The trouble with King Arthur movies is King Arthur

Contributed by
May 15, 2017

Hollywood loves an adaptation. Probably the only thing it loves more than adapting a book or comic into a brand-new flashy film is taking a property that has previously already been a film and remaking it for a new audience. While we’ve become accustomed to the Hollywood reboot machine, especially in recent years, there is one property that has been remade more times than any other story in the history of cinema. No, I’m not talking about Spider-Man. Not Batman either.

I’m talking about the tale of King Arthur.

The legend of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table has permeated culture so deeply that it is unlikely you’ll ever meet someone in the Western world who doesn't know at least a little about him. Over the years there have been dozens of attempts to turn Arthur’s myths into a successful film or television show, but, with a few notable exceptions, these have largely been critical failures.

How is it possible that a story which has withstood a millennium of human culture could fail to appeal to audiences so frequently? The answer is pretty simple, actually: King Arthur is boring.

Warrior to Wise Ruler

At first blush, the legend of King Arthur and his knights seems tailor-made for a modern Hollywood blockbuster. It's all swords and sorcery and romance and betrayal. While this is true, there is a distinct difference between the stories of Arthur and the stories of Camelot.

When the stories of Arthur were first written down in the 12th century, they were full of war and death and violence. They were legends telling the story of the British empire and how Arthur singlehandedly led his armies to defend Britain from the invading Saxons. It was a chronicle of war and conquest that continued up until Arthur’s death at the hands of his nephew Mordred.

Non-stop battle and conquest may sound like it has the makings for a spectacular film, but tell that to 2004’s King Arthur or the most recent Arthur adaptation, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Both films attempt to tell a story of a fierce warrior king leading his people to freedom from its oppressors, but while both films have excellently-shot battle sequences and a king who fulfills his role as protector and conqueror, neither really manage to grab audiences and hold on. That's because constant battle doesn’t offer much time for nuanced character development.

Even those adapting the stories of Arthur for their own audiences in the 13th century recognized that battle and conquest could only get you so far with audiences. When the romantic writers took to writing their own version of the popular stories, they largely ignored Arthur. He wasn’t the romantic hero. He had to rule the Kingdom and ruling doesn’t really allow time for adventure. These writers were trying to bring the Arthur myths to a wider audience and the only way they could think to do so was to leave Arthur behind. Instead, they started to focus on the characters and the world which surrounded Arthur, giving new life to Lancelot and Percival and Tristan and Isolde. Arthur became a figurehead, the wise ruler who sent his men out into the world to spread the message of Camelot and to seek adventure elsewhere.

By and large, it is their stories you remember when you think of the tales of Camelot, stories of brave knights and daring quests. They are the romantic heroes, not Arthur.

King by default

King Arthur, by and large, is a "Chosen One," a character fated to take on massive responsibility in exchange for power. He is a prophesied King who, as a young man, pulls a sword from a stone which automatically makes him the ruler of his country. He is chosen by the Lady of the Lake to wield Excalibur, the most powerful sword in the world. Time and again, he is told by forces beyond his control that he is the greatest and the wisest and the one who will save England from destruction.

Especially now, when the market is saturated with stories of young people with grand destinies, this type of story fails to resonate all on its own. Again, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword leans heavily into the "Chosen One" angle, casting an Arthur who kicks a lot of ass and whines a lot about how he didn't choose his destiny. He didn't. It was chosen for him, and as a result, most of his development in this version and many others is that of a man fighting against who he is supposed to become. It's a story we have seen over and over again and on its own, it's tiresome.

Once again, a strong supporting cast or a story that does not focus on the "chosen" king are what keep Arthur's story from turning stale. In this case, television adaptations are the first to come to mind as they are able to take the time to delve into the world of Camelot more broadly and more deeply, investing time in the characters that surround Arthur and the enemies who threaten him and his court.

Even so, the ones that are most successful, like 2001's The Mists of Avalon (based on the 1985 book by Marion Zimmer Bradley) or the BBC's wildly successful Merlin, turn their focus away from Arthur in an attempt to tell a new story. This approach allows the writers to frame the story of Arthur and Camelot from a new perspective to explore new avenues and depict Arthur himself in new ways.

Changing the story altogether

There is really only one version of the King Arthur story that focuses on Arthur as the main character and is still widely praised by audiences and critics alike. Excalibur (1981) is widely regarded as the only good King Arthur movie, and while in some respects that is true, I would take it a step further and say it is the only good King Arthur movie that attempts to simply adapt the myths as they were told (though it does fail to mention that Excalibur is not the Sword in the Stone, but I digress).

There are at least two other good King Arthur movies, but in both cases, they are beloved not for Arthur, but for the liberties, they take with the source material. Camelot, starring a young Richard Harris as the man who would be King, was adapted from the popular Broadway show and has stood the test of time, not for its original take on the Arthur myth, but for its songs. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, meanwhile, attempted to infuse the comedy group's particular brand of absurdist humor into the age-old story of Arthur and his knights, creating one of the most quotable films of all time.

 

Both of these versions are beloved by audiences, but neither resonates because it is a grand tale of an adventuring hero. Both films, instead, use the story of Arthur as a jumping off point to explore other ways of telling that story, through music or through humor.

So, is it possible to create an adaptation of the Arthur myths that doesn't suck? Obviously, the answer is yes, but those filmmakers who want to make the attempt face an uphill battle to make the character interesting and relevant to a modern audience. Arthur's biggest challenges don't lie with the Black Knight or the Saxon armies or the fierce threat of his own nephew, but in the audiences rapidly tiring of seeing the same stories told time and again.

It's a challenge even the earliest authors of these myths faced and their solution could and should also be ours. Stop focusing on Arthur and turn your attention to the world around him. Tell the story of Percival's attempts and failure to seek the Holy Grail. Give me the story of Galahad, a young knight trying to live up to the legacy of his famous father, Lancelot. Tell me the tale of Merlin, a powerful sorcerer who is brought down by his own hubris and lust. Show me Camelot through the eyes of the poor citizens, or Arthur’s rule from the perspective of Guinevere.

Camelot is ripe with opportunities to tell interesting, intricate stories relevant to today's audiences. You just have to remember the core belief at the heart of its creation: Camelot is bigger than Arthur.

Want some more backstory on Arthur? We've got some here: