“Too Noble to Be Cool”?

At first I planned to ditch this post, but changed my mind and finished it anyway. So here goes.

Charlie-Hunnam-King-ArthurAn Entertainment Weekly article on Charlie Hunnam, who stars as King Arthur in an upcoming film directed by Guy Ritchie, got my hackles up, especially with comments like this:

Arthur has a bit of a Superman problem: He’s too noble to be cool or dangerous, and he’s rarely conflicted. (Sullivan 23)

In order to make him “cool,” the filmmakers decided to tweak Arthur’s origin story to make him a “streetwise” orphan ala Oliver Twist. I can’t help but notice how making someone “cool” usually involves putting that person in the theft/smuggling trade ala Han Solo, Aladdin, Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled, or, come to think of it, Indiana Jones. He didn’t just “borrow” those artifacts from those temples, y’know. (Yeah, yeah. Archaeology. Blah blah blah. But it really depends on your cultural viewpoint, doesn’t it?)

flynn ryder wallpaper han-solo-with-blaster

For some, a character is interesting only if he’s the bad boy or at least has an edge to him. In other words, if the character is an antihero. I call this the Han Solo Syndrome. Though I have a soft spot for Han Solo, Flynn Rider, Aladdin, and Indiana Jones, I’m wary of the proposed revised history for King Arthur. While the filmmakers have a right to do what they want with this film, an attempt to revamp the King Arthur story flopped in 2004, as the article pointed out. I don’t fully know how Ritchie & Company will adjust Arthur’s back story for this movie. Entertainment Weekly gave only a few hints (like the fact that the new Arthur will be raised by three prostitutes).

According to Hunnam,

You need to see a character grow, and you need conflict. . . . If somebody is walking around with noble aspirations and then they find out that they’re King of England, wonderful, but it’s all a bit boring. . . .

I agree with him about the need for growth and conflict. But the “boring” judgment call shows a sadly one-note view of “good” characters. I’ve written about this before.

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Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur

“Too noble to be cool”? “Boring?” The issue seems to be with the notion of the heroic archetype. I’ve seen this archetype challenged more and more in our so-called “enlightened” age. When I was a kid, we used to call a virtuous person a “goody-goody” if we wanted to make fun of him or her. If we don’t believe anyone can be that selfless and noble, we might say the same. But what’s really needed is a better understanding of the strength and complexity of good.

Since the EW article focuses on a guy, I’ll concentrate on guys. I know some really good guys—men and teens with faith and ideals. But not a single one of them constantly walks around humming and thinking “noble” thoughts about kissing babies and rescuing puppies. All of them struggle with temptation, fear, doubt—the usual stuff. None of them claims to be perfect. They make mistakes. Yet they strive to be good husbands, good dads, good friends—good people. Doesn’t sound boring to me.

Would anybody call soldiers, fire fighters, police officers—people who rush into danger and protect others—“a bit boring”? Yet the people in these professions work toward what’s good. Many have a strong sense of justice and a need to help others. Yes, there are some bad apples according to current events. But for the most part, you’ve got people who put themselves on the line for others. Many of us know people in these professions. We see their foibles as well as their bravery. Good fictional heroes can be like this. (I’m thinking of Spider-Man, Green Lantern, and Luke Callindor, Charles Yallowitz’s hero in Beginning of a Hero.)

An author’s job is to develop characters a reader will find compelling. I grew up loving the story of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. When I was a kid, I read T. H. White’s book, The Once and Future King. I never found it boring nor did I find Arthur “too noble to be cool.” He made mistakes and sometimes doubted his leadership; yet he strove to do the right thing. I find that compelling. But the filmmakers seem to think he’s not macho enough, and hope that Hunnam and his hotness will make Arthur an action hero. (Okay, the photo on the magazine cover makes a convincing argument.)

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The jury is out on whether or not I’ll see the new King Arthur movie. I’m not sure when it’s due out. The actors are still in the process of filming it. The only question I have for anyone adapting the story of an existing character is this: If you find that character to be boring or uncool, and have to make a whole bunch of changes to make him or her more interesting, why adapt the story in the first place?

