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Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
Of all the literary adaptations TNT has done over the years, Marion Zimmer Bradleyís The Mists of Avalon probably ranks with Gettysburg as being the toughest. Both Mists and Killer Angels Ė the book Gettysburg is based upon Ė are thick tomes, though Mists is more than double the size of Killer Angels. Both include epic war scenes. Both are historically set tales, demanding careful attention to detail. Both feature complex characters in difficult situations and fortunately have talented actors worthy of the roles.
Yet, when push comes to shove, Gettysburg had some advantages Mists doesnít. The former could recruit die-hard Civil War re-enactors, complete with their own uniforms and gear, to play extras. Mists couldnít. The size of novels also helped and hindered with Gettysburg having to cut far less than Mists, and when it became apparent that Gettysburg was likely to become one of the definitive films about the Civil War, running time constraints were loosened even as a theatrical release was substituted for its original TNT-only broadcast. By contrast, Mists is limited to a four-hour window, which means a little more than three hours of actual story once commercials are eliminated. Still, fans of Mists are just as passionate and difficult to please as Civil War buffs, so could any TV adaptation of The Mists of Avalon satisfy them while enticing viewers who havenít read the book?
In a word, yes.
From the first image of Morgaine (Julianna Margulies), pale and intent, in the blue fog seeking the mystical isle of Avalon, the miniseries has the right look even when it deviates from the novel. No deerskin tunics for these priestesses, yet the blend of gritty, post-Roman Empire reality and civilized otherworldliness feels right.
For those who havenít read the novel, Mists is usually described as "the story of King Arthur and Camelot from the perspective of the women around him," but itís much more than that. Itís the story of an age ending, a new one beginning and the fragile period in between. Prior to the start of the book, the few Christians in the British Isles have coexisted peacefully with the established Celtic Pagans who worship both God and Goddess, but that is changing. The new Christian leaders, who were careful to arrange marriages and alliances among their followers that strengthened their positions, are not only insisting that there are no Gods other than their own, but that any other deity is a demon in disguise and that all women are Satanís tool. Throughout the book, the priestesses and druids of Avalon struggle to maintain a balance, demanding fair treatment for their followers in exchange for their assistance in kingmaking, first with Uther Pendragon (Mark Lewis Jones) and later with his son, Arthur (Edward Atterton). But time, human weakness, and, perhaps, ill-conceived plans work against them, endangering all they hold dear.
The bulk of the story revolves around three sisters Ė Viviane, the Lady of the Lake (in other words, high priestess of Avalon), Igraine and Morgause Ė as well as Arthurís sister Morgaine and his wife Gwenhwyfar. Viviane, played with perfect nobility by Anjelica Houston, is desperate to preserve Avalon and its place in the "real world" at all costs, sacrificing her own feelings and instincts for what may preserve the Goddess in menís hearts. To that end, she manipulates others, including her own family, like pawns on a chessboard, with Igraine (Caroline Goodall) being the first. Married off to Gorlois (Clive Russell), a Christian follower of the old Roman ways, Igraine has dutifully produced a daughter, Morgaine (played by Tamsin Egerton as a child), and hidden her own talent for the Sight, the ability to see visions that was trained further during her own childhood on Avalon.
But High King Ambroius (Edward Jewesbury) is without an heir and his successor must be able to unite the various factions Ė descendents of Romans who remained in Britain, Celts who follow the old ways, Christian converts and others Ė to fend off the barbaric invasions of the Saxons. Viviane and the Merlin (a title, not a name, for the chief druid, played here by Michael Byrne) also want a leader who will respect the old ways, so Uther Pendragon is chosen, but he will need an heir from the old lineages, so Igraine is told that she will become Utherís wife. Wanting no part in treachery, she refuses to betray her husband, but a meeting with Uther proves Vivianeís claim that they are destined for each other. Gorloisí own treachery provides Igraine with the motivation to assist Uther, even if that doesnít stay her conscience.
Rather than the end of the machinations, that is only the beginning. A few years later, young Morgaine, also gifted with the Sight, and her devoted brother Arthur are separated; she to the Isle of Avalon to train as a priestess and he to anonymous fosterage to protect him from harm while training him in the old ways of kingship. The consequences of their reunion are devastating, though unrecognized at the time.
