So I toddled along to EW to read the article, and I was really interested in the way they were marketing it. As this brand-new rough-the-hero-up tough-guy action thing, as though this was what went against the grain of the ‘literary classic’. The sentence that really got me was: “Hopefully, loyalists won’t be too offended by what we’ve done,” says producer Lionel Wigram. I’ll come back to that (and that very real fear, which I have talked about briefly before on this blog) in more detail, but at this point I’d just like to ask, exactly which version are the “loyalists” loyal to?
I’m really intrigued to see how this version goes. I’d not yet describe myself as a fan of Guy Ritchie. I watched Layer Cake twice and all I really remember about it is that nobody ever ate any actual cake. Based on that, I’m kind of anxious about macho man-mumbling and women hanging around like accessories, but there are loads of things I am excited about as well. I can’t wait to see this King Arthur who is ‘a little bit rough around the edges, but he’s basically a survivor.’That sounds great. Also a little shufty at IMDB tells me that Vortigern (in the seemly form of Jude Law) – the British leader who Geoffrey of Monmouth has foolishly making deals with Hengest and Horsa the wicked invading Saxons – will be making an appearance in this version. Much intrigue!
But as I say, what is most interesting to me is Ritchie’s idea that past versions have “[made] King Arthur bland and nice, and nice and bland.” I mean, if we’re talking The Sword in the Stone and (to a lesser extent) The Mists of Avalon, then yeah I could see that he was not one of the more troubling or (dare I say it) interesting characters, but this “bland and nice, nice and bland” guy is the same chap who in the medieval versions a. knocks up his sister, b. tries to have their incest child murdered, instead only manages to murder all babies that age, c. resolutely refuses to do anything about the treason, corruption or infighting in his kingdom until it collapses around him. And that’s just in Malory. Because of how deeply associated with the myth of Britishness King Arthur has become, it does seem that the popular media is saturated by this T.H.White “Once and Future King” who is the saviour of Britain, but that’s not the whole story.
Like Hunnam’s portray promises to be, the old Welsh Arthur is an action hero, whose main bag is riding around with his knights getting shit done. Medieval Scottish romance is much less favourable to Arthur; he’s a bastard, a usurper and – frequently – a tyrant with questionable judgement. To the French he is this Roi fainéant (do-nothing king) who is too busy following his friend around trying to stop him having sex with his wife to get on with the things he should be doing.
And this has been one of the sticking-points I have found in my own experience of rewriting Arthurian legend; our modern understanding of literature and indeed of story is less able to encompass the elasticity of legend the way that medieval and early modern writers did. I daresay it comes along with the rise of copyright law. I am equally tempted to blame it on the Romantics and their idea of a single perfect version of any one story. Whatever it is, it’s daft. Any “loyalists” who aren’t intrigued and thrilled as I am about the promise of this version don’t really know what they are being loyal to.
Reviews on Amazon have criticsed my Arthur for not being “nice” enough (snooze – while we’re here I might suggest this excellent post by Victoria Griffin on writing likeable characters), which I think is shaped by the fact that these are stories that we often come across in our childhoods, where the for-kids versions are shaped to be palatable. Because a palatable hero Arthur is not necessarily. So I can’t wait for this. I can’t wait for some gritty, bloody, down-to-earth version with something to say. Bring it on. And maybe Charlie Hunnam will take his shirt off. Who knows?