If the literature of the Arthurian Legends lingers long in the halls of academia, it’s only because there is some undeniable force driving the story through each generation. In the age of popular media such as television, film, and the internet, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table finally get faces beyond the ethereal beauty of romantic paintings and etchings.
They have voices and movement, physical expression and thus, an extra link between the abstraction of their existence as characters and the solidity of their humanness. Fair haired Arthur, dark Lancelot, and beautiful Guinevere are rendered real; for just a little while the audience can believe in their performance and the fairy tale of their reality, but let’s face it: if these characters were ever real, what are the chances they were this physically attractive?
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
Disney is notorious for lifting stories from other people, sanitizing (or Disney-fying) them and paying a bunch of animation artists and other assorted important and vital folk to make a film out of it all. As a kid, this was one of my absolutely favorites. As an adult, I now realize T.H. White did it first, but come on. Disney wasn’t all that bad. In fact, this is one of the few Disney movies I can rewatch any time of the year because I love it so darn much. I can still recite lines, love the loony little songs, and think animals should be capable of human speech.
Monthy Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
It’s a rare individual who hasn’t seen this film. Of those that have, many can recite lines verbatim. Some even dress up in costume as King Arthur and his horseless Knights of the Round Table (trust me, I’ve seen it at WonderCon and really wish I had taken video—they had coconuts!). The British have a knack for entertaining me well. This version is probably one of those cult classic favorites that needs to be watched on principle (to say, “I’ve seen it!”), but really: it’s hilarious and goofy and I love it.
First Knight (1995)
Readers, I have this movie. I was going to watch it again to write about it here, fresh from the DVD, but this version does so many melodramatic things that I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Arthur has anger problems, Lancelot is Richard Gere—really, the list goes on.
King Arthur (2004)
I must look like a terrible fan, but I’ve never seen this version. I’m always put off by the versions that want to be “dramatic” and “real” because they always turn out melodramatic and ridiculous. I wasn’t enamored to see Keira Knightley as Guinevere, honestly.
Tristan + Isolde (2006)
Have I seen this? No. Do I know the story? Mostly. It’s another tragic Arthurian love story beyond Camelot with two star-crossed individuals who just can’t keep it in their pants/skirts. Another version that threatens to take itself too seriously.
In this made for television mini series, Sam Neill portrays the wizard Merlin as the protagonist in a larger story that seems to push Arthur and all the rest into the sidelines. It’s one of the first times the legend is told through a perspective that isn’t Arthur’s or an omniscient narrator. As a result, there is a lot of Sam Neill in this movie and not all of it is good (Sam Neill does not look good with long hair). There’s something kitschy and entertaining about this low budget series. At only three episodes, it still manages to drag on until the final half hour, but if a slower pace is favorable, this would be a good place to start. Although as a warning: the main antagonist whispers throughout the entire movie. And my favorite characters only became my favorite characters at the very end, when tragedy strikes. Typical.
Merlin (BBC) (2008)
The BBC always manages to make some of my favorite productions and this is no different. If television were books, this would be a YA one, but a really fantastic and addictingly good one. An utterly un-putdownable one. The kind of book I would thrust into my friends hands and say, “Read this, trust me.” (coincidentally, I have made many people watch this and they’ve liked it.) I’ll gush about this more tomorrow, but honestly, what I love about this show is watching the characters grow into their destinies, which are so very large. The special effects are hit and miss, but the music is fantastic (I bought one of the soundtracks), and the cinematography improves with each season, much like the plot. And this plot evolves. Unlike the Sam Neill adaptation, in which it seemed as if the producers merely wanted to get through as many Arthurian “things” as possible (Excalibur: check, Guinevere: check, Lancelot: check), this “Merlin” takes its time and weaves subplots together through different seasons. Not only does the audience get to see the characters change, but the legend transforms itself on screen as it begins to reveal itself in a more or less seamless (almost effortless) presentation tied together with charm, humor, and the thing I love above all: the fact that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I honestly feel that alone is the major downfall of most versions of the legend, no matter the medium. Also: this version has a dragon.
This premieres in April on Starz (see the trailer here). It has a big name cast (the bloke with the sword is Arthur) and, like every other rendition, attempts to do what others have not (although the Morgana/Arthur throne thing is dealt with in the BBC version). Clearly, at this point, that means nothing; all versions are different—how well each executes their particular version of events is debatable. I don’t get the Starz channel, nor do I have any real plans to watch this. Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare!) is tempting, but when one of the leads refers to the series as “fleshy” I bow out gracefully.
What other Arthurian renditions in film or television are your favorites?