I get into a tizzy whenever I see an adaptation of the books I’ve read being released. I dither. I find myself unable to decide whether it would be worth it, or whether it would kill the books for me the way so many adaptations (almost all Harry Potter movies, for instance) have done. Invariably, though, I cannot resist the temptation of seeing the written words coming alive on the screen. There is also a desire to liken my imagination to what the creators of the adaptation would portray. I love to compare how the characters and places looked and felt in my mind whilst reading with how they do with the adaptation, how different the depiction of the events are from how I imagined them, how similar is the setting, and so forth.
More often than not, the adaptation falls way short of the source material. Even if it doesn’t, it rarely manages to gratify the purist in me. It was because of these reasons I had a kind of emotional conflict in my mind when I heard about the new BBC America TV series: The Last Kingdom. I felt something akin to anticipation mixed with a little apprehension.
The adaptation I’m talking about here, The Last Kingdom, is a historical drama based on Bernard Cornwell’s superb (albeit protracted) series of historical fiction books called Saxon Tales which fictionalises the Danish invasion of the island made up of assorted kingdoms later to be united under a single polity called England. I briefly described the book series in an essay on Bernard Cornwell and his book, Sharpe’s Tiger, that I wrote late last year. As I noted there, the fiction in Bernard Cornwell’s novels conforms pretty amazingly to the historical context and background of the setting, and is fleshed out with characters, depth, and emotions to the point that you do really want Cornwell’s version of the events to be true, even if the author explicitly states otherwise. My only wish from the TV series was that it should be faithful enough with the books and should have decent production values – the rest would be taken care of. Does it manage to stay true to its roots? Or veers away in the direction where so many adaptations have inevitably ended up?
For the uninitiated, the “Last Kingdom” in the title of the show is an allusion to the southwestern kingdom of Wessex that was literally the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom that held out after every other had yielded against the might and ferocity of the Danish Viking hordes. The armies of Wessex overcame the astonished Danes repeatedly and the credit for those remarkable victories is usually given to the strategic brilliance of Alfred the Great: the then king of Wessex. But in Bernard Cornwell’s world, Alfred shares the credit of Wessex’s deliverance with a man called Uthred of Bebbanburg, a fictional character, and it is he who leads the Wessex forces against the Vikings for him.
Uthred is easily one of my favourite protagonists in literature. It is not just his clearly Viking-ish character traits (although they alone make him compelling enough), but it is because of his allegiances and actions that are often in utter contradiction with his wishes and ambitions that make him so unique, and yet so believable. Born a Saxon in a northern kingdom to the lord of Bebbanburg – a sturdy, almost impenetrable citadel situated on the northwestern coast of England – Uthred was brought up in a Danish household after his namesake father was killed in the Battle for Eoferwich (York) while fighting the Danes. Having no particular love for his stern, forbidding father or the encumbered Christian way of life he had been brought up in, he came to enjoy the company of the Danes – their drinking, their humour, their fighting, and their boisterous feasts.
Uthred does not care that the man who nurtured him, the Danish lord Ragnar the Fearless (not to be confused with Ragnar Lothbrok of Vikings), had actually been the one who fatally stabbed his father in the neck. For the orphaned boy found the affection and warmth in his foster father that he never felt in his biological father, also called Uthred – played by Matthew Macfadyen – who had been utterly dismissive of him and acknowledged his very existence only after his elder son was killed.
Uthred grows up a Dane through and through, but he also yearns for his ancestral castle, his birthright: the castle of Bebbanburg. Now held by his treacherous uncle, Ælfric, who would not stop until he has removed the final threat to his claim – Uthed – Bebbanburg stays in Uthred’s mind when his adopted family is murdered and he is forced to flee to Wessex for the fear of reprisals by Danes thinking him to be the murderer. He joins the service of Alfred, then the king of Wessex’s younger brother, and soon to become king. He is helped by his childhood teacher and priest, Father Beocca, who now serves Alfred, and agrees to fight the Danes on Alfred’s assurance that he would help him in reclaiming Bebbanburg. It is that assurance that binds him to the Saxons and forces him to take up arms against the very people he had grown up in.
The glory of Uthred’s character is his dilemma. A Dane by soul, a Saxon by birth, he is perpetually torn between the two disparate cultures and peoples having their own customs, gods, laws and culture. He likes Danes for their happy-go-lucky lives. Among them, he observes, everyone is free to do anything without the fear of being branded a sinner. They love fighting, women, noise, and plunder, but most of all, they love life and embrace it. But among the Saxons, one has to follow the strict, oppressive Christian ways. You go against the grain, you are branded a sinner, the punishments of which range from public humiliations to death. Thus, Uthred comes to detest the Saxons, but he develops a bond with some of their kind too, which confounds his situation all the more. Adding to the quandary, he has no choice but to eschew the Danes and live among the infuriatingly pious Saxons he finds himself in if he wants to give himself even a remote chance to reclaim his ancestral fortress.
