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Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as Cinematic Beowulf

A small gathering of monster-hunters has enjoyed a meal and is settling down for the evening in the same small dwelling where, not long ago, beers had been drunk joyfully and fearlessly: before the monster attacked. One of the hunters has already fallen asleep. The others begin to mock the sleeper and are chided by the old man. His lecture puts the rest of the monster-hunters to sleep, too. The old man continues talking softly to himself. He turns and finds that the sleeper he had been defending is not sleeping at all: he is gazing out the window, where the monster they have been seeking – the same one who had disrupted the previous day’s festivities, devouring humans whole and stuffing its sack with others to eat later – is lurking. It has returned. It is still hungry.

Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as Cinematic Beowulf 
Amber Dunai (Texas A&M University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. The monster returns (view from inside Hie-bong’s snack bar).

The above description is based on a scene around the midway point of Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 monster film, The Host (괴물, Gwoemul). It bears a striking similarity to the build-up to Beowulf’s famous Grendel fight. There is little to suggest that Bong would count the Old English poem or its film adaptations among The Host’s intertexts. And yet the more one compares The Host with Beowulf, the more intriguing similarities emerge.

This essay performs a dialogic reading of The Host and Beowulf by approaching the former as what Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan call a found adaptation: an adaptation that results when a spectator puts two or more otherwise unrelated texts in productive conversation with one another. One of my aims in doing so is to suggest that what it means for an adaptation to be “faithful” to Beowulf is more complex than it seems on the surface, and that found adaptations have something important to offer audiences who wish to see cinematic Beowulfs that engage with the Old English poem in complex and compelling ways. Through this case study, I also explore how found adaptations change the way that spectators are understood to engage with texts and to participate in the process of film adaptation. I argue that found adaptations point toward an understanding of adaptation as process rather than product and expand audience involvement beyond reception and into the creative process itself.

Scholarly Responses to Cinematic Beowulfs

A survey of scholarship on Beowulf film adaptations draws out the ways in which cinematic Beowulfs have been recognized as deeply intertextual, moving beyond the Old English poem to draw on its adaptations and their most striking innovations to the source material. Scholarship on these Beowulfs tends to focus primarily on big-budget efforts to translate the Old English epic to the big screen: Graham Baker’s Beowulf (1999), Sturla Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel (2005), and Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007). In addition to these more or less direct engagements with Old English Beowulf, John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999) also figures largely into these discussions, given that its source, Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead (1976), is itself a loose retelling of the Beowulf narrative through the perspective of the novel’s narrator, a fictionalized version of the 10th-century travel writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan. However, The 13th Warrior is not drawn into scholarly discussions of cinematic Beowulfs’ indebtedness to one another and John Gardner’s novel Grendel (1971) in the same way that Baker, Gunnarsson, and Zemeckis’s films are. The fact that McTiernan’s film is one step removed from the Old English poem (Beowulf Eaters of the Dead The 13th Warrior) and that its source is a markedly loose and innovative adaptation of the Beowulf narrative is likely responsible for its typical treatment as a “stand alone” adaptation in the scholarship.

Kathleen Forni’s comprehensive overview and analysis of film and television Beowulfs both identifies trends in recent film adaptations like the ones listed above (including “the monstrous is often represented as a product of human colonialism, invasion, or aggression”; “national social and political concerns are filtered through the metaphor of the family drama”; and “[d]ominating women, female sexuality, and reproductive powers are often represented as frightening and destabilizing” [124-125]) and draws out connections among them. Forni positions Baker’s Beowulf, a box office failure, as significant due to its influence on Zemeckis’s much more successful later film. Baker’s version, she contends, “is important for its sexualizing of Grendel’s mother, complicating Beowulf’s one-dimensional heroism and denigrating Hrothgar’s leadership,” all innovations which characterize Zemeckis’s more popular film (126). Stewart Brookes similarly argues that Zemeckis’s film “borrow[s] from earlier films to offer an intertextual pastiche of what went before,” connecting scenes and concepts in the 2007 film to corresponding ones in Baker’s and Gunnarsson’s adaptations (90).

