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How Netflix makes Arthurian legends feel new again with Cursed

CURSED (Katherine Langford) | New Trailer | Netflix

The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are well-worn source material at this point, so it takes a special kind of project to make audiences view those tales through a new lens and make them feel fresh again.

That’s exactly what Netflix aims to do with Cursed, its new, original series that explores the early years of one of Arthurian legend’s most enigmatic characters: Nimue, the woman destined to become The Lady of the Lake.

Created by Tom Wheeler and comics legend Frank Miller (300Sin City) and based on the pair’s novel of the same name, Cursed casts 13 Reasons Why actress Katherine Langford as the magically gifted Nimue, who finds herself tasked with delivering a powerful sword to the wizard Merlin while evading the Red Paladins, a powerful cult of religious zealots out to rid the world of magic.

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Forging a new legend

“Right out of the gate, I knew this would be very different aesthetically from any King Arthur story we’ve seen before,” Wheeler told Digital Trends.

For Wheeler, who serves as co-creator and executive producer on the series along with Miller, the famous image of a mysterious woman rising from the depths of a lake to give Arthur the sword Excalibur was what drew him to exploring Arthurian legend from this particular perspective.

“[That image] evokes a lot of questions,” he said. “Who was she? What was her relationship to Arthur? Did she have the sword before him?”

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The potential to offer a new window into Arthurian legend, particularly for younger audiences at a point when characters like Wonder Woman and Marvel’s Black Widow have made the future of action heroes increasingly female, also held a certain — and very personal — appeal, explained Wheeler.

“The idea of creating a hero for [my daughter] within those stories really resonated with me,” he said.

Arthur, re-examined

Although Nimue is the focus of the series, it should come as no surprise that the series’ powerful, capable heroine crosses path with another well-known figure early on in her quest: A charismatic mercenary named Arthur.

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Devon Terrell, who previously received critical acclaim for his portrayal of a young Barack Obama in the 2016 biopic Barry, plays the show’s future legendary king. While the honor of portraying two of the greatest leaders in both recent, real-world history and ancient literary history hasn’t escaped Terrell, he’s quick to point out that what sets Cursed apart is the role Arthur plays as a supporting character in Nimue’s story.

“In fantasy a lot of the time, it’s seen from the male gaze. It’s very over-sexualized,” Terrell told Digital Trends. “I think the great thing about the show is that it doesn’t do that. I was always fascinated by Nimue’s character and how I could help her get where she needs to go. I never thought it was the Arthur show.”

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Of course, portraying Arthur as a person of color also puts a different spin on the character, one that Terrell welcomed, given what it means for the show’s potential audience and the freedom it gave him to make the role his own.

“Every actor that comes to the table to play any of these roles, inherently the character is different,” he explained. “But being a person of color, too, the audience will automatically have a different viewpoint on the character, and that’s exciting. The more inclusive and diverse these worlds are, the bigger the audience is, and the more of us who can enjoy this world and how far it can go.”

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A wandering wizard

For some cast members, it was the iconic status of the series’ characters that ended up giving them a greater sense of freedom to redefine what we know about the famous players in the tale of Arthur, Nimue, and, of course, Merlin.

The task of bringing the enigmatic wizard Merlin to the screen was made easier by the character’s long, multimedia history, according to actor Gustaf Skarsgård, who previously provided one of the breakout performances in History Channel’s Vikings and played a recurring role in the second season of HBO’s Westworld.

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Describing his version of Merlin as “a drunk magician who’s lost his magic,” Skarsgård reasoned that, of the many iconic wizards who could be brought to the screen, Merlin might have the least baggage — from the actor’s side, at least.

“I feel like Merlin has already been adapted in so many ways that it leaves an open playing field as to how you adapt him,” he explained to Digital Trends. “You don’t have as strong an impression of Merlin as you do of Dumbledore or Gandalf or other iconic magicians, because he’s already been depicted in so many ways. That eases off the pressure a little bit.”

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A living legacy

Still, the show’s creators insist that Cursed is still firmly rooted in the themes that keep Arthurian legend relevant today, despite the myriad ways it shines a new light on King Arthur’s saga.

“The [themes of Arthurian legend] that are eternal [and] the ones that are grandest, are honor and love,” Miller told Digital Trends. “And within that, there’s also the birth of civilization, personified by King Arthur bringing order to a barbaric world. And there’s the contest between nature and technology, personified by Nimue and the forces aligned against her.”

As Miller explained it, “These themes have every possible relevance in today’s world because they’re eternal.”

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Created by Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller, and starring Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, and Gustaf Skarsgård, Cursed premieres July 17 on Netflix.

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