The 10 Most Ridiculous Adaptations of Arthurian Legend

By Rob Bricken in Daily Lists, Miscellaneous
Wednesday, March 18, 2009 at 5:00 am
By Todd Ciolek

Historians may never decide whether or not King Arthur was in any way real, but that hardly matters today. What matters is the legend of King Arthur and just how often movies, TV shows, cartoons, and video games can re-imagine and recycle Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Excalibur, Gawain, and every other ounce of the myth. It's a story that never grows old, at least not when you can slap a new and potentially awful coat of paint on it.

Some Arthurian adaptations are dramatically faithful, and some put endearingly absurd spins on the story. But beyond Disney's The Sword in the Stone or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there's a world of writers and directors who've taken the tale of King Arthur to absurd and embarrassing places. And now it's time for us to visit those same places.

10) Excalibur

Alright, so Excalibur is hardly a bad movie. Like David Lynch's Dune, John Boorman's 1981 film is a boldly melodramatic fantasy crammed with grandeur and unexpected Patrick Stewart appearances. Everyone wears blinding, glittery armor and lavish costumes, and it's handled with all the bombast that a Hollywood-born Arthurian retelling deserves. We'd expect no less from the man who directed Zardoz.

That said, Excalibur is still overblown and hilarious beyond anything that Camelot musical ever had. Watch this scene, in which Arthur's dad keeps his political plans on track for all of three seconds before lust and stupidity get the better of him, and see if you can take the movie seriously after the 3:20 mark.

Really, the rest of Excalibur, fun as it is, seems a letdown after this. No matter what drama unfolds and no matter what lines the actors say, no one responds with a needlessly shouted "Are you mad? THE ALLIANCE!"

9) Fate/stay night

In the unconventionally capitalized Fate/stay night anime-manga-game universe, Saber is a magical warrior summoned by (and bound to) a dopey high school dude named Shiro. However, that's only part of her story. Centuries before she was reincarnated in some elaborate supernatural tournament full of enough rules to fill several D&D books, Saber was a young noblewoman named Arturia Pendragon. She united Britain in a time of chaos and strife can see where this is going. But at least she's a fully clothed anime-girl King Arthur.

"Wait," some of you might say. "What's wrong with that? Why can't a story have a female King Arthur to counteract the rampant sexism of Arthurian legend and bullshit chivalry?" Well, that idea would be fine on its own. Yet Saber and Fate/stay night were created for Japan's anime-nerd sector, where pathetic man-children often like to imagine drawings of women as their proxy girlfriends. For evidence, consider that Fate/stay night started out as a "visual novel" PC game in which Saber's magical energy levels are recharged when Shiro, as the player-insertion character, has blushing, awkwardly described sex with her. So she's not just a female version of King Arthur. She's a female version of King Arthur that putrid otaku can vicariously screw.

8) Mr. Merlin

As far as pop culture goes, King Arthur and Lancelot get by easy compared to Merlin, who's been re-imagined in a much more humiliating breadth of fiction. One of the lazier offenders is Mr. Merlin, a CBS sitcom that wasn't around long enough to do much damage. In this trite piece of 1981 TV comedy, the centuries-old Arthurian sorcerer squeaks by as a modern-day mechanic while getting into all sorts of wacky, tiresome trouble with his newly recruited assistant, Zac Rogers, and an eye-candy spirit named Alexandra, who was basically I Dream of Jeannie's title character.

Mr. Merlin doesn't seem quite so bad alongside other things that aired on CBS during those first few years of mourning for the 1970s, but it's a bit cloying in all of its modern alterations. Zac becomes Merlin's new apprentice by pulling a crowbar out of concrete? Merlin has a dog named Arthur? Half the episodes involve love potions? We'd say that early-1980s TV could do better, but it rarely could.

7) King Arthur 

Countless movies emphasize the fairy-tale pageantry of King Arthur and a glorious age that never really existed, so it would seem a good idea to explore the origins of the whole legend in grimly realistic circumstances. If there had been a real King Arthur, perhaps he might have risen to power in the violent, rebellious century of Rome losing its grip on the isle of Britain. Sounds fascinating, right?

Well, here's the first problem: it's all a lie. Arthur Roman-name-icus and his brave, filthy band of warriors may look more realistic than the shiny heroes of Excalibur, and there were indeed wars involving twilight-era Rome and native Celtic tribes, but the whole thing's really one huge what-if instead of a grounded historical approach to the origins of King Arthur.

Here's the second problem: it's just a dreary, clich├ęd movie. Capitalizing on the mud-and-blood battles from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the 2004 King Arthur flick finds the ruler-to-be (Clive Owen) facing ugly political squabbles in a realistically wet and filthy Britain. Everything leads to equally ugly battles, with Guinevere recast as an amazon archer (Keira Knightley) in a medieval sports bra (filled out via Photoshop for the movie's posters). The whole thing plops down in some unconvincing no-man's-land of adaptations; too bowdlerized to teach easily bored middle-school kids anything, too bland and gray to be an unintended comedy.

6) Knightriders

In contrast to the 2004 King Arthur flick, most of the laughs in Knightriders were clearly intentional. An awesome specimen of late-1970s camp that leaked over into the next decade, George Romero's film takes on the most dangerous of Ren Faire pursuits: knights who joust on motorcycles. It's only loosely based on King Arthur, but there's still a cycle-jouster leader, played by Ed Harris in top form, who's trying to keep his troupe together despite a usurper's challenge and a disintegrating relationship with his queen. There's also a Stephen King cameo, a scene where Harris hurls pizza at a weasel-like talent agent, and movie-opening nudity that's hard to forget.

Somewhere in there, you'll see a depressing story of a man failing at something he loves, but we prefer to focus on the armored motorcycle jousting.

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