Monday 19 April 2010

Make this movie, universe! (2): The Once and Future King

Oh, there is nothing as sharp as the pain of the unmade movie. While Hollywood pumps out rehashed drivel, we at the PPCC must sit in silent lamentation that so many classics - Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light! - must remain un-movied, languishing on bookshelves and in our lonely hearts.

Here's another great book that is just begging - BEGGING! - to be made into a film. Or maybe we're the ones doing the begging?

So part of it was made into a film, Disney's Sword in the Stone, which is all fine and well and very nice. But the best part of The Once and Future King, a four-part anachronistic fantasy based on the Arthurian legend, comes later in the story: in particular, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. In other words, it's the adult portions of the book which are the most poignant, the most true, and the most glorious.

"By the way. You remember that argument we were having about aggression? Well, I have thought of a good reason for starting a war."

Merlyn froze.

"I would like to hear it."

"A good reason for starting a war is simply to have a good reason! For instance, there might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings — you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way from saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests by the sword."

The magician clenched his fists, twisted his gown into screws, and began to shake all over.

"Very interesting," he said in a trembling voice. "Very interesting. There was just such a man when I was young — an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people."

Plot: King Arthur, with the aid of the wizard Merlin and his Knights of the Round Table, works hard to eradicate Rule by Might and promote Rule by Right in the violent, rough lands of proto-England. Meanwhile, Arthur's best knight, Sir Lancelot, a self-consciously ugly over-achiever, falls in love with Queen Guenever, who finds him sweet (well, he is!). In addition to this usual soap opera, there is the rise of Mordred, Arthur's alienated, unhappy and incest-begat son, who eventually makes war on the kingdom.

This is all textured with some overt and covert allusions to a Europe freshly out of World War II and the unveiling of Nazi concentration camps. Merlin, in particular, lives backwards and so educates Arthur on the importance of ethical rulers and establishing democracies. Arthur's all, "Yeah, right on!", except that his noble intentions - emphasizing the equality of people when it comes to justice - are often tested when things strike close to home (for example, when he discovers Guenever's totally illegal affair).

The story is, much like Lord of Light, told with a gentle air of deeply passionate humanism. Even the most tragic of situations - Lancelot and Guenever's betrayal of Arthur, Mordred's bile - are portrayed with sensitive humor. And there's a lot of time for musing about justice, family and responsibility. This is much less gory swords-and-armor spectacle, and much more J.L. Carr. We at the PPCC did a lot of laughing, crying and sighing.

If people reach perfection they vanish, you know.

The film: First of all, we need a director whose vision would match the dreamy, whimsical quality of the story - we imagine lots of shots of rolling Cotswold hills, soft breezes, modest Camelots and such.


One option is Terrence Malick, who specializes in making that particular breed of thoughtful, impressionistic films closely wedded to expressive shots of nature. Very Emersonian! And a very good choice for balancing the scenes of Elysium (i.e. the quiet times in Camelot) with low-key, pensive violence (à la The Thin Red Line).

Another option would be Ettore Scola, whose grasp of intricately-layered humanity is unmatched! The heart-sticky bittersweetness of Arthur, Lancelot and Guenever would be well-served by the guy who made the funny-sad love quadrangle in C'eravamo tanto amati.


Now, from about page 1 or so, when Arthur is introduced as a meek "hero-worshipper", a kind of well-intentioned, kinda clumsy, stand-up guy, we thought Kenneth Branagh would be perfect! And indeed Branagh, apart from his Henry V pedigree, has aged into a sort of doughy likability which would suit the adult Arthur well. And who else can capture that vibe of tearful joy than Mr. We few! We happy few! himself?! Or Sir I am Welsh, you know, good countryman?!

Then there's Guenever - "She was pretty Jenny, who could think and feel." Now, we were wracking our brain for a British actress who would fit the bill - Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson (the last two would certainly lend a meta air to things!) - but screw it. Hilary Swank or Laura Linney, two highly intelligent actresses who we just love, would be perfect.


And finally Lancelot! Now Lancelot is tricky, as he's very specifically described to be ugly, but actors, by their definition, usually meet some socially-designated minimum of looking good. Steve Buscemi and John C. Reilly seem to have made careers of the distincteness of their features, but we're actually leaning more and more towards Michael Sheen. Blame it on The Damned United, which was so frickin' amazing. And if he can act odiously obnoxious, he can do Lancelot, in all his self-pitying, sadistic, sensitive complexity.

And the soundtrack? Well, how about hiring those history-minded Decemberists to compose some ballads!? OMG NEW ALBUM!


Ness said...

OH I LOVE THE BOOK SO MUCH...Michael Sheen as Lancelot = GENIUS casting.

ajnabi said...

This book is so wonderful and funny. I highly approve of most of your casting, but I think both your choices for Jenny are too old. Isn't she supposed to be a lot younger than Arthur? I suggest Carey Mulligan. Word Verification has seconded my choice by coughing up "mating" as my characters.

a ppcc representative said...

Ness - Michael Sheen just needs to be in many, many more films, period.

ajnabi - She is! I couldn't think of anyone very young. I didn't know Carey Mulligan, but just read her wiki and she is ADORABLE. She would be perfect, I agree.