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The Top 5 KING ARTHUR On-Screen Adaptations

The Top 5 KING ARTHUR On-Screen Adaptations

The legend of King Arthur is no stranger to adaptations, and if there’s one thing countless Arthurian interpretations have taught us, it’s that the timeless tale isn’t just about one man. His story has always been about the complex nature of trust, loyalty, and honor among a dense cast of characters. Depending on the focus of any given version, we get to inspect undiscovered corners of a well-worn mythology.

This year we get a hyper-modernized dose of Arthurian myth and magic–Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) spins the quintessential British legend in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. We took a trip to the set at Warner Bros. Studios London and bought into the hype of all of his planned twists and turns. For this version Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, Pacific Rim) takes the hilt of Excalibur as a super attractive, vengeful, swagger-ridden Arthur–think brothels and bar fights over bards and damsels in distress.

But before we watch the latest version of the king’s adventures, we wondered how we got to this point in the first place. So below, you can see our top five on-screen versions of King Arthur to help prepare you for the next incarnation of Arthur.

Camelot Monty Main 2

1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

One of the most significant films of the twentieth century, Monty Python and the Holy Grail flipped the lore upside down by dusting off these legendary characters with slapstick humor and modern day mannerisms. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones and under the clever care of the Monty Python gang (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Jones, Eric Idle, and Michael Palin), Camelot and its inhabitants were forever changed with this landmark film. ‘Tis a silly place indeed.

Adaptations before The Holy Grail (such as the soaring romance Knights of the Round Table from 1953 and the hit musical Camelot from 1967) were generally gilded epics that stuck to the more romantic elements from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). The Holy Grail effectively said to hell with it and turned the legend into a parody of sorts. Arthur isn’t the strongest, bravest king of the land and his Knights of the Round Table certainly aren’t perfect either. Even the film’s villain–the killer rabbit of Caerbannog–proved that with a bit of imagination you can reinvent a centuries old legend for a new era. Will Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword take note of The Holy Grail‘s epic comedic treatment and add some modern-day humor of its own? Based on the trailers, we think there is a very good chance.


2. Merlin (1998)

NBC’s ‘90s miniseries Merlin was a glorious romp into the elusive world of the tale’s wise old wizard. Rather than following Arthur’s general coming-of-age, the miniseries focused on magic, power struggles, and humanity from Merlin‘s perspective. Sam Neill stole all the scenes as adult Merlin, making Arthur just an afterthought in this adaption, something that shocked Arthurian purists.

Merlin assembled a strong cast to reflect its newly adapted peripheral characters. They threw in another magical icon from literature, Shakespeare’s Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson), whose vengeance and fury surprisingly matched Merlin’s lifelong quest for justice and righteousness. Helena Bonham Carter played the delightfully treacherous Morgan le Fay, and before her days as Cersei Lannister, young Lena Headey took the crown as a demure Guinevere. Despite Merlin’s massive cult following, its sequel in 2006 didn’t live up to the original miniseries. Even though Merlin‘s revival serves as a bad omen for Ritchie, we hope he brings out the best of his enormous cast and builds similarly strong characters throughout his planned series to avoid potential pitfalls.


3. The Mists of Avalon (2001)

Our squad goals were answered in 2001 when The Mists of Avalon aired on TNT. Adapted from the bestseller book by Arthurian scholar and fantasy writer, Marion Zimmer Bradley, the miniseries followed three main female characters with Anjelica Huston as noble the Lady of the Lake Viviane, Julianna Margulies as Arthur’s powerful step sister Morgaine, and Joan Allen as Viviane’s sour younger sister Morgause.

Mists of Avalon tested the boundaries of the legend by primarily focusing on the clash of three generations of women. Yes, it’s still heavy on the romance (Alias‘ Michael Vartan plays a wonderfully subtle Lancelot on-screen), but the main exploration into female relationships and forgiveness elevated this miniseries beyond just another Arthurian love story. Morgaine and Guinevere’s complicated relationship defies “the other woman vs the scorned woman” trope. The lives of these female characters wove a new thread through King Arthur’s story. With only a brief glimpse of Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) as a mage-esque Guinevere in the trailers, we’re too not sure how Richie will handle his sole female protagonist. But we’re hoping the ladies of Legend of the Sword will be equally as bold as those in The Mists of Avalon.


4. Merlin (2008-2012)

Part buddy-cop, part rom-com, BBC’s Merlin took a page from the Python guys and brought British charm back into the legend for a new generation. A bit corny and sometimes cringe-worthy, Merlin was in the same vein as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Smallville. It was not preoccupied with historical accuracy; instead, the show was about friendships and growing up with a dash of fantasy fun.

Merlin (Colin Morgan) and heartthrob prince Arthur (Bradley James) were set as the same age, facing the same teenage feelings in a world that’s banned magic. These two protagonists are notable versions for learning to level with one another with honesty and compassion. It was a refreshing reminder that heavy historical dramas aren’t the only way to successfully tell a lore-filled legend. Also, bros can have BFF stories too. Arthur’s trait as a true friend to all his knights will most definitely shine through in Richie’s adaptation, extra swearing and blood notwithstanding.


5. Camelot (2011)

Long live the queen! Starz’ Camelot placed Eva Green’s dark and devious Morgan le Fay opposite Joseph Fiennes’ vicious Merlin, and we’re eternally grateful for that perfect pairing. The short-lived series was the Arthurian answer to the new kid on the block, Game of Thrones, which premiered on HBO just two months later and effectively adsorbed Camelot’s audience. (But lucky for us, that meant Eva Green could go on to star in Penny Dreadful in 2014)

Camelot is one of the latest and shortest on-screen adaptations of the tale. Despite its weak dialogue, this one-season series paved a different path with attention to psychological detail and sharp visual aesthetics–just watch the spellbinding opening credits. The series did away with good-vs-evil and painted all characters as fallible humans. Morgan’s intense childhood trauma leads to justified anger and resentment while Merlin’s desire to protect Camelot at all costs leads him down a dark path. Legend of the Sword will hopefully reexamine the psyches of Arthur and his knights in a similar manner which could be an equally impressive spin on the fantasy genre. We’re also ready to return to a more compelling, brawnier Arthur, because Camelot‘s pouty prince Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) didn’t cut it.


Like the above iterations, and countless others not included, chances are you’ll either love or hate Ritchie’s feisty adaptation. But at the very least, we are happy to get yet another interpretation of one of our favorite mythological figures and his fabled community. For now, we raise our swords up in honor of the legend of King Arthur and hope for the best with Guy Ritchie’s planned series. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword opens in theaters on May 12, 2017. Unsheathe your comments below!

Images: Warner Bros. Pictures, Sony Pictures, NBC, TNT, BBC, Starz

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