb blockbuster. That is the purpose of art right?

Alas our modern obsession with pop-art doesn’t lionize storytelling or artistry so much as it does escapism. We want to be absorbed in films the same way we were as children growing up and watching movies as kids in the 1980s and we’re discovering that most of the films we’re getting today are hollow facsimiles of the ones we loved as children. Maybe we’d all collectively feel better if we put our toys away and challenged ourselves with more rewarding stories. Our viewing habits might become less pornographic and indulgent if we tried.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the movies we love. I love superhero movies and bad action flicks and horror movies. The problem becomes evident when these kinds of stories are the ONLY stories we consume. If you only engage art at it’s most indulgent and absorbing level, you’re treating art in the same way that a person who ONLY eats McDonalds treats food. You’re making yourself fat and stupid.

Regardless, I think this obsession with pop-art blinds people to the more sinister ways progressive activism is currently infiltrating modern art. I’m a classics nerd at heart and I think some of the most pervasive stuff happening in modern progressive filmmaking comes in the trampling of classic pieces of literature in storytelling by retelling them through the lens of progressivism.

Just recently we saw an example of this in A Personal History of David Copperfield. The movie wasn’t bad. I actually quite enjoyed it but it recast the traditionally white lead of Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield with an Indian lead and cast multiple characters living in Victorian England with Asian, Black and non-white actors. It’s mostly harmless in the way that a black Heimdell in Thor is harmless but the diversity push is evident none-the-less. As noble as colorblind casting is, it doesn’t serve the story of a man living in Victorian England. It’s a concession just to make modern audiences feel better that history isn’t free or racial preferences. It’s a harmless concession in a movie that mostly bombed at the box office but a progressive decision none the less.

Certainly a shallow race flipping of an Anglo-philic 19th century novel isn’t the most important problem in the world. There are, of course, examples of more troubling progressive films like Sorry to Bother You, Queen and Slim, Unpregnant and Cuties which lionize Marxism, vigilantism, libertinism and moral relativism as virtues. The classics however are the place you should be watching if you want to see how much modern Hollywood bungles traditional storytelling. Try asking Catholic Tolkien fans about all of the ways Peter Jackson bungled the Lord of the Rings movies sometime…

If you really want to push back against progressive intrusion into culture, you need to watch what they do to the classics. If you want to find a real example of progressive intrusion into the telling of a great story, you’re looking in the wrong place by JUST focusing on contemporary Disney movies. Sometimes you’ll be shocked just how and where post-modern, Marxist, progressive, feminist and intersectional themes rear their ugly heads. The best example I can think of this is a movie I actually only watched for the first time in the past few months.

Back in 2007, the great Robert Zemeckis released a movie that would be considered “woke” by modern standards but has largely been written off because it was a box office failure (in so far as earning $200 million can be considered a failure). Critics of the movie of course gravitated towards obvious criticisms. The facial capture technology Zemekis loved used in movies like Polar Express, Monster House and A Christmas Carol was deeply off putting and doesn’t serve the story. Still, Zemeckis wanted to make a movie that could prove to audiences and critics that his new animation technology could make serious mature movies and stories that adults would want to seek out. He found his story in the classic story of Beowulf.

Today, the movie is mostly forgotten by the public who mostly remember it as the weird movie where a naked CGI Angelina Jolie shows up and tempts a CGI Ray Winstone into banging her. It’s not a great film overall and it’s not well remembered by anyone involved with the film or who saw it. Still, it is immensely fascinating. There aren’t a lot of films coming out that try to adapt ancient stories from classical literature and here was a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster that tried to adapt one of the oldest stories in the English language into a contemporary audience pleasing blockbuster film. I can’t help but respect that.

That said, the movie is very frustrating if you’re familiar with the original legend. It’s interesting because it’s actually very revealing of how modern writers approach ideas and storytelling compared to storytellers of antiquity. As such, this expensive weirdly made bomb actually does serve to reveal something fascinating about modern life in an indirect way. 

Let’s start with the basics. What is Beowulf? Most people reading this probably haven’t read the classic story. If you have read it, it was likely one of the books your AP English class forced you to read in high school against your will like Huckleberry Finn or The Crucible.