John Gardner’s Grendel is evoked frequently in discussions of the intertextuality of cinematic Beowulfs. Michael Livingston and John William Sutton contend that the 1971 novel “acts as a marked turning point in Beowulfiana, after which these disparate materials tend to become far more sophisticated examples of social commentary” (2). While their essay takes a wide range of Beowulf adaptations into account (including comics, novels, children’s literature, music, and film), it does draw McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior,1 Baker’s Beowulf, and Gunnarsson’s Beowulf & Grendel into the conversation about Gardner’s far-reaching influence on modern Beowulfs (Zemeckis’s adaptation gets a brief mention as a promising development, as it was still in production at the time the 2006 essay was published). Similarly, Brookes connects Gunnarsson’s humanization of Grendel in Beowulf & Grendel to “the premise that the ‘real’ story of Grendel has been eviscerated in the one-sided Old English epic, an idea popularized by John Gardner’s novel” (86). Miguel A. Gomes likewise looks back to Gardner’s novel in his assessment of Beowulf & Grendel, arguing that the film’s reversed assignment of the roles of hero and monster to its title characters marks the film as “a continuation of a discourse that was original and exciting back in the 70s when Gardner rewrote the story but that thirty years later was simply overused” (48).

Indeed, recent films’ tendencies to replicate once fresh but increasingly stale alterations to the Old English Beowulf point to one reason that some audiences may find little in these films to recommend them. Another reason that these films often disappoint is, however, much simpler: they simply are not Beowulf. That is, they are not the Beowulf which those familiar with the poem (not to mention the vast amount of literary criticism attached to it) have come to know through their own readings of its many complexities. It is worth noting, for example, that at the start of the introduction to Nickolas Haydock and E.L. Risden’s Beowulf on Film: Adaptations and Variations (2013), Risden names among the aims of the volume’s film analyses to “add to aesthetic appreciation and academic consideration of the films and, perhaps more productively, lead audiences back to the original, with all its cultural, linguistic, and inherent visual power.” Difficulties faced by scholars of cinematic Beowulfs are identified as “the fact that most of the films made to date based loosely on Beowulf aren’t especially good movies. And whatever titles they may bear, they stray quickly from anything that students of the poem would willingly call Beowulf” (1). It is not surprising, in this light, that the introduction ends by reiterating Risden’s desire to see “a real Beowulf film” (25), and the volume’s conclusion returns to this desire when Haydock shares the details of the Beowulf film trilogy “of [his] dreams” (187).

While Haydock freely acknowledges that the widespread fantasy of perfect fidelity is just that – a fantasy – and that “[t]he commonly heard solution – Just follow the text! – is not only unhelpful but woefully naïve” (187), his description of his dream Beowulf does hint at the obstacle that anyone who feels strongly about Beowulf brings to film adaptations of the poem: the weight not only of their expectations, but of the cinematic version that they really wanted to see but probably never will. As Dennis Cutchins observes, adaptations can unintentionally “undermin[e] elements of our personalities, implicitly criticizing who we have become, and treading on the sacred ground of our selves” when they do not reflect our understanding of the source materials they are associated with (77). For this reason and many more, it is not so surprising that many Beowulf specialists and fans are not particularly enamored with Beowulf film adaptations.2

Intriguingly, Risden also suggests that “the best Beowulf films actually have other names,” a comment seemingly at odds with the way that the introduction to Beowulf on Film appears to privilege the source text and fidelity to it (3). This comment would seem to be an approving nod to No Such Thing (2001), one of the loosest Beowulf adaptations discussed in the book and one which Risden describes as “a powerful revision of the story that makes no claim on Beowulf and yet rewrites it in a way that makes important points for a contemporary audience” (24). This statement suggests that innovations on the source material are not necessarily undesirable in themselves, so long as they are productive and sufficiently grounded in an approved understanding and treatment of the poem. And yet the relationship between literary text and film is thus imagined as rather unidirectional: the film makes no claim on, or demands of, the poem. Changes to the source material say something about us, but they don’t necessarily reveal anything new about Beowulf.

This, I would argue, is a limitation in the way that Beowulf and its film adaptations are frequently discussed. More generally, however, I believe it is worth considering the ways that the desire to see a “faithful” Beowulf adaptation is potentially complicated by the manner in which Beowulf itself reaches modern audiences.3 The Old English poem is preserved a single damaged manuscript and is attributed to no particular poet. The sole version that modern audiences have access to, locked as it is in a specific constellation of poetic formulas and narrative events, can furthermore be analyzed in terms of underlying folktales, possible analogues and intertexts, and historical and cultural interventions. Certainly, the iteration we have does not shy away from commenting on the “heathen” beliefs and practices represented within the narrative from a markedly Christian perspective: another sign of the poem’s status as one specific telling anchored in a distinct cultural moment. As a result, when assessing films in terms of their fidelity to Beowulf, one might be excused for echoing Robert Stam in asking, “fidelity to what?” (15). Fidelity to the specific version of Beowulf that we find in the Nowell Codex, along with all its historical and cultural trappings? To the source texts “behind” that version? Or to something else entirely?

