Tag Archives: Cinema

The Malorian Enigma: Starz’s Camelot and the Misguided Adaptation

Earlier today, Starz announced their plans for Camelot, a ten-part series that offers a new version of the Arthurian Legend. As someone who studied a great deal of medieval literature in my undergraduate career, even writing my honours thesis on the relationship between the medieval romance (Malory’s Le Morte Darthur) and science fiction (in the form of Battlestar Galactica), this is intriguing to me. I am always happy to see my academic interests crossing into my critical pursuits, and so I am very much looking forward to seeing how Camelot comes together.

However, I first heard this news through Twitter, where the gist was “modern retelling of Arthurian legend” without any further details – Twitter is wonderful, but it’s also vague, so I sought out the press release to get more information. However, when I was reading that press release, a few alarms went off in my head which I feel need to be addressed. First and foremost, Starz claims that this will offer “a wholly original approach to the timeless Arthurian legend,” which is the sort of statement that makes me raise an eyebrow. Shortly after, I discovered the passage that truly makes me apprehensive about this series:

“Camelot” will be based on Thomas Malory’s 15th century book,” Le Morte d’Arthur” – still considered the definitive work on the subject. But that’s only a starting point; “Camelot” will weave authenticity into a modern telling of the Arthur legends that is relatable to contemporary audiences.

What’s funny is that, based on the way this information is being reported, I had presumed that this would be a “contemporization” of the Arthurian Legend, placing it within a 21st century setting similar to how NBC’s Kings transplanted biblical stories into more contemporary political and social structures. However, based on this claim from the press release and the fact that the series will shoot in Ireland, it seems as if the “modern telling” and “contemporary audiences” points refer to the story rather than the setting, which is actually far more problematic for me.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper for a seminar on the Arthurian legend where I investigated the reasons that the most defining qualities of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (there’s all sorts of disagreement on the spelling, so I just stick with what I know) have never appeared in adaptations of the text. For those who don’t know, Malory’s text is a sprawling tome which has no clear central narrative, which is why no one is crazy enough to try to adapt the book “as is.” However, while some films have claimed to use the text as a source, they do so in a highly selective fashion: rather than trying to capture the essence of the text, which focuses on chivalry and honour within the context of Arthur’s kingdom, they tend to take plot elements and characters and craft a more linear and more “modern” story of love and loss. The paper was fairly short, and unable to cover the breadth of the subject of Arthurian adaptations, but I’ll post it after the jump anyways in case anyone is really interested in the subject at hand.

However, I think Camelot represents the perfect example of the way in which Malory is used within adaptations of the Arthurian legend. They evoke the name because it is, in fact, still considered the definitive work on the subject, which offers the adaptation a certain degree of legitimacy. The problem is that they admit that Malory is just a starting point in the same sentence, and then go on to pretty much state that they are only using Malory for the strands of “authenticity” that they will work into a “modern” and “relatable” tale of, most likely, melodramatic investigations of adultery and heroism, a reductive translation of Malory’s story.

Television as a medium is more capable than film of capturing the qualities which make the Morte a fascinating text, capable of giving attention to the substantial range of characters and even potentially being able to bring stories considered tangential to the “main narrative” to life in ways which are impossible in the more linear model of feature filmmaking. I think if someone really sat down and decided to tackle Malory’s text as a serialized, non-linear narrative, there is the potential for a sprawling and epic investigation of the value of chivalry, honour, kinship and morality within a complex series of events which challenge those values.

However, while HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s somewhat-medieval fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones, seems driven by writers focusing on the televisual qualities of the text at hand, it seems like Camelot is being conceived in a way which suggests that there is something about Malory’s text which is emphatically not modern, and which is entirely unrelatable to audiences. As such, it isn’t really an adaptation of Malory at all, but rather an interpretation of Malory’s basic plot – likely focused on the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere – within a modern context (probably similar to The Tudors, as the projects share some producers).

What emerges may well be an entertaining television series, but I can’t help but feel that it will be missing the point: if you’re going to bring the Arthurian Legend to life in our modern television era, and if you’re going to claim Malory as a source, this is a fantastic opportunity to tackle the elements of the text which made it definitive and have largely been lost in subsequent reimaginings. Instead, their goal seems to be the same old attempt to make something old hip and relevant by ignoring what made it so interesting at the time and instead looking at what is popular or trendy within popular culture – I’d be glad to be proven wrong, but somehow I think that I’m still going to be waiting for the Malorian adaptation that is truly possible in this day and age.

After the jump, my paper entitled “Attempted Screenplay: The Honour of Le Morte Darthur and the Failure of Film Adaptations,” if you want to read more about the unique qualities of Malory’s text that present a challenge to would-be adaptations.

