If there’s one classic tale that Hollywood just can’t seem to resist adapting again and again, it’s definitely the legend of King Arthur.
By this point, pretty much everybody knows about the old Arthurian legends. We know about the Sword in the Stone, the Lady of the Lake, the Knights of the Round Table, the wizard Merlin, and the Once and Future King.
Despite the significant number of King Arthur adaptations out there, there’s only one I really love (more on that in a minute). I normally really like Guy Ritchie’s signature style, but I feel asleep during his 2017 film “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” and never really felt compelled to go back and watch the parts I’d missed.
1995’s “First Knight” emphasizes the love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, but that’s never been my favorite part of the Arthurian legend. I was initially interested in the more realistic take promised by 2004’s “King Arthur,” but I found the lack of magic really sucked the heart and soul out of the story. And while I actually really like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” it’s definitely more of a parody so I don’t know that it counts as an official King Arthur film.
For me, the best version of the King Arthur tale is actually the BBC TV version that ran from 2008-2012, called “Merlin.” While it deviates from traditional retellings in significant ways, I fell in love with all the characters, and this show did a great job balancing elements of fantasy, fun, and genuine emotion (I love a show that can make me laugh AND cry).
Netflix’s latest adaptation of “Cursed” is sort of a cross between “Merlin” and “Game of Thrones.” Like “Merlin,” “Cursed” plays a little fast and loose with traditional Arthurian legend (that isn’t a bad thing), but it’s also not as family-friendly as “Merlin” was.
Something old, something new
The main character of “Cursed” is not actually Arthur but Nimue, the famed “Lady of the Lady” who guards the mythical sword Excalibur. A lot of famous names from the King Arthur legend show up in this series — including Lancelot, Gawain, Morgana, and Arthur — but not necessarily in the way you’d expect them to.
“Cursed” is actually based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler. I’d call the TV series a story that is “inspired by” vs. “adapted from” Arthurian legend, because it deviates even more from the source material than “Merlin” does. As I said before, that’s not a bad thing. Hollywood has done so many versions of King Arthur that at this point, you HAVE to bring something new to the tale.
Nimue (Katherine Langford) is a member of the Fey who lives in a land where practicing magic is persecuted. She comes to possess a magical weapon known as the Sword of Power (basically Excalibur, though it’s not directly called that). She’s on the run from the evil monks known as the Red Paladins and crosses paths with a young man named Arthur (Devon Terrell). At this point in the story, Arthur is not a king but an adventurer with a complicated, tragic past.
The wizard Merlin has lost his ability to use magic and is now (sort of) working for the king of the realm, Uther Pendragon, who is (sort of) aligned with the Red Paladins but could possibly be persuaded otherwise. There’s lots of complex alliances and agreements, à la “Game of Thrones,” and loyalties are constantly shifting.
I’d say my favorite part of “Cursed” is the way it takes elements from the Arthurian legend and uses them to spin a completely new tale. Just because you’re familiar with the traditional King Arthur saga doesn’t mean you’ll know what’s actually going to happen here. It’s cool to watch for familiar names and wonder where the show will take them in future seasons.
Right now my two favorite characters are Arthur and the Weeping Monk (Daniel Sharman). Devon Terrell’s Arthur is roguishly charming, and I’m curious if he will eventually become “King Arthur” or whether this show is headed in a completely different direction with his character.
The Weeping Monk is really interesting because at first you don’t know how he fits into the traditional Arthurian legend (not giving away any spoilers here, but after the twist involving this character at the end of the season, I’m super excited to see what happens to him next).
The Weeping Monk works for the Red Paladins and is helping to purge magic from the realm, but the stoic assassin is hiding many secrets of his own. Plus, I’m always a sucker for a multi-layered redemption arcs.
How does this compare, overall, to other adaptations?
So where does “Cursed” fall on my ranking of King Arthur adaptations? Since the show only has one season, it’s hard to say at this point, because I could see it getting stronger and even more compelling in season 2, or sort of wander off and lose its way.
Overall I’d say that I enjoyed “Cursed” but it wasn’t my favorite. I do like that it was only 10 episodes, so it’s a quick watch (I much prefer 10-12 episodes per season vs. the standard American 22 episodes, which tends to result in bloating and filler content).
This show introduces some really cool ideas and uses nifty cinematography (I loved the animated graphics that show up in the opening credits and in some of the scene transitions). The special effects are more “TV budget” than “movie budget” sometimes, but that’s to be expected and didn’t bother me too much.
In terms of storytelling, “Cursed” is one of those shows that feels like it falls a little shy of greatness, even if it’s hard to say exactly why. Although “Game of Thrones” ended on a “meh” note, it still remains the gold standard that I compare other fantasy TV shows to. “Cursed” wasn’t as fun as “Merlin,” and it wasn’t as epic or compelling as “Game of Thrones.”
I also feel like I enjoyed “Cursed” more than I otherwise would have because I watched it in a year where there’s not as much new content. Normally summertime is blockbuster movie season and I’m going to the theater about once a week. “Cursed” was a fun show to watch, although it’s definitely not as strong as the excellent second season of “The Umbrella Academy.”
Bottom line: Is “Cursed” worth a watch? If you’re a big fan of fantasy and are searching for a new TV show to binge, I’d recommend checking it out. I’ll be watching for the second season, which has the potential to be even better now that character introductions are out of the way.
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