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Return of the King of the Britons! Here comes Camelot.

Okay, Arthur scholars: What’s your favorite film or television version of the King Arthur stories? What will Starz have to do right to win your respect with their upcoming series – Camelot – starring Joseph Fiennes and Eva Green?

I mean, has anybody ever captured the heart of the stories better than Monty Python?

Here’s the surprise: Fiennes isn’t playing Arthur. He’s Merlin.

(Brings back memories of this post, with readers’ ideas about ideal Arthurian casting… and this, Steven Greydanus’s response to the movie King Arthur.)

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Gaith

    @ Jared: Cheers! :)

  • Les Nordman

    @ Lady DragonKeeper: Yes, Lawhead’s volumes evoke the period, the religions and world-views pungently. And the battle scenes! Wow! Head to the library as fast as you can! :-)

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com/ Jared

    “It is precisely that grandfalutin’ pointlessness on which so much of the Monty Python Grail humor finds root.”

    This is a magnificent expression of one of the essential qualities of the Arthur legend and of the weird brilliance of Monty Python. I just had to make note of it. ;)

  • AzhiaShalott

    I did a directed study in Arthurian Legend during my final year of university and I have to say that I found it very difficult to find any movie/TV adaptation that did justice to the original legends. I would have to agree and say that Monty Python’s satirical take is perhaps one of the most accurate — certainly one of the cleverest!

    In various versions of the legends Perceval, Galahad, and Gawain all achieve the Holy Grail.

  • Gaith

    I think the big challenge to filming King Arthur is, what story do you tell? According to the myths, to my knowledge, Arthur becomes king pretty easily, what with the whole sword in the stone business. And then some of his knights go in search of the Grail, which would have no business whatsoever being in Britain (give Indy 3 that much), but I don’t think any of them really found it. And, far from being a happy and golden reign, Arthur presides over personal and political disasters, with everything falling apart and people generally ending up miserable. Ergo, without some underpinning philosophical context/raison d’etre, the saga becomes one long litany of semi-connected anecdotes of people swinging swords at one another. It is precisely that grandfalutin’ pointlessness on which so much of the Monty Python Grail humor finds root.

    That’s why I checked out the 3-hour TNT “The Mists of Avalon”, based on the 1983 book (which I haven’t read). While the movie isn’t perfect – there are some hokey moments, especially in the first third, some of the action beats feel like filler and the CG is sometimes uneven – it is *very* good. The brilliance of the film is to concentrate on the women who are powerless to stop Camelot’s demise; their games show the guys’ macho swordplay for the kid stuff it is. Whenever such key players Arthur and Lancelot appear, they never outstay their welcome, always leaving us wanting to see a bit more of them, though we know that we’re getting the full necessary picture already. Also admirable is how dark and depressing the movie is. There’s no false uplift, no shirking from its own story. In its own way, it does the classical tradition of tragedy proud.

    Best of all, however, is how it ties the whole shebang together. As I understand it, the “Matter of Britain” gradually and by accident became the Classical-style founding myth of British culture in the vein of the Jews’ Exodus, the Greeks’ Homeric sagas and Rome’s Romulus and Remus myth (later complemented by the Aeneid). But the Matter of Britain seems to have been developed so late in the culture, and in so haphazard a manner, that the connective tissue between its stories is tenuous at best. Which is why “The Mists of Avalon” works so well; its overall Christianity vs. paganism tale gives the disparate canon of stories a coherence it never actually had. Masculine, foreign Christianity is cast as the thematic antagonist to feminine, native British paganism, but not at all hysterically so, as the Christian Guinevere is one of the most sympathetic characters and the “good” paganism is severely, sometimes grotesquely, flawed.

    I would’ve appreciated some more skin, decapitations, and all that other good stuff HBO gave us with “Rome”, but I’ve got to hand it to this movie: they got the Arthurian story as I understand it about right, I doubt another screen adaptation has done it better, and future ones have a high bar to surpass.

  • http://moviegoings.wordpress.com/ Jared

    Monty Python really has come the closest to doing “King Arthur” right on the screen. I like Lawhead’s books a lot, but they are still a major reworking and not *the* Arthur legend. My favorite version by far is T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” a sort of 20th-century commentary on “Le Morte d’Arthur.” Pieces of it have been made into films twice, but neither really captured the combination of tongue-in-cheek comedy and grand tragedy of the books.

    I’d like to see someone attempt what “Knights of the Round Table” did in the ’50s or “Excalibur” in the ’80s, while somehow avoiding the cornball trappings that mire those productions in their own particular time periods. I’m not sure it’s possible . . .

  • Rick Ro.

    I’ve always enjoyed John Boorman’s “Excalibur.”

  • Lady DragonKeeper

    Well, I haven’t watched/read much things based on “Arthurian legend” –even though I love the medieval period. But recently, I’ve been hooked on the BBC’s tv show “The Adventures of Merlin” (called just “Merlin” in the U.S. here –they’re showing the second season on SyFy). I’ve heard that it’s sort of like a “prequel” like “Smallville” was for Superman . . . so it’s Merlin, (Prince) Arthur, Guinevere, Morgana (Morgan Le Fay?) before Arthur is king of Camelot. From what I’ve seen, it’s sort of just “inspired by” the legend . . . I don’t remember when the legend says that Merlin and Arthur meet . . . and I think the BBC is the one who did the Robin Hood series that killed off Maid Marian and stuff? But I love “Merlin” so far even though it may not be totally faithful to the original legend. It’s got brilliant moments of humor –and it’s been neat seeing Merlin and Arthur’s friendship develop from Arthur being a seemingly spoiled brat, to slowly showing a mature, “kingly” side and seeing the his trust grow and Arthur beginning to treat Merlin as a friend –rather than just his servant (and yes, they made Guinevere “Gwen” as Morgana’s maidservant too . . . I have no idea how that’s going to work out). I’m not a cinematic expert, but there are some special effects (like CGI) moments when you think “that’s so fake” but to me, it’s like when you watch an “older” movie and see the special effects they had –there’s sometimes a charming, endearing quality to it . . . or maybe I’m just weird, LOL. I also appreciate that (so far) it’s been pretty “family friendly” –no inappropriate moments, though there’s some British slang (like “prat”) . . . that some people might not like their kids to hear, but it’s like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, but yet I think s would be entertained as well. I wish there were some American shows like that . . .

    Other than that, off the top of my head, the only things I’ve read with Arthurian ties would probably be “Prince Valiant” comics, and Bryan Davis’s “Dragons in our Midst” series . . . although I am familiar with the main legend. Does anyone have suggestions about the “most accurate” version of Arthurian legend to read? There’s so much out there . . .

    @ Les Nordman – I’ve always meant to read Stephen R. Lawhead’s books –I’m guessing their good? =) I’m going to go look for those at the library now.

  • http://nblynchfantasyart.blogspot.com/ NBLynch

    Simultaneously more magical and more historical than any other adaptation of the myths. Awesome.

  • Les Nordman

    No. Neither film nor television. It is Stephen R. Lawhead’s Arthurian series of novels that have done the best job:

    – Taliesin
    – Merlin
    – Arthur
    – Pendragon
    – Grail

    And the Lawhead’s novel of Arthur’s return in the present, “Avalon.”

    Those books MUST be done in film, faithfully.

    Les Nordman


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