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David vs. Goliath vs. Laziness: Potential-filled 2010 Oscars Lack Suspense, Muddle Triumph

David vs. Goliath vs. Laziness

March 8th, 2010

If you were going to watch a television show where two characters reach for the ultimate goal in their chosen field, one as the popular frontrunner and one as the almost-forgotten underdog, I think there’s a lot of dramatic potential there. There is something about the battle between David and Goliath that should automatically draw us in, and while Avatar and The Hurt Locker are not multi-dimensional characters (cue 3-D joke) they are fairly compelling award show narratives.

And while normal people, according to lore, only watch award shows to see things they like be liked by stuffshirts, people like me watch them because of the politics, because of the predictions, and because of the sense of surprise and anticipation. We watch them because we see a narrative in their story, able to chart momentum as the show goes on, moving towards the big award of the night with the pulse of a great year in film…ideally.

The 2010 Oscars will go down in the books as a rather colossal failure, the polar opposite of the simple and understated Oscars that followed the year before. In some ways, the show took risks not that dissimilar from last year’s show, but a few major missteps combined with some absolutely disappointing material from hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin resulted in an infinitely cynical response that, unfortunately, became the pulse of this show.

What was supposed to be thrilling and exciting, the story of two films in an epic fight for victory, became the story of how the show’s producers chose interpretive dance over cinematic integrity, and the predictable winners in most categories did little to keep this Oscars from being tepid, uninteresting and, perhaps worst of all, uneventful. A show like this should be an event, and this…this was just sad.

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Crossroads: Cinematic Convergence and Up in the Air

Crossroads: Cinematic Convergence and Up in the Air

December 29th, 2009

One of the joys of fictional narratives is that writers have free rein to start their story at any point in their characters’ lives. Unless we’re literally following a character from the time of their birth to the time of their death, there are parts of their stories that are simply not going to be told; instead, writers will select a particular time to pick up a character’s story that feels the most cinematic, or pressing, or engaging.

Television is at a distinct advantage in this area when compared with film, in that it is able to pick up multiple moments over the course of multiple seasons. Mad Men has made a business of using time shifts in order to find Don Draper amidst particular historical periods, while a show like Weeds fastforwarded its heroine’s pregnancy in an effort to streamline its position in the narrative. This is plausible, even desirable, because the lengthy runs of television shows allow them to create their own past, present and future – the narrative becomes longer and the moments become more plentiful and the characters’ lives become augmented by their lives as it relates to our experience (measured in seasons as opposed to years).

But with cinema, at least with those films which aren’t part of a broader franchise or serving as a sequel, there is an expectation that things will largely standalone. You will meet a set of characters at a particular point in their lives, and you will follow those characters for as long the writer intends for you to do so. And that’s sort of what I find fascinating about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, a film where we meet a variety of characters at a definitely cinematic point in their lives. It is a film where we meet those at a crossroads in their lives, and one which is far less interested in how they got to this point than it is interested in what they’re going to do now that they’re here.

And in terms of finding a strong narrative of self-realization and life choices, Reitman has picked the right moment: it has also, however, led to some very strong negative reactions to the film from those who were expected a more indepth investigation into any one of the story’s various elements.

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A Whole New World: World-Building in Avatar and Scrubs

A Whole New World: World-Building in Avatar and Scrubs

December 20th, 2009

It’s very rare around these parts that I actively engage in any sort of cinematic analysis, but apparently it’s a yearly tradition as twelve months ago I was waxing poetic on the virtues of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and its connection to reality television narrative. And after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar last night, I feel I need to spend at least some amount of time discussing what was a truly fantastic cinematic experience (even if I also end up discussing its connection with television).

I could spend a long time talking about the film’s visual prowess, but as noted on both Twitter and Facebook (which means that, if you’re a Myles McNutt aficionado, you think me mighty repetitive) this was the first movie I saw wearing my new corrective lenses, which meant that it was so stunningly sharp that I think I would have found any movie mind-blowing from a visual perspective.

However, I want to focus on what those visuals are meant to achieve, in particular the film’s efforts to create a “world.” Cameron’s Pandora is full of life in a way that sustains this film, filling in the gaps of the somewhat reductive and straightforward plot by making us anxious less for what will happen next and more for what unseen part of this planet we’re going to see for the first time in the near future.

And it has me thinking about those television series which rely on the same sense of world-building, specifically ABC’s Scrubs, and in particular how Cameron’s film draws attention to the advantages and disadvantages of the audience (or, in the case of the film, its characters) dropping in and out of that world on a regular basis.

[Spoilers for Avatar will be minimal, more particular moments than any sort of plot or character things, but if you want to go in blind turn back now.]