Sullivan, Kevin. “The Sword and the Stone-Cold Fox.” Entertainment Weekly 31 July 2015: 20-27. Print.

Charlie Hunnam from hypable.com and femalefirst.co.uk. Flynn Rider from tangled-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Harrison Ford as Han Solo from solidsmack.com. Once and Future King cover from Goodreads.

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64 thoughts on ““Too Noble to Be Cool”?

  1. If the character of King Arthur seems boring to them it’s probably more to do with the way they’re realising the story than… Well… The actual story. As I understood it, it’s years since I read it, King Arthur is a no-one, destined for nothing. His older brothers are more likely to be king, and everyone takes more interest in them. Arthur is invisible to the world, his fellows and his father. Then he pulls this sword out of a stone and hey presto…. It’s not exactly a glass slipper, but it works very well for the exact same reasons.

    Scratching my head a bit as to why they’d bother.

    Cheers

    MTM

    • I agree with you. It’s totally Cinderella. And that’s what I love–the fairy tale aspect. But nowadays, people keep trying to kill off the fairy tale aspects in stories in order to go for “reality.” Um, last time I checked, it was a fantasy.

      • Ah tell me. If they want ‘gritty realism’ why make a film about King Arthur, it’s like saying, “I’m going to make a film about the Wright brothers but at NO point is it going to have anything to do with planes!”

      • Ha! So true. Perhaps they were inspired by some of the television shows featuring a “realistic” look at superheroes. I laugh every time someone decides to take a realistic look at fantasy characters.

  2. Ahh, the good ol’ movie bizz strikes again. Guy Ritchie probably should be allowed to direct traffic, but hey, people are crazy about sword and vandal epics at the mo, thanks to LOTR. So, they can trundle out any story with a special sword and a bit of sorcery and make a quick buck. (That’s the magic of Hollywood)
    As for King Arthur, it’s all made up anyway. Very little is actually based on any historical fact. But let’s not let that get in the way of a story (notice I didn’t say, good story!). They’ve cast a suitable hunk and I’m sure the Druids will be like Jedi’s, so bring it on. I won’t be in the cinema queue.
    As for your serious point, I’m in agreement. Good is too often portrayed as boring, evil equals exciting. When we all know (or should do by now) that good and bad exist simultaneously within us all. Take Winston Churchill for instance… voted favourite Brit in many polls etc. A great war Prime Minister and opponent for that cranky German, but take a look at his earlier career… not exactly Gandhi. Bombing kurdish tribes in Iraq… that has an interesting resonance. So, my point is, that we all have the ability to be good or bad, hero, anti-hero, but most importantly, who is writing our story?
    I know one thing – Guy Ritchie is not directing mine.

    • Good point about Churchill!!! That’s exactly what I mean!

      I doubt I’ll sign over the movie rights to anything I write. After seeing the fiasco that was the Earthsea saga and other projects, I’ll sleep better at night if some exec isn’t revising my characters to fit an actor or director’s whims.

      • I think we have to accept that most studios don’t respect authors, or screenwriters for that matter. Unless you’re J.K.Rowling and you are going to earn them so much money, then you can command (buy) their respect!
        So, if you’re gonna get bought out – aim high!
        The project I’m working on at the moment is aimed at the studios and I’d be happy to sell it to them, as long as I get to do the first draft of the script. (Then of course I’ll be replaced,more likely than not). Plus it’s a comic, so part of the deal would be that I retain the comic book rights, which I can carry on doing my way, even if they screw up the movie.

      • Do I think I’ll get a crack at the screenplay – I hope so. It depends on how much ‘heat’ the comic generates. I don’t have an agent at the moment, but connections to management in Hollywood and a writing partner who’s already very well established. I’m just about to sign up some investors… and away we go.

      • It’s great that you have a writing partner. I keep thinking of Chris Miller and Phil Lord and other writing duos.

