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Article ID: 3555
Age Group: Adult
Posted: July 29th. 2001
The Mists of Avalon: Peg's Review
by Peg Aloi
After years of anticipation our community has finally been gifted with a cinematic expression of Marion Zimmer Bradley's beloved and influential novel The Mists of Avalon. Although my feelings as the preview date came closer wavered between eager impatience and nervous trepidation, I think it can be said that, for the most part, this television adaptation was a satisfying one. However, there were some major omissions and diversions from Bradley's story, some of which were disappointing, and some which actually managed to enhance the experience. The potential of this mini-series to both educate and intrigue pagan and non-pagan audiences should not be underestimated (I hear there are certain segments of the right-wing Christian population who are already outraged by it).
I was camping in the wilds of western New York State during the premiere, but thanks to the publicity department of TNT I was able to show the press screening tapes to a small audience attending Sirius Rising (a great gathering which occurs just prior to Starwood at Brushwood Folklore Center in Sherman, NY). We showed it on two nights, and each night as the episode ended I appeared with my trusty imaginary microphone to interview departing audience members. Some memorable quotes garnered by your intrepid Media Witch:
"It brought tears to my eyes."
--guy wearing little Pan horns
--woman in black with silver jewelry
"I didn't read the book yet but now I must!"
--woman with multi-colored shawl
"It was great but they really screwed up that scene after the Beltane fertility rite. Morgaine and Arthur are supposed to recognize each other immediately that next morning." -- Cate Dalton
A week after the "private" screening at Sirius Rising, I got to talk to community elders/authors/icons Isaac Bonewits and Oberon Zell on their responses. Both men, it turns out, had been around while Marion was writing the book and both attended little salons wherein she read chapters-in-progress. Both also were consulted for various scenes and plot elements in the book and are thanked by the author for their contributions. Oberon says the magickal setting for the Beltane Kingmaking (wherein Morgaine and half-brother Arthur make love, not knowing each other's identities) was his work, and Isaac says he advised on various theological matters. Isaac was, he says, disappointed that the book ended up with a more feminist slant than he thought appropriate (so he told me as we strolled in the moonlight by the bullfrog pond and I thought "Wow! I am walking around at a pagan gathering at midnight with Isaac Bonewits and he's giving me this inside scoop on the most well-loved pagan novel of all time!"), and his main complaint was the concept that the priestesses of Avalon would be virginal and not more sexually involved with men throughout their lives. This, he thinks, is not a very pagan (or historically accurate) depiction.
But it turns out both Oberon and Isaac loved the mini-series. Oberon acknowledges that a film version of a novel is always going to be missing some things. He also says his favorite moment was something which did not happen in the book: the ending, where Morgaine, having left Avalon (or did it recede into the mist? So much is condensed into that last half-hour it is hard to be sure) is watching villagers pray and offer gifts at a statue of the Virgin Mary. She knowingly smiles, understanding that the Goddess is not gone from the hearts of humankind, that she has merely taken another form to be loved and worshiped. Isaac thought it was all well done, particularly the acting (I agree with this; Julianna Margulies as Morgaine was especially wonderful), and he especially praised the Kingmaking scene, where Arthur hunts the King Stag and deflowers the Virgin Huntress (Morgaine, as young priestess of Avalon solely chosen for this honor, disguised with a mask and tattoos). Most pagan viewers I spoke with thought this was extremely well done, and since it occurs in the first hour of the series we all held out high hopes for the rest of the story's unfolding.
Part of the reason that scene worked so well was not just its authenticity and careful placement of pagan visual elements and its rhythm and pacing, the drumming and fire, the dancing and costumes, but the fact that it took its time to really portray a moment in its full sensuality and intensity. Because Bradley's 900 page novel (a self-contained trilogy, really) was condensed into a mere THREE HOURS of television means there was a lot left out, and much of the rest of the series after the promising first hour attempted to tell the story to quickly and very superficially. Bradley's vivid descriptions were lost in this transition from page to screen, and that is unfortunate.
For those who have not yet seen the mini-series I won't spoil too much of it (if you were worried about that you would not have read this far, right?) But I do want to address the most gaping omissions and changes that I found disappointing.
