Judge Jim Thomas says "Stick with Cliff's Notes, or here's a novel concept: Just read the freaking poem!!"
Our reviews of Instant Expert: Ben Franklin (published September 25th, 2010), Instant Expert: Egypt (published August 21st, 2010), Instant Expert: The Mayflower (published October 9th, 2010), and Instant Expert: The Story Of Oil (published October 9th, 2010) are also available.
HARK! We have heard of the glory of the kings of men among the spear-bearing Danes in days of long ago. We have heard how the princes won renown!
The History Channel brings us Instant Expert: Beowulf, part of what appears to be a video-based challenge to Cliff's Notes, the better to get your ultra-violence on. Just don't expect it to help you with that lit mid-term.
Most of us probably read some of Beowulf in high school, or perhaps in college. Initially composed in the fifth or sixth century, but not written down until much later (the only manuscript dates in the vicinity of 1000 AD, Beowulf is the story of the greatest of warriors, who defeats the monster Grendel, his even more monstrous mother, and finally, a terrifying dragon—though that fight proves to be fatal.
While not without merit, the disc fails largely because it doesn't respect the text. Even though the disc is classified as "Arts & Literature," it treats the poem not as literature, but as a cultural artifact; as key plot points are discussed, the disc seeks to tie those events into real world events—The Sutton Hoo excavation is presented as a model for Beowulf's funeral, evidence of a great hall is suggested as a possible model for Heorot. All of these links are speculative at best, so that when the narrator intones the repeated mantra, "Could X be the inspiration for Y?," the only possible answer is a resounding "Maybe." The time spent on all of the speculation could have been spent more on the poem itself. The key battles are covered, but finer plot points, not to mention most of the characters, fall by the wayside. While for years the poem was viewed simply as a window into Anglo-Saxon culture, JRR Tolkien's 1936 lecture, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," ended all of that, arguing that the poem was literature in its own right and should be studied as such. I've taught Beowulf in college surveys, and the simple truth is that the disc offers a woefully superficial examination of the poem.
The dramatic reenactments—a crutch that the History Channel tends to overuse—aren't bad. Grendel is low-tech, but effective; his mother, on the other hand, is borderline laughable.
The audio track is good if unspectacular. The video is…odd. The non-anamorphic (non-anamorphic? seriously?) transfer is OK, but for the various dramatizations, someone in post-production decided to give the scenes a washed-out manuscript overlay, kind of like a video watermark. Interesting idea, and it probably helped hide some effects and makeup flaws, but I ended up scrubbing my TV screen thinking that the kids had smeared jelly on it again. The lone extra is an on-screen quiz (10/10 before watching, thank you very much).
The History Channel has a whole line of Instant Expert discs covering arts and literature as well as history and other areas. If this disc is representative, the line is a waste of time and money. Anyone using this disc to pass a test is in for a big surprise. Not to mention an F.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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