The Top 25 Greatest King Arthur Adaptations
Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is entering into the pantheon of Arthurian Legend adaptations. Le Morte d’Arthur (ironically a French publication), is considered by many to be the greatest telling of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but that hasn’t kept creatives from across centuries of art and culture from revisiting a familiar cast of characters and their themes.
Everything from traditional opera to contemporary comic books have dipped their toes alongside the Lady in the Lake to discover the true power of Excalibur. There is something incredibly appealing about a group of exceptional people who might be magic (Justice League, anybody?), who come together to forge one of the most important European kingdoms.
Whether or not your preference runs along the magical lines or the epic hero’s journey there is something in Camelot and Avalon to strike your fancy. Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere and Morgana have, at different times, been iconic for different subcultures – the feminist streak that defines Mists of Avalon readily comes to mind – leaving an interesting door open for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to step into.
In celebration of Charlie Hunnam taking up the mantle of Arthur Pendragon we have curated for you our definitive list of the top 25, greatest King Arthur adaptations.
The Top 25 Greatest King Arthur Adaptations:
Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor gets a bad wrap in the Doctor Who canon. If you haven’t checked out any of his adventures, then Battlefield is a pretty good place to start. The mythology of the crazy man in the blue telephone box is effortlessly married to Arthurian legend by mainly establishing that the Doctor is the man behind the Merlin. King Arthur is held in suspended animation when we first meet him (along with Excalibur), and there are knights from other dimensions. Most of the drama focuses around Mordred and Morgaine recognizing the Doctor and trying to set off a nuclear missile. This is not an adaptation of one of the more traditional legends, but it’s a lot of fun.
Avalon High is a literary triple threat - it exists as prose, manga and a Disney Channel television show. Fans of Arthurian legend can pick their poison here in the Percy Jackson-esque adaptation of the classic mythology. Meg Cabot has penned a story featuring students who are the incarnations of the usual suspects: Ellie Harrison is Elaine of Astolat a.k.a. The Lady of the Lake and is the newbie at Avalon High where she meets Arthur “Will” Jr., Jennifer Gold is the cheerleader answer to Guinevere, Lance Reynolds is Sir Lancelot and Marco Campbell fills the same role that Modred usually populates. The book has a direct tie back into a classic Arthurian poem, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, with a quote at the head of each of the 29 chapters revealing something about the plot that is about to unfold. If you are familiar with that poem then you likely already have a good sense of how this story will play out.
Photo: Harper Teen
A series of novels written by Robert Holdstock that fans of both fantasy and science fiction are going to want to get their hands on. The Merlin Codex takes place over several millennia and expands on the breadth and width of exactly what his magic can do. One of the coolest parts of the books is seeing Merlin interacting with and working alongside Uther Pendragon (referred to as “Urtha” in the text), before he goes on to forge his definitive relationship with Arthur, the son. If you were ever curious about how the most famous wizard of all time would deal with epic figures besides King Arthur, The Merlin Codex is what you’re going to want to be reading.
Photo: Tor Books
Everyone knows that Lancelot is the coolest Knight of the Round Table. He is the only one who could potentially - and sometimes does - challenge Arthur in skill and leadership and even in the realms of romance. First Knight knows this as well and focuses on Lancelot’s rise from the streets of rural Albion to the court at Camelot. He struggles with his romantic love for Guinevere and his platonic love for Arthur, with loyalty to King and Country ultimately winning the day. Richard Gere plays Lancelot loyal to the core opposite Sean Connery’s King Arthur with the best Scottish accent a King of England has ever had. While the film hasn’t aged super well by modern standards, it was both a financial and critical success and worth watching through if you like any of the players - characters or actors.