I would like to suggest that it is the historical and cultural situatedness of the Beowulf narrative that helps to define it for modern audiences; we are not attached to the Bear’s Son Tale, after all, but to a version of a folkloric narrative that has been given meaning for a specific audience at a specific moment. And yet we need not necessarily linger on that meaning or in that moment. An adaptation that represents the narrative beats and related themes and ideas that we associate with Beowulf and infuses them with meanings tethered to different historical and cultural moments might give us a Beowulf particularly worth seeing: and not just as a “loose adaptation” that says something about us, but as an adaptation which reveals something new about Beowulf. In order to identify such adaptations, however, it is necessary to revisit the role of the audience in identifying and defining relationships between films and literary intertexts. As I will discuss in the next section, adaptation studies provides productive avenues for doing so: namely, through the concept of the found adaptation.

Found Adaptations and Brand New Beowulfs

In Screen Adaptation: Impure Cinema (2010), Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan use the term found adaptation to refer to “the act of discovering a text which seems to owe part of its impetus to an unacknowledged source.” This is exemplified in Bruce R. Burningham’s identification of Don Quixote as a possibly unintended and certainly unacknowledged source for Toy Story (Cartmell and Whelehan 18-19). Burningham contends that “whether deliberately or through some kind of latent cultural intuition, they [Toy Story and Toy Story 2] engage the Spanish masterpiece in an intertextual dialogue” (158); thus, Burningham’s reading demonstrates the potential to perceive intertextuality in the absence of any evidence of intentional reference. From this perspective, adaptation becomes, as Cutchins puts it, “a way of thinking about texts” rather than “a particular kind of text,” so that identifying an adaptation means “identifying a specific kind of intertextuality (or transtextuality)” (80-81). Opportunities to read films as adaptations emerge which might previously have been obscured or disregarded.

Key to the notion of the found adaptation, I would argue, is a reassessment of the spectator’s role in adaptation. Linda Hutcheon’s distinction between the knowing and unknowing audiences of adaptations is productive for thinking about this role. As she points out, “[t]o experience it [a film] as an adaptation…we need to recognize it as such and to know its adapted text, thus allowing the latter to oscillate in our memories with what we are experiencing” (121). Knowing audiences are aware of intertexts and can connect them to film adaptations, whereas unknowing audiences take films on their own terms, without necessarily becoming aware at any point that a given film adaptation is in conversation with a preexisting text. Crucially, Hutcheon also recognizes that “[d]ifferently knowing audiences bring different information to their interpretations of adaptations;” in this way, she observes, the viewer who approaches Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) only aware of its connection to Shakespeare’s play will not necessarily interpret it the same way as a viewer who is also aware of Lawrence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation and is putting Branagh’s adaptation of the play in conversation with Olivier’s (125). In the context of a found adaptation, a knowing spectator is one who, while watching a film, has a memory of another text activated in a sustained manner without any prompting by the film or its paratexts. That knowing audiences of found adaptations are inherently differently knowing is a given, as the potential intertexts that audiences have access to and are inclined to put in conversation with films will necessarily vary from one person to the next. What Hutcheon refers to as “known adaptations” (121) – those adaptations which openly acknowledge relationships with intertexts – might be associated with the idea that an adaptation is a text in conversation with another text. Found adaptations, on the other hand, suggest that an adaptation is a text in conversation with an audience.

The concept of the found adaptation is, of course, a highly productive one for the identification of previously unrecognized cinematic Beowulfs, including ones that might, as suggested above, situate one or more key elements of the narrative – for instance, the monster fights – in new historical and cultural moments. My approach in this essay has something in common with Hugh Magennis’s keen observation that Beowulf shares striking resemblances with scenes in films such as Alien (1979), Predator (1987), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991): that despite the relatively recent emergence of big budget cinematic Beowulfsat the turn of the century, “Beowulf has always been at the movies” (34).4 Found adaptations like these “seek out” viewers by startling them into recognition of well-known narratives where they were least expected.5 As a result, found adaptations and their new intertexts may, for the first time, speak freely to one another.6

