selenak: (BambergerReiter by Ningloreth)
[personal profile] selenak
Having now read three of the four books the first two seasons of The Last Kingdom are based on, I find my original suspicion that Bernard Cornwell novels benefit from adaptions into other media because these take you out of the main character's head justified, though not always quite in the way I assumed. Because the novels are narrated by an older Uthred looking back, his narrating self can sometimes point out things his younger self did not yet see or realise, for example, that he wronged his first wife Mildrith, or that he underestimated Alfred early on because a chronically sick non-warrior valueing learning and feeling guilty about sex could not possibly be a strong leader in his young eyes. Otoh, older, wiser Uthred narrating still doesn't change the fact most female characters come across as more dimensional and fleshed out in the tv adaption than they do in the novels (Brida and Mildrith in the first, Hild and Aelswith in the second season - Iseult, alas, is a cliché in both versions).

The tv show cut or compressed various characters and slimmed down events, and given that they do two books per season so far, that's not surprising. But even if they took a longer time, I think some of the changes and cuts were to the narrative's benefit. For example: Cornwell has to come up with some pretty convoluted circumstances and far-stretched plots to have a teenage Uthred who is still with the Danes secretly present when Prince (not yet King) Alfred confesses about his carnal lapses to Beocca. In the book, he needs to be because he's the narrator and neither Alfred nor Beocca would have told him about this. The tv show dispenses with said circumstances and just has the scene between Alfred and Beocca, without Uthred secretly listening in, because he doesn't need to be in order for the audience to get this information about the young Alfred.

Mind you, dispensing with the first two times Uthred meets Alfred and letting their first encounter not happen until after Ragnar the Elder's death creates one important difference between book and show relationship that's worth mentioning. Book Uthred lies to Alfred (and Beocca) these first two times and point blank spies on them for the Danes, so the later "why do you keep distrusting me?" indignation rings a little hollow in this regard. Show Uthred does no such thing, so Alfred is accordingly less justified in his lingering ambiguity.

Another cut that somewhat shifts perception: the first novel has Uthred participating in a few Danish raids led by Ragnar, including one on Aelswith's hometown (though she doesn't know he took part). Now, in the show we go from Uthred the child to adult Uthred directly and adult Uthred is solely seen at Ragnar's home, with the deaths of Ragnar & Co. impending, but given adult Uthred later is shown to be already a skilled fighter, it stands to reason he practiced these skills. But I suspect the show avoided showing Uthred fighting against Saxon civilians this early on deliberately. Both show and books have Uthred loving the Danes but staying with the Saxons post Ragnar's death because various circumstances (and then Alfred's machinations) make it impossible for him to do otherwise. Only the book, though, spells out that Uthred doesn't start to feel any kind of identification/emotional connection to the Saxons until he sees them winning a battle (until then, narrator Uthred says, he hadn't thought Danes could lose, which makes sense given that throughout Uthred's childhood and adolescence, they were winning), when before he regarded them as weak and didn't want to think of himself as belonging to them. Which makes sense given Uthred is raised in a warrior culture and is a young, arrogant adolescent at the time, but again, I suspect the tv version avoids spelling this out in order not to make him off putting early on when establishing the character.

Otoh, the scenes the tv show adds in the two seasons where Uthred isn't present all serve to flesh out the characters in question more and work to their benefit, whether it's Alfred, Hild, Aelswith or Beocca. The notable exception is Guthred in s2, whose additional scenes make him look worse, not better than the novel does. Possibly, too, because in the novel Guthred is described having an easy charm that makes Book!Uthred forgive him even the truly terrible thing Guthred does to Uthred, and the actor playing Guthred on the show doesn't have that at all, and instead comes across as nothing but fearful, easily influenced and weak. (And show!Uthred while coming to terms with him doesn't forgive him.) I have to say, lack of actorly charm aside, given that Guthred sells Uthred into slavery, I find the tv version more realistic.

The push-pull relationship between Uthred and Alfred is there in both versions, but in the tv show, it comes across as more central. As my local library has it, I also read "Death of Kings", the novel in which, Alfred dies, not without manipulating Uthred one last time into doing what he wants him to do, and Uthred's thoughts on the man later, summing him up, are Cornwell's prose at its best:

I stood beside Alfred's coffin and thought how life slipped by, and how, for nearly all my life, Alfred had been there like a great landmark. I had not liked him. I had struggled against him, despised him and admired him. I hated his religion and its cold disapproving gaze, its malevolence that cloaked itself in pretended kindness, and its allegiance to a god who would drain the joy from the world by naming it sin, but Alfred's religion had made him a good man and a good king.
And Alfred's joyless soul had proved a rock against which the Danes had broken themselves. Time and again they had attacked, and time and again Alfred had out-thought them, and Wessex grew ever stronger and richer and all that was because of Alfred. We think of kings as privileged men who rule over us and have the freedom to make, break and flaunt the law, but Alfred was never above the law he loved to make. He saw his life as a duty to his god and to the people of Wessex and I have never seen a better king, and I doubt my sons, grandson and their children's children will ever see a better one. I never liked him, but I have never stopped admiring him. He was my king and all that I now have I owe to him. The food that I eat, the hall where I live and the swords of my men, all started with Alfred, who hated me at times, loved me at times, and was generous with me. He was a gold-giver.