Photo: Columbia Pictures
The 1960 Broadway musical adaptation of The Once and Future King (which may or may not be appearing further down on this list - gasp!), has lived a life outside of the original context. While it does follow the classic telling of Arthur’s rise to prominence with his typical stable of allies, for many Americans it came to symbolize that Kennedy family - whose time in the White House was often referred to as “Camelot”. Julie Andrew, Richard Burton and Robert Goulet played Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot respectively on the original cast recording, which makes the album worth picking up on its own. It won a handful of Tony Awards and focuses on the classic love triangle, with the three character struggling between loyalty and attraction.
Photo: Warner Bros. - Seven Arts
Mark Twain! The short story that inspired not only a film adaptation starring Bing Crosby as the Yankee, but A Kid In King Arthur’s Court (1995, along with First Knight)! This story is a great romp, particularly for American audiences with fantasies of time travel. It deals with what has now become a time travel trope - the titular Yankee is transported back to King Arthur’s court and his contemporary skills and knowledge of the future immediately brands him as a magician - fireworks are a big part of this. Like the classic tale of Merlin, the Yankee is unable to prevent the death of Arthur and his shortcoming in this matter carries the surprising tragedy in the final act. Mark Twain’s legendary humor is very much on display in this book and the sweeping sadness at the end really highlights his skills as an author. As the idiom goes “the book is always better” and that is definitely the case, but if you want to check out both movies mentioned above I wish you the best of times.
Photo: Washington Square Press
A DC Comics science fiction adaptation of our beloved Camelot mythos. Arthur and Merlin star, as one would suspect, emerging into the year 3000 to find a world very different from the one they built with their friendship and bravery in the past. They collect future incarnation of the Knights of the Round Table to help bring a semblance of order to the future and do battle against Morgan Le Fay and her invading alien army. In addition to being a solid adaptation, Camelot 3000 is well-regarded in the DC Comics canon and among comic book readers, so it’s nice to know that it is just a good comic. If reading isn’t really your jam there is an episode in the second season of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow also titled Camelot 3000 where Sara Lance and her team travel back in time to the original Camelot and discover that Stargirl is living as Merlin and engaged in a romantic relationship with King Arthur. Both are wonderful in their own rights.
Photo: DC Comics
This literary adaptation very much follows the twists and turns of the original Le Morte d’Arthur. What makes it unique is that is was authored by John Steinbeck - the John Steinbeck - with the goal of making the legends more accessible for a modern audience. His intention was to follow in the ancient traditions of Arthurian adaptations by “writing for the time” in “clear and common speech of his time and country”. The intent is be understood and tell the most concise story possible even amidst the magic and the monsters. There is still a good amount of Steinbeck flourish as is becoming of the subject matter, but this book is an easier entry point for a new reader who wants to get all of Arthur, Morgana and Merlin’s greatest hits.
A movie with subtitles! Don’t let that scare you away. French director Robert Bresson’s stunning visuals are leant to the Knights of the Round Table in Lancelot du Lac with the high drama one expects of the period. The film focuses on the complicated romantic bond between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere during Camelot’s winter. The court is not everything that is used to be, which means that they might finally be able to be together … might. What set Lancelot du Lac apart from many of the other Arthurian film adaptations to date is the bleak representation it offers of Albion at the time as it is becoming Britain. The setting is dirty and bloody with a lack of pomp and circumstance that had previously been definitive of Camelot. It is heavily based on the works of French writer Chrétien de Troyes who was the poet behind Lancelot-Grail Cycle that, if you have time, is also absolutely worth checking out.
This comic strip is more popularly known as simply Prince Valiant and fits in among the pulp traditions of Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian more than it does in cape-and-tights storytelling. It ran in Sunday newspapers and, by the end, totaled more than 4,000 strips that told the ongoing narrative escapades of Val, a.k.a. Valiant, who comes to Camelot from the Nordic country of Thule. He befriends and gains the trust of Gawain and Tristan, ultimately leading him up the hierarchy to Merlin and Arthur where be becomes a Knight of the Round Table. The legend of Prince Valiant is presented exactly as that - a legend - with no characters ever speaking, rather the narrative being delivered through narration as if we are sitting around a campfire in the English countryside hearing these told to us by our favourite crazy uncle.
