Neil Gaiman Seemed Destined To Bring His Version Of Beowulf To The Big Screen

A blood and mead-soaked $150 million film adaptation of the classic epic poem "Beowulf" — one that sees Robert Zemeckis directing from a script by Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary — reads like the sort of things we movie buffs would talk about all the time. So why has the film's legacy amounted to little more than being the inspiration for the (somewhat literal) running gag that is Seth Rogen's uncanny valley Viking dwarf Bob in the "Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers" movie?

It's plainly because Zemeckis' 2007 fantasy-adventure was part of his ill-conceived detour into mo-cap animation in the aughts, the results of which were three films (2004's "The Polar Express," "Beowulf," and "A Christmas Carol" in 2009) that are fundamentally hurt by their creepily life-like, yet still not convincing, CGI human characters. 15 years later, the mo-cap human warriors, royalty, and half-human creatures in "Beowulf" have only grown more off-putting, which is too bad since the actors behind them seem to be having a ball, judging by their vigorous and spirited voice-work.

Still, even the disquieting CGI people can't completely rob the fun from Gaiman and Avary's script, a wild, feral saga that expands upon the plot of the original "Beowulf" poem while at the same time subverting it, adding depth and shades of grey to both its heroes and villains in near-equal measure. Indeed, it seems like Gaiman, in particular, was almost destined to bring his version of the story to the big screen, as he talked about in a 2007 interview with Den of Geek.

When Gaiman met Avary...

It was an ill-fated attempt to adapt Gaiman's comic book series "The Sandman" into a movie in the 1990s that led to him and Avary teaming up on "Beowulf." The latter, you see, was one of the writers who worked with producer Jon Peters on the film, albeit not the bizarre script draft that featured giant mechanical spiders (yes, really). But even long before that, Gaiman found himself gravitating to "Beowulf." He explained to Den of Geek:

"I can't remember running into the story and not thinking it would make a good movie. I first ran into 'Beowulf' in a comic called 'Look and Learn,' and I was a seven-year-old, and I remember thinking 'That looks cool.' And later I found a copy of the Penguin translation and read it and – it was monster-fighting! It was dragon-baiting! It was absolutely Tolkien-esque and amazing!"

In the same interview, Avary talked about his own love for stories about "guys with swords, monsters, dragons, [and] demons." Like Gaiman, he was shocked to learn "Beowulf" hadn't been turned into a well-known movie after reading it in high school (mind you, the only "Beowulf"-inspired film at that time was a 1981 Australian animated feature titled "Grendel Grendel Grendel"). He also recalled having lots of thoughts and questions about the original text, many of which stemmed from key plot points or events the poem glazes over.

Cut to the late '90s. Avary had only just left the "Sandman" movie after reaching his final straw with Peters, having decided he "didn't want to be the guy to ruin 'Sandman.'" No sooner had Avary started going through his old notes for a potential "Beowulf" movie than he got a phone call. It was Gaiman, "as if by magic" (as Gaiman put it).

The Beowulf we got

The original "Beowulf" script Gaiman and Avary penned was a far cry from what ended up on-screen. Their early draft lent itself to a live-action movie in the vein of Terry Gilliam's 1977 fantasy-comedy "Jabberwocky," Gaiman explained, calling it "very, very low budget with a lot of s*** thrown everywhere." It was also full of "long conversations," he added, many of which would be removed and replaced with extravagant action scenes or massive set pieces after Zemeckis came onboard to direct.

Credit where credit is due, Zemeckis, Gaiman, and Avary delivered the goods when it comes to giving filmgoers plenty of bang for their buck. "Beowulf" is spilling over with limb-ripping, eye-stabbing, and even heart-crushing violence, much of it involving monsters (the reason, one assumed, the film somehow only got a PG-13 rating). Then there are the fantastical creature designs, from Crispian Glover's shrieking Grendel — who looks like a cross behind a person and an alien from "A Quiet Place" — to Angelina Jolie as his mother, a coiled figure covered in liquid gold, with a long braid like a stinger and, just as strange, heels like stilettos.

Perhaps in another world, where Zemeckis had made the film with more stylized animated humans or live-action proper, "Beowulf" would be remembered as one of those big-budget movies where the director really swung for the fences while bringing their uncompromising vision to life. Its habit of going overboard with made-for-3D gimmicky imagery aside, it's an interesting film that re-frames Beowulf's tale as less of a heroic legend and more of a parable about the ways people can be corrupted by their worst impulses.

Not to be too on-the-nose, but... sounds like a lesson a certain director should've taken to heart, no?