Coming back to the show, I was totally sold on the opening title sequence. The metaphorical fires of Danes enveloping England and halting just before Wessex on a CGI map is an impressive touch, and so is the wailing voice in the background which always somehow sounds absurdly pleasing to my ears. Uthred is the narrator in The Last Kingdom, except for the first episode.
The show is refreshingly faithful with the books, not only plot-wise but also in terms of tone, with only a few minor plot and technical adjustments here and there probably owing to budget constraints. There is the same dark, irreverent humour, ridicule of deities, Christian and pagan alike, and a frivolous tone throughout. The battles are downgraded, with only a handful of rows of warriors on either side and it is there the limited money is especially noticeable. But thankfully none of it kills the overall experience as the show gets the basics right: direction and acting.
Of the things I didn’t like, the most prominent was the pacing. I wish the episodes were more comfortably paced, giving more time to exposition and world-building. To give you an idea, the first episode itself covers more than half of the first book, and the book is not at all short at 400 pages. Editing is good too for the most part, but there are some minor problems especially when a shot is cut a bit too abruptly – it gives a sort of visual jolt which is all the more noticeable in a show that is otherwise pretty slick.
Alexander Dreymon, who I last saw in a tiny role in the third season of American Horror Story, turned out to be a much better Uthred than I had expected from promos and trailers. He demonstrates the qualities and vices of Uthred skillfully, and his body language is almost eerily similar to that of Uthred as I had pictured in my mind whilst reading the books. He is equal mixture chocolate and grit, and he delineate the glorious dilemma I mentioned earlier very nicely. He is not the best actor, mind you, but he does the job well.
Side-actors are as important as the major ones in a TV show, and that is where The Last Kingdom truly shines. Imagine having an actor of the calibre of Matthew Macfadyen for a role with less than ten minutes of screen-time. Ian Hart (who has grown quite a bit from his days of Quirinus Quirrell in the first Harry Potter film) does a sound job as a caring, father-figure Father Beocca to Uthred, although he is absolutely nothing like the bumbling and doddering old man in the books. Instead, he is a clear-eyed, alert man who, in spite of being a hopeless Christian fanatic, is not cold towards pagans, especially Uthred who he had baptised in his childhood and who he still believes can “mend his ways.” I didn’t mind this change one bit. It was really heart-warming to see him always looking after Uthred, even when Uthred keeps disdaining him and his beliefs. He always stands steadfast beside Uthred and is one of the few Saxons Uthred trusts.
The antagonists are many in The Last Kingdom – it is the Middle-Ages after all – both among the Danes and the Saxons. Some want to kill Uthred, some just want him banished, particularly some of the Saxons who just can’t bear a pagan among them. There is a border-line Joffrey too in the show and Ubba makes for a perfectly fine Ramsay Bolton, though with a much better sense of humour. Come to think of it, almost every Viking warrior must have had a Ramsay Bolton inside him. The performances are great all-around, and the show maintains the contemporary television trend of grey characters with uncertain motivations and unpredictable actions. No character is all good or all bad in The Last Kingdom, though some are what might be termed as psycho.
David Dawson as Alfred the Great deserves special mention. Alfred is probably the second most important character in the story, and I’m glad they chose just the perfect person to portray it. David is Alfred. He reenacts the mannerisms, cleverness, fanaticism, charisma, disease-addled disposition beautifully, and, most importantly, the nerves of steel Alfred must have had to take on the ferocious Viking hordes all alone. The scenes with him had me wanting never to take my eyes off the screen. He dominates every scene, no matter whether he is the one speaking or not. While reading the books, I used to wonder how a sickly, physically weak king like Alfred could inspire such reverence among his followers as Bernard Cornwell insisted. Now I know how, all thanks to Dawson’s superlative performance.
Alfred’s brother dies, and he becomes king. Uthred, thinking Alfred to be a potential asset in his quest of reclaiming Bebbanburg, follows him and even fights Danes for him, much to the chagrin of Brida, his Christian-detesting lover who had grown up with him in Ragnar’s household. But instead, Alfred turns Uthred into his asset, in his war against the Danes to save the titular last kingdom. Alfred might not be a great warrior or battle commander, but he is a master strategist. Brida, not surprisingly, is not pleased.
I could go on, but I will end up spoiling the entire show for you, and I’ve already written as many words as a typical short story, so I’ll sign off here. The Last Kingdom is an excellent adaptaion of one of my favourite series of books. It is by no means perfect, or even anywhere near it, but it is quite loyal to the source material and even when it swerves away, it does great justice to the essence of the story (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones). Production values are also decent, and the direction pretty excellent, but it is the cast that makes it special. The acting is what in the end counts in a piece of fiction, and The Last Kingdom excels at it. I got it from Nick Murphy, the director of first two episodes, on Twitter that the second season is currently in production, and I for one can’t wait.
Note: For the sake of convenience, in this essay I have referred to that 9th century conglomerate of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms by its current name: England. It was not called England back then. It came much later.