It seems unfair to call any iteration of the epic "Beowulf" derivative, because "Beowulf" pretty much started it all. The 3,182-line tale of a Scandinavian hero keeping the world safe from monsters and dragons is not just the oldest known poem in Old English; it's the blueprint for most every fantastic epic that followed. Without "Beowulf" there would most certainly be no "Lord of the Rings" (J.R.R. Tolkien, a philologist, often cited it as a source) or "Game of Thrones."
So the ITV production, airing here on Esquire Television, can certainly be forgiven for its shameless and immediate evocation of those stories, from the "Thrones-like" opening credits to the Rohan-like setting. But the fact remains that sword 'n' sheepskin is now a genre, and even if you are taking it back to its roots, you have to bring something new. Creators James Dormer, Tim Haines, and Katie Newman do not.
Instead, they seem content to simply join the heroic hordes, relying on ever-improving CG and familiar modern tropes — the witty best friend, a couple of feisty women, court roiling with intrigue — to extend the narrative and cinematic limits of the original text.
Grendel's there too, albeit channeling "King Kong," but so is a prince (Ed Speleers) so petulant and effete he wears his hair in product-plastered curlicue. Who knew they had hair product in 5th century Scandinavia?
We meet Beowulf as a child witnessing (and avenging) his father's death, after which he is taken into the care of mighty chieftain Hrothgar (William Hurt). Thane of Herot, Hrothgar sees greatness in young Beowulf, which most certainly does not sit well with his son, Slean (Speleers), or his wife, Rheda (Joanne Whalley).
This is made abundantly clear when the adult, and previously banished, Beowulf (Kieran Bew) returns to Herot in hopes of a deathbed reconciliation with Hrothgar. Alas Beowulf arrives too late. Rheda is now in charge, supplanting Slean, who clearly can't be trusted to rule (that hair!) and who still hates Beowulf so much he could just spit. Or kill him.
This is attempted at several points in the pilot, to no avail. Beowulf is, indeed, a doughty warrior, and his friend Breca (Gísli Orn Garoarsson) is as wily as he is charming. Soon enough they are off chasing Grendel, who has captured a fair maiden ("Outlander's" Laura Donnelly) and threatened the safety of Herot.
There's an invigorating lightness to "Beowulf" that is often missing from these sorts of stories. As she does in "Outlander," Donnelly brings a good-humored believability to her role as village healer, as do Garoarsson and Lolita Chakrabarti, who plays the feisty blacksmith. In their banter, and the over-the-top political intrigue, one can see flashes of historic soap potential — "Downton Abbey" of the Shieldlands.
Unfortunately, Bew didn't seem to get the "nothing wrong with a good soap" memo; his Beowulf seems determined to remain true to source material, which involves a lot of glowering, growling and stomping around.
That may have been enough two millenniums ago, but in 21st century America, it's a bit of a buzzkill.