If you want to know why this modern retelling of Beowulf bothers me, let me first tell you what Beowulf is NOT. Beowulf is NOT an ironic story about the nature of men, temptation and greed. It’s not a Freudian tale of emasculation and cycles of violence. Beowulf is, to borrow a term from Tolkien, a fairy story. It’s a very simple and short poem about a great warrior named Beowulf (which translates to Beewolf or The Bear) in the sixth century AD just before Northern Europe was Christianized. He sails south to Denmark when a Mead Hall owned by a Dane King is attacked by a half-human/half-demon monster named Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendal, kills Grendal’s mother, is awarded great riches for his conquest and returns to his home country where he’s christened a king for all of his accomplishments. After fifty years, the story picks up with Beowulf dying in battle against a dragon and being lamented in a Viking funeral by his people as the greatest warrior of their history. It’s not a complicated or dramatic story in the modern sense. There’s no great character conflict or story arc. The story certainly addresses themes of mortality, earthly wealth and aging but it’s not playing coy with it’s themes. It’s simply a story about great valor, bravery and wealth portrayed unironically to celebrate a great legendary mythic hero. 

In other words, Beowulf is exactly the OPPOSITE of how modern storytellers approach stories. What else would you expect though? Beowulf was first transcribed over a thousand years ago and is the first known story ever written in what we would now loosely describe as the English language. The dialect is so old that it’s unreadable in modern English. It’s a fascinating epic if only because of how different it is compared to modern stories.

Above all, it’s fascinating for its contradictions. Being written in England, it’s unclear if this is a Danish legend or an original story written by an unknown author. It’s likely the last surviving copy was transcribed by Christian monks as some of the story’s framing and commentary refers negatively to the Pagan religions of the characters. Whatever it is, it was written after the Christianization of Britain and yet portrays it’s characters as Norse pagans with honor and valiance.

One wonders what the Bairds telling this story orally in English bars and ceremonies got out of it. Maybe they engaged with it in the same way we watch engage with Thor movies or retellings of old mythologies. Regardless, it’s such a deeply romantic and enthralling tale that you don’t need modern concepts like “drama” or “flawed characters” for it to be interesting. You can just imagine the patrons of a bar swooning and cheering as they hear about Beowulf’s gallantry as he fights monsters and dies a hero. There are still festivals and Renaissance Fairs to this day that perform the play in spoken word because of how compelling it still is.

Enter Robert Zemekis and Neil Gaiman.

First and foremost, I have nothing against either of these artists. I love any of Zemekis’s films and I respect Gaiman’s work as one of the predominant fantasy writers of our time. In the mid-2000s, post-Polar Express, Zemekis was interested in finding a darker and more mature film he could use his incredibly expensive motion capture software on as a proof of concept. The project he would ultimately choose would be his own ultra-gritty story adapting Beowulf into a modern action movie.

To my knowledge this is the only time in film history that a serious filmmaker tried to adapt the story in any way (unless you count the cheap Christopher Lambert movie from 1999 that’s actually science fiction film). I don’t blame past directors for not approaching the material. It’s one of those books like Don Quixote or Heart of Darkness that’s almost unfilmable just by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t fit into what we could consider a traditional narrative for a mainstream two hour film. 

Still, their effort was quite ambitious. If anybody could pull off a retelling of Beowulf it’s Neil Gaiman whose entire career has been dedicated to retelling and expanding on stories to appeal to modern readers (Sandman, Miracle Man, American Gods, Norse Mythology, etc.). The result is a fascinating creature. The retold story of Beowulf has been expanded out into a two hour epic that keeps all of the vital plot points of the legend intact while expanding vague elements in the story out into a larger more modern narrative.

The result isn’t just a film that’s retelling the story of Beowulf but one that’s telling a larger story about myth and legends, patriarchal societies, toxic masculinity, male cycles of violence and castration anxiety. In this version of the story, Beowulf isn’t exactly the legend the original book suggests (although it could be implied that the legend of Beowulf as we know it is a story handed down in this universe).

