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Beowulf mania: new films, opera, musical breath life into ancient poem

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TORONTO (CP) - Move over Troy. Bye-bye Greek heroes. You've had your turn Frodo.

Make way for the blood-soaked medieval adventure of Beowulf and Grendel. With at least two major feature films, an opera and an off-Broadway play, the epic poem Beowulf - about a warrior hero and a monster - is poised to jump out of English class and invade the mainstream like never before.

"It's Beowulf mania. It's in the air," said Icelandic-born, Vancouver-raised Sturla Gunnarsson, who directed Beowulf & Grendel, starring Gerard Butler and Sarah Polley.

The film, a Canada-U.K.-Iceland production, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and will open in theatres next spring.

Beowulf is also getting the Hollywood treatment courtesy of Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich. That film, which will be computer-animated, is slated for release in 2007.

"It has really, really powerful bones," Gunnarsson said of the poem.

"It's a potent elemental story. It speaks to our most basic instincts. It speaks to our tribalism. It speaks to our fears."

Opera fans won't be left out of the craze, with director Julie Taymor overseeing Grendel, based on John Gardner's novel of the same name.

The production, which tells the story from the viewpoint of the monster, is slated for a May premiere in Los Angeles followed by a run in New York in July.

More immediately, the curious can check out a rock musical based on a script by some Saturday Night Live folks. Beowulf runs through Nov. 13 at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. Artistic director Charlotte Moore says it's been a box office success.

"There's a real need right now for a clear picture of good and bad," she explained from New York.

"The Grendels and the monsters and the dragons are obviously 100 per cent extremely bad. The other guys are good guys. That's important these days, to see the difference between the two in a clear way - for once."

Until recently, the 3,182-line poem has been largely kept within the confines of academia. The gory tale has long been a mainstay of English curricula.

Even academics say they sense a Beowulf craze brewing.

"The story is getting out there," said Andy Orchard, director of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto.

"It's a fabulous story . . . It's got these supernatural elements as well. It's one man's fight against a man-shaped monster and against his mother who is bestial, and then against a dragon."

The poem, composed possibly in the eight century, marks the beginnings of English literature. The author remains unknown.

"It's the great masterwork of Anglo-Saxon England and everything else flows from that," Orchard said.

He suspects this latest revival of the ancient tale began with a translation by Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney in 2000.

The Irish poet's version has been reprinted several times since its release.

"That was a big boost," said Orchard.

As well, Orchard says all the attention recently given to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings fable has helped shine a light on Beowulf.

"The tree-hugging Tolkien freaks, once they get around to seeing the movie and reading the books, tend to go on to read other things that he did," Orchard explained. "In 1936 he gave a British Academy lecture called Beowulf: The Monster's and the Critics, which is still one of the most fabulous things that's been written."

It's not the first time Beowulf and Grendel have inspired the arts community.

There have been several miniseries, children's storybooks, and comic books.

"There's also all the tedious academic books that come out," added Orchard. "There's something like a book or an article on Beowulf being produced every week at the moment."

© The Canadian Press, 2005

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