Merlin, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake. Yeah, we all know the story.
Or maybe not. Imagine a version in which Merlin is a heavy drinker who has lost his magic; Arthur is a scrounging but ambitious nobody with questionable scruples; and the Lady of the Lake is a teenage fairy with powers she can’t control and isn’t sure she wants.
In a post-“Game of Thrones” world, every programmer’s dream is finding the next big spectacle series — and in the age of Covid, a new binge-worthy show is worth its weight in mystical swords. That’s the magic Netflix is hoping to pull from “Cursed,” a live-action fantasy series created by Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler that puts the young Lady of the Lake at the center of Arthurian myth.
When the show premieres Friday, it will be the latest stage in a kind of evolving dream project for Miller and Wheeler, which started with their collaboration on the 2019 illustrated young-adult novel on which it is based. Wheeler, a writer and producer perhaps best known for the “Puss in Boots” (2011) screenplay, was a self-described “lifelong Frank Miller fan” when the two were introduced several years ago. Miller, a beloved graphic-novel and comic-book artist, had already had his work translated many times to the screen: “Daredevil,” “The Dark Knight Returns” and “300,” as well as “Sin City,” the movie versions of which he also helped direct.
But Miller had never tackled Arthur, and he was excited to discover in Wheeler a common love of the medieval legends.
“I’d been enraptured with the King Arthur story since I was a boy, when I saw Disney’s ‘Sword in the Stone,’” Miller said in a three-way Zoom interview with Wheeler this month. “I tend to love all the incarnations, as wildly different as they are.”
So they decided to create one of their own, a prequel of sorts with a distinctly modern approach, set before Arthur is king. In it, the young Lady, Nimue, is being hunted along with her fellow fairies — “fae,” in “Cursed” parlance. Their persecutors are the Red Paladins, a violent and intolerant religious sect with an uncomfortably familiar contempt for the “other.”
“It seemed an amazing playground,” Wheeler said. “I certainly had a fan’s desire to see what Frank would do with his aesthetic and storytelling in that world.”
Wheeler wrote and Miller illustrated; the book was published last fall, by which time Netflix had already picked it up.
With its lavish visuals, “Cursed” may invite comparisons to “Game of Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings”; Nimue (played by Katherine Langford) shares traits with “Harry Potter” (she’s the girl who lived) and Stephen King’s Carrie (a teen who feels her powers are, well, a curse). It’s stiff competition, and that’s not counting the many earlier screen adaptations of Arthurian legends, including “Camelot,” “Excalibur” and, perhaps most inescapably, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
Miller and Wheeler spoke about the challenges of reimagining such a well-known story for a modern audience and about the thrills of bringing it to life onscreen. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How challenging was it to create something distinctive within this saga?
FRANK MILLER You have to approach this material regarding everything as an opportunity, rather than a limitation. We have a boundless mythology, which can be interpreted any number of ways: You could just tell it as a political story, a mythological story or a romance.
TOM WHEELER We had an obligation to bring something new to the table after so many interpretations. That led us to the image of the young woman reaching her arm through the water with the sword and offering it to Arthur. We were drawn to it because of the questions it evokes: Who was she? Why is she offering the sword? What is their relationship? Why was there this tragic, mysterious end for her? We talked about this as a dark fairy tale, and as the character of Nimue grew in our minds, she would make decisions — sometimes wildly flawed decisions — but she took over the story, which was great.
MILLER What Tom and I have been doing has been picking and choosing, using this young woman with a destiny that carries us on this journey through all these pieces of mythology and fantasy and politics.
WHEELER When we started talking about this story, my daughter was 10 or 11 years old and she didn’t have characters to really lock onto in this mythology. Yet the themes — seizing the sword, taking control of your own destiny, responsibility at a young age — made this about building out a story for her that she could connect to. That idea of being the hero of your story is for all of us. It’s great to have a woman with this sort of power.
Did creating the book make it easier to adapt it for TV?
WHEELER I would have moments where I’d say: “Who wrote this? Who’s responsible for this?” as we tried to interpret certain scenes. There were moments where something felt perfectly clear in the book and we wondered how we would make it clear in the scenes. We only had ourselves to blame. The challenge was taking a chapter where you’re inside Nimue’s head and you have this intimate relation with her as a reader and then you have to turn that completely around for the series and show everything through behavior.
MILLER A lot of things inside Nimue’s head instead became fantastical sets and location shots. That’s what fantasy art does, so I felt very much at home seeing the stalactites or the bridges as indications of the character’s state of mind.
Amid the striking visuals, the most unusual touch is the animation used for transitions between scenes. How did those come to be?
WHEELER There was a company doing our title sequence, bringing a lot of Frank’s artwork from the book to life. We saw it midway through shooting the series and felt it was perfect tonally.
MILLER It was a way to evoke the memory of lushly illustrated storybooks, the kind I remember finding in my parents’ bookshelves, where I’d open these books and fall into them. I liked the idea of the show giving you a sense of where these stories come from.
How do you sift through, avoid, honor or subvert all those connections to other fantasy films and series and to all the Arthur and Merlin stories of the past?
MILLER It’s one of the knottiest questions. You can’t entirely ignore everything out there. There’s always a dance: Do I try so hard to avoid these influences that I ignore a chance to execute this great idea I’ve got? You can’t do that. You’ve got to work hard on your central concept — you build an identity of your own, stay true to that and don’t worry if there’s an overlap with other things.
WHEELER Arthurian mythology is the first shared universe. We’re taking our swing at it and bringing something new, but we can still honor the others. I love “Excalibur” and would love to find images that connect us to that world. “Holy Grail” was always sort of there. We were scouting in Scotland and Ireland, and at one castle I said: “Am I having a past life experience? I recognize this place.” Then I realized it was the castle where Lancelot kills the entire wedding party in “Holy Grail.” When scenes would go wrong, you’d have moments where you’d say, “I think we’re getting into ‘Holy Grail’ territory.”
MILLER We still haven’t done a “Bring Out Your Dead” scene.
Are the moments of humor and lighter tone consciously included for balance or just the way you write?
WHEELER It’s a serious story with serious consequences and stakes, but you do need that pressure release valve to give audiences a moment. We found more comedy in the series than in the book, but a lot is just what the actors bring.
How much of the sets is real and how much is computer generated?
MILLER Ah [cackles]. That would be telling.
WHEELER Frank has more experience than I do, but it’s amazing seeing the layering of effects on top of sets. There’s a good mix, but we shot in the U.K. because there are incredible locations and beautiful vistas and a lot of that was captured in camera. We talked a lot about vivid nature as a character in the series.
Given that you created the book, was it tricky to have an open mind in casting?
MILLER You have to stay open because you don’t want to miss out on the pleasant surprises.
WHEELER It’s a combination of what you think the character is and then the surprises the actor brings. Lily Newmark, who plays Pym, got the part when she walked in — she was late, a little disorganized; she had a great Pym energy.
MILLER Gustaf Skarsgard walked in and consumed the part of Merlin. And I loved Emily Coates for Sister Iris as soon as I met her. She’s so lethal.
WHEELER She was so scary. In rehearsal, the crew backed away from her.
Writers often talk about using actors’ personalities for their roles or about enlarging the parts of actors that are special. Was that possible given that you were working from your book?
WHEELER We felt an obligation to keep finding new things and not treat our book as frozen in amber, to go where the characters needed to go. We’ve tried not to completely contradict the book, but there will be story lines in the series that are not in the book. So characters have expanded because of what the actors inspired us with — what they were bringing in their performances. It kept the whole thing feeling organic. And that was part of the fun.