In what follows, I will present a dialogic reading along these lines between Beowulf and a found adaptation: Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006). This is not intended to be an exhaustive listing of correspondences between the two texts. Rather, I will focus on one compelling parallel I have identified between The Host and Beowulf: their shared tendency to collapse differences between monstrous and heroic characters in subtle but provocative ways. I have selected this connection primarily because the Old English poem’s suggestive comparisons between Beowulf and his monstrous opponents have received much attention in scholarship. The Host not only represents this instability of categories in ways of interest to readers of Beowulf, but also has something to say about the ways that readers of Beowulf are invited to respond to hero and monster. While cinematic Beowulfs have suggested that the audience’s sympathies may be reversed – that the audience of the film and, perhaps, its source text as well may abandon allegiance to the poem’s hero in order to side with his opponents – Bong’s film suggests another possibility. By chipping away at the dichotomy between monster and hero, The Host reminds audiences of the film and poem alike that they don’t necessarily need to choose between the two: a fresh innovation on the Beowulf narrative that moves beyond traditional readings and the more recent wave of Gardner-like sympathy reversals.

Sympathy for the Āglǣca in Beowulf and The Host

Many details in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host invite reading the film as a loose but intriguing adaptation of Beowulf: specifically, of the Grendel fight portion of the poem. The film’s monster, the gwoemul of its Korean title, resembles Beowulf’s Grendel in key ways. Apparently a mutant that results from the dumping of numerous bottles of formaldehyde down a lab sink (and thus directly into the Han River) in the film’s opening sequence, the creature emerges from and retreats to a liminal aquatic space – the sewers of Seoul – evocative of Grendel’s dwelling deep in the mere neighboring the human settlement at Heorot. Near the start of the film, the gwoemul leaves its hidden lair and attacks the people who have gathered along the river’s bank to enjoy their leisure time; like Grendel, its attack involves not just brutally killing, but also devouring human prey who had only moments earlier congregated in a celebratory mood (see Figure 2). Certainly the film’s gwoemul can be called, like Grendel, fēond mancynnes (164) : enemy of humanity. This attack, of course, draws an immediate response from both the Korean and U.S. governments, who scramble to assess the situation and mitigate the threat the creature poses. Like Hrothgar, however, the film’s authority figures fail to make any meaningful progress in their response to the disaster; in fact, their efforts are represented as simultaneously buffoonish and callous.  

Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as Cinematic Beowulf 
Amber Dunai (Texas A&M University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2. The gwoemul devours a victim during its initial attack.

The situation calls for a hero: a modern Beowulf. While the film’s central protagonist, Park Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), best fits as the film’s Beowulf-figure, it is impossible to discuss his heroics in isolation from those of his immediate family: his father, Hie-bong (Byun Hee-bong); sister, Nam-joo (Bae Doona); and brother, Nam-il (Park Hae-il). Together, the family works to rescue Gang-du’s daughter, Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung), who has been kidnapped by the gwoemul. They work independently of the authorities in ways that put them at odds with those responsible for the official response to the creature’s attack, culminating in cash awards being offered for assistance capturing the Park family. Despite having to contend both with the mutant and with the official government response to it, Gang-du and his family succeed where the authorities fail. They recover Hyun-seo’s body, rescue the young boy she protected during her captivity in the gwoemul’s lair, and slay the creature. When put side by side with Beowulf, their teamwork calls to mind a medieval comitatus: one whose members share a very literal familial bond.

And yet, they are like no comitatus that we’d normally associate with Beowulf. Gang-du, a single father whose partner abandoned him shortly following Hyun-seo’s birth, is held in contempt as a doofus and slacker by Nam-joo and Nam-il. His more apparently successful siblings, however, have their own problems. Nam-il, a college graduate, is nonetheless unable to secure a salaried position and has become an alcoholic. Nam-joo, the most successful of the three, is a professional archer who struggles with timing her shots, which results in her missing her chance for a gold medal and instead winning a bronze. Hie-bong, their father, although self-sufficient and resourceful, harbors regrets about his early adulthood, particularly regarding his neglect of young Gang-du; he blames his failures as a father for his son’s apparent difficulties with focus and comprehension, including Gang-du’s tendency to fall asleep sporadically throughout the day. Meera Lee argues that these characters’ collective representation as a family of losers is carefully crafted in terms of struggles to adjust to contemporary South Korean society. Nam-il, the college graduate, “embodies the intense ambivalence caused by the nation’s rapid political and economic transformation over the past 30 years,” while Nam-joo, the professional archer, lacks the speed and quick decision-making required for success and Gang-du, the slacker son, relies financially on his father well into adulthood. Even Hie-bong’s impressive efforts to facilitate Hyun-seo’s rescue reveal old-fashioned tendencies out of sync with contemporary Korean society: namely, his frequent and inappropriate attempts to bribe officials (Lee 726-27). If this family is imagined as a modern Beowulfian hero and retainers, they push the poem’s tantalizing reference to the hero’s unpromising youth (2183b-2188a) to extremes in a fascinating way. As a youth, Beowulf is described as slēac: “‘slack,’ remiss, lax, sluggish, indolent, languid” (Clark Hall 309). His development into a leader and hero is apparently an unexpected if welcome development which merits allusion to his lackluster beginnings. Certainly, slēac fits most characters’ dismissive assessment of Gang-du, and great things are not expected of the Park family on the whole.

