There are a very few characters in the history of mankind who have captured the imagination of so many creators – writers, artists, musicians and auteurs. King Arthur for his leadership of Britain in the late 5th Century is one such figure who has inspired a plethora of work based on him. At a time when heroic literature flourished in England, reminiscent of the great wars fought and the personalities who fought them, there existed an entire collection of work dedicated only to King Arthur, now called Arthurian Literature.
Among the best known works of Arthurian literature is Sir Thomas Malory’s mammoth compilation of the entire life of King Arthur titled Le Morte d´ Arthur (meaning the death of Arthur), published in 1485. The book, for the sheer weight of its exhaustive compilation and accuracy went on to be the base research work for most of the Arthurian literature that followed. Apart from books, the compilation by Sir Malory also inspired a host of movies. Among them was the 1981 fantasy film Excalibur produced and directed by the English film maker John Boorman.
In this essay, we compare and contrast Le Morte d’ Arthur with Excalibur and discuss why the movie version is an apt recreation of the legendary compilation.
Le Morte d’ Arthur – An Epic Compilation
Le Morte d’ Arthur, among all of its pluses, will remain significant for the weight of research that went into its making. For a work to grow to the stature of being considered an authority on a particular subject is not easy; particularly, when the subject is the life of King Arthur, beset with opinions and interpretations. Sir Malory’s work stands out for the equipoise of his language and for the meticulousness of his compilation. The story of King Arthur is not just of historic significance but has lessons for the generation today. Le Morte d’ Arthur seems to have been written by a writer well aware of these repercussions. In that he seems to have displayed a Shakespearean foresight. The next few sections discuss the differences between Sir Malory’s work and John Boorman’s adaptation from two perspectives – the first from the mere plot differences angle and the second from a deeper point of view of arts .
Le Morte d’ Arthur and Excalibur - Plot Differences
Before reflecting on the finer aspects of the movie vis-à-vis the book, one needs to contrast the primary differences in the two plots itself. The first major deviation in the movie Excalibur is the use of an only sword (Excalibur) instead of the two in the book. Secondly, the movie takes a different stance in as far as the relationship between Arthur and his son Mordred is concerned. While the book talks of a father initially ready to give his son the land and only later do the two fights occur, the movie shows an Arthur not ready to part away with the land from the very beginning. The movie also cuts down on one of the two fights between the father and his son.
Why Excalibur is a Valorous Tribute?
Secondly, while there exists a large body of work on Arthur, many of which differ with each other in interpretation, John Boorman sticks to Le Morte d’ Arthur. While keeping most facts intact, Boorman gets across his interpretation of Arthur as a man who was dedicated the land he ruled till his very end. Boorman’s work is important because in the context of the early eighties, when the film was released, the world needed some insight into great leadership and Boorman chose the greatest of legends to provide that. Critics have gone ahead to call Excalibur the richest of the recreations of the Arthurian legend .
Among the other good facets the movie brought to the legend was giving Arthur and Merlin recognizable and apt faces in the form of Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson respectively.
A Note of Film Adaptations of Books
Most movies are adapted from written texts. This is because a movie as a concept and a process involves translating a written story or text into images. That said, movies adapted from established and famous novels or books have often disappointed. The charm of a good adaptation lies in the fact that the film maker gets his own personality into the original book and there in changes the very interpretation of the work. The movies go on to give a recognizable face to the characters idolized in print. In both these areas Excalibur clicks as a solid film adaptation.
It is apparent that the magnanimity of no written compilation can be recreated as-is on screen. What a film maker can best do is adapt the work to the modern context and keep the spirit of the book intact. In Excalibur, John Boorman does just that. In his attempt to bring a mammoth literary work into three hours of the silver screen, Boorman ends up paying a valorous tribute to Sir Thomas Malory’s legendary Le Morte d’ Arthur.
Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Film Review: Excalibur. 22 April 2013
Taylor, Patrick. Le Morte d'Arthur. 22 April 2013