When Uli Edel accepted the director's role for Turner Network Television's THE MISTS OF AVALON, he knew he was going up against some fairly hardcore beliefs. Fans of the Arthurian legend have very concrete ideals regarding the rise and fall of the Knights of the Round Table, some of which are just plain wrong.
"Most of the movies that deal with King Arthur are set in the 13th century in the High Middle Ages," says Edel. "There was a man named King Arthur, but he lived much earlier. He lived in the real Dark Ages, right after the Romans left Britain, around 600 to 700 A.D."
In other words, of all the movies focusing on Arthur Pendragon, the one that probably represented the environment the best was MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL. The real Arthurian era lacked cleanliness and indoor plumbing, thus translating into a world that Edel and his producers couldn't exactly portray on TV screens.
"We realized why nobody's ever done the real time of Camelot," says series producer Mark Wolper. "The castles suck. The wardrobes suck. It was the Dark Ages, and the Dark Ages don't work well on film."
Unless, of course, you want to see a grand dame of acting like Anjelica Huston parade around in mud, muck and, much worse, draped in animal furs and rags. Therefore, credit Edel and Wolper with being savvy enough to change that one key element of Marion Zimmer Bradley's novel. However, the two did stick to other key elements that should keep hardcore fans of the book (of which there are legion) quite happy.
"We're portraying this from the pagan, female point of view," Wolper says. "Avalon and the pagan world are beautiful and great."
But to be fair, the two didn't exactly dump on Christianity. The older religion is treated as one of incredible power, but also as one where magic is used to satisfy political ends. While the popular religion isn't held up as the ultimate shining path to enlightenment, Wolper and Edel make the faith of "the male god" one where many of the principal women -- not just Gwenhwyear (a.k.a. Gwenivere) -- find refuge and forgiveness.
"The clash of religions was what interested me most about this tale," says Edel. "There was a religion that existed. Most of it was lost because the Druids never wrote anything down. It was a religion that existed for thousands of years. It was only seen from the Christian's standpoint as paganism."
Even so, Edel doesn't make the magic in MISTS appear out of the blue like some cheap horror effect. Like his portrayal of Christianity, the Celtic religion is dealt in more subtle shades.
"I thought the magic in MISTS is less about thunderbolts and more about women's power," says Edel. "The wizard Merlin may create rain with a wave of his hand, but the women's power stems from understanding the weather."
If anything, Merlin and Arthur are treated almost as side characters to the entire tale. Then again, one can argue that is an approach taken directly from the book. The movie basically boils the entire novel down to the scheming of three women. The actual primary voice is that of Morgaine (a.k.a. Morgan Le Fey, played by Julianna Marguiles). She is the niece of two very powerful and ambitious sisters, Viviane (the Lady of the Lake, played by Huston) and Morgause (played Joan Allen). Viviane schemes to wipe Christianity off of her land, while restoring the nation of Avalon and her religion as the primary faith. Morgause sets off to foil Viviane's plans because they don't include her.
However, Viviane is no prize herself (unlike her portrayal in other Arthurian myths). In the initial segment of the series, she kills off Morgaine's father so that her sister, Igraine, marries Uther Pendragon. This wedding produces the legendary Arthur. What Viviane, and her cohort and teacher Merlin, then do to the two siblings leaves Morgaine so outraged she also abandons her aunt.
Suffice it to say that in this version of Camelot, Morgaine isn't quite the black and evil schemer she's made out to be in other versions of the story. Morgause and Viviane more than make up for it.
One other element Edel stayed very true to was the number of romantic trysts that went down throughout all of the politicking. In his interpretation, the entire kingdom of Camelot is brought down by more than just a one-night stand between Lancelot and Gwenivere. On the contrary, the director is smart enough to realize that powerful effect incest has on the entire saga.
"I knew this was a passionate story," says Edel. "The legend of King Arthur is most likely the greatest story in Europe. I think the audience can expect to see King Arthur's story told in a way they've never seen it before."