When compared further, the key characteristics that the Parks share with Beowulf, aside from their heroics, is their tendency toward nonconformist and even antisocial behaviors. While seemingly unaware that Grendel is invulnerable to weapons, for example, Beowulf insists on fighting his foe without the benefit of any weapons but his bare hands, thus putting himself at considerable risk solely for the sake of a “fair” fight and more glorious victory. Similarly, the Parks take little time deciding that if they want Hyun-seo to live, they will need to rescue her themselves and in their own way, without the help of the authorities who are ostensibly better qualified to handle the gwoemul. It is also worth recognizing that even before Hyun-seo’s kidnapping, Gang-du’s instinct is to run toward rather than away from danger; he is one of only two individuals on the scene of the gwoemul’s riverside attack who physically confronts it. In short, Beowulf and the Parks habitually engage in risky if heroic behaviors, yet their instincts, regardless of how counterintuitive or foolhardy they may seem, consistently pay off.

The behaviors that Beowulf and the Parks engage in are, in many ways, similar to the behaviors of their foes; Beowulf, for example, provides a suggestive image of himself as Grendel’s equal and even double when he declares that he will bear no weapons in his fight with the unarmed monster.8 Indeed, scholars have commented on Beowulf’s suggestive use of the word āglǣca to describe both heroic and monstrous characters in the poem. There is no consensus on what, precisely, āglǣca means: an examination of its uses across the Old English poetic corpus suggests that while it is frequently associated with demonic or monstrous referents, it is also used to refer to human and even heroic ones. While some Beowulf translators have chosen to render the word as something like “monster” when applied to antagonists like Grendel, his mother, and the dragon and something like “hero” when applied to Beowulf and Sigemund, such translations are “contextually derived and frequently ad hoc” (Kuhn 214). One possible way of approaching āglǣca is to understand the term as a pejorative which is occasionally applied to humans and even protagonists through metaphorical extension of its meaning.9 Another approach is to identify a single meaning that fits both monstrous and heroic referents. Sherman M. Kuhn, for example, notes that of the 36 instances of āglǣca “[t]he only factor common to all members of this seemingly ill-assorted group is that they are, or have been, or will be, fighting…I suggest, therefore, that we define āglǣca as ‘a fighter, valiant warrior, dangerous opponent, one who struggles fiercely’” (218).10 However one chooses to translate it, āglǣca is one of the poem’s key linguistic resources for blurring the line between hero and monster. 11 This is perhaps most apparent at Beowulf 2592, where āglǣcean (the plural form of āglǣca) refers to Beowulf and the dragon he is fighting simultaneously. Several other instances of āglǣca in Beowulf are similarly ambiguous.12 Through its uses of the word, Beowulf repeatedly invites its audience to notice similarities between Beowulf and his foes when the space between them periodically collapses.

The Host likewise offers opportunities to think through the similarities between monsters and heroes: its own set of āglǣcean. Scenes repeatedly draw out the connections between human and inhuman, the Parks and the gwoemul. This comes out strongly in repeated images of consumption throughout the film. It is through its manner of feasting that one of the gwoemul’s most Grendelian features comes to the fore: its use of a “sack” – its own gut – not only to digest prey but also to store its victims until they can be regurgitated in the safety of its lair, only to be re-devoured and digested later. This is evocative of the mysterious glōf (2085), ‘glove’ or ‘bag,’ into which Grendel is reported to stuff his victims when Beowulf later recounts his victorious fight with the monster. But The Host’s Grendel, the gwoemul, is not the only one doing the eating. The lead-up to its initial attack is filled with images of squid being disassembled and devoured by hungry humans. Gang-du’s snack of kolbaengi later in the film, too, is evocative of the creature’s eating habits, but reverses the order of who is eating whom; Gang-du scoops the kolbaengi from a tin evocative of the sewer pit where the gwoemul stows humans for later consumption, further blurring the line between predator and prey.13

