When some new adaptation arrives on the large, small or computer screen it’s usually fairly simple to examine the new creative direction, textual changes and/or vast deviations from the source material – but when it comes to Cursed on Netflix, the process is slightly more complicated.
Of course, you can compare the series directly to the illustrated novel it’s based on - but when it comes to the Arthurian myths it’s playing with there is no definitive source material, no Urtext waiting out there for a direct comparison. The legend of King Arthur has been told and retold over centuries if not millennia, with the version we know consider as the "proper" story – Merlin, Lancelot, the sword in the stone and so on – only codified in the middle ages.
Basically, King Arthur’s story was the original reboot-friendly franchise (albeit copied onto parchment by monks instead of argued about on reddit), making it difficult to say what the "correct" version of the story is. For example, if we’re being completely pedantic any King Arthur stories that feature Lancelot or Merlin are a betrayal of the older stories, with those characters only added in (essentially crossing over from separate legends, like Spider-Man joining the MCU) later on.
In other words, yes, it’s hard to be too strict with adaptations of Arthurian legend. What we can do is look at what Cursed does new, or how it compares to the most familiar, traditional telling of the story – as well as note how it tries to set up the later myths.
"The way I put it is that the Arthurian legend's like this big story - and Cursed is a chapter we've never seen before," star Katherine Langford told RadioTimes.com. "And in that sense it's quite liberating and freeing because it's a fresh slate."
So what new ideas does Cursed bring to the (round) table? Well…
Nimue/The Lady of the Lake
The Lady of the Lake is one of the less explored characters in Arthurian canon, with the magical figure usually just emerging to present Arthur with his sword Excalibur early in his adventures.
A more explored and separate character - also sometimes known as a different Lady of the Lake (yes, it’s confusing) - is Nimue, a sorceress who is sometimes an ally, sometimes a foe of King Arthur and his Knights in different retellings of the story.
"We grow up innately familiar with this Arthurian legend, and it's one of the oldest and most well-known legends that we have," series star Katherine Langford told RadioTimes.com.
"When we think of the Arthurian legends we think of Arthur, Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table. But we don't really know a lot about the other characters in that legend. Specifically this powerful, iconic character of the lady of the lake - she is so prolific and yet we have very little to no information about her."
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In Cursed, Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller combine Nimue and the Lady of the Lake to create Katherine Langford’s Nimue, a member of a Fey tribe called the Sky Folk with special magical powers who ends up leading a revolution against the various kingdoms and religious orders who are trying to destroy her people.
This Nimue isn’t yet a villain, or a mute woman in a pond, but she does have Excalibur – and instead of just gifting it to someone else, she’s using its power for herself.
"I would say for me, I was drawn to this idea of a young woman, a young person standing up to these overwhelming forces," co-creator Tom Wheeler said.
"To be able to retell a story that has been retold hundreds and hundreds of times through a lens that's completely fresh, that's an incredible opportunity, and something I feel very proud of in the version we've given," added Langford.
You can check out our history of the Lady of the Lake character here. In future series, it seems likely Nimue will take on her more traditional role – because if nothing else, there’s another rival for ownership of her sword…
As played by Devon Terrell, Cursed’s version of the Once and Future King isn’t the fated Chosen One set to rule over Camelot – at least not yet. Instead, this Arthur is a mercenary who falls into Nimue’s orbit, only briefly possessing Excalibur (he steals it) before redeeming himself and becoming one of Nimue’s most trusted lieutenants.
"We know how the story ends...most likely," Terrell told RadioTimes.com. "But I'm excited to tell this, before the legend started. Who is this person going to become?
"There's so many different versions of [Arthur]. For me it's a really nice way to find this character within Nimue's story. Because we're not having to see the leader from day one. We're seeing him grow as a man. We're seeing him fall in love, his relationship with his family."
Speaking of family, one major change from traditional tellings of the character is that Arthur is not the son of King Uther Pendragon, instead trying to redeem a drunken soldier father (who dies before the series begins) while Uther is presented as a younger, separate figure.
"It also goes away from Uther and his father... King Uther is usually his father in the stories" Terrell said.
"So it's a very different story. But I think young audiences are going to forget about that all very quickly. They're gonna be like 'what's this Cursed thing?' I'm excited for audiences to have their interpretation."
Still, some family ties remain. As in traditional versions of the legend, Arthur was raised by Sir Ector (though here, he’s a disgruntled uncle with little time for his nephew), and his sister Morgana (aka sometime baddie Morgan Le Fay) also has a role in the series that we won’t spoil here.
Perhaps most crucially of all, Arthur has a romantic relationship with Nimue in the series that is not previously set up by any myths and legends - though given that the King eventually marries Guinevere, their relationship may be doomed...
Gustav Skarsgård’s take on the legendary wizard is rather different from the popular perception of a white-bearded old magician – though as the actor notes, it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of variations on the character before.
"Merlin is already quite open for interpretation," he told us. "The legends themselves are different. This is a myth built on a myth built on a myth from the very get go. So there's already been so many different interpretations."
With that said, Skarsgård added that Cursed’s Merlin – an alcoholic who’s lost his magical abilities before the series begins, forced to rely on his wits and connections instead – did still seem like a fresh take.
"It's already such a bold interpretation on the page," the former Vikings star said. "That's what attracted me to the project in the first place. Here we have a Merlin who's an alcoholic, who's a cynic who's lost his magic, and that's where we pick him up - in sewage somewhere. We've never seen anything like it before."
In other words, this is a new Merlin for a new generation. Even his beard is a lot shorter…
Other Knights of the Round Table
Cursed has a habit of dramatically unveiling its characters as versions of iconic Arthurian characters throughout its 10 episodes, and at this early stage it’d be a bit of a spoiler to reveal exactly who turns up.
However, it’s no secret that Matt Stokoe appears early on as Gawain, a future member of Arthur’s round table who in Cursed works as a freedom fighter for the Fey.
While Gawain isn’t as renowned as a figure like Lancelot or Galahad, he’s one of the biggest characters in Arthurian literature, and stars in the well-known poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (also soon to be adapted as a film starring Dev Patel), which sees Sir Gawain seeking out a duel with a vast (and verdant) supernatural being.
Cursed turns this slightly on its head, with Gawain himself taking on the mantle of The Green Knight as something of an alias for his revolutionary activities. The rest of his backstory – including his relationship with Nimue and connection to the Fey – is largely invented for the book and series.
How does Cursed compare to the Cursed book?
Of course, there is one piece of source text we can directly compare the series to – the book Cursed, released by Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller in 2019, upon which the new Netflix drama is based.
Unusually, the illustrated novel’s creators also adapted their work for the screen, meaning a great chance for fidelity to the text – though they admitted that in shifting mediums from page to TV, they’d still had to make changes.
"Frank and I were able to continue the storytelling process, and the discovery process, uninterrupted, directly into the 10-episode series," Wheeler told TV Insider.
"As we began to break down the book chapters and images and shape them into episodes, some events shifted back or were moved forward. Plus, we found avenues and opportunities to expand on the world and our characters’ backstories. This will be most noticeable as it relates to Arthur, Morgana and Sister Iris [Emily Coates].
"We were conscious not to contradict the novel, but we did try to fill in areas the book had not fully explored."
He added: "One character’s life was spared through the passionate lobbying of the writers!"
So sounds like there might be a few surprises for fans of the book as well…
Cursed is streaming on Netflix now