Photo: King Features Syndicate
Famous opera composer Richard Wagner’s take on the tragic love story between Knight of the Round Table Tristan and Isolde, the Irish princess he loves who is betrothed to another man. It is heavily inspired by Wagner’s own love affair and is widely considered to be one of the best operas ever written, and is still being performed to this very day. Tristan und Isolde and the source material from which the opera is derived provides a unique insight into the unstable political relationship between England and Ireland during the period as well as the complicated medieval class system that combine to lead to Tristan’s tragic death. The best part about Tristan’s death is actually that it inspires Isolde’s best aria of the entire piece before she, herself, dies next to her lover. A keen eyed viewer will note the use of night and day for the setting of specific scenes throughout Tristan und Isolde and Wagner based his use of that on Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which he was familiar with at the time of composition. If you want more Tristan and Isolde there is a 2005 film of the same name (pictured) starring James Franco and Sophie Myles that gets the classic plot points right, if not much else.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
The STARZ television series adaptation that only lasted one season. The show is kicked off with the death of Uther Pendragon and the chaos surrounding it. In the wake of England’s recent liberation from Roman rule the necessity for a regime change carries a lot more baggage than is often seen in other interpretations of Arthur’s ascension to the thrones. Joseph Fiennes’ Merlin installs the commoner Arthur based on a vision he has had of the future, and the series pits Arthur against Morgan (Eva Green), who was responsible for their father’s death and wants nothing more than to sit on the throne herself. Camelot is definitely talky in the style of much historical fiction, but there are strong performances in the show that could have led to more if they’d been able to tackle some of the bigger themes from the lore.
Writer Nancy Springer steps into the world of Arthurian Legend, focusing on the magic wielders and what makes them outsiders. I Am Morgan Le Fay sees Morgan’s parents viciously murdered by King Uther Pendragon, leaving Morgan to fight for her own future and decide whether or not she is going to grow up to be the woman everyone seems to fear. I Am Mordred frames a similar tale when Mordred’s father, King Arthur Pendragon, tries to kill him as a baby. Mordred grows up struggling with his own magic and under the shadow of Merlin’s prediction that he will one day kill his own father and bring about the end of Camelot. Both novels stand alone, but I think you’ll enjoy them more as they dovetail.
In this anthology Garth Nix provides new stories with familiar faces from the histories of English literature. There are a few different options in this collection for Arthurian Legend hounds including Under the Lake, which draws heavily from the legends of Avalon. Readers meet the Lady of the Lake and the creatures that dwell underwater with her. Nix provides an interesting examination of the Lady of the Lake’s motive behind giving Excalibur to Arthur Pendragon in the first place and whether or not she should be regarded as salvific. Heart’s Desire takes a look at Nimue - a supporting character in Arthurian lore - and her powerset. She is presented in the context of her compliance with Merlin’s disappearance. Although Nix’s two stories vilify two of the more prominent female magic wielders, which could be viewed as problematic of a contemporary author, they are good stories that appear in Across the Wall and present a separate point of view from the one you may be used to reading.
Photo: Harper Collins
Arthur: the Seeing Stone is a parallel narrative examination of the Legend of King Arthur Pendragon of Camelot and what it actually might have been like for a commoner named Arthur during that same time. In the real world Arthur de Caldicot is a lower class, left-handed, middle child from the March of Whales - this boils down to the fact that he doesn’t have a lot going for him in the world of Medieval England. He winds up wrapped up in the Fourth Crusade as well as family drama that leaves him in not much of a better position than he first found himself. In the reality of the titular Seeing Stone given to Arthur de Caldicot by Merlin he witnesses the life of King Arthur Pendragon surrounded by many people that strongly resemble the inhabitants of his own day-to-day life. Events from the parallel universes begin to mirror each other and this does lead into the events of two follow up books: At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle-March.