While the film’s alternating assignment of its players as prey and predator would seem to emphasize how human and inhuman entities are at odds, the apparent antagonism between the two is not simple and frequently breaks down. Hero and monster clash to the extent that they begin to merge. The Parks and gwoemul are driven together as the Parks are pursued by both government officials and citizens alike, forcing them to the boundaries of Seoul where the gwoemul dwells. Here, Grendel’s mere meets city sewer, and city sewer becomes a place where outlaws and outsiders, those whom society has rejected, congregate. The abandoned regions of the Han River become a stage that homeless characters, the fugitive Park family, and the gwoemul increasingly occupy together as the film’s climax approaches.

What further binds the Parks and gwoemul together is the notion that the entire group is infected and thus a hazard to society. Following the creature’s initial attack, news begins to spread that those who have come into physical contact with the creature have begun to show signs of a viral infection. Officials quickly begin gathering individuals who were on the scene during the attack and may have become infected, and Gang-du is scooped up after admitting that, during his attempts to subdue the gwoemul, he was sprayed in the face with its blood. After the family escapes the hospital in order to search for Hyun-seo, officials begin broadcasting their photos and information and offering rewards for the capture of the so-called “infected family.” In a scene which can easily be read as a farcical parody of the coast guard confrontation during Beowulf’s journey to Heorot, the Parks drive up to a check point near the Han River disguised as fumigators and are met by a corrupt manager who greets them sardonically with the query “Mr. Park? Mr. Bacteria?” before asking Gang-du to lower his face mask (43:33-44:37). The name Park has apparently become synonymous with contamination among the population of Seoul.

Later, Gang-du is captured and transported to a laboratory, where he is subjected to cruel procedures in an ostensible attempt to gather information about the virus. Intriguingly, it is during this period of captivity that Gang-du and the audience learn that there may, in fact, be no virus at all. One of the scientists confesses as much to a colleague; no conclusive evidence has been found to support the claim that the gwoemul and those it has come into contact with host a virus. The scientists’ inhumane treatment of Gang-du during a last-ditch effort to confirm the virus’s existence, however, is suggestive of the ways in which he has become a double for the gwoemul; here, the scientists treat him as if he were a lab animal to be vivisected, whose cries and pleas mean nothing at all. Both Gang-du and the gwoemul he represents are singled out for undignified, painful, and pointless procedures. The virus does not need to exist for the marginalization of these āglǣcean to hold. The arbitrary nature of this distinction is confirmed when Gang-du successfully escapes the lab by taking one of the scientists' hostage and threatening to inject her with a vial of his own blood. Despite the fact that the virus likely does not exist at all, Gang-du’s body remains a monstrous threat to others.

The numerous parallels between the buffoonish yet brave Gang-du and the gwoemul are, in fact, acknowledged by Bong Joon-ho, who confirms that in the laboratory scene, Gang-du and the monster are “mirror images,” corroborating the observation that Gang-du is being treated as if he were a stand-in for the creature itself. Bong goes on to point out that Gang-du and the gwoemul even move similarly; Gang-du constantly trips throughout the film, while the monster “slips and rolls around a lot” (Lee, “Han River Horror Show”). These parallels suggestively complicate what it means to be āglǣcean: in addition to the senses of monstrosity and fierce contention is a sense of isolation, suffering, and victimization in a way that Old English poetry clearly draws out. In fact, āglǣca frequently collocates with the Old English adjective earm, “wretched,” in religious poetry; demonic āglǣcean, because of the torments that await them, evoke “mingled horror and pity” (Gilliam 160-61). Bong’s āglǣcean are indeed wretched. This wretchedness extends directly from the threat that the āglǣca poses; because the āglǣca is feared/fearsome, it becomes a target. It is wretched not because of what it does, but because of what is or will be done to it. This applies just as well to a hero like Beowulf as it does to a villain like Grendel. By the end of the poem, after all, Beowulf is just as dead as the various āglǣcean he encounters.

