From Game of Thrones to the foxiest Robin Hood to have ever graced the screen (and no, I’m not talking about Cary Elwes), we all know that film and television producers love adapting medieval and medievalist (medieval-ish?) stories for the screen. Medieval films, too, have a remarkable tendency to be bad, in the best get-together-with-your-friends-and-play-MST3K sort of way. The Old English poem Beowulf is no exception. From a gold, dragonish, CGI Angelina Jolie to a platinum-blond (and French!) Christopher Lambert, most adaptations are so gloriously, farcically bad that even laughter can be difficult.
But what about those adaptations that are bad in the most glorious ways? What about when we make medieval literature into sci-fi? Medieval literature is often used as an inspiration for fantasy literature and films, but in one of its worst (read: best) adaptations, Beowulf is a hero from a sci-fi future as much as a heroic past. I’m talking, of course, about Outlander.
No, not that Outlander, based on the fantasy novels by Diana Gabaldon, but the 2008 film starring Jim Caviezel. In this mashup of Beowulf and Predator, Jim Caviezel is Kainan, a futuristic space alien who crashes to Iron Age Scandinavia with a horrific space monster called a Moorwen. After using his fancy space technology to learn Norse, he foolishly drops his fancy space gun down a river and has to gain the trust of a local village so that he can recapture the monster and return to his homeland.
I don’t think I can adequately express how incredible/terrible this movie is. It’s got a heavy-handed ecological moral—the Moorwens were hunted nearly to extinction on their home planet, which was being colonized by Kainan’s people. It’s got revenge—a Moorwen killed Kainan’s wife and child (whose bodies he is macabrely transporting in his ship when he crashes). It’s got a love story—of course, Kainan falls in love with Freya, daughter of the local king “Rothgar,” and chooses to destroy the homing beacon that will return him to his people in order to remain with her.
Here's one rather retro portrayal of Beowulf. Image via Helen Stratton/Wikimedia Commons.
Of course, now that I’ve said all this, if you’ve read Beowulf recently, you’re probably wonder how the heck this is an adaptation of it, and in some ways, that’s one of the great things about this movie. No film is going to follow the poem to the letter—and we’re probably all pretty okay with cutting out the war with Frisia anyway—but the little things are still there for the bona fide Beowulf fan.
Kainan is a freakishly good swimmer, holding his breath for so long that his girlfriend thinks he’s drowned. We spend the first part of the film thinking that there’s only one monster, only later to discover that there is both a parent and a child—who are hiding in a cave behind a waterfall. Heck, even the admonishing moral about environmentalism fits in a story that thinks a lot about the importance of physical environments.
When it comes down to it, it’s the little things that make Beowulf great, and it’s the little things that make film adaptations of it great, too. Whether it’s the giant pit of burning oil that they create to trap the Moorwen, the drinking game called “Shields” that they play in Heorot, or even just staring into Jim Caviezel’s sad, sad eyes for a few hours, this is one of the best bad medieval movies around.
(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech. I’m pretty sure that the graphic designers at JPL are Outlander fans!)