Did you ever want to see Helen Mirren play Morgana, Liam Neeson as Gawain and Patrick Stewart playing Leondegrance? If the answer is yes, then you have to watch Excalibur. Although it originally met with mixed reviews, the movie has always been lauded for its strong visual style and has enjoyed the status of cult-classic in the years since its release. Excalibur highlights much of Merlin’s involvement in Arthur Pendragon’s legacy, even seeing him as the puppet master for Arthur’s very existence. Merlin agrees to use his magic to help Uther seduce Igrayne (the wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall and Uther’s uneasy adversary), if he promises to give Merlin whatever comes of their union - and, thus, Arthur is secreted away. This version of the legend deals a lot in predestination at the hands of magic and the power that Excalibur has to bequeath to its wielder. If nothing about that sounds good to you, then I still encourage you to check it out for the beauty of filmmaking alone.
Photo: Warner Bros.
The Broadway adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which may or may not appear further in this list) utterly takes the piss out of all the epic drama and importance that we have weighed upon the Legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table for our entire lives because that is the way we were taught to revere it. Spamalot takes all of the classic sketch bits and jokes that you love from the movie and marries them to parody songs which won it the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical. The Song that Goes Like This is not only a great tune, but when reprised by the Knights of the Round Table it is funnier than ever. Everyone you expect to be lampooned is - and then some! - plus, if you pick up the original Broadway cast recording Tim Curry sings King Arthur and that makes it worth it.
Photo: Decca Broadway
The NBC miniseries that redefined the tale of Camelot for a whole new generation of viewers and starred Sam Neill. Merlin is, as the title may lead you to believe, a retelling of the classic story beats from the point of view of the wizard. It does break quite a bit with tradition by folding in characters like Queen Mab (who is probably most popularly known now for Mercutio’s reference to her in Romeo & Juliet), and other English faerie creatures. This is both a strength and weakness of the miniseries. On the one hand, it is a compelling exploration of how dispirit aspects of folklore could have had a shared existence and Queen Mab’s integration with the Lady of the Lake is one of the better aspects of the show. On the other hand, Queen’s Mab’s servant/gnome Frik is responsible for teaching Merlin many of the skills he would come to be known for and he is a terrible character - silly beyond reason and belying a note that a more comedic tone needed to be achieved. Where Merlin overcomes its budgetary restraints it really is magical and remains one of the most popular adaptations of Arthurian lore to date.
There isn’t much to write about The Sword and the Stone because I can safely assume that if you are reading this list you have, at the very least, seen this film. Disney-fying faerie tales usually works out well and The Sword and the Stone is a case in point. The animation is nothing short of stunning and lends a real sense of magic to Arthur’s apprenticeship under Merlin. Shared influences with Fantasia are present in the animation and visual storytelling to the film’s great success. The usual suspects populate the film and when the iconic moment comes for Arthur to pull the sword from the stone it is sure to capture the imagination of people all over the world. If you haven’t seen The Sword and the Stone you should stop reading right here and go put it on. This movie is probably the easiest access point to the Cliff’s Notes of what makes a King Arthur Story a King Arthur Story.
Probably the best-known Monty Python movie, The Holy Grail is Arthurian Legend as satire with a heavy helping of the slapstick comedy for which the troupe is so celebrated. The focus of the plot is Arthur Pendragon and his squire, Patsy, traveling throughout England to acquire the Knights of the Round Table. Rather than all of the characters being typically capable and exceptional, they are almost all useless and stupid leading to comedic situations and, often, a lot of blood. The infamous Black Knight is not only present as an obstacle to Arthur getting what he wants, but one of the funniest scenes of the entire movie. It is the sort of thing that has to be seen to be believed. The Pythons display a deep knowledge and respect for the Legend of King Arthur and celebrate it heroically.