    • I think in comics and for this particular movie script, it’ll be great fun to collaborate again, as I usually write solo. I’m looking forward to bashing ideas around, as we used to work together this way when starting out at Marvel. I’ll let you know more when we’ve hatched our little plan.

    • I agree, Jill. Many times the movies only deal with heroes cosmetically. The hottest actor gets to wave a sword around. And people wonder why the Pixar movies are the ones people cry over and talk in depth about more. Because with Pixar, story is king–not some actor who thinks being noble is boring.

  3. Thanks for the shout out. Reading this was interesting because I’m watching episodes of Merlin between editing runs. That had an interesting Arthur evolution from arrogant prince to noble king. I don’t see why people try to avoid that path and always go for the ‘bad, cool, and unbathed’ thing. I’ve been calling it the Wolverine Effect for a few years. Studios, authors, etc. see how much people love the surly, damn the rules antihero. So they only go for that and may put a boyscout (Poor Cyclops) in there solely to be embarrassed by the antihero or help to showcase how much of a rebel the other one is. It’s been done to death, but there seems to always be an outcry when the opposite happens. Yet the whole thing makes even less sense when you see how they ‘dirtied’ Superman and people went bonkers. Here is what I took for everything:

    People hate boyscout characters. People love antiheroes. People hate when you make a boyscout character into an antihero. People are ridiculous.

    As far as this King Arthur thing specifically, it sounds really odd. He’s the royal heir, but doesn’t know it and he’s running the street with a gang of thieves? Why not just do Robin Hood? It sounds so much like they had a script for something else and decided to switch the names with Arthurian characters to get some name recognition. Only reason I’m remotely interested is because Katie McGrath is in there. She’s not Morgana like in Merlin, but I’m curious about seeing her in the same mythos as a different character. (Still thinking library rental though.)

    • You brought up some excellent points, Charles. Why not do Robin Hood? Or, why do an existing character at all? Come up with an original story!

      I admire your pathway for Luke and how you’re showing his learning curve as a hero. You’ve taken some flak for it, but I’m glad you’ve stood your ground.

      Yes, Wolverine is a good example. And the Cyclops dynamic shows that yes people dislike boy scouts–unless they’re Captain America. I admit I felt lukewarm about Cyclops, but only because he always seemed to whine about Jean. It’s not his fault though. He needed to be given more to do.

      We do love our antiheroes. We prefer Han to Luke and Batman over Superman. But I’d like to see heroes get their due. Granted, writing a compelling hero (as you know) is tough. But it’s possible.

      • Only reason I could see a no to Robin Hood is that the Russel Crowe one might be too similar to what they’re doing. It seems a lot of the people making decisions on movies aren’t interested in originality. They want something with a preexisting fanbase and minimal risk. Though I think I remember the last King Arthur movie not doing well.

        I think Captain America gets a pass because he had his own movie and is written to counteract the more anti-hero Stark. Cyclops in the movies was there for the Jean rivalry and to be made a fool by Wolverine. I prefer the comic book version when he isn’t put in that position. Even if he is, one has to write him better than the whiner. For example, the original Age of Apocalypse run had a Cyclops that worked for Mister Sinister. He had lost an eye to that world’s Wolverine, who was missing a hand after the fight. That Cyclops was pretty badass and showed the character’s potential.

        I’m curious to see how Superman does with Batman in the movie. I’ve already seen people trying to claim that it’s now a Batman movie. The new trailer was definitely eye-catching.

      • I’d like to see that Cyclops! Maybe with the X-Men reboot they’ll do something more with his character. I noticed that they have a new Storm.

        I can see revamping existing stories and heroes. Just make them worth our time. I hate to see dumbed down versions of stories I love.

        I never saw that King Arthur, though I thought about seeing it. Clive Owen’s movies seem to tank for some reason.

      • Storm has her mohawk look too from what I saw. Jubilee is supposed to get a cast upgrade. The entire series has been rebooted thanks to the last movie. Not sure what it is about Clive Owen. I thought he was great in Sin City and Shoot ‘Em Up was a silly guilty pleasure for a bit.

