Tome raider: Angelina Jolie lands star role as Hollywood gets its hands on 'Beowulf'

The signing of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider actress brings unexpected glamour to a story in which the Scandinavian hero Beowulf fights fierce battles to defeat a man-eating monster called Grendel.

Written some time between the seventh and the 10th centuries AD, the poem is an action-packed adventure which has already been filmed once this year, in Iceland, and in other versions, including one with Christopher Lambert in the title role.

But the star casting by the director Robert Zemeckis, whose previous films include The Polar Express and Cast Away, is set to give Old English poetry a buzz to surpass even the excitement caused by the Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney's translation of the work in 1999.

Jolie, popularly known in gossip magazines as the queen of darkness, is reported to be playing a "queen of darkness who tempts the Viking [Beowulf] during his quest to become king".

It is thought this might be a character called Thryth, a queen who has those who look at her killed, because the description does not match that of the most famous woman in the poem, Grendel's mother.

However, all the actors will appear as animated versions of themselves utilising so-called performance-capture technology as used by Zemeckis in The Polar Express last year. By turning their acted performances into digital renditions, the film-makers can depict the story in ways that would be physically impossible.

Zemeckis said yesterday: "Beowulf is a timeless, epic tale of heroism and triumph. Digital rendering will allow us to depict this incredible story in ways we would never have dared imagine."

The script was originally written by the British sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman seven years ago with Roger Avary, who has previously worked on films including Pulp Fiction and The Rules of Attraction.

Gaiman has described it as "a sort of Dark Ages Trainspotting, filled with mead and blood and madness".

The original planned producers, Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks, did not like it and the project is now going ahead with the backing of Shangri-La, an entertainment company headed by Steve Bing, the millionaire once dated by Elizabeth Hurley.

Dr Paul Cavill, an Anglo-Saxon specialist at Nottingham University, approved of the project. "It sounds great fun. Some scholars are a bit sniffy about Seamus Heaney or about The 13th Warrior [another film inspired by Beowulf], but I think they add enormously to people's enjoyment of Anglo-Saxon literature," he said.

"Anglo-Saxon is, in many ways, inaccessible because you have to get someone's version of it or you learn the language. One is longer than the other. So I always welcome these things. They have to be done very badly not to contribute something to the accessibility of the literature. "

Beowulf, one of the most famous poems in Anglo-Saxon or Old English literature, was written in England, but the events it relates are set in Baltic Europe.

After Beowulf defeats Grendel and his evil mother, he returns home and rules as king for 50 years until a dragon begins to terrorise the countryside. He eventually dies in a dramatic confrontation with the beast.

Lines from an epic

* Extract telling of the revenge of Grendel's mother

Then it became clear, obvious to everyone once the fight was over, that an avenger lurked and was still alive, grimly biding time. Grendel's mother, monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs. She had been forced into fearful waters ... after Cain had killed his father's son, felled his own brother ...

Branded an outlaw ... he moved into the wilds ... And from Cain there sprang misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel, the banished and accursed, due to come to grips with that watcher in Heorot waiting to do battle.

The monster wrenched and wrestled with him but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength ... He overcame the foe ... Broken and bowed ... the enemy of mankind made for his death-den.

But now his mother had sailed forth ... desperate for revenge. She came to Heorot. There, inside the hall Danes lay asleep, earls who would soon endure a great reversal, once Grendel's mother attacked ... Her onslaught was less only by as much as an amazon warrior's strength is less than an armed man's when the hefted sword ... razes the sturdy boar-ridge off a helmet.

From Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber