Most of us are familiar in some way with the legend of King Arthur and Camelot if only in parts and parcels: Merlin, Excalibur, and Lancelot are more or less household names where the lady in the lake, Morgana, and Sir Gawain takes more than just a passing knowledge to recall. My own memories of the story come from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, the musical Camelot, and John Boorman’s Excalibur.
What I loved most about these adaptations is that they all took the same basic elements but interpreted the story in their own way. This is a tale that has been told and retold since the twelfth century and has been passed through enough quills, typewriters, and keyboards to move it into the arena of conjecture. Arthur may or may not have existed, which makes his legend all the more pliable. The reinterpretation of old stories is at the very heart of storytelling itself; it is not as if Beowulf has been passed down verbatim since Seamus Heaney knows when. I once remember seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello where the antagonist Iago was only an emotion.
Starz, along with Tudors producers Michael Hurst and Chris Chibnal start the story off with a clean slate; Uther Pendragon is king, and Arthur is still a boy blissfully unaware of his royal heritage, but of course dark events unfold and Merlin (played by Joseph Fiennes in the most interesting bit of casting in this series) must yank Arthur from his quaint existence and reveal to him his destiny. Besides going away from the Father Time look for Merlin, there are a few other nuances that I will not spoil for you here. I will say that there is a lady in the lake, and Arthur still loves Guinevere, but none of this happens how we remember it. Costumes, production design, and the like are adequate, though without the budget of Game of Thrones and the acting is fine with only Joseph Fiennes standing out for me.
But what we really want most with this series is not an epic blockbuster budget, because the real deal is and has always been with Camelot the mystique, its people and their relationships, and the hopefulness and tragedy of their plight. The story has been updated to satisfy our 21st century bloodlust (and regular lust as well) but with savvy and patience that gives us just enough to leave us wanting. With this Camelot we have a wonderful sense of an unfamiliar familiar story and a revamped nostalgia for its present course.