      • I guess. I’m not really sure what his style is or why his films don’t seem as successful. Perhaps the movies he’s chosen? He was good in Children of Men. I’m not sure how well that did at the box office.

      • I actually didn’t like ‘Children of Men’. The story and history didn’t really grab me. Just seemed like a lot of stuff went without explanation.

  4. I’m glad you finished this post and I am in sync with your frustration in terms of all heros now being anti-heros. First of all, it’s annoying that Ritchie’s and Hunnam’s definition of conflict seems to lie in physical conflict rather that psychological conflict. Arthur (the little I know, anyway) experienced loads of conflict related to his new role. But the bigger question to me has to do with why we’ve experienced a cultural shift toward the anti-hero.

    • Amen to your question, Laura. That’s the bigger question. I continually see “revised” versions of heroes. And I totally get irritated at the notion of physical conflict being perceived as “more interesting” than psychological conflict. I can’t help thinking of shallow waters.

      • We are not alone in our frustration. In an article in Rolling Stone magazine on the current season of True Detective (entitled True Defective), the journalist asked of Colin Farrell’s character — do all actors need a dark side?

  5. I enjoyed reading all the comments this morning in response to your provocative post.
    The first anti-heroes for me go back quite a ways to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I had devoured the Once and Future King as a high school student (and keep wanting to read it again now) and found Arthur macho enough, for sure. Then, a few years later, along came Butch and Sundance, and the anti-hero-hunk was born.
    I suppose I will eventually see the Guy Ritchie version, but, will alway love Camelot, oldie that I am.

    • Camelot was good, Penny. Butch and Sundance were hot because of Newman and Redford. 🙂 I have a curiosity about the new Arthur, because I liked Ritchie’s versions of Sherlock Holmes. But I’m still irritated at the comments made in the article.

  6. I know I’ll add King Arthur to my Netflix queue ~ because I loved The Sword and the Stone as a child and am still a fan of Merlin and Archimedes (the owl).

  7. This is such an interesting question. I like “noble” guys (and gals) in real life, but in fiction I do find a darker edge more interesting most of the time. Flynn Rider is totally my Disney boyfriend, and I’m team Gale, not team Peeta. An external struggle to achieve a noble goal for a noble purpose can be interesting, but a struggle against good and then arriving there anyway is a more compelling inner journey to me. Maybe it’s because I’m such a good girl in real life. I find the dark-to-light journey compelling.

    I can’t remember whether I said this before, but I do find Superman kind of boring because he’s so good and noble all the time. Don’t tell my husband. He’s a Superman nut.

    • You know I thought of you and of course Aren when I wrote this post, Kate. I love Flynn too. And I like a hero who struggles with being heroic. However, I also love noble heroes like Arthur and Beowulf (who was actually pretty complicated). As I mentioned in another comment, I get irritated when someone decides to adapt a story, but they don’t like certain fundamental aspects of a character. I’m like, “Make up your own characters and story!”

      • It’s definitely different with an adaptation. Take Superman as an example. Better to create a new character or to leave him as-is and find a way to add internal conflict rather than making him dark.

        For some reason I’m thinking of the trailer I saw for a new Jem and the Holograms movie. They changed so much that it’s basically a generic teen “chase your dreams but don’t forget your roots” flick with an 80’s nostalgia name slapped on. If you need to change that much, why not make it original?

  8. A hero ought to have the capability to be bad but choose to be noble! Take Gandalf and Saruman – equally powerful, it’s all in the choices they made. And you rarely hear anyone saying that Saruman is their hero. I don’t like ‘goody-goodies’ in literature or film (or life) but I do like people who choose to be mostly ‘good’ – even if their idea of what is good might not always be mine. I’ve really noticed a resurgence of macho heroes all over the place in the last few years, and as you point out, many of them aren’t exactly noble…

    • Agreed. Gandalf and Saruman are good reminders. While I can applaud the desire to make a hero more authentic, irritation rises within me when changes are made to heroes just to make a role more palatable for an actor and to birth an action movie franchise. Why not come up with original heroes???