Right from the start of the story, we’re introduced to a Beowulf who is both extremely strong and brutal as well as a liar who inflates his own legend to earn him further glory. He brutally kills Grendal in a way that makes you almost pity the poor mutated half-demon and then makes an agreement with Grendel’s mother in something of a Faustian bargain. She offers to trade him conceiving a child with Beowulf for a lifetime of riches and glory as the new king of Denmark. Instead of killing Grendal’s mother like he’s supposed to in the story, he conceives a child with her and then lies to the king saying he killed her. His kingship is therefore founded on a lie that comes back to haunt him when his bastard son in the form of a dragon comes to destroy him and take his life.

What in the book were three random monsters in a pre-Christian superstitious Europe have instead been rewritten as extensions of the greeds and moral failings of human society at large. Grendal’s mother is portrayed VERY differently in this story than in the book. In the book she’s a descendant of Cain (the first murderer in the Bible) and is shown as a voiceless destructive water demon who hoards treasure. In this version, she’s a lucifarian seductress who tempts men with power and wealth.

It’s also implies that Grendal’s father is King Hrothgar; the owner of the Mead Hall who calls upon Beowulf. This mean that Danish society is trapped in a perpetual cycle of lust, greed and destruction where-in each new king sleeps with her, conceives of a monstrous bastard child and then dies slaying it. Thus the film’s cryptic final shot. Does the surviving man Wiglaf take the same deal with Grendal’s mother by conceiving a child in order to gain power or does he break the cycle of history? Given that Beowulf’s legend implicitly survives, the implication would be that the cycle of male violence and destruction continues to this day. 

Such a retelling is fascinating and infuriating all at once. “Modernizing” a story out of antiquity is always going to be a fraught path if you don’t know what you’re doing but Neil Gaiman knew exactly what he was doing. He was ripping the legend apart to show problems he believes are still haunting society today. Such an aim can’t help but bastardize a story like Beowulf and miss the point about what makes that original story so beloved to this day.

Again, Beowulf is a fairy story. It’s meant to edify and celebrate traits that the society as a whole holds up as important. Mytho-Poetic fantasy is the cornerstone of entire societies. Greece built their entire society and traditions on retellings of The Iliad and The Odyssey despite the fact that the Greek Gods and various mythological creatures never existed. It doesn’t matter that water demons and dragons weren’t literally roaming ancient Europe or that such a characterization of Beowulf’s is unrealistic (nobody in real life could swim for a solid week AND fight several sea monsters AND live).

It doesn’t matter that the original story doesn’t speak to the patriarchal nature of ancient societies and question the role violence places in maintaining/destroying a society. What matters is that we come away with a sense of respect for this Geat who fights Grendel without armor or a weapon and wins through sheer strength. What matters is that this man was brave enough to go out and fight monsters that nobody else could fight without fear and doubt. Beowulf is supposed to inspire us and make us feel proud to be his descendants even if he more than likely never existed. 

Trying to satirize Beowulf is like trying to satirize The Hobbit. You miss the entire point of the story by trying to take it apart and examine all of the elements under a microscope. Furthermore such a retelling only serves to bolster our modern prejudices and affirm the more negative aspects of modern life. Take the film’s treatment of Christianity as an example. The story brings the book’s subtext of Christendom’s rise in Europe and turns it into a minor subplot wherein Unferth attempts to convince the king Hrothgar to convert the kingdom to Christianity as a way to offset demonic attacks. Hrothgar simply dismisses the “new Roman religion” as useless in defeating the monster. Later in the film, Beowulf laments the ways that Christenization have changed his kingdom in his half century of rule. 

“The time of heroes is over, the Christ-God has killed it. Leaving nothing but weeping martyrs and shame.” 

One could assume this is further exploration of the theme of castration. Christianity consumes Europe and cuts off the people from their Norse/Pagan roots leaving them feeling alienated from their former warrior cultures. This does ironically serve to undermine the themes that are critical of the warrior culture ethos. If Christianity comes into Europe and quells some of the violence among the Germanic tribes, isn’t that a good thing in the film’s eyes?

Well no. The movie gives two reasons. Christianity is almost certainly as patriarchal as the societies that came before it. Furthermore, Christianity was NOT in vogue around 2007 when the film came out. This was at the height of the creationism debates and New Atheism’s rise to prominence. These comments don’t serve the themes of the story so much as they function as a snide remark at the notion that Christianity can be a force of good within the culture.