First of all, major characters were left out: Kevin, the crippled harpist who becomes Merlin of Britain after Taliesin dies. As Morgaine's friend, lover and later nemesis, he is a crucial player in this story and in fact an entire third of Bradley's trilogy is named for him (The Prisoner in the Oak"). Because Kevin was left out, Nimue was left out; and this character's importance to the Arthurian saga is well-known. The famous Burne-Jones painting "The Beguiling of Merlin" portrays Nimue cursing the great wizard to be frozen in time indefinitely; and the more evil portrayals of Morgan le Fey borrow pieces from this character's part in the tale, the young acolyte of Merlin who learns too much, too well from him and manages to subdue him with his own magical secrets. In The Mists of Avalon, Kevin functions as a crucial character because his alliance with the Church and his weak-willed acceptance of the growing influence of Christianity leads him to betray the Old Ways and the sanctity of Avalon, and causes Morgaine to swear revenge upon him. To have this colossal struggle of personalities and ideologies missing from the plot was a great loss, I think.
As Cate Dalton mentions above, the one flaw in the Beltane Kingmaking scene was the failure of the writers to convey one of the most powerful scenes in the book: the morning after the fertility rite, Morgaine and Arthur, now just two young people in an intimate situation, decide to make love a second time just for their own enjoyment. Moments after they finish, they realize they are siblings, who have not seen each other in years because they were separated by Merlin and Viviane: Arthur fostered with a knight's family and Morgaine training with the priestesses at Avalon. This realization fills them both with remorse and shame, and when Morgaine later realizes she is pregnant she is immediately compelled to go into hiding. He mini-series leaves this realization until much later, which undermines its power.
Another crucially important segment of the book is omitted; my friend Matthew was VERY disappointed not to see the portrayal of Morgaine's disappearance into the land of faery for a number of years. Since the mythology of faery is so closely tied to the portrayal of Avalon as a place between the worlds, beyond the mists, to ignore this is to fail to fully describe the nature of this magical place. Viewers are asked to merely accept the creation of Avalon as a fictional entity, instead of something steeped deeply in the Celtic tradition. Moreover, Morgaine's entrance to faery and her own unthinking actions (she eats their food and drinks their mead, knowing full well she will be trapped there) are a source of great frustration and regret when she returns to the outside world, after more than seven years have passed and her life's work (struggling to uphold the Old Religion) has been undermined because of her absence.
Another omission I found disappointing: Morgaine's ongoing problems with her romantic life. Her long-time love for Lancelet, her pedestrian marriage to Uriens, her soulmate connection to Accolon, all these are only touched upon-and her extended relationship to Kevin is left out entirely. Where is that wonderful, magickal scene where Morgaine and Accolon make love in the blossoming orchards at Beltane, when he sees her as the goddess incarnate and her sense of purpose and power are reborn and renewed?
While I'm on a roll, there was entirely too little sex in this mini-series! Sure the Beltane Kingmaking scene was great; and was I the only one surprised at the daring portrayal of that drunken, lovespell-enhanced threesome between Gwynhefar, Arthur and Lancelet? But other than that I found it quite devoid of passion. Morgause, for example, is portrayed in Bradley's book as a seducer of all her serving men; as far as we can tell she only sleeps with her husband. And some potentially hot sex scenes (well, for TV anyway) could easily have centered around Gwynhefar and Lancelet, Morgaine and Lancelet, U ther and Igraine (though their soulmate connection was portrayed beautifully), Kevin and Nimue, Kein and Morgaine, Morgaine and Accolon, and last but not least, Morgaine and her handsome lover in the land of faery, who was described as "tasting sweet, of berries and strong heather drink" (thanks to Matthew for reminding me of that!)
My last complaint about the story's portrayal would have to be the rather convenient double murder of Viviane and Morgause in the same place. I am not even going to go into how radically this differs from how their deaths occurred in the book. This just seems like a cheap manipulation of the plot, allowing Morgaine to see both her mentor and sister be cremated upon pyres covered with flower garlands (nice visual, but a very weak justification for it).
That said, there were some nice moments that were expanded upon or altered slightly which DID enhance the story. Morgaine's reunion with her mother Igraine, for example, after her mother had been in a convent for many years. I also thought the scene where Mordred kills his father (from some sense of destiny and pride rather than the blind hatred portrayed in, say, John Boorman's Excalibur) and says farewell to his mother as he dies was very moving, as was Morgaine's accompanying Arthur to his final resting place.
It is tempting to say, "well, it could certainly have been worse, " except that we all know how true this is. I think I was more pleased than displeased with the mini-series given that it tried to do so much in its three-hour timespan. The main problem, then, is obvious: why on earth wasn't this made into a longer mini-series? Say, six hours? And since this one took so long to get made it is not likely another attempt will occur. Then again, if we can have over a dozen versions of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, what's to stop PBS or the BBC from trying their hand at this epic story? It's got all the right ingredients for a block-buster: love, religion, magic, murder, lust, war, and the spinning wheel of fate. Any aspiring producers out there?
Be sure to let us all know what you think!
See you at the movies,
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Monday, July 30th, 2001
Email: [Staff Email]
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