I first heard about Cursed at last year’s Book Expo, and I’ll admit I was really excited. I eagerly attended the Cursed Netflix panel at New York Comic Con. Unfortunately, my excitement waned as I actually read the book and it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I hoped that the issues I had with the book could be fixed in the show, but I was just as disappointed with the adaptation as I was with the source material.
Cursed Netflix has a really great premise. It’s a retelling of Arthurian legend with a focus on Nimue, who eventually becomes the Lady of the Lake. In this version, it’s Nimue (Katherine Langford) and not Arthur who receives Excalibur. As there are generally few women in Arthurian stories, one would think that this would mean we get ten episodes of pure, solid “girl power”, with well-written, complex female characters who have strong motivations. One would be incorrect.
One of my big issues in the book is how Nimue is portrayed. The tagline for this story is basically, “What if the sword chose a queen?” – but Nimue never truly gets “chosen”. She is given the sword by her mother and instructed to deliver it to Merlin for reasons unknown. (Merlin wants to destroy the sword, but we never learn what Nimue’s mother intended.) She has powerful magic, as a member of the Fey, but she only ever seems to tap into it when she’s wielding the sword, which has power of its own. Thus, many of her decisions are made, not of her own free will, but because she’s being led by the sword.
This is an issue that unfortunately carries over into the series (which is not surprising, considering how involved creators Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller were with the show). As an origin story, it is unbelievably weak. An origin for what? Nimue doesn’t do anything. Female characters don’t need to be perfect but they need to be something, and Nimue is not.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur argues with a peasant about why he holds supreme power, and the peasant decries that a “watery tart” throwing a sword at a person is a poor system for choosing a leader. I very much felt this way about Nimue. The Fey all look to her as a leader because she has the sword, not because she’s done anything to be deserving of the honor. Once she accepts her role as their queen, she fails them even more, and during the climactic battle, she is left doing absolutely nothing.
Some of the other characters are similarly underdeveloped. Arthur (Devon Terrell) is a sellsword in this version, who steals the sword from Nimue so that he can enter a tournament and regain his family’s honor, and at one point delays a military action so he can argue with Gawain (Matt Stokoe) about whether or not he has feelings for Nimue. (Time and place, Arthur. Time and place.) The love story between Nimue and Arthur is predictable, bland, and unnecessary, going through the motions because it’s expected and not because it makes any sense for the characters.
Two characters that I thought benefited from a television adaptation were Merlin, who comes across as a much more nuanced character thanks largely to the performance of actor Gustaf Skarsgård, and Iris (Emily Coates), the creepy young nun who becomes obsessed with joining the Red Paladins by killing Nimue. Likewise, Nimue’s best friend Pym (Lily Newmark) thrives in Cursed Netflix, largely because she actually survives this time. (In the book, she is killed at the village.)
I don’t remember a lot about the book, but I do know that Morgana’s (Shalom Brune-Franklin) character is very different in Cursed Netflix. She is still a pivotal member of the Fey resistance, but she starts the show as a sister in an abbey. She is also queer, but her partner, a fellow nun named Celia, only exists to die, so that when she appears later in the series, she can make Morgana vulnerable enough to be convinced to turn against Nimue. Morgana is a character who starts out interesting and then backslides; she has managed to set up an Underground Railroad for Fey to reach sanctuary, but as soon as she leaves the abbey she seems to lose all of her agency. She is relegated to following Nimue around and sniping with Arthur over the fact that he let their uncle ship her off to the abbey after their father died.
And look, not that there needs to be a point to queer characters, because being gay is not a plot point, but I’d very much appreciate it if shows would stop having them only to kill them. Celia is an example of both the “fridging” and “bury your gays” tropes, so she’s doubly poor representation. (To be fair, the abbey is burned, so literally everyone dies, but as there are only two queer characters and one of them dies horribly, I’m counting it.)
This was a show that had no idea what it wanted to be; it’s a mix between CW-esque drama and HBO-like gore-fest. I’ve seen comparisons to both Game of Thrones (the violence, I guess?) and The Witcher (uhhh, magic? I guess?), but I can’t believe everyone has missed the similarities with Carnival Row, some of which I won’t go into because of spoilers.
The main area in which Cursed succeeds where those shows have failed is that you can actually see what’s happening, even in the darker scenes. There are some beautiful shots of the English countryside (some of which I recognized from my favorite Arthurian adaptation, BBC’s Merlin), and the show is full of vibrant colors.
But though the scenery is vibrant, other aspects of the show are not. I’ll come out and say it. I was just so bored watching this. On top of the characters being dull and the dialogue being predictable, the pacing is seriously uneven. The plot was spread too thin, with entire episodes where almost nothing is happening. Other shows can get away with this. Not Cursed. Considering how much was going on with the politics – between the Fey, the Church, and all the warring kings – it should not have dragged as often as it did, but it really felt like ten episodes were just too long.
Cursed Netflix is as equally forgettable as the book was. I feel like my time would have been better spent watching literally anything else.
Cursed is currently streaming on Netflix.
Make sure you check out Farid’s reaction video!
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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