Tag Archives: Essay

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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Camelot

A Canuck in an American Sitcom: The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

A Canuck in an American Sitcom: A Paper

February 8th, 2010

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of presenting at the 16th Annual McGill English Grad Students’ Conference in Montreal, where I gave a presentation on the subject of Canadian space in How I Met Your Mother. I had a fun experience at the conference, but I was never entirely satisfied with my paper: I thought it was a decent representation of the basic argument I wanted to make, and people responded to the clips and were able to “see” what I was talking about, but the paper didn’t represent the depth of the show’s depiction of Canada. I only had 20 minutes, so my time was limited, but it felt like those limitations were keeping the paper from reaching its full potential.

So, rather than posting the truncated version of the paper, I spent part of my 21-hour train ride home from Montreal adding some additional material, expanding on ideas that were only hinted on before. As a result, the paper has been transformed into something far longer than I had intended it to be, a lengthy treatise written in the form of a journal article but with the focus of a blog post (in that I don’t spend a great deal of time with sources and the like, focusing primarily on the show itself). It’s a bit of a bastardization of both forms, too informal for one and too long for the other, but I think it’s the closest I’ve come to feeling as if I’ve done the subject justice, and as a result I’m posting it here for you to peruse at your leisure – enjoy!

A Canuck in an American Sitcom:

The Spatial Construction of Canadian Identity in How I Met Your Mother

The greatest challenge facing a multi-camera sitcom is creating a world that feels real even when it is unquestionably fake. Although we are almost always aware that the locations in such shows are only sets, that they have been meticulously crafted and designed by a series of people behind the scenes, the sitcom depends on building a relationship between the audience and its characters, and their homes (like Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld) or favourite drinking establishments (Cheers on Cheers) are important reflections of who they are and how we relate with them. Setting is, to adopt John Fiske’s use of Roland Barthes’ term, an important ‘informant’ that identifies or locates in time and space, but the falsehood apparent in a multi-camera sitcom can potentially complicate this process. However, over time, the fact that these are only sets becomes irrelevant, as the sets become synonymous with the characters who habitate them: Central Perk goes from a strangely well-lit coffee shop to “the place where Rachel, Joey, etc. hang out,” and the locations become synonymous with the show’s reality through their continued presence in the characters’ lives.

However, while this explains how regular sets in which a sitcom’s characters consistently interact gain meaning beyond their initial construction, it has only limited effects on additional spaces the show may introduce. What I want to address is how CBS’ How I Met Your Mother manages to create distinctly Canadian spaces within a series set and filmed in the United States in order to develop the show’s Canadian character, Robin Scherbatsky. Although the audience is aware that these spaces are ‘fake,’ the show’s writers establish a real connection between the spaces and Robin – a journalist who moves to New York to make it big – that establishes her Canadian identity as a facet of her character which can be played for humour rather than as a joke which defines her character. Robin’s actions and mannerisms place her comfortably within an external conception of how Canadians act or speak, but through the depiction of cultural, expatriate and significant commercial spaces, the series develops its own complex image of Canada’s national identity that fuels both comedy and character within its universe, all within the spatial limitations present in the multi-camera sitcom.

Continue reading

17 Comments

Filed under How I Met Your Mother

The Women of ‘Mad Men’: An Essay

[So, admittedly, I had wanted to write about Dexter today, but I am simply not going to have time. In short, finale is good, but I have some serious issues with the season as a whole that keep my from joining the hype train. However, I can offer you the following: it’s my Lit. Theory essay about ‘Mad Men’, one of my favourite series of the year, and recently nominated for two Golden Globes. I wanted to throw in a couple of YouTube videos here and there to spice it up but there’s no time; so, it’s just 2800 words of me intellectually rambling! Enjoy!]

From a twenty-first century perspective, the 1960s present a strange and foreign environment in which social interaction was defined by an entirely different set of rules. Man Men, a television drama from Matthew Weiner, takes place in the world of advertising during an era where smoking is natural and where segregation defines African-Americans as ‘the help’. While these social issues are used to locate the show within this specific time, largely remaining unchallenged within the show’s narrative, the presentation of women within Mad Men is a more deconstructive element. The series presents two women, in particular, who find themselves intertwined with this fast-moving world dominated by male figures: Peggy, a young secretary turned copy writer who struggles with her weight, and Betty, the wife of the Head of Creative who is defined by her domestic role. The series may be focused on an industry and a time period where the role of women was marginalized, but it represents an opportunity for the show’s writers to emphasize how this marginalization impacts these two women in particular.

Specifically, the daily activities of the Sterling Cooper agency are particularly worrisome: the discourse of advertising speaks to all audiences but is written and created almost exclusively by male writers. This environment provides a fertile ground for an investigation of the role language plays in reaffirming or challenging the patriarchal order. Peggy’s attempts to break into this industry may provide the most extensive representation of feminist literary theory within the series, but Mad Men also emphasizes the level to which phallocentric discourses bleed into the life of a young wife struggling to come to terms with her own identity. Mad Men is not a feminist television series, as its dedication to realism keeps either of these characters from emerging in defiance of all their unfair treatment. However, that attention to realism allows the series to demonstrate the level to which patriarchal discourse was dominant in life and language during this period, historicizing this period of feminine experience.

Continue reading

19 Comments

Filed under Mad Men