Arthurian Tales: Traditional vs Creative Film Adaptations

The legend of King Arthur and his knights has a life of its own. Centuries of speculation and creative works breathed it into being. You’d think that people all over the world would have had enough of Arthurian tales, but that’s clearly not the case.

By now, dozens of books, films, TV shows, and video games continue to find an excited audience. The interesting turn, however, was when artists started to deviate from the romantic representation of the Arthurian legend. As the Green Knight trailer dropped to reveal the adaptation’s powerful fantasy vibes, the new tradition proved itself alive and well.

But since there are many conventional versions that Arthurian fans still love, two questions spring to mind. Is one style better than the other? And is such comparison really necessary? Let’s dig deeper.

What is known about King Arthur?

All historical and archeological facts so far can only state that he may have existed in one form or another, but that it’s also very likely Arthur Pendragon of legend was exactly that: a wonderful fabrication drawn from chivalrous ideals. Robin Hood is a similar riddle!

So theories surrounding the legend include:

  • A 2nd-century Roman centurion, Lucius Artorius Castus, is a strong candidate for Arthur’s basis, deduced from extensive literary and historical research
  • A 5th or 6th-century tribe leader by the name of Arturus may have also served as inspiration as he led battles against Germanic invaders
  • Camelot was invented in the 12-century by Chr├ętien de Troyes, a French poet
  • Many Arthurian tales are also of French origin, specifically from Brittany
  • The faery women prevalent in the legend were largely derived from French mythology
  • The Holy Grail probably started as the Celtic cauldron – a symbol of wisdom, plenty, rebirth and more

It’s difficult to come to definitive conclusions, but some patterns stand out and shape the potential origin of the Arthurian legend. It seems that stories of either the Roman or tribal Arthur – maybe even both! – inspired poets and prose writers from different countries. Each one’s interpretation, ideals, and cultural mythology fed into their work, which then influenced the next generations of authors and readers.

As confused as it all may be, it’s also very entertaining. And valuable in terms of the historical and sociological impact of literature. What we see in film and TV for the past decade or so are producers playing with the almost proven fictionality of King Arthur’s story.

Romantic Arthurian Adaptations

Several classics are loyal to the original recipes in terms of plot and aesthetics.

  • King Arthur (2004)
  • First Knight (1995)
  • Merlin (1998)
  • The Mists of Avalon (1983)

The legend is mainly seen as a British emblem of magic, chivalry, epic romance, and virtue, frequently revived over the centuries. The knightly values and celtic mysticism keep drawing people back into the story and its characters.

But, as enchanting as the fairytale adaptations are, there’s only so much their politeness and grace is able to deliver. Much of the grungy, visceral, and even ridiculous elements of the times tend to be glossed over. That’s why we need bold retellings to look at traditional tales from new perspectives.

Innovative Arthurian Adaptations

Our time has seen some ingenious and refreshing interpretations of King Arthur’s legend. Whether the Green Knight will be included remains to be seen.

  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
  • The Sword in the Stone (1963)
  • The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)
  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

This list is not about loyal or elegant retellings, but about creative and stimulating ones. For example, even though Guy Ritchie’s attempt tripped over many problems and failed to make the impact it could have, it still made an impression.

Besides the highly engaging sequences and phenomenal music score, it represented the multicultural nature of the legend and portrayed a new kind of Arthur: a flawed, raw survivor.

In the same way, each reimagining shines a unique light on the ancient myth and gives audiences more reasons to love it. As cinematic storytelling continues to evolve, we get to engage with Arthurian tales on a far more intricate level.

At the end of the day, when it comes to traditional concepts easily mired in convension, innovation is necessary. The standard legend of King Arthur has already been told beautifully again and again. But that foundation can’t reach its full potential without fresh eyes – directorial, authorial, or other – pulling subliminal elements to the surface. Myths need to evolve alongside people.

Want to share your favourite Arthurian adaptation? Comment below or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter.

Curious about other literary traditions?

Author: Electra Nanou

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