Zack Snyder is turning his sights to making a King Arthur movie; here’s how he can make a great one. It was reported earlier that Snyder is developing a “faithful” King Arthur movie. That’s a questionable goal as it’s impossible to have a faithful movie about Arthurian legend because there is no definitive story or bedrock origin for the myth of King Arthur. It’s an amalgamation of various historical eras and narrative genres being added to and invented by various writers in different countries over the span of more than 600 years. Snyder should instead shift his focus not on telling a faithful King Arthur story but a good one, something Hollywood has had problems with in recent years.
Arthurian myth is a well from which the entertainment industry, both film and television, has drawn from countless times over decades. Some adaptations have succeeded, such as John Boorman’s excellent 1981 drama Excalibur, which arguably set the standard for retellings of the Arthurian myth, while others have fallen somewhat short in both quality and reception, especially in recent decades. 2004’s King Arthur was a solid attempt to set Arthur’s origins in his earliest Roman-era historical roots but barely broke even at the box office. 2007’s The Last Legion bombed to the point of losing over $50 million. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was originally hoped to launch a full franchise upon its release in 2017, but that dream died on the vine when it only saw a dismal $149 million box office return on a huge $175 million budget – at least double if you factor in marketing costs. Extrapolating a conclusion from that might lead one to believe King Arthur is a dead IP.
But the Arthurian mythology is vast and varied, and there’s still enormous potential for an incredible movie if only the right screenwriter and director could figure out how best to tap into it. A24’s upcoming The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel as Sir Gawain in a horror-fantasy twist on the medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” is just one intriguing example of the ways in which Hollywood could mine the Arthurian canon to make interesting, engaging adaptations of the old mythology. It’s not impossible to believe there’s still a great adaptation out there. Here’s how Zack Snyder can make sure his King Arthur movie is it.
Granted, it’s hard to know exactly what Snyder means by “faithful,” as his quote was fairly vague: “I’ve been thinking about some kind of retelling, like, [a] real sort of faithful retelling of that Arthurian mythological concept.” Still, as a rule of thumb, it’s important for a filmmaker not to be slavishly devoted to historical accuracy when it comes to retelling the Arthurian legend as there is no one accurate history for the figure of King Arthur.
It’s important, however, for Snyder to make sure he knows exactly in what era he wants to anchor his King Arthur movie and the tone he wants to strike. Most Arthurian legend-based adaptations have been cut from generic cloth, either turning into bland medieval high fantasy, period dramas that have the vague trappings of historical accuracy, or, at worst, a mish-mash of genres and time periods that offers no cohesive feel for the world of the film. Snyder needs to offer something clear and distinct. One of his gifts as a filmmaker is strong worldbuilding and it will serve him well in a movie about King Arthur, provided he grounds it in a relatable foundation.
Hollywood has long been fascinated with the love triangle between King Arthur, his beautiful wife, Guinevere, and his trusty knight of the Round Table, Lancelot. It makes sense; it’s a story that provides an immediate framework for conflict and an easy, three-act arc. It offers the opportunity to built around three of the most famous fictional characters in all of literature and legend. Yet it’s also a story that, by now, feels overdone as it so often seems to be one of the only stories that gets adapted from Arthurian canon. If not that, then it’s the story of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone that is the focus.
It’s entirely reasonable to believe that half the reason audiences haven’t responded well to King Arthur movies in recent years is that they already know the stories. Both the love triangle and pulling the sword, as important as they are to the legend’s overall history, are not the only parts of Arthur’s history worth telling. They are familiar, well-trod narrative paths and there are wilder, more interesting paths to take. Instead of focusing on the two most famous and overdone stories of Arthurian canon, Zack Snyder should focus on some of the less-adapted stories to keep things fresh and interesting. He’d do well to adopt Marvel’s approach of skipping origin stories for well-known characters, such as Spider-Man, instead focusing on getting to the more interesting arcs.
Like most stories rooted in centuries past and written by men, the women of Arthurian legend don’t fare well. Guinevere is painted as an adulterer and the reason for Camelot’s downfall. Isolde is also an unfaithful wife of a king. Morgan le Fay is a treacherous sorceress. Elaine falls in unrequited love with Lancelot and pines away for him until she dies. As Nimue, the Lady of the Lake basically exists as a side-quest to fulfill the stories of men; as Viviane, she’s a villain who ensorcels Merlin and imprisons him in a tree. The other more minor women in Arthurian legend primarily exist to be dutiful wives, mothers, chivalric ideals, or plot devices and, much like the more famous female characters, every sin is theirs, any falls from grace women’s alone to bear. It’s a type of storytelling that can not exist in 2021 and beyond. Any retelling of Arthurian myth, even if one argues the outdated arcs for female characters are rooted in the mythology itself, can not be built around the innate misogyny of the eras in which they were written.
Snyder’s films, for better or worse, tend to primarily be testosterone-driven and male-dominated. Aside from Sucker Punch, Snyder’s films have had few major female characters. He simply has to do better than that if he wants his King Arthur movie to resonate. It’s fair to wonder if another factor contributing to modern Arthurian legend movies receiving lukewarm receptions is that there’s little in them for female audiences who already know women won’t be centered and if they are, their storylines will be problematic.
Snyder would be wise to look to TV to find ways to adapt the characters of Arthurian legend that do right by women. Netflix’s Cursed focuses on Nimue’s origins as the magical creature of Arthurian legend and makes her the heroine of the story. BBC’s Merlin series wisely all-but-sidestepped Guinevere’s infidelity, pinning it to her being under a spell from Morgana and it amounting to just a single kiss before Guinevere fights off the spell. Snyder would be equally as wise to find a female screenwriter to pen the script, or at least to co-write with him.
The figures of Arthurian legend often run into the “mythic figure” problem, and thus, so do their movie adaptations. Mythic heroes and villains are not fully-developed characters so much as ideological concepts, less complex figures and more character sketches meant to be the avatars of certain quintessential virtues. For this reason, it’s rare that movies based on Arthurian legend have well-rounded characters, focusing less on character development and more on hitting familiar story beats.
To get an audience on board, Zack Snyder will have to make moviegoers care about the characters. Character development can’t be sacrificed at the altar of clashing swords and big fight sequences; it has to be the other way around. Audiences won’t ride or die with a character until their loyalty has been earned, a fact most movies about King Arthur tend to forget, instead mistakenly believing that character development can be bypassed with the shorthand of action set pieces. Snyder loves mythologic structure, particularly the symbolic elements. If he wants his Arthurian legend movie to succeed, however, he has to fight his natural instinct to shape characters as myth and instead shape them as people. Well-rounded, complex, relatable people.
It’s a big ask to create a movie about King Arthur that will be relevant and resonate with modern audiences. Truth be told, Snyder has the potential to be both the key and curse to his own project. His innate understanding of mythological beats, epic action, and male power fantasy can serve an Arthurian story well, provided he balances it with smart, modernized storytelling, well-developed characters, and quieter, intimate moments. If Zack Snyder can crack that code, he has the chance to make one of the best movies about King Arthur in decades.