Is Beowulf coming to TV?

Last year news emerged of a Beowulf TV series created as original content for Syfy, the science fiction channel. Here’s a status report on that project, and a possible competitor.

Hwæt! In november last year, it was announced that Syfy would develop an original TV series based on Beowulf, the ancient epic story about a Scandinavian warrior protecting a Viking king from a cave-dwelling monster. Following the success of other historical fantasy series such as Merlin, Vikings, Spartacus and Game of Thrones, the 3182-line Old English story, written as a poem, seems to be a logical choice for the channel.

According to reports, the logline of the series is an “adaptation of the classic epic poem that further examines the hero’s rise to power and his feud with the monster Grendel.” Nothing new there, in other words, but the poem has been the subject of various types of adaptions over the years and should lend itself very well to TV. Between 1999 and 2007, no less than six films were made based on the legend, including Syfy’s own low budget Grendel, Robert Zemeckis’ animated Beowulf, and the Medieval futuristic Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert.

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Some of the Beowulf movies. No TV series have been made from the poem, though.

The series will be written by Matt Greenberg (writer of 1408 and Reign of Fire) and produced by Greenberg, Brian Hamilton, Michael Chechik, Andrew Cosby and Paulo de Oliveira by Omni Film in Canada for Syfy. Universal Cable Productions will co-distribute.

So what is the status of the show now, six months after it was announced? There is no information at all on the Syfy website, and none of the producers nor the writer has any indication of a fantasy TV series on their IMDb pages. Omnifilm’s news archives point only to the original announcement, with no updates. Neither Syfy nor Omnifilm has replied to our email inquiries.

So basically, no news on this project – until April this year. The ITV network in the UK announced it is close to ordering two 13-episode family dramas, of which a Beowulf series is one. However, there is no mention of any link to Syfy or American producers. Is this the same project as Syfy is working on, or is ITV developing their own Beowulf series in competition with Syfy? There seems to be no information on this coincidence at the moment, neither via IMDb nor ITV.

beowulf actual poem

The beginning of the actual poem, written by an anonymous author between the 8th and the 11th century.

ITV Studios’ Kevin Lygo said of the Beowulf show and a Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde series they are planning: -It’s that world that the BBC can be good at, like Merlin and Doctor Who and Robin Hood, which play in different places around the globe. So we’ve spent some time developing these series, with a full economic explanation to the network. We need to commission runs of 13, not two or three-parters. It needs to be of a certain high production quality, so it is expensive. You want to persuade broadcasters, including your own, to invest in programming that works not only as it gets transmitted in the UK, but also has a proper life outside.

Lygo is currently seeking production funding for the two shows, which are unusual not only for their specific fantasy content, but also the fact that they run for 13 episodes. Many British dramas run for three episodes, or if they push it, eight episodes like Downton Abbey or the 10-episode Mr Selfridge. The longer Beowulf season was chosen to Americanize the property and make it attractive for US distributors. It is also likely that Beowulf will fill a Saturday or Sunday evening slot in the UK, challenging popular BBC series such as Doctor Who and The Musketeers. ITV is also a supplier of dramas for the BBC, so wether the series will run on BBC or ITV’s own network is not currently known.

Beowulf – or whatever it will be called – will be produced by Tim Haines, producer of ITV’s science fantasy drama Primeval and director of the popular documentary Walking with Dinosaurs. In 2002, Haines and Jasper James founded Impossible Pictures, which produced all his films since then. Impossible Pictures has so far declined to reply to our inquiries.

Beowulf the poem is one of the oldest pieces of litterature available. Set in Scandinavia in the 5th century, it had a huge influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a scholar of Old English and Anglo Saxon languages. He did officially confirm that Beowulf was among his “most valued sources” when creating Middle-Earth for the Lord of the Rings saga. In 1936, Tolkien made an academic lecture called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, which had a lasting influence on Beowulf research. At the time, the academic world disapproved of the poem for dealing with childish battles with monsters, rather than realistic tribal warfare. Tolkien argued that the author of Beowulf was addressing human destiny in general, while not being limited by tribal politics.