Along the way, weíre also introduced to Lancelot (Michael Vartan), Vivianeís son, who rejects priest training on Avalon for the life a warrior, thereby putting him in the path of dangerous destiny when he becomes Arthurís staunchest ally and greatest weakness. Gwenhwyfar (Samantha Mathis, appropriately passive aggressive and seemingly weak) appears shortly thereafter, smitten with Lancelot before she even learns of Arthur. The classic love triangle remains Ė and includes a rather tastefully filmed mťnage a trois Ė but this version of Gwenhwyfar is guilt and sin-obsessed, making the trioís downfall even more inevitable.
Complicating things further are the evil schemes of Morgause (Joan Allen, delicious in a role so different from the quietly suffering wives she has previously played in Nixon and other films), who seeks power in any form but rejects the responsibilities that come with it. The ways of Avalon are too slow and well-intended for her taste, so she delves into the darker arts with which to curse Gwenhwyfar with barrenness, thereby ensuring that her son, Gawain (Noah Huntley), will succeed Arthur to the throne. Or at least thatís the plan until she learns that Morgaine has given birth to Arthurís son, Mordred (Hans Matheson). From then on she uses Arthurís ignorance of his son and Morgaineís guilt over the incest to distance the boy from his heritage and bind him to her dark ambitions.
Through much of the miniseries, Arthur is torn between Gwenhwyfar and Morgaine, both urging him to do what they earnestly believe is right. The miniseries provides a bit more balance between the two viewpoints than the book did, since the book made it clear that Gwenhwyfar thoroughly believed the priestsí dogmatic arguments that women were sinful creatures who unwittingly did Satanís work. Itís hard for anyone with a modern sensibility to completely take Gwenhwyfarís side, but despising someone so weak is equally hard. I couldnít help wondering how she might have turned out if her upbringing included a little positive encouragement and a lot less misogyny.
Distilling an 876-page novel to a three-hour movie means that a lot of material is eliminated and to keep things coherent, what remains is often rearranged and altered rather drastically, but the tone, spirit and intent are true to the novel. So does it really matter if Igraine is alive at the end rather than dying two-thirds of the way through if it helps to preserve the emotional ending of the book? I donít think so.
The only thing that would have served the miniseries better is if more time had been devoted to explaining how Arthur betrayed Avalon. There are brief mentions of the betrayal and references to his now flying a Christian banner in battle rather than his fatherís dragon banner, but Iím not sure viewers who havenít read the book will understand the significance of it. Without that understanding, Vivianeís schemes could appear unduly harsh and manipulation for its own sake, or worse, perhaps the work of a group that is as bad as the Christian priests claim. The book makes it plain that Vivianeís actions are the desperate schemes of a desperate people, struggling against an overwhelming tide to preserve their beliefs, their way of life, their culture and their dignity.
Near the end of the book, someone asks if all their efforts were for nothing and itís explained that no, it was all necessary, because it bought time that allowed the Saxons to become civilized enough that the music, arts and culture that came before would not entirely be lost. That moment isnít included in the miniseries, but I was happily surprised to find that its religious equivalent was preserved. The means by which the story gets to that moment are changed greatly, but the underlying truth that the Goddess never left humanity is still there. She didnít fall before unyielding priestsí fear of women. She simply took on other faces as Mary, St. Brigid and others, continuing her work quietly as she holds back the forces of chaos and serving as mother to us all.
The miniseries preserves the novelís epic sweep without losing the personal stories of the characters. The cast is superb and more than able to speak volumes with a look or a gesture. The bulk of the miniseries rests on Huston and Margulies, with the former setting in motion the backbone of the story, and the latter deftly carrying the rest of the story forward. I canít praise their performances enough, except to reiterate that with more time to delve deeper, it would have been glorious.
The Mists of Avalon should please all but the strictest of literary purists. It provides fresh insight into a time often consigned to pure legend, showing a credible version of how it might truly have been. For those seeking the sheer entertainment of a historical saga, it completely satisfies while simultaneously providing arguments that the Christian revolution was needlessly harsh in its efforts to eradicate all differing beliefs. The miniseries makes it plain that while Avalon might have receded into otherworldly mists, many of its lessons and the spirit of its people still live on today.
Review © 2001 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Accompanying photographs © TBS/TNT, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo credit: Erik Heinila.