A young fey woman with magical gifts finds herself hurtling toward a tragic destiny in Cursed, the latest re-imagining of Arthurian legend, this time from the perspective of the Lady of the Lake. The 10-episode Netflix series is an adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name, written by Tom Wheeler and illustrated by none other than the legendary Frank Miller (Sin City, 300, The Dark Knight Returns).
(Only the mildest of spoilers and no major reveals below.)
As we reported last month when the trailer dropped, the YA novel was published last year by Simon & Schuster—with eight full-color and 30 black-and-white original illustrations, making it a collector’s item for diehard Miller fans. Wheeler is a well-known screenwriter, producer, and showrunner, with such credits as Empire (ABC) and The Cape (NBC), as well as the Oscar-nominated Puss in Boots and The Lego Ninjago Movie.
The subject matter might seem like an unusual choice, particularly for Miller, whose large body of work has dealt with darker, decidedly adult themes. But Miller is no more immune to the power of Arthurian legend to ignite the imagination than the rest of us, first falling in love with the stories when he saw Walt Disney’s animated Sword in the Stone (1963) in his youth. “This has always been a mythology and a storyline I’ve been fascinated with,” he told Ars.
Wheeler, too, had long dreamed of coming up with a fresh angle on Arthurian legend and leapt at the chance to work with Miller on the project. “Arthurian legend is the original fantasy world, impacting everything from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings,” he told Ars. “So the idea of playing in that sandbox and seeing these characters through a Frank Miller lens was ridiculously appealing to me. It freed us up to think about these characters in new and dynamic ways. We definitely wanted to bring something original to the party.”
They certainly had a rich trove of material to mine for their project; there are so many different legends relating to the central character, spanning centuries. And since Arthur’s origins have been the focus of most popular-culture interpretations, Wheeler and Miller chose to focus instead on the Lady of the Lake, most commonly known as Nimue in the lore. (There are many variants, both in the spelling of the name and with regard to the character, since writers have been inventing new Arthurian stories for centuries.)
“We thought we could approach this through the eyes of a young woman, seizing her destiny and wielding the sword herself,” said Wheeler. “I haven’t heard that version of this story.”
Wheeler and Miller finished writing and illustrating the book as they were developing the series, and they served as executive producers on the latter. So this is less a typical TV adaptation of the YA novel than a cross-pollinating collaboration, with book and TV series development feeding into each other.
Per the official premise:
Based on the New York Times bestselling book, Cursed is a reimagining of the Arthurian legend, told through the eyes of Nimue, a young woman with a mysterious gift who is destined to become the powerful (and tragic) Lady of the Lake. After her mother’s death, she finds an unexpected partner in Arthur, a humble mercenary, in a quest to find Merlin and deliver an ancient sword. Over the course of her journey, Nimue will become a symbol of courage and rebellion against the terrifying Red Paladins, and their complicit King Uther. Cursed is a coming-of-age story whose themes are familiar to our own time: the obliteration of the natural world, religious terror, senseless war, and finding the courage to lead in the face of the impossible.
The Wheeler/Miller take is an inventive remix of some of the key elements and characters from Arthurian legend. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) stars as Nimue, who is viewed with suspicion by her own fey people, thanks to a mysterious childhood incident that left her scarred. The show also stars Devon Terrell (Barry) as Arthur, a mercenary with a heart of gold; Gustaf Skarsgård (Westworld) as Merlin, who is shielding the loss of his powers from the king he serves; Daniel Sharman (Fear the Walking Dead) as the Weeping Monk; Peter Mullan (Ozark) as Father Carden, leader of an extremist religious sect called the Red Paladins; Lily Newmark (Pin Cushion) as Nimue’s childhood friend, Pym; Shalom Brune-Franklin (Our Girl) as Igraine; Sebastian Armesto (Broadchurch) as King Uther Pendragon; Matt Stokoe (Bodyguard) as Gawain; Emily Coates (Flack) as Iris; and Billy Jenkins (The Crown) as Squirrel, a young orphan boy from Nimue’s village.
“If you want to have a meeting, go bananas, fill a cafeteria with medieval weaponry, and set Frank and me loose.”
The book’s illustrations are stunning, as one might expect—and there are callbacks to that art in sketches woven between scenes in the TV series—although the style is quite different from some of Miller’s best-known prior work. For inspiration, he drew on his lifelong love of classic children’s book illustrations, most notably the work of Arthur Rackham, a giant of the Golden Age of British book illustration. Rackham created pen-and-ink drawings often augmented with watercolors.
“So I pulled out my oldest tools and set about trying to draw in the older ways, no etching or anything,” said Miller. “It’s been an exploration of older styles than the ones I’ve generally been using.”
Miller also found inspiration from the costumes and props designed for the series—another advantage to wrapping both projects simultaneously. The prop team would load up a table with swords and various medieval weaponry and, on one memorable occasion, medieval dentistry tools, to the delight of both Miller and Wheeler. “If you really want to have a meeting, go completely bananas, fill a cafeteria with medieval weaponry, and set Frank and me loose,” Wheeler said. “We were supposed to be working, but there was also a lot of, ‘Frank, come check out this flail!'”
Cursed is a breezy, fast-paced page-turner of a book, and the series brings that same energy to the screen, making this an easily bingeable weekend treat. There are a lot of characters and subplots, but they are all generally easy to follow—it’s certainly less complicated than, say, the three different timelines in The Witcher. The series finale leaves some key narrative threads open, setting up a potential second season, although Netflix has yet to announce a renewal. “There is still a lot more story to tell,” said Wheeler. “I know we’d love to tackle it again. In some media form, we will, and we hope we can do it in all of them.”
Cursed is now streaming on Netflix.
Listing image by Netflix