The Northman Filmmaker Robert Eggers Was Inspired By This Ancient Norse Story

Robert Eggers' latest offering, "The Northman," gives its lead Viking (played by Alexander Skarsgård) a simple set of high-stakes motivations: avenge father, save mother, kill Fjolnir. The synopsis for the epic, starring Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe, describes it as a revenge thriller that "explores how far a Viking prince will go to seek justice for his murdered father." If that sounds a bit like William Shakespeare's classic tragedy "Hamlet," that's because it is — sort of. Carrying the baton over from his past harrowing period-accurate works "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse," the American filmmaker applies his penchant for historical detail onto a tale far older than the Bard's longest stage play. In Empire Magazine's upcoming February 2022 issue (on stands December 23, 2021), Eggers reveals that "The Northman" originates from the Norse legend that is said to have inspired "Hamlet," a tale known as "Amleth."

As Eggers tells Empire, "Amleth" itself is rooted in "a lost version much earlier than would have been written in old Icelandic — and then there was a verbal tale even before then. We're not trying to do that, exactly, but it is something more ancient-feeling, hopefully."

'You must choose between kindness for your kin and hate for your enemies.'

Found in Book III and Book IV of Saxo Grammaticus's Gesta Danorum, "The History of the Danes," "Amleth" predates "Hamlet" by around 500 years, and the similarities are notable. A prince learns that his father's death happened at the hands of his power-hungry uncle, who then marries the widowed queen. The prince, knowing his life is in danger, feigns madness ("put on an antic disposition," as Prince Hamlet would put it) until the opportunity comes to enact vengeance, and things get bloodier from there.

Eggers says that his feature isn't an exact retelling of the old lore or "Hamlet," so we're likely to see him take some of the tale's darkest elements and tell a new kind of story through that. One difference between the stage play and the 13th-century legend is that it takes a while for Hamlet to confirm that Uncle Claudius killed his brother, the king. Amleth knows right away that something is rotten in their Nordic neighborhood, and according to the trailer for "The Northman," Eggers follows the approach of the legend by having a young Amleth witness his father's beheading before fleeing to a distant land to plot his three-part comeback — "I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir." The 140-minute epic concerns itself with one theme that runs through both previous iterations, that of bloody, brutal vengeance. Amleth is told that he has two paths before him, love for his family or hatred towards his foes. The glimpse we've gotten of the film so far gives a pretty clear indication of which way he goes, and with Robert Eggers behind the lens, you can bet that no one will be truly happy (if anyone is alive) by the end credits.

"The Northman" arrives in theaters on April 22, 2022.