Ive just come across a New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/04/books/04beow.html) discussing several recent or forthcoming adaptations of Beowulf, including a couple of films and Beowulf: the Opera (or rather Grendel: the Opera.) My immediate thought on hearing about these is that Beowulf is not actually a very good story for a film: there just isnt enough material. The basic plot of Beowulf is as follows:
Monster terrorises Danes; Beowulf kills him
Monsters mother seeks revenge; Beowulf kills her
Beowulf becomes king of Geats and grows old
Dragon terrorises Geats; Beowulf kills dragon and is killed in the process.
I remember seeing a student theatre production in Oxford twenty years ago and one of the things that struck me then was how short it was if you stick to the basic plot. The only reason that Beowulf lasts 3000 lines is that alongside these battles, there are a series of digressions, which form what Ive seen described as an interlace pattern of themes, motifs etc. A very polished literary effect and (Id presume) impossible to reproduce in a film. Maybe you could do it in opera with arias, but in a film, you can hardly have repeated flash forwards/flashbacks to stories which often include completely new characters. (Its hard enough for those of us studying the poem to distinguish between Edgetheow and Ongentheow without a handy reference list).
My second train of thought was about the complaints of the journalist that the new adaptations miss the terror of Beowulf. There are two sides to this: the modern audience and the original audience. For the modern audience, its not clear that theres any easy way to induce terror. All an authentic Beowulf film can have is a few scenes of monsters eating men and Beowulf pulling Grendels arm off. No sex or even sexual violence. Youre looking at a 15 certificate, not an 18, in these days of Quentin Tarentino. And you cant for long take the other approach to inducing terror, that of keeping the horrors all off-stage and just dropping scary hints – you have to see the monsters pretty soon in Beowulf.
As for the original audience, were they listening to Beowulf for the thrill of being scared out of their wits, as the article suggests? If so, they may have been sadly disappointed (at least by the version of the story we currently have). As has often been pointed out, the poet keeps on undercutting the suspense, either by telling us the outcome of the fight in advance or by digressions. (Some scholars, in fact, have argued that Beowulf isnt really epic poetry at all because theres so little action). It takes 200 lines, for example, from Beowulf setting out to meet the dragon to him actually encountering it, lines mostly spent by Beowulf in discussing the past. The Battle of Maldon manages an entire epic defeat in around 400 lines; the Beowulf poet takes the scenic route. Whatever the audience got (a view of a whole society, an elegy for past heroic values), terror would surely have been only secondary to it.