Say what you will about organized religion, it doesn’t serve the themes of the story. Beowulf is a story that was told and retold by Christians in the middle ages and robbing the story of that element and authorship only serves to reinforce our modern prejudices towards religion (for good or ill). 

To come full circle, why does this matter in 2020? The movie came out thirteen years ago and isn’t fondly remembered. If it’s remembered at all, it’s remembered for it’s horrendous CGI and visual effects. You’ll find used or unsold copies in just about every 7/11 or used DVD store in existence because people don’t want to watch it. The movie was a loss for it’s studio and one of the darkest splotches on the careers of everyone involved.

The reason I’m covering it now is because I think it’s a great example of what the exact problem in modern Hollywood is and why progressive thought is so pervasive and damaging. There is a reason EVERY classics nerd loves Beowulf. It’s an amazing story out of antiquity. 

The problem with “woke” activism isn’t that it’s some shadowy cabal of bad screenwriters trying to destroy your childhood but that their values are slowly setting the tenor for what society OUGHT to be. I have no problems with stories from diverse places and peoples. Diversity is the spice of life. Some of my favorite movies are foreign films by filmmakers with very different outlooks on life than mine. African, Asian and European stories all ought to be understood and explored.

When progressive themes seep into our art in quiet ways, it alters the way society conceives of what our highest and most important values in culture should be. Right now, our most in-vogue artists are schlock-meisters who superficially dress up low art in pretty ways to reinforce the values of our age: indulgence, nihilism, self loathing, endless self reflection, etc. The superficial progressivism is using the ability of stories to inculcate values to change the direction of our society. 

Again though, I don’t mind progressive stories when they’re done right. Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles movies all skewed progressive but their work is essential and they captured something beautiful and humane about the world even as they built up ugly and horrific characters. Rich now, the world needs more stories that build up the classical values of antiquity. Thankfully we know what movies like that would look like. The works of John Ford and Frank Capra in classic Hollywood did an amazing job capturing a semblance of what American society ought to be. They told quintessentially American, Christian and moral stories that edified our society and built up the ideas of people who watched them using morality plays and myths. John Ford’s version of the old west IS the American understanding of the Old-West to this day. Frank Capra’s moralism survives in movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that reinforce the need for good men to take the reigns of our societies. More importantly, they provide an outline for what a good person in a modern society should look like. Those movies are doing the same thing that Beowulf did for its listeners. 

There’s a reason that The Lord of the Rings books and movies are the most popular stories of the last century. Those books capture something essential about our age and the cost of bravery and the necessity for meekness. Even when Game of Thrones tried to satirize those themes, George R.R. Martin couldn’t fully succeed in edifying the irony and moral relativism of our times. Society needs unironic and moral stories that build up the society and reinforce its best values.

In our current progressive/secular age, our art does little but tear down society and lionize the anti-establishment hero. Society’s establishments can’t be run by anti-establishment ideas though. It’s against their nature. Acid can only burn through a society for so long before it falls apart. If we don’t find some equanimity between the forces of construction and deconstruction, we’ll quickly realize just how little our culture is capable of producing and how weak the men and women it creates are.

Thankfully we still have our stories like Beowulf and Lord of the Rings that progressivism can’t possibly take away from us. They can put as many nude scenes as they want into Amazon’s new Tolkien series but it will never rob the accomplishments of the original stories. Disney can retell Star Wars as a story of classism and Marxist justice and that won’t damage the original Star Wars trilogy. Even progressives respect the legends of antiquity. They just can’t reproduce them. They’ll always seem cold and plastic to us in hindsight. They’ll be cheap DVDs at the bottom of the dollar bin. They are created only to be forgotten and thrown in the trash heap of history while Beowulf lives forever.

Published by Tyler Hummel

Editor-in-Chief at Cultural Review, College Fix Fellow at Main Street Media, Regular Film Critic for Geeks Under Grace and the New York Sun, Published at ArcDigital, Rebeller, The DailyWire, Hollywood in Toto, Legal Insurrection and The ED Blog, Host of The AntiSocial Network Podcast

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