This shared hazard is clear in The Host’s climactic confrontation as well. In the final meeting between the Parks and the gwoemul, staged once more on the shore of the Han River, both hero and monster fall prey to the same foe: the toxic chemical termed “Agent Yellow” that is being released in order to kill the creature and the virus it supposedly carries. When the gwoemul and Gang-du suddenly arrive on the chaotic scene where protestors have gathered in order to object to the dumping of Agent Yellow, the officials immediately release it, and the showdown between the gwoemul and the Parks is temporarily postponed while the creature writhes in agony. It is not alone. In one shot, the mechanical device releasing Agent Yellow is depicted hovering in the background as Gang-du advances toward the camera with Hyun-seo’s body in his arms; as the cloud of Agent Yellow plumes and expands behind him, suddenly the gwoemul’s limbs become visible in the cloud of Agent Yellow as it writhes behind Gang-du, and Gang-du slowly turns to face it (1:45:17-1:45:28). In rapid order, we see the gwoemul beginning to disintegrate; two masked officials calmly observing and recording the scene; an officer vomiting blood; and two protestors huddling together on the ground while one clutches at a bleeding ear. Finally, we return to Gang-du’s gaze, his expression one of deep sadness and pity (see Figure 3). Is he still gazing at the gwoemul? There is no reason to assume otherwise.

Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as Cinematic Beowulf 
Amber Dunai (Texas A&M University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3. Gang-du’s gaze following the release of Agent Yellow.

If, in fact, Gang-du is taking a moment, even in his deep grief, to pity the creature, it is one of two such moments during his final confrontation with it. Bong observes that while he “really wanted sympathy to go to the family…our monster too was constructed under those circumstances you described [environmental and social abuses], so in a sense it does deserve our pity.” He also points out that he and Song Kang-ho discussed how just after inflicting a fatal blow on the gwoemul, Gang-du’s face would go “from rage to pity, as if he is thinking, ‘You’re sort of in the same situation as I am in’” (Lee, “Han River Horror Show”; see Figure 4). Hero and monster merge one more time, equally earm: equally wretched. If, as J.R.R. Tolkien famously argued, Beowulf drives home the ways in which “the wages of heroism is death” (26), a dialogic reading of The Host and Beowulf draws attention to the fact that death is the wages of monstrosity as well. It is as good a descriptor as any of what it means to be āglǣca: itis nearly always to be marked out for a violent (if, perhaps, valiant) end. Death claims the gwoemul while allowing Gang-du to escape, albeit narrowly. So does Beowulf, for a season. This moves us a step beyond the misunderstood, Gardner-inspired Grendels that dominate film adaptations of the poem to a different perspective: one where hero and monster share equally in the tragedy of mortality. It turns out that we don’t really need to choose between monster and hero, Beowulf and Grendel. We can sympathize with them both.

Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as Cinematic Beowulf 
Amber Dunai (Texas A&M University)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4. Gang-du after inflicting the fatal blow on the gwoemul.

I have suggested above that it is its historical and cultural situatedness that helps to define Beowulf for modern audiences, and that this may allow for the narrative to be recognized in a different place and time from the one that the Nowell Codex has locked one iteration into. A found adaptation like The Host supports this view of Beowulf. It allows two texts to speak to one another across the centuries and engage in a dialog about monstrosity, heroism, mortality, and a good many other things. More importantly, this case study demonstrates how found adaptations involve audiences pursing the sort of intertextual readings that (quite literally) make a film an adaptation. Linda Hutcheon points out that “we use the same word – adaptation – to refer to the process and the product,” where product is described as “an announced and extensive transposition of a particular work or works” and process is conceptualized as two-fold: the process of creation and the process of reception (7-8). Found adaptations make a critical adjustment to this understanding of adaptation by driving a liberating wedge between product and process, and then dissolving the divide between the process of creation and of reception. Reception merges with creation as “extended intertextual engagement” (8) simultaneously calls the adaptation into being. Adaptation, in short, becomes pure activity. Readers who despair of ever having the means to bring their dream adaptations into the world may find, in the end, that they had everything they needed all along.


I would like to thank Allen Redmon for his comments, insights, and encouragement as I have worked on this essay. Many thanks, too, to the anonymous reader of this essay for the generous and helpful comments. And a special thank you to Marissa Betts for her research assistance during the early stages of this project.


1  Livingston and Sutton frame Gardner’s influence on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead as indirect, but note “some interesting parallels, as Crichton uses the poem to investigate contemporary sociological phenomena,” particularly “our media-driven world and our willingness to accept misinformation as reality” (4).

2  For an example of a specialist’s assessment of the highlights and much more numerous shortcomings of film Beowulfs, see Michael Livingston’s Tor.com article “Beowulf on the Big Screen: The Good, the Bad, and the Even Worse,” especially Livingston’s contention that, while “there are some great works of literature that are actively helped by having terrific film adaptations,” when it comes to Beowulf, “no such film exists.”

