Not Actually ‘The Winter King’ But Certainly A Crushing Disappointment

It’s been years since I read Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles upon which MGM’s new Arthurian drama The Winter King is—supposedly—based. The first book in the trilogy goes by the same name: The Winter King, much like HBOs Game Of Thrones is based on the title of the first book of A Song Of Ice And Fire.

Beyond that, the TV series is all but unrecognizable as an adaptation of the books.

Granted, it’s been years since I’ve read the books, but even so, had I not known what this show was I doubt I would have realized it was based on Cornwell’s work. Unlike The Last Kingdom, which was made with some stubborn faithfulness to Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles, MGM’s adaptation—a word I use with increasing looseness these days—seems to want merely to borrow the name and be done with it.

Cornwell’s books are about Arthur, though not the typical King Arthur legends we’re familiar with. His work is grounded in the historical reality of Britain in the Dark Ages, after the Romans have fled; as the first Christians are appearing. Warring tribes squabble over land. While Arthur is a myth, Cornwell’s work is grounded in Welsh history. The warfare of the time, the culture, the superstitions, all of it is grounded in historical accuracy even as the story itself is obviously fiction.

Even the magic is left up for interpretation. Is Merlin truly capable of casting spells and calling forth powers from beyond, or are we merely seeing things through the eyes of the people of the time who believe it to be so? Cornwell is a talented writer, and always leaves this question hanging just out of reach.

MGM’s version of this story—one episode in—is a messy, Hollywoodized concoction that runs roughshod with the plot and tries harder to be a new Last Kingdom than its own story. If I’d been tasked with adapting The Winter King and its sequels into a show, I would have started the first episode out with an old monk, regaling us with stories of his youth. This, of course, would be the elder Derfel, who is the main character in the books, and who recounts to readers the stories of Arthur and Merlin and Nimue and Morgan and Lancelot and all the rest.

Then again, had I been put in charge of this adaptation I would have stuck to the actual text. The diversity here feels inauthentic, for one thing. The racial tensions that this story deals with are largely between Britons and Saxons and Silurians and so forth. It is frankly bizarre to have black people among each of the warring clans, as though Briton and Saxon are very important distinctions but being black or white is not.

I would have made Sagramor black, because in Cornwell’s book the knight is Numidian and a veteran of the Roman Army, and quite literally the only black person anyone has ever seen, which is a unique and interesting aspect to his character that helps enrich the world and story. I would have expanded this character to make him more important for the show, because I think it’s a great opportunity to have some organic diversity here that wouldn’t feel so historically inauthentic. (Give him more backstory, a family etc. there are many ways to expand a character in an adaptation that don’t muck up the larger story).

Merlin, however, being an elder of the Welsh people would look like the vast majority of Welsh people at the time. Indeed, if I were in charge of this adaptation—and in many ways this is far more important than skin color—I’d have made Merlin an old, grouchy, lecherous prick, not some kindly, gentle advisor tending to the hippie commune, Avalon (Ynys Wydryn in the books, but Avalon is more recognizable and easier to pronounce so that’s out!)

The Warlord Chronicles do not feature a strong, young Merlin with a gregarious demeanor, black or white. He’s old and bent, impatient, suffers no fools, and is on a holy quest to restore the old gods to the land at any cost. Why anyone would take such a terrific character and make him so utterly bland is beyond my understanding. I suppose young and handsome sells more tickets, and certainly Nathaniel Martello-White is both those things. He looks rather more daunting than either Arthur (Iain De Caestecker) or Derfel (Stuart Campbell). Give the man a sword and some armor!

(P.S. I discussed at length elsewhere why I have a problem with this kind of forced, tokenistic diversity and how there are better ways to tell diverse stories especially with historical fiction. If you’re interested, you can read that in my discussion of the show’s trailer. I will add here, however, something I just thought of: Imagine if in the adaptation of Outlander, many of the Scots Claire encounters had been black. That would have felt inauthentic! And when she and Jaime later encounter slaves in the Americas, that entire moment would have been far less powerful).

There are so many other problems. Derfel’s wig makes every other TV wig look good in comparison. Dear god it is bad. Derfel himself is not a very interesting character at all (yet, anyways) or perhaps I am simply not feeling the actor. Or maybe it’s just the wig. His relationship with Merlin’s apprentice, Nimue (Ellie James) is more confusing than compelling.

The entire scene where Uther beats Arthur near to death is just completely fabricated, added to the show for reasons. Same with Arthur saving the Saxon boy, Derfel, from a death pit (the death pit is in the books, Arthur being the hero to save him is—unless I am badly mistaken—not).

Adaptations do need to make changes to the source material in order for words to leap from page to screen. I accept and understand this. But the first goal should be faithfulness to the original source material. Otherwise, what is the point of adapting it in the first place? If it’s considered good enough (or popular enough) to adapt, then you have the entertainment factor taken care of already. Focus on faithfully adapting the material and making changes only when necessary. Consider this exchange between George R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman when asked about adaptations:

Martin: “How faithful do you have to be? Some people don’t feel that they have to be faithful at all. There’s this phrase that goes around: ‘I’m going to make it my own.’ I hate that phrase. And I think Neil probably hates that phrase, too.”

Gaiman: “I do. I spent 30 years watching people make ‘Sandman’ their own. And some of those people hadn’t even read ‘Sandman’ to make it their own, they’d just flipped through a few comics or something.”

Martin: “There are changes that you have to make — or that you’re called upon to make — that I think are legitimate. And there are other ones that are not legitimate.”

MGM and showrunners Kate Brooke and Ed Whitmore appear to be making The Winter King “their own” and that’s a damn shame. Something tells me Bernard Cornwell is better at this, and perhaps his stories deserve more faithful stewards.

I love these books and consider Cornwell to be one of the best in the historical fiction business. I am overcome with disappointment at how terrible this show is so far. To me, this is far more crushing than the abysmal Wheel of Time adaptation on Amazon because I don’t much care for Robert Jordan’s writing. But Cornwell is a master wordsmith, and all they had to do was use his material. Instead, we get this.

The arrogance of it! The sheer arrogance!

#Winter #King #Certainly #Crushing #Disappointment

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