Review: Beowulf (2007)

Even though it is one of the most well known legends in medieval and pre-medieval history, the Beowulf poem has not yet been made into a regular blockbuster fantasy movie. Robert Zemeckis’ CGI animated Beowulf comes close, but is a 3D cartoon what makes the story justice?

Fantasy and sci-fi director Robert Zemeckisbeowulf_poster (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact, Polar Express) has in later years specialized in animated CGI movies, and no doubt did Beowulf lend itself to that technique. When you are in the fantasy realm, animation – whatever technique chosen – works simply because there is no reality to compare it to. We know what cars and modern clothes look like, but we can’t say “a dragon doesn’t look like that” and back it up with evidence from our daily lives. With a script by Neil Gaiman and a strong cast, everything is set for great results in Beowulf.

The story, as it goes in all Beowulf movies, is about the defence of a Danish kingdom in pre-Viking ages from the attack of the monster Grendel. King Hrothgar is about to open his new mead hall when Grendel kills almost all the people there. Beowulf arrives by ship and makes a pact with Hrothgar to kill Grendel, which he succeeds at. But Grendel’s mother, a water demon, wants revenge!

Aside from a classic story, some great actors and a naked Angelina Jolie, what generated interest in this movie was its motion capture animation and 3D visuals. As one of the most hyped 3D movies before Avatar, Beowulf was not just a spectacle but in fact set new standards for CGI animation, as it refined the use of motion capture (mo-cap), a technology which has been around for a while but has not been perfected yet. The objective with mo-cap is to be able to animate movement, facial expressions and character interaction in a more realistic way, and indeed that works out great in this film. Compared to earlier fully CGI animated films, realism is added to a large extent and prevents the movie from being too artificial. Surfaces, sets, props, even characters are still “painted over” by computers so it’s not like we get to see real actors being manipulated by computers. The feeling of seeing a cartoon is still there. Thus you need to be able to appreciate animated films to enjoy this one, which isn’t a given for every viewer. Beowulf – in spite of its realism – still looks and feel more like a digital cartoon than live action, even though its violence is mostly not cartoony (i.e. lots of blod and gore). The biggest pleasure with Beowulf‘s animation is that is proves mo-cap can really work, although there is still work to be done in the field.

Computer images is only a beowulf_poster_angieportion of the film, however. The most important aspect is how the story is presented and what characters say and do. In that regard, Beowulf is nothing more than an above average, good enough, big budget fantasy blockbuster. It’s popcorn entertainment that manages to create a few thrilling and spectacular scenes, but there are no major character or story revelations that add to other Beowulf movies or similar monster slayer adventures. Everything is vivid and fun, including the story twist of having Jolie playing the most beautiful monster ever, but there is nothing new in terms of what is brought to the story table. Great movies have excuses for why they exist, but Beowulf‘s main excuse is to use technology to tell an old story again. By old I don’t only mean that the source is old, but that this particular type of hero tale is a cliché and that Zemeckis wanted to make a traditional fantasy story without any other ambitions than creating entertainment from a public domain figure. Additionally, there are very few things that really justifies 3D. The things that are justified are details in how things are shown, such as a speer revolving a few extra times around its own axis or a body being thrown across a room, but 3D has not been used to tell a story or present characters that could not exist in 2D. We’re actually back to the same problem that regular CGI effects in the mid and late 1990s faced; if it could be done, it should be done, even if there is no creative and artistic reason to. I don’t buy that 3D is here only to show special effects in an even more spectacular way than normal 2D.

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Nevertheless, Beowulf is solid fun, it’s a rollercoaster ride and is a worthy – though not awesome – addition to the Beowulf legacy. There have been a few movies made on the subject, and this is the one that is going to be remembered for some time.

Starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman, and Angelina Jolie.

Rated  7 of 10.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

USA, 2007.