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An epic adaptation 

A new film version of the epic poem Beowulf aims to make a simple story complex. Carsten Knox talks to Sturla Gunnarson about Beowulf & Grendel.

It’s not as far from Nick and Relic to the new cinematic version of the epic poem Beowulf as you might think.

Director Sturla Gunnarson was born in Iceland, where his new picture Beowulf & Grendel was shot. When he was seven he moved from the North Atlantic nation to Vancouver via ocean-going freighter and Greyhound bus. A graduate of the University of British Columbia with degrees in English and film, his first job as a director was on the long-running CBC show The Beachcombers.

“I had a flukey beginning to my career,” he says on the phone from Toronto, the city he now calls home. “The Beachcombers was the first real dramatic work I did. It was great because I loved that show as a kid. We’d schedule the shows around the tide so I could go and fish.”

Gunnarson’s career has blossomed since then, leading him to amass a body of work in both TV and film, from episodes of Da Vinci’s Inquest to the movie versions of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and Edward Riche’s Rare Birds. (Gunnarson’s love of fishing has also blossomed: Tackling Beowulf & Grendel in Iceland allowed him to pursue that passion. “Yeah, the salmon fishing there is awesome. Two days before we started production I caught the biggest salmon that came out of the river in the area where we were.”)

For those who don’t recall their ancient text readings from high school, Beowulf is one of the earliest written works in the English language, a Tolkien-influencing Anglo-Saxon poem about a hero and a monster, committed to sheepskin around 900 AD. The film elaborates on the poem’s basic good versus evil template and explores the hero myth in broad strokes. Gerard Butler plays Beowulf, the legendary warrior from Geatland (ancient Sweden), who hears tell of troubles an old friend of his, Hrothgar, the King of the Danes (Stellan Skarsgaard), is having with a troll, Grendel (Ingvar Sigurdsson). Beowulf and his men travel to Daneland to lend a hand, but realize Hrothgar hasn’t been telling them the whole story: Grendel has a legitimate beef with the Danes, considering they killed his father. Much bloodletting and bowling with human heads follows, with a pagan witch named Selma offering some insight. She’s played by Sarah Polley.

“I think she related to the conscience Selma represents,” says Gunnarson, who knows Polley socially. “She loves Iceland. She also said she’d never had the opportunity before to explore her carnal side on screen. Selma is a character who lives by her sex and that was something that really appealed to her.”

The fundamental shift in adapting the poem for the film was to put Grendel back in the natural world. “In the poem the characters have no psychological motivations,” says Gunnarson. “We made Grendel a big fellow from down the valley, and you ask yourself why he’s doing this. He’s a different branch of the evolutionary tree, but he has a sophisticated code.”

Beyond navigating the story's depths, the filming was a challenge due to the elemental weather, at its stormiest in years. “We had 160 km/h winds, horizontal rain, fog, sunshine, you name it,” says Gunnarsson. The weather was like “an unwritten character in every scene and you don't know what he's going to do.”

Gunnarson feels a story such as this, born out of recognizable myths, has a great deal to say about our world today. “There’s a lot of people today who believe God is on their side, and it becomes about how we make monsters out of that which we don’t understand.” He takes the idea further: “If you think about it as a story of a warrior who goes overseas to fight a righteous battle and learns he’s in the middle of a tribal feud, and nobody’s telling him the truth, it’s not difficult to find the parallel.”

If you look at recent film, the story of a soldier who gets in over his head in a blood feud and begins to worry about how the battle will compromise his own integrity has echoes of Steven Spielberg’s Munich.

“Yes, I think that’s exactly right,” says Gunnarson. “If you look at the literature of the time, they didn’t ascribe character qualities. These were characters that simply represented ideas. I guess you could say we took a simple tale and made it complex.”

Beowulf & Grendel opens March 10.

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