Last Yuletide I added a Last Kingdom request at the last minute because I'd seen it had been nominated, and accordingly it was short, but this Yuletide I think I'll also offer, and will request in more detail and more characters. While the other historical tv shows I consumed during the last year were entertaining in various degrees, this was the only one which was also good.

Date: 26 Jul 2017 16:16 (UTC)
peasant: sweet pea (Default)
From: [personal profile] peasant
As so often with these things, the books and the show are two rather separate beasts, but both good in their way.

I think the women in the books suffer because Cornwell never wants his heroes to keep the same woman for long, so when you read the books rapidly one after another the constant churn becomes very obvious. I think Hild in the books is actually better and more interesting than the Hild of the show, but otherwise I agree that the TV show makes them rounder. On the other hand I think Uhtred's motivations and split loyalties are more complex in the books.

Date: 27 Jul 2017 10:55 (UTC)
peasant: sweet pea (Default)
From: [personal profile] peasant
Cornwell just isn't interested in women. Even the ones he likes, like Aethelflaed, are never particularly real. When the show started I had no idea who Brida was because she is so unmemorable in the earlier books I had completely forgotten about her. The show does pretty much everything related to the women much better, with the sole exception of Hild's story which they changed to its detriment in my opinion - and undermined some important motivation and complexity of personality for Uhtred in the process, sadly.

One argument that stood out to me in the second novel for which there's no equivalent in the show is Uthred concluding that if he stays with the Danes, he'll be always dependent on Ragnar's favour and will always have to prove himself as one of them, whereas with the Saxons he's accepted as one of them. Au contraire, if anything, the show gives the impression that it's with the Saxons Uthred has to constantly prove himself.

Yes. One thing the show has painted itself into a corner over is they don't really allow Uhtred to feel loyalty to the Saxons simply because he is Saxon. That basic patriotism doesn't seem to occur to them or something. Maybe because the actor himself has such a strong accent so always comes across as a foreigner compared to the English actors playing Saxons, or maybe they are just biased.

Date: 27 Jul 2017 13:54 (UTC)
peasant: sweet pea (Default)
From: [personal profile] peasant
Good point - Uhtred is Northumbrian, not Saxon. Thinking about it, his sense of identity as English (for want of a better word) not Dane doesn't develop so strongly until the later books, so I may be confusing that.

Another thing that builds up very gradually in the books is the information that Uhtred was basically abused as a boy by both his father and Beocca, possibly also his uncle, and so I think that is part of why his time with Ragnor is so quickly and clearly described as happy.

this whole united England idea in lieu of several independent kingdoms is rather new, and the first time Uthred in the book realises that this is Alfred's ambition he calls it "monstrous".

Well since it would basically mean Northumberland being subjected to Saxon Christian rule he does have a point.

And even within British history, the question surely arises all over again once the Normans arrive; I seem recall the time of the early Edwards (I - III) is seen as the transition period where French was no longer the primary language of the (Norman origin) nobility and they saw themselves as distinctly different from French nobility, but that still leaves two centuries of Norman/Angevin Empire when the ruling elite wouldn't have considered themselves British, let alone English, at all.

The English identity (as opposed to the separate kingdoms of the Saxons, Mercians, Angles and Northumbrians) is being forged at this time, and has remained pretty solid and constant ever since, with remarkably stable boundaries. We have experienced a partial or whole foreign elite several times since then - the second lot of Danish rule in 1013-1042, the Norman invasion of 1066, the Scottish kings from 1601, the Dutch in 1688 and the Germans in 1714. But the aristocracy are not the people, and on each occasion after a while they took their identity from us rather than the other way round. The concept of a British identity, as opposed to English, doesn't really begin until the various acts of union with first Wales (1536) then Scotland (1707) and finally Ireland (1800). And since identity is always cultural rather than political, and constantly evolving, it is hard to put a date on when people started to feel British in the modern sense, especially since English and British have been rather interchangeable terms until very recently.

re: Hild - I actually prefered it that she didn't have a sexual relationship with Uthred in the show. And while I would have liked for her to have more episodes between her decision to live as a warrior and her decision to return to the monastic life than just one, Show!Hild gets scenes with Alfred (in the second) and Aelswith (in the first) season that aren't about Uthred, so I'm not sure how she's less complex on the show?

Yes, I also like it that there is one woman who won't sleep with him!

I don't think the character is less complex on the show, but I think Uhtred's relationship with her is less complex. In the books he is largely freed from slavery by her efforts, and the price she pays is to renounce her physical relationship with him and return to a convented life. In acknowledgement of that price she has paid for him, he sets her silver cross in his sword, and throughout the rest of the books he will use that cross in a very ambiguous way, so you are never quite sure if he is gradually turning to Christianity, or is using it as a memory of Christian charity and loyalty and a woman he loved and who loved him enough to give him up. It is actually one of the most complex things in the book, and the show has ignored it completely, which I consider a shame.


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