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All-Star Cast Brings Ancient Heroic Saga 'Beowulf' to Silver Screen

An ancient European heroic saga comes to the screen, but not the way generations of literature professors have taught it. This action-adventure tells its historic tale through computer-age technology that is a combination of live action and digital animation. Alan Silverman has a look at Beowulf.

Scandinavia, some 15 centuries ago: a bloodthirsty creature named Grendel ravages the great mead hall of King Hrothgar. Then, a champion arrives.

Beowulf prevails against Grendel; but the great warrior faces an even greater challenge from his foe's mother.

She appears to Beowulf not as monster, but as a beautiful and seductive woman. This one of several significant elements in the film script by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman that are not exactly in the famous epic poem.

"Both Roger and I read Beowulf when we were young, did not know that it was mean to be good for us, and experienced it as a story which we loved," explains Gaiman. "It was filled with blood and gore and excitement and monster-fighting and dragon-slaying. These are wonderful, magical, exciting things to have in a story."

However, screenwriter Gaiman maintains that their additions are true to the ancient tale and its centuries of oral tradition, long before it was first written down by a Christian monk 1,000 years ago.

"Any story that is part of the oral tradition changes. That's the whole point of the oral tradition: it is told is oral sit there and you tell your version of it and if your audience seems to be getting into the Grendel fighting a bit, you're going to keep going with the Grendel fighting and give them a little bit more," he says. "Maybe sometime you have an audience of Thanes who wanted a few women in there. You're looking at a manuscript that was only recorded for us by a monk and you go 'okay, what did he leave out?'"

What went on in that cave and the rest of the story is visualized through the 'motion capture' technique that director Robert Zemeckis pioneered with his 2004 family feature The Polar Express. The actors are fitted with electronic sensors that record their every movement, from the motion of their eyes to the clenching of their fists, as they play out their scenes on a bare stage. Then animators use that captured motion to create digital characters against digital scenery. Englishman Ray Winstone, who portrays the warrior Beowulf, says the technology allowed him and his fellow performers to tap into the very basics of acting technique.

"Your imagination is starting work again because you haven't got castles or dragons and such, but you are performing. When you take all those elements away, you don't have to worry about special effects ...there are none," Winstone says. "You haven't got to worry about a ball of flame going up or anything like that, so you are left naked, just acting with the people you are acting with and that is very freeing."

But co-star Angelina Jolie says being "left naked" came as a bit of a surprise when she saw what the animators did with her portrayal of Grendel's mother.

"I was excited," Jolie says. "I got a call that I was going to be working with Bob Zemeckis and then I was told I was going to be a lizard and he showed me these pictures of a woman half-painted gold and then a lizard. I've got kids and I thought 'that's great [and] so bizarre; I'm going to be this crazy reptilian person and creature.' I was very excited. Then I saw the poster and saw a few other things and realized I'm not just a lizard.

"I didn't expect ourselves to come out as much. I didn't expect it to feel as real," she continues. "So, especially because of the type of character I play, it was kind of funny at first and then there were certain moments where I actually felt shy. I was really surprised that I felt that exposed."

The Beowulf cast also features Sir Anthony Hopkins as King Hrothgar. John Malkovich plays his advisor Unferth. Robin Wright Penn is the queen; and Crispin Glover is the creature Grendel. The heroic tale is accompanied by an appropriately heroic soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, veteran film composer and frequent collaborator with director Robert Zemeckis.