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.