Entertainment

In Netflix's 'Cursed,' King Arthur Takes a Backseat in the Retelling of His Legend

Comics legend Frank Miller and producer Tom Wheeler on giving Nimue, more famously known as the Lady of the Lake, the stage (and the Sword of Power).

cursed netflix king arthur lady of the lake
Netflix

Netflix's Cursed drops audiences back into the familiar medieval world of King Arthur, where one magical sword was once jammed into a big stubborn stone. But while the series' first 10 episodes, which drops Friday, does feature iconic characters like Arthur and Merlin the Magician, the hero isn't either one of these men. Instead, the program follows a young fey girl named Nimue (played by 13 Reason Why's Katherine Langford) who takes on a journey of self-discovery while battling to stay alive and retrieve the Sword of Power.

Who's Nimue? You may know her from the Arthurian legend as the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious woman who raised Lancelot and gave Arthur his sword. In Cursed, Nimue doesn't live in a lake -- at least, not yet. But there are visual hints to her story origins and her tragic future. 

There are a handful of other noteworthy details that make Cursed a series worth paying attention to, one of which being the involvement of Tom Wheeler (Puss in Boots, The Lego Ninjago Movie) and Frank Miller, the co-creators of the graphic novel of the same name. Yes, we're talking about the Will Eisner Hall of Fame winner Frank Miller: the comic book writer and artist responsible for the likes of Sin City, 300, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and so many others. With his involvement, you can pretty much expect the show, which is firmly rooted in the YA category of genre entertainment, to go dark. And trust us, it does.

The inclusion of Vikings alum Gustaf Skarsgård, who brings a more tortured and disturbed version of Merlin to life here, and Ozark's Peter Mullan's sinister Father Carden -- the leader of the murderous religious zealots known as the Red Paladins -- keeps the edge of this series relatively sharp. The diversity of the cast is also worth highlighting: young Arthur is played by Devon Terrell, the actor who portrayed young Barack Obama in the Netflix biopic Barry, and Morgana le Fay's ethnicity and sexual orientation are flipped here.

When you lump all these details together, it feels like a no-brainer that Netflix would put the project on the fast track. The pair didn't just co-create the book, but the series, as well -- and they did both at the same damn time. 

What makes these two men -- one a seasoned producer, the other a legend in the comic book world -- qualified to bring such a story to life? Thrillist sat down with both men to ask that very question, among many others, including topics like the complicated process they went through in bringing two versions of the story to life simultaneously; the balance the show strikes between family-friendly entertainment and its more ultraviolent parts (a topic that irks Frank Miller to no end); and the timely cultural issues they explore in medieval England.

cursed netflix katherine langford
Netflix

Thrillist: Am I correct in saying you both developed the graphic novel and the Netflix series at the same time? How complicated was that process?
Tom Wheeler: The circumstances were unique. There was no master plan. I mean, the book alone was an enormous undertaking and one that, as a lifelong Frank Miller fan, I was just thrilled to tackle this world and the sandbox of characters and legends with the living legend and see his artwork and all of that. So the book was very much its own thing. 

Would you consider these two stories on these two mediums companion pieces?
Wheeler:
It was a very unique opportunity to tell a story on two different platforms. And I think the way it was unfolding lends itself to a continual kind of revision; you're just getting to know the story better. Because we're the creators of this work, we were continuing to discover things and wanted to explore new things. So there is, I would say, content in the show that is unique to the show, but it doesn't contradict the book. And there's a relationship that a reader will have with these characters in the book that is uniquely intimate, that, you know, will kind of be its own experience. We were careful not to contradict ourselves. They very much kind of can live on their own and there are some storylines that are unique to the show.

The show is a lot more bloody than I expected. How do you strike the balance between the expectations that come with a YA narrative with the more gritty Game of Thrones style and medieval action that is also depicted in the show?
Frank Miller: The whole dance from something that is children's [entertainment] to something that is adult to something that is Young Adult is a dance that I really have no love for at all. I think it's a silly dance and I think the work finds its own audience. All I know is that I read many children's books and watched so many cartoons and I don't see anything that goes beyond what I saw in Johnny Quest

Wheeler: Nimue is a character being chased through a very brutal violent world. And yeah, we never approached it from any kind of level that it will be for this age, but not for this age. Like, we really just told the story carefully not to create so much content that completely eliminates certain audiences. [I don't] think we could tell Nimue's story honestly, if it wasn't jarring and brutal and conveyed what she was going through. 

Miller: I'd add that the legend of King Arthur serves no purpose, whatsoever. It's completely irrelevant unless there was a world of darkness and chaos that's needed. And so you need a dark, scary, terrifying world ruled by demons and dictators for there to be any purpose for King Arthur to exist, let alone stand out.

cursed netflix peter mullan
Netflix

As two white dudes behind this female-focused story, what steps did you take to keep your male gaze, if you will, in check?  
Wheeler:
I felt an obligation, or an opportunity, to introduce my daughter to this mythology who was 10 or 11 at the time that we started talking about this. And the idea of bringing a female hero who can walk in the path that just only men had [walked] in this mythology that I grew up loving was something that I wanted for her. As we got into the room, it was really important to get a woman's perspective and I would say, the room represented that. Our writers Rachel Shukert (Smash), Leila Gerstein (The Handmaid's Tale), Janet Lin (The Orville), but also our block one directors, like Zetna Fuentes (Jane the Virgin), who had been defining the world, casting the world, and you know, her rapport with the actors was critical. The heads of most of our departments were women, whether it was production designer, costumes, or makeup. It's important to absolutely have that perspective and it was vital throughout to make sure that Nimue's point of view was on point.

There are a lot of timely issues being explored in the series, from gender politics to religious oppression to the persecution of minorities. What are you hoping audiences will take away from the show once they're finished with the season?
Wheeler:
I think that it's hard to work on something and not be impacted by what's going on in the world. We're telling a story about displaced people and the bigotry that arises when people are forced from their homes and become these sort of targets for blame for these problems. It's a story that has been around for a thousand years, but people have applied different kinds of narratives to it, and different sorts of themes to it. But it's relevant for reasons that are personal to the character: It's about seizing your destiny and taking on responsibility, it's about finding the light in a kind of barbaric world and seizing civilization out of that. These things are part of that time. But they're also part of today and I think that fantasy and genre storytelling are sort of perfect ways to illustrate that. 

Another way Cursed is different than the classic Arthurian stories is that you have a well-rounded diverse cast playing some iconic characters here that have previously only been portrayed as white. Was that always the goal? 
Wheeler:
That was really the whole drive. This story had to reflect the world. We did not close any doors to who we were looking at for these roles. I don't feel like you can watch [Devon Terrell's] performance and not just feel like this is our King Arthur through and through. There are accounts that -- even though this is a fantasy story -- the world of history was a more diverse world than we've seen before. And I just think that should be reflected in the storytelling.

Are you at all worried about getting blowback from the die-hard King Arthur fans since Cursed deviates so much from the mythology?
Miller:
Wait, are you asking if we're afraid that people will talk about this show? I mean, I'm terribly afraid that people will be talking about this show.

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Aaron Pruner is a contributor to Thrillist on Twitter @aaronflux.