3  Chris Jones similarly observes that what we find in the Nowell Codex “is not the beginning of the story and the work we call Beowulf, but already an adaptation, a refraction” so that “[s]ubsequent performances of the Beowulf material, acts which literary criticism has traditionally labelled ‘reception,’ are rather an integral part of the narrative of Beowulf-the-work. We should see the work not as an object, fixed in a web of written text and in need of atomizing analysis of its linguistic parts, nor even as an event in time, requiring historical contextualization, but rather as a process through time” (13).

4  More recently, J. Rubén Valdés-Miyares has argued in a similar vein that the monster discourse which can be traced to Beowulf and through film adaptations which acknowledge Beowulf as a source is also engaged with in several films that do not acknowledge Beowulf as a source, including Prometheus (2012), Alien: Covenant (2017), A Monster Calls (2016), and The Shape of Water (2017).

5  For the applicability of Bakhtin’s phrase “seek each other out” (377) to the act of perceiving an adaptation, see Cutchins (72).

6  My analysis follows Jørgen Bruhn, who argues that novel to film adaptation studies ought to focus “on both the change of the content and form from novel to film and the changes being inferred on the originating text,” where source texts are changed by their film adaptations both with regard to paratext and, more importantly for the purposes of this essay, readers’ reception (73). There has been some recognition that readers of Beowulf benefit from analyzing the Old English poem dialogically with intertexts. Ruth Waterhouse, for instance, places the monsters of Beowulf in conversation with literary characters like the monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)and Dr. Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), arguing that “modern monsters can suggest something about Grendel” rather than only the reverse (34). More recently, Britt Mize explores how the “distinctive aspects” of the children’s adaptation Bèi’àowǔfǔ (2011) “can shake us loose from too-easy views of the original [Beowulf] and provoke fresh thought about the rise of heroic figures and their relationship to the community” (202-203). Similarly, Kuo-jung Chen suggests that “establishing a dialogic relation” between the Old English poem and its film adaptations may yield “unexpected and illuminating insights into the world of Beowulf” (121). The productivity of a dialogic approach to analysis of Beowulf and its adaptations merits further exploration, particularly in scholarship on cinematic Beowulfs.

7  Quotations of Beowulf are based on Klaeber’s Beowulf, 4th ed. (edited by R.D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles).

8  For more on the intriguing ways in which both Beowulf and Grendel alter their typical behavior in order to more closely resemble one another as their Heorot confrontation approaches, see Katherine O’Brian O’Keefe’s “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human” (1981).

9  This view is represented by Doreen M.E. Gillam, who notes that Beowulf “has some of the supernatural qualities of an æglæca. He has supernatural strength particularly in his handgrip…he has more than human ability to perform feats in, or under, water…Such qualities set him apart from other men…and render him uncanny and almost inhuman, though not sinister” (168).

10 The perspective represented by Kuhn appears to underlie the glosses found in the 4th edition of Klaeber’s Beowulf: “one inspiring awe or misery, formidable one, afflicter, assailant, adversary, combatant (used chiefly of Grendel and the dragon)” (347). Clark Hall’s definition, by contrast, leans toward Gillam’s understanding of the word’s meaning: “wretch, monster, demon, fierce enemy” (15).

11 See O’Brian O’Keefe (1981) for discussion of additional linguistic details that break down the division between Beowulf and Grendel. Because āglǣca is frequently discussed as exemplary of this linguistic pattern, and because the translation difficulties it poses extend beyond Beowulf to other instances in the Old English poetic corpus, I have focused discussion in this essay on āglǣca.

12 Kuhn contends that of three instances of āglǣca in Beowulf whose referent is disputed, two are ambiguous enough to refer either to Beowulf or his foe (at lines 646 and 1269), while the third (at line 1512), while often considered ambiguous, is for grammatical reasons likely to be yet another instance of āglǣca applying to Beowulf rather than his enemies (Kuhn 216-17).

13 Meera Lee also comments on this suggestive reversal, noting that “the physical resemblance of the kolpaengi to the goemul is impossible to overlook. Both appear dark-grayish brown, curled, round, wet, and slimy…It is as though the kolpaengi reminds him of the goemul, and thus Gang-du wants to devour the very monster that has been feeding off human flesh at a symbolic and physical remove” (739-40).

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