Building Camelot Part 1: Starting Adaptation
King Arthur, while one of the most rewarding projects I’ve had the privilege to work on, has also been one of the most difficult, and thereby the most adventurous. The entire creation process was fraught with challenges — in choreography, in adaptation, in casting, in design — and this was all before we hit the water stage.
When adapting any story from one form to another, the mission is simple: to transcribe the essential elements of the original work into a narrative form that best suits the new form of storytelling. The closer the forms, often, the simpler the adaptation. To adapt a play from one dramatic form to another (such as a spoken Shakespeare to a silent one…) is a difficult task, but the essential form of the narrative, a drama, remains intact.
The great challenge is to find ways of expressing those essential pieces that previously have existed in spoken word. It’s great fun, and takes a lot of late nights. Adapting a novel is a different animal — in some ways easier because there is more room for interpretation, there is more to choose from, but often in some ways harder because more…happens. There are many more options, and picking the essential elements — or what is essential for YOUR interpretation — is terrifically hard. Talk about late nights.
So when confronted with something like the entirety of the Arthurian story, one has to ask…what story? If the job is to transcribe the essential elements of the original work, what in the world is the “original work”? Sitting next to me right now is the “New Arthurian Encyclopedia.” It is 613 big pages long, with several entries per page on characters, authors who have created their own version of the Arthur story, major themes, places, historical figures, and motifs. Do we take a Romantic view of Arthur and his knights, effortlessly noble, tragically heroic in their pursuit of the Good (a la The Boy’s King Arthur)? Do we draw a modern, self-aware picture like TH White’s Once and Future King, or do we emphasize the clash of pagan and Christian in M. Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon? Do we go with Sean Connery and Richard Gere’s First Knight and simply emphasize the love triangle or do we paint Boorman’s sweeping portrait in the vein of Excalibur? Or do we just go with the old Welsh-Celtic references from “The Mabinogion” and attribute Arthur’s heroism to the fact that he personally hacked up more people in battle than anybody, like, ever?
It was obvious that the task of this adaptation was not going to be challenged by a lot of faithfulness to the source material — the source material is so vast and varied that there is barely any such thing as faithfulness. What we decided to do was to work with the archetypes that have made their way deepest into our culture, while making the story our own. What people remember most are the images and characters. The Sword in the Stone, Excalibur rising from the hand of the Lady of the Lake, Lancelot and Guenevere, King Arthur and the Round Table, Merlin and his guidance, the dark magic of Morgan le Fay, the unity of the Knights. We wanted to do something both ferocious and beautiful, something that took the sweeping arc of the rise and fall of a kingdom juxtaposed with the intensely personal drama of Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the other core characters.
It goes without saying that, with such a rich mythology, you’re going to leave something out in adaptation that will disappoint one fan or another — and what may have seemed essential to us may be missing the point entirely to someone else. But that is always the case in adaptation.
So to say that, to me, Arthur is about a man who attempts to bring unity about in a violent time, who sees a bright future in a dark age, , who loves those around him and tries to bring them with him in his attempt — and nearly succeeds in his task — must be enough. Sure, I’ll keep reading more versions and enjoying more interpretations, but to me, this is what has kept the legend alive so many centuries; the epic and the intimate flowing from one into the other and back again.