Adapting a book to film is always a tricky proposition. Adapting a beloved book is asking for trouble. Stray too far from the source material, and you run the risk of incurring the scorn of the book’s fans — possessive, protective fans with their own very definite ideas about how their beloved book should look on the screen.
I shall try to remain calm and rational.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Mists of Avalon revisited a seemingly well-explored world with an unexpectedly fresh eye: it told the tragedy-laden story of King Arthur and his friends and enemies from the point of view of the women involved. Almost by necessity, then — for a genre novel, at least, requires strong, compelling characters who are able to affect the world around them — The Mists of Avalon became a story also about the clash between the old, female-friendly religion of Britain and the new, misogynistic Christianity the Romans brought to the isle. Good Christian wives and daughters do not roam the countryside practicing magic, bedding whom they please, meddling in politics, and starring in novels; the women of the earthy religion of Avalon make for a much more engaging story. They — and the men around them, all caught between the two religions, and between an old world that is dying and a new one that is rising — are passionate people, capable and potent. They are not quaint characters from a watered-down fairy tale.
You see where I’m going, I’m sure.
TNT’s The Mists of Avalon is a watered-down fairy tale peopled with quaint characters. The novel is an enormous work — what it demands is a 13-hour Masterpiece Theater adaptation, one that can take the time to develop the characters’ relationships; the book is a giant, medieval soap opera, after all. It’s much too big, really, for a three-hour movie (four, if you count commercial breaks). But the overly ambitious attempt to squeeze it into such a short running time might be forgiven if screenwriter Gavin Scott and director Uli Edel (The Little Vampire) hadn’t broken the cardinal rule of adaptations: Retain the spirit of the source material. Something will be sacrificed in the transition to the screen, of course — scenes must be cut, characters combined — but the flavor should remain. Here, it doesn’t.
Just about everything that could be wrong with The Mists of Avalon is wrong, and it’s a cascading list of mistakes. The horrendous miscasting, for starters, with actors who are far too old to be portraying their characters might be forgiven if they evinced the tiniest bit of the passion they should ooze; only Angelica Huston (Ever After) as Viviane, the High Priestess of Avalon, and, in a small role, Ian Duncan as Accolon, have any kind of power to reach off the small screen and dare you to look away from them. These aren’t bad actors, not by a long shot, but the indifferent script and the rote direction fails them: ER‘s Julianna Margulies as Morgaine, sister to Arthur and successor to Viviane, and The Contender‘s Joan Allen as Morgause, Viviane’s sister and foster mother to Mordred; Solomon and Gaenor‘s Mark Lewis Jones as Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father… these actors have shown us that they can command our attention. But the script allows their characters none of the elemental power they should have — these are people who swell with the very magic of the earth, old souls for whom life is more than the here and now. There’s nary a hint of that to be found in TNT’s film.
There’s precious little understanding at all, in fact, of what Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel was about, and much of the film seems to actively subvert the novel. The clash of religions in the novel is a quest for domination only on the side of the Christians. Avalon’s struggle to survive is perhaps made more difficult by the fact that that faith is open enough to acknowledge that all gods are the same god; the Christians will have none of that. Is it merely the desire not to offend contemporary religious audiences that this has been ignored? TNT’s adaptation has been thoroughly Christianized, actually, with followers of Avalon wracked with guilt for acts that are not sins (and in some cases are actually sacred) in their beliefs. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t trust the audience to understand the very theme of the work they were adapting: that a spiritual quest is a personal one, and that there are many ways to find god, if you are so inclined to do so.
That’s not a concept Christianity has much truck with. But that’s the point. By leeching their film of any religious meaning, the filmmakers have basically conceded that the battle the novel depicted has been won… and not by its heroines.