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Cursed reinvents Arthurian legend in the biggest and smallest ways

On set of Netflix’s fantasy series with creators Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler

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In comic books like Daredevil and The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller wrote subversive superhero stories that became templates for those looking to put a new spin on genre tropes. So of course his curiosity and desire to upend traditional narrative led to Cursed, Netflix’s latest fantasy series. “I always wanted to get into something Arthurian,” Miller admitted on the U.K. set of the series.

Co-created with showrunner Tom Wheeler, and based on their novel of the same name, the show takes both the legendary sword Excalibur and agency away from the future King Arthur and places them in the hands of Nimue, The Lady of the Lake, played by 13 Reasons Why star Katherine Langford. Cursed was born from rather unusual circumstances: Netflix approached Miller and Wheeler and optioned the series adaptation before the book was even finished (and at the time of filming, it hadn’t yet been released). The series and prose versions of the story ended up being developed simultaneously, to somewhat chaotic effect.

“The book was three-quarters of the way done and we were setting up a writers’ room,” Wheeler said, “Frank was still doing his drawings. Hilarity ensued.” Duties of the two creators ended up being divided, with Miller looking after the book, and Wheeler the show, but they worked to keep both entities distinct.

“They’re not identical — because then we wouldn’t be doing justice to either,” Wheeler elaborated, which makes sense considering the show’s already fluid approach to adaptation in its new vision of centuries old legend. Playing strictly by the book in any case would be self-defeating. But there’s still a connection between both, each side of the project revealing things unsaid in the show and vice versa. “I think if you just watch the show, there will be a ton of questions where you’re like, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to go back and sort of mine that from the book.’ If you’re curious, things are revealed in the book that aren’t revealed in the show.” Speaking on his collaboration with Wheeler, Miller didn’t mince words. “He’s a very grounded, logical person, and I am a maniac.”

Nimue and Arthur walk through a crowd of people in a wooded village Photo: Netflix

On the day I visited the set in August 2019, Wheeler was giddy to get cameras rolling. “We’re blowing up several fawns and the Green Knight in the other room and setting them on fire and I dunno what else!” Also planed was a more subdued scene between Arthur and the fawns, a magical race being persecuted and hunted by a fanatical faction known as the Red Paladins. The scene took place in a windmill, as Arthur warns the fawns to take cover as he prepares to leap to their defense. Before that can happen, the Paladins attack and set the windmill ablaze.

Witnessing the scene in action, it became clear that every department on Cursed, not just the writers’ room, was working in contrast to traditional Arthurian adaptation and storytelling. This post modern take on Arthur extends to the man himself, both in casting and in his narrative arc. In the series, Arthur is portrayed by Devon Terrell, a Black actor, and acts in defense of minorities suffering a purge at the hands of traditional institutions. Unlike many a TV fantasy set there’s a number of Black and Brown actors amongst the main cast as well as the extras and tertiary characters.

One thing that couldn’t go away were the swords and sorcery. On set, the show’s armorer was keen to show off the character’s different weapons, from Excalibur (also referred to as the Sword of Power among a number of other names during the series) to Merlin’s curved dagger, even the matching, Celtic myth-inspired hilts of the weapons telling the story of a connection between the two.

A tour of the show’s graphics department tucked away on the set showed just how Cursed pulled from different aspects of British history in both aesthetic and narrative. Designers drew from Celtic history for the Arthurian clan, while also borrowing patterns and texts from old Norse manuscripts, and from medieval France and other parts of Europe. The influences create a connection between the Arthurian clan and the Fey by way of their visual influences, with Celtic designs and the shapes of the natural world influencing their clothing and otherwise. In their homes and habitats, a mix between twisting natural architecture of trees and bone and more traditional Celtic patterns can be found — a stark visual contrast to the more rigid lines and darkened chambers of the Court (here a mixture of Norman castles as reference).

DEVON TERRELL as ARTHUR stands around a war map planning with his fellow kingdom dwellers Photo: Netflix

If the scenes on display and the majority of the sets were any indication (the production prioritized contained indoor shooting spaces over location work), the show’s interest primarily lies outside of the court. The Nimue and Arthur of this story are mostly concerned about the underclass of magical races, rather than representing the Christian ideals of the Round Table. That entanglement with magic is evident in the very construction of the show, from the environments to the design of the sword Excalibur itself — which isn’t as pure as the legends would usually have it. Cursed aims more for the moral grey of popular contemporary fantasy, rather than the traditional chivalry of these tales.

Instead of the traditional supernatural enemies that Arthur faces in the legends (though those are around too), the greatest enemy is man, a choice that aligns Cursed with The Witcher. A lot of the creature design was quite delicate, compared to the black and red menace of the costumes/makeup of the humans. The set work seemed to embody this too; all of the locations held by the heroes were leafy outcrops and Pagan hideaways, while the enemy mostly resided in the dark halls of castles.

The “not so normal people,” known as the Fey, were designed with particular hairstyles and pins as to look naturalistic and one with the earth, rather than alien or foreign. Of course, their appearance still has some historical basis: Both braided hair and clothing patterns, woven with spirals and circles within circles, are an intentional homage to Celtic warriors incorporated into the natural world, like tree bark chest pieces. From a glance, that natural unpredictability has worked its way into the designs for the different races of Cursed and how each interacts with the world. Among those displayed in the workshop were “cliff walkers,” a race of people who gradually turn into stone, snake people with scaly skin, and more humanoid peoples who became one with the natural world in one way or another.

OLAFUR DARRI OLAFSSON as RUGEN THE LEPER KING wearing a ruby red eyepiece Photo: Netflix

Through that design and association with nature, Cursed immediately distances Arthur himself from the chivalric courts commonly associated with his stories and instead making a purge into the very contemporary issue of environmental degradation and destruction. The show’s most interesting twist is the move away from the traditional English, Christian court as a symbol of virtue and honor and towards foreign styles. As well as the fictional castles built on the lot, the crew also scouted locations around England which they would then rebuild within their set. The production turned Waverley Abbey in Farnham into The Hidden Chamber, with matching mouldings and stonework but standing taller and covered in mossy foliage, unlike the crumbling, more barren Abbey of the real world. Unlike The Witcher, Cursed’s approach to magic is less an access to dark powers and corruption than it is a communication with nature itself.

Early runes and cave paintings were used and “heightened” for the show, the designers looking to replicate the bold and graphic illustrations of Miller’s work on the book as well as the work of his past. The comic artist’s work isn’t the sole baseline for the show’s visual identity either; littered amongst the office’s concept boards are images from Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. “We take things we like and make them weird,” said a member of the art department.

That part of their plan for creature and world design was considered universally. Shown another model of the sword Excalibur, this version of the prop with gnarly, twisted metal engulfing the hilt and beyond as it quite literally becomes an extension of the wielder’s arm, an object that’s neither good nor evil, as its ambiguous, multifaceted design would suggest.

That ambiguity, right down to the laws of the show’s design, looks to be a major part of how Cursed sets itself apart from the tales of heroism it’s based on. When talking about the book and illustrated fiction, Miller comments that “the fact that they are illustrated made people think that they are for children,” something that Cursed very much promises not to be. “You won’t walk away from this saying ‘oh how glamourous’,” Miller jokes, “there’s enough violence for the whole family.”

Cursed is now streaming on Netflix

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