Photo: EMI Films
Mage is an unfinished comic book series by Matt Wagner. It is a well-respected graphic novel and has won fan awards, and is often featured on lists of the best independent comic books. You can find two or the three volumes in stores now (The Hero Discovered, The Hero Defined), which follow a modern, urban adaptation of Camelot. Kevin Matchstick is this universe’s King Arthur and in place of Excalibur he wields a magic baseball bat that can summon lightning. Kevin is guided through his journey of self-discovery by a wizard named Mirth (Merlin), who presents himself as a crazy homeless person, often leading the reader to draw their own conclusions about just how crazy the things he is saying are. The way that some of the more fantastical elements are woven into the trappings of a modern day city really speak to Wagner’s capabilities as both a writer and an artist. You’ll note that the art does change from volume to volume and that is largely due to the amount of time that passes between their publication. On the one hand that can be very frustrating, but on the other it feels oddly appropriate for someone creating their own modern day epic.
Photo: Image Comics
The Once and Future King is so well-known it made a cameo in an X-Men movie, referred to by Patrick Stewart’s character Charles Xavier. As with several other works on this list it draws the title from a quote from Le Morte d’Arthur: Arthurus, rex quondam, rexque futurus translating to: Here lies Arthur, king once, and king to be. The primary focus in the book is Arthur and his journey from peasant boy to adulthood - par for the course, by this point in the list - what makes it truly extraordinary is the deeper exploration of justice, cause and effect and life and death that runs parallel to the hero’s journey. Arthur is forced to confront some of the biggest and most complicated themes of the human condition before he can ascend to the throne and unite the known world as he is predestined to do. Most copies sold now combine all four books into a single volume making for a dense, albeit satisfying, read. Despite the fact that The Once and Future King is complicated it is well worth spending time with. Be like Professor X.
Photo: Ace Books
Arguably the most well-known contemporary literary adaptation of Arthurian Legend, which inspired not only a series of books all penned by Marion Zimmer Bradley, but a television miniseries as well. Definitely the most feminist lens through which to view these familiar tropes. The Mists of Avalon stars Morgainem a Celtic priestess bent on protecting her matriarchal home from the invading patriarchal Christian forces, as well as Gwenhwyfar, Viviane, Morgause and Igraine who are, traditionally, supporting characters in the greater mythos of Camelot. Bradley takes the stance of building out these iconic women to having complete personalities, talents and responsibilities where, previously, they were renowned for their beauty or their hatred and nothing more. A four part epic, Mists of Avalon was an immediate best-seller and remains so through the present day. That on its own should encourage you to flip through.
Photo: Del Rey
BBC’s answer to Smallville in many ways. Merlin takes all of the characters you know from Arthurian legend and presents them to the viewers as teenagers/young adults. Merlin comes to Camelot seeking protection and learn about his magic (which is outlawed), Arthur is the prince, living under the expectations of his father, Morgana is Uther’s ward (later revealed to be his daughter), who just wants what is due to her as the eldest child of the king who has some magic of her own, and Gwen who is Morgana’s servant and Arthur’s eventual love interest. The show begins with teen drama trappings, although they fall away quickly. As these versions of the characters are allowed to grow and experience more traditionally Arthurian events this show transforms itself into the most thorough contemporary adaptation of the classic stories.
You can get your hands on several different versions of this same story (the first one I read was in a children’s book of faerie tales), but I am going to recommend picking up the poem. The original as far as we know - Lancelot aside - Gawain is probably the most important of the Knights of the Round Table and this poem celebrates him and his abilities the best. Gawain is tricked by the Green Knight into losing a bet and must report to the Green Knight after a year and a day to be beheaded. Demonstrating bravery befitting a Knight of the Round Table, Gawain goes and learns of what trickery led him to this place in the first place. The poem lauds Gawain’s bravery and chides his cowardice. His fall from grace comes under strange circumstances and causes Gawain to question whether or not he is worthy of the position he holds under King Arthur. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is simply excellent in every way and deserves to be read in its original form. If you like knights, check it out.