Page to Screen: The Mists of Avalon (2001)

The Mists of Avalon
based on the novel The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon is absolutely huge, when it comes to feminist retellings of legends, giving voice and dignity to the oft-maligned Morgaine le Fay. And I mean huge in all senses of the word–not only was its impact huge, but it’s also over nine hundred pages long. When I came across the TNT miniseries adaptation at my school library, I was downright curious about how such an adaptation would even be feasible. So I picked it up.

The Mists of Avalon is the story of Morgaine, who is not an evil sorceress who wishes to destroy Arthur, but his doting half-sister and a priestess of Avalon who is trying to save her religion in the face of encroaching Christianity. The miniseries also focuses briefly on the other female characters, like Gwenhwyfar (Bradley’s preferred spelling of Guinevere) and Morgaine’s aunts, but this is nowhere as in-depth as in the book. The focus is on Morgaine.

The storyline is streamlined for television–some of Morgaine’s complexity in the novel is sacrificed to make her a clearly sympathetic figure. She worries for Avalon and for Arthur, and fights against those who seek to control her–especially her aunt, the Lady of the Lake, Vivianne. In the novel, Merlin is a position held by two different men, but it’s combined into one character here. Otherwise, the story is the traditional Arthurian legend, simply turned inside out. Igraine is tricked into sleeping with Uther Pendragon, Gwenhwyfar (Bradley’s spelling of Guinevere) and Lancelot fall in love, and Mordred is Arthur’s downfall.

The cast is, for the most part, very capable. Julianna Margulies is a deliberate and thoughtful Morgaine, motivated by her desire for protect the Goddess in England and protect her half-brother. Anjelica Huston gets top billing as Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. Huston doesn’t even need to bother with an English accent, and she makes Vivianne a curious blend of earthy and imperious, forever plotting for the betterment of the Goddess, but regretting the human cost. Caroline Goodall’s Igraine is very affecting, a woman trying to be faithful to her husband and who eventually escapes the reach of Avalon and Camelot. Joan Allen’s Morgause functions as the antagonist for the miniseries, although she’s simply vain and power-hungry in the novel. She’s deliciously evil, flashing her eyes, promising power beyond power to her husband, and spurring on Mordred.

Among the men, Michael Vartan as Lancelot and Hans Matheson as Mordred stand out. Vartan’s Lancelot loves Gwenhwyfar, but loves Arthur too much to betray him until the very end, and we see him grow from Morgaine’s teasing girlish crush to a weary warrior. I was surprised to see Hans Matheson in this–you may have seen him recently in Sherlock Holmes as Lord Coward. His startling resemblance to Julianna Margulies aside, his overwhelming hatred for Arthur threatens to make him tremble on occasion, and we occasionally see flashes of regret that are soon steeled over. While Matheson here has a long way to go before Sherlock Holmes, he’s still wonderful.

Unfortunately, Tamsin Egerton, who plays young Morgaine, falls flat in the brief time we spend with her. She overly enunciates her every line, and she emotes poorly. Quite frankly, she works best when Margulies is narrating over her acting. I certainly hope she’s improved since she was little. Freddie Highmore plays opposite her as the young Arthur, and even at that young age, he’s still a better actor than she is. Edward Atterton is a serviceable Arthur, and is at his best in the scene where he talks Lancelot and Gwenhwyfar into a threesome–it’s not about lust, but the increasingly desperate desire on the part of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar to have a child. Samantha Mathis as Gwenhwyfar is quite beautiful and easily crestfallen, but she doesn’t transition too elegantly into the desperate Gwenhwyfar of the later court. A scene where she demands Arthur to tell her that Mordred is not his son falls flat.

Since Mists of Avalon is a primetime miniseries, I was very impressed with how it handled the more complex issues of the novel. Christianity is never particularly demonized, although Igraine takes a swipe at original sin early on. It’s very careful to show how it all can be reconciled, which was very important to Bradley. The miniseries, to my great delight, includes the marvelous ending of the novel, for which I won’t spoil you. It doesn’t shy away from the incest Morgaine and Arthur are tricked into by the Merlin and Vivianne, which takes Morgaine years to get over, hurts Arthur to the bone, and is, in my opinion, the source of Mordred’s hatred for Arthur.

For the most part, the costuming is lovely and period-appropriate. Morgaine’s costume as the Virgin Huntress is especially gorgeous, as are the gowns she wears towards the end. There’s only one glaring exception–the priestesses of Avalon. Their gowns tend to look like cast-offs from the Renaissance Festival. I’m certain half of my RenFest outfit is that crinkled texture. Contrasted against the fairly excellent gowns in Camelot, they definitely suffer. I was relieved when Morgaine ditched a particularly atrocious orange number for a red gown. The makeup artists also appear to be under the impression that aging their attractive cast simply requires beards and scraggly hair, which doesn’t work at all.

The effects are very dated, which is glaringly obvious towards the beginning, but they show up less and less as the miniseries progresses. The miniseries also fails to explain how magic works. While we know it has to exist, since that’s how Uther tricks Igraine, it’s only mentioned again when Morgaine is practicing at Avalon. I think the miniseries may have improved if it was dropped entirely and they had a way to explain Uther’s deception, since they don’t have the time to stop and explain. The music also sounds like a poor man’s Enya crossed with whatever the music was for The Fellowship of the Ring trailer in early 2001–it’s not bad, per se, but it recalls something more epic than itself.

Bottom line: An enjoyable, if dated, adaptation of The Mists of Avalon that streamlines the story for time’s sake and boasts a lovely cast. Worth a rental if you’ve enjoyed the novel.

I rented this DVD from my college library.

6 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Mists of Avalon (2001)

  1. I loved the book and thought the miniseries was OK to good. It missed/skipped a lot of the complexities in the book but you can’t include everything when you’re starting with a 900+ page book. And, yes, the special effects are not so special but overall the cast was pretty good which made up for a lot. I also think it helped that I love all things Authurian so I was able to forgive a lot.

  2. This is one of those books I’ve never read because I have an unreasonable prejudice against retellings of Arthurian legends. If I saw the miniseries first, would it make me want to read the book? Or have the opposite effect, do you think?

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