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Song, Dance, and Commendation: Turning the 2009 Academy Awards into a Television Event

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Song, Dance, and Commendation:

Turning the 2009 Oscars into a Television Event

When the Academy Awards brought on a set of new producers, there was the usual buzzwords: on time! Big surprises! Excitement! On time! Thrilling! And yet, we all doubted that it could live up to the expectation, especially after the year’s most populist films were all but shut out of major awards, and the chance for big surprises was more or less out the door the second that the runaway train of Slumdog Millionaire pulled into the station. The odds were stacked against this show from being something that felt like a real television event, which is really the point of this whole affair.

Or, well, one of the points. In reality, this is an event that is about celebrating the best in the year of film, but that is an idea that is always so subjective and often disconnected from what the movie-going public actually experienced. At the very least, then, it’s supposed to be a celebration of the talent in Hollywood, something that is always tough with the red carpet affairs and the grasps at star power drive attention towards those with the most cache. And all the while they have to be entertaining, keeping us moving between awards and keeping our attention.

And while it didn’t run on time (who ever expected it to?), and there weren’t many major surprises (here’s a full list of winners), tonight’s Academy Awards will go down in the books as one that provided entertainment you’d see nowhere else, a celebration of the year in movies and not just those movies which happened to be nominated, and one where the fine line between indulgent self-aggrandizing and commending the year’s finest actors was walked with great control. And that, at the very least, created three and a half hours of engaging television.

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Credit Where It’s Due: The Golden Globes are not (entirely) Irrelevant

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Credit Where It’s Due:

The Golden Globes are not (entirely) Irrelevant

It is often very easy to discredit the Golden Globes for being one thing or another, or for not being one thing or another. It is not that these are all false: the Hollywood Foreign Press Association are not cinematic or television authorities, and it is often very clear in their choices that their criteria is both highly erratic and highly suspect on most occasions. The 2009 Golden Globes were in part a testament to this particular part of their mystique, with a variety of winners which felt like they were entirely unrelated to the film or television series beside their name.

But we have to admit that there are certain points where this type of crass favouritism can actually intersect with what we as both award show viewers and as appreciators of good film and television considering to be something approaching justice. While I could easily speak to how Slumdog Millioniare’s numerous wins are a result of its international production (Always a big thing with the HFPA, see Babel defeating The Departed), or how Tina Fey’s victory is only the result of her time in the mainstream as Sarah Palin, does this really override the fact that I loved Slumdog Millionaire and that Tina Fey is a comic sensation on 30 Rock?

While the sheer cynicism with which we view the subjectivity of the Golden Globes is not wholly unique within the major awards circuit, I nonetheless feel like it is sometimes overstated in the case of the Globes for the purpose of focusing on those winners that we don’t like while choosing to view good decisions as the exception to the rule. This isn’t going to stop me from attacking the HFPA for being irrelevant with some of their choices, especially as it relates to nominees, but when it comes to the winners I think it’s safe to say that they might have actually paid attention to what they were watching in the past year.

Even if it was, per usual, for the wrong reasons in some instances.

[For a complete LiveBlog rundown of the show, click here!]

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The 2009 Golden Globes LiveBlog

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Open Bar. Slavish appreciation of celebrity and the cult therein. The Golden Globes are not about who wins, really, but that doesn’t mean that I would ever miss an opportunity to complain about it. Watch as I discuss the television awards with a false sense of authority, write about the movie awards with an even more false sense of authority, and gossip about celebrities with the exact amount of zero authority almost all internet commentators have on the subject.

I am not live-blogging the pre-show per se, but I have been writing some tweets, so follow me on Twitter for more fun on that front. But, really, we’re here for the judgments of the Hollywood Foreign Press – those guys are crazy.

7:49pm: First word of warning – time might jump forward an hour, I’m adjusting Atlantic Time to Eastern Time for your benefit and might occasionally screw up. Time for the pre-awards ten minutes of pre-show blogging.

7:54pm: Basics of the pre-show – NBC mindbogglingly combining people in a line so that they could get through more people, resulting in some enormously random combinations. Only real moment of any interest was Mark Wahlberg quite hilariously calling Jeremy Piven out on his mercury levels, and then Piven getting gravely serious about it, resulting in a lot of awkwardness. Otherwise, no drama of note, and I won’t attempt discuss anything related to fashion.

7:56pm: Okay, I lied – Kate Winslet looks really, really good. That is all.

7:58pm: Brooke Burke and Tiki Barber aren’t allowed to have opinions, silly Nancy O’Dell – that’s not why they’re there!

8:00pm: And here we go – wait, the Jonas Brothers are there? Oy vey.

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