  9. I had no idea there was another Arthur movie imminent. I like the versions that try to ground him in ‘real life’, and the one with Clive Owen probably came closest. I haven’t read The Once And Future King, but I do love the trilogy of books by Bernard Cromwell:The Warlord Chronicles. Much for the same reason that shapes my movie preferences.

    • I thought of you as I read the article, Andy. While I can see that there is room for revision in the heroic archetype (grounding a hero in reality as you mention), I’m always wary about the motive behind the changes. Too often movies are shallow. That’s why this article put me on edge.

  10. It seems the scriptwriters these days are going for the most damaged hero they can possibly come up with. I agree with your view on this 100%. One doesn’t have to be utterly decrepit to face challenges and be interesting. I hope we have a new “age of heroes” that hearkens back to those we used to know.

    • I’d definitely like to see that age of heroes, Phillip. It’s time for some new heroes!! I’m tired of people tinkering with old heroes simply because they don’t agree with heroism.

  11. We are never tired to find again our roots from the upper Middle Age and the legends that make us dream Those various legendary stories are at the base of the literature of the Occident.
    In friendship
    Michel

    • Yes. 🙂 But I’m still disturbed by life today–the focus on the external. I’m tired of seeing stories I’ve loved viewed as not good enough by today’s standards.

  12. I got stopped on Han Solo and really couldn’t get past him to read the rest…..

    KIDDING.

    Sort of. (I love Harrison Ford. Still love him.)

    We live in an age where everything must fit into a box. People are not flexible enough to try new things or expand world view (in general.) If that’s what Hunnam does with King Arthur, it’s probably because some focus group told them to do it that way. Sad.

  13. That last question is the best, I think. Why bother adapting. I started thinking about this and it occurred to me that we don’t do the same thing with girls. At least, not as often. Most of the female counterparts of the guys you mentioned above do NOT have sordid pasts. They’re just good girls. Something to think about, anyway.

    It’s kind of a worrying shift, actually. It used to be acceptable to have an all-around good guy hero. It didn’t mean they were perfect, it just meant they had standards from the get go. I liked Tangled, but I only let our kids watch it every now and then and I emphasize to my girls that the vast majority of bad boys do not turn good because of a girl; that it’s just part of the faerie tale. Same for Princes and the Frog. So often, that seems to be the underlying message behind the bad boy thing.

    Also: Captain America is my favorite Avenger BECAUSE he is an all-around good guy. 😀

    • Oh ReGi, I totally hear you (and heart you). 🙂 You’re absolutely right. It is a worrying shift. It is part of the tale. And I had the same thought about Tangled and The Princess and the Frog.

      I love Captain America. He’s a good guy who also is hot. Yes. I am shallow.

      • LOL!!! You’re nothing near shallow. You simply “like pretty,” as one friend puts it. Sadly, none of the Avengers fit my particular aesthetic tastes, but Captain America is the only one I think I’d actually get along with.

      • LOL Wanna know a secret? If I met Tai on the street, I would not be attracted. I very carefully do not stick to my own tastes when writing guys. When I was doing that, all the guys looked like my husband. So, I give all my guys a couple physical traits I like so I can write convincing attraction (I hope) for the gals, but the rest I fill in with things I’m not particularly turned on by.

      • Very wise. 🙂 I used to write shallow stories about beautiful fantasy men. Okay, I still do to an extent. But they have to have a flaw (a scar; a neurosis; a crusty temperament, something that has caused them great pain). I also strip away the regard of others until he earns it with great effort.

        Whenever I write about beautiful people, I don’t want the beauty to work for them. I want them to discover their inner strength. They can’t do that if everyone fawns over them.

  14. This is why I was so pleased by the success of Captain America as a character in the Marvel movies. Everyone thought he would be “too boring.” Well, they were wrong! It’s refreshing when I see “good” characters who I can relate to. As much as I love the Han Solos, they don’t work out so well in real life a lot of the time. 🙂

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