Posts tagged with: nietzsche

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When I first heard that the epic tale of Beowulf was being made into a feature-length film, I was excited. Ever since I had first seen the live-action version of The Fellowship of the Ring from Peter Jackson, I had thought that a similar project could do a wonderful job with the Beowulf epic.

And then when I learned that the Beowulf film was going to be done entirely with computer-generated images (CGI), I was disappointed. Frankly I lost interest in seeing the movie entirely. But as time wore on, enthusiasm for the film from some of my friends, as well as some of the trailers, reinvigorated my hopes for the film version of the Beowulf epic.

And now that I’ve seen the film, I’m crestfallen. To be sure, the movie delivers in the special effects department. I saw the IMAX 3D version, which is projected in 3D throughout the entirety of the film. One of the advantages of using CGI which I had not considered at first, was the quality of the 3D images. In contrast to the climactic scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, for instance, the 3D effects were crisp, clean, and stunning.

That’s where the strengths of the film end, however. Far too often the plot deviates from the storyline that made the Beowulf epic a classic for the last millennium. Set in the fifth and sixth centuries of the common era, the Beowulf story includes all the great elements of heroic mythical narrative. The modern retelling departs from the tale’s classic history in at least two major ways, and these departures are most decidedly not improvements.


The first has to do with the treatment of religion, specifically Christianity, in the modern version. While the poem was first composed in the high Middle Ages, it was set in a pagan culture prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. There is a great deal of scholarly debate on whether the tale is solely about pagan virtues or whether Beowulf is “a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues.”

In the new film version, Beowulf is neither simply a pre-Christian pagan nor a proto-Christian eminent pagan. Christianity plays an explicit and confused role in the film, seemingly brought in to act as a counter-point to Beowulf’s embodiment of the pagan heroic virtues. At one point, Beowulf seems to be reading directly from a text like Nietzche’s The Anti-Christ. In contrast to Beowulf’s heroic humanism, the hero would agree with Nietzsche, “Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it.”

If the attempt to bring Christianity explicitly into the Beowulf tale was an attempt by Hollywood to cater to the newly invigorated evangelical demographic, it fails at the same level of ineptitude as Howard Dean’s attempt to woo Christian voters in his 2004 election run (when asked what his favorite New Testament book was, Dean responded, “Job”).

Besides injecting this curiously modern anti-Christian element into the story, the people responsible for translating the epic poem into a screenplay modify the plot of the story greatly. Without giving away any spoilers to those who insist on seeing the film in spite of my warnings, I’ll only say that the Beowulf epic is conflated with a dynamic from another great hero saga, that of King Arthur and his demise at the hands of his bastard son Mordred.

If you are looking for a modern work recasting the Beowulf epic in a new way that is actually interesting and compelling, check out John Gardner’s novel Grendel, which tells the tale from the monster’s perspective in a quirky twist of existentialist angst. Unless you go to the film solely for the special effects or have absolutely no appreciation for the narrative legacy of the epic, avoid this Beowulf film.

Oh, and there are no fire snakes. Boo!

See also: “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?”

And: “Anti-Christian Crusade: Beowulf is the latest installment in Hollywood’s attempt to reconfigure history.”

Cross-posted at Blogcritics.org

I’m reading John W. de Gruchy’s Confessions of a Christian Humanist, and despite some rather disagreeable elements to his theology, he does have quite a few valuable insights.

Here’s what he says in the context of Nietzsche’s derision of Jesus Christ contained in The Anti-Christ:

Christians should not disparage the body, human strength and bravery, or the aesthetic dimensions of life. But Nietzsche is right, if not wholly so. The Christian God is the ‘poor people’s God, the sinner’s God’. The Christian icon of the truly human is not primarily embodied in the bronzed athletes of the ancient Greek or modern Olympics, nor in the lives of the rich, the powerful and famous, and the beautiful people that grace the catwalk, nor typified by the humanist ‘man of letters’; it is embodied in Jesus the crucified Jew who gave his life for others.

These observations get at the heart of my critique of the Jesus/Superman parallels that many are drawing. I do think, by the way, that my argument has been at least partly misunderstood by many of those who read the piece. I don’t claim any direct genetic link between Nietzsche’s philosophy and the genesis of Superman. I do, however, think that the quote from Superman’s father Jor-El sounds a lot more like the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra than anything in the Bible.

It’s also clear that the movie itself, Superman Returns, attempts to draw the Christ/Superman parallel, rather crudely and ineffectively at times. But the Superman legend is not restricted to the movie, and while the film is an occasion to talk about these issues, I don’t think it is the only relevant datum.

One reader contends, by contrast, that “Superman in this film is not a figure who exemplifies worldly power, but one who exemplifies self-sacrifice.” He also states: “I honestly believe this is the most ‘Christian’ film since Narnia and before that Mel Gibson’s Passion.” (The author of the letter blogs here.)

That sort of language makes me pretty uncomfortable.

For those of you who are going through World Cup withdrawal after the defeat of the French by the Azzurri have a little comfort. I give you the World Cups of Philosophy and Theology.

‘Nobby’ Hegel leads the Germans onto the pitch.

The first is a two-part video of the Monty Python skit featuring German philosophers against the Greeks (text here). The German side touts Leibniz in goal with strikers Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Greeks have Plato in net, with Aristotle as sweeper and Socrates at forward. The two assistant referees are, by the way, Augustine and Aquinas, while Martin Luther manages the German side.

I find it fitting that theological figures have primacy in this way over the philosophers, since this reflects the proper relationship between the two, with philosophy as the ancilla, or handmaiden, to theology. Karl Marx is a late second-half substition for the Germans.

Heraclitus captains the Ancients to victory.

You’ll need to have Google Video installed to view Part 1 here and Part 2 here (HT: The Sports Economist and Disorganizational Behavior).

Speaking of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, they give me a good segue to the Theology World Cup, hosted by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman, which was searching for the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century. Amazingly, Karl Barth did not make the field, and Pannenberg, the odds-on favorite, was knocked out rather early, losing to eventual finalist Hans Urs von Balthasar. The final featured Jürgen Moltmann against Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Moltmann being declared the victor. This proves rather convincingly that 20th century theology is much more about style than substance.

Karl Rahner was victorious in the consolation match. You can view the championship bracket here, and see how Karl Barth might have fared in the competition here (Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did not make the finals, while such dark horse candidates as T. F. Torrance did).