The Last Defender of Camelot is probably my favorite short story by Zelazny, and consequently, my favorite short story, period.
(It's either Last Defender or Divine Madness, but they occupy different places in my psyche. Divine Madness, as brilliant and haunting as it is, doesn't tell a story in the same way Last Defender does.)
George RR Martin, of A Game of Thrones fame, adapted it for the New Twilight Zone in 1986.
|It's not me, is it? That really is a terrible typeface, right?|
How did he do?
Well...It has its problems, and there is only so much a good script can do to overcome the restrictions of 80s Genre Anthology shows, which were seldom vehicles for subtle story telling.
Exhibit A: Tales From the Dark Side, Episode #13:
I saw this one with my buddy when we were maybe 14 or 15. It's about a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary.The episode is called Anniversary Dinner, and, as if that wasn't enough of a tip, every other line is "How can such an old sourpuss taste so sweet?" or "We're having the children over...for dinner!"
Even alarmingly obtuse teen Josh was like "They're cannibals, right? Surely they're not going to drag this out for another twenty five minutes?" (The characters stop short of saying "You might say we just ate Uter and he's in our stomachs right now!", but only barely)
Television is more sophisticated than it used to be, and modern writers understand that viewing audiences have seen the same tropes and cliches on numerous occasions, and write to subvert those expectations. Joss Whedon was likely very influential in this regard. (Look, everybody! Josh said something nice about Joss Whedon!) That kind of thing hadn't yet taken hold in the 80s. Everything was played pretty straight. So..my expectations were not high.
In my Damnation Alley review, I mentioned this adaption, and a friend who is also a Zelazny fan, said he immediately went out and saw it. I googled it, wondering if it was available for streaming, and found that there were several different uploads on YouTube. I've seen full length movies uloaded to Youtube and it seems like this be somehow legal, as it looks like every episode of the New Twilight Zone is on there, and whatever party owns the rights could hardly be unaware of this. None of them are very high quality, so perhaps that's a factor.
On screen text shown over the clock tower holding Big Ben, and we open with an old man leaving what looks like a small private residence. He's observed by a trio of punks. He beats two of them unconscious, and I like that what is done on screen actually mirrors how it's presented in the book,
Then, with an upward hook as the man doubled, he caught him in the softness beneath the jaw, behind the chin, with its point. As the man fell, he clubbed him with its butt on the back of the neck.at least as much is possible. Lance captures the third mugger, who says they were ordered to bring them to her. The punk reminds me of Sting playing Feyd-Rautha in Dune.
I was having trouble following his accent, which sounded like a cross between Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and those Cockney trolls that give Bilbo a hard time in the Hobbit, so I turned on Youtube's automatic captions, which, based on its rather hilarious results, were also having a difficult time understanding him. I took some screen shots of those as well, and I'll put them up in a second post.
Changes: Lance starts in London instead of San Fransisco, which is fine. It's a change, but not an important one, and you don't need to spend money for two sets, and waste time explaining why he went from one place to the other. He also has a beard, and I'm pretty sure he didn't in the book. (A beard is never referenced, and there are some parts where it would have made sense to mention it if he had one.) More on the beard in the relevant scene. Tom, the punk, is a new character, presumably for audience identification, so Lance has someone to whom he can explain things.
Tom takes Lance to Morgan Le Fey. She calls Tom her "Knight in Shining Leather," which is kind of funny. Morgan is played by Jenny Agutter, who continues to act today. Apparently she was a member of the council that oversaw S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Avengers. Huh.
Lance offers some exposition which mostly covers the same ground as the story. She does get a new line that I liked. When Lance says "Merlin always said you had no morals," she replies "Merlin said a lot of things. Between him and Malory, I got horrible press." Heh heh. Also, I like the bit where she seems to be expecting Lance to light her cigar. When he doesn't, she asks, "What happened to Chivalry?" and he answers, "Haven't you heard? It's dead."
Changes: Nothing big. The conversation takes a different direction than it does in the book, but that's because the plots have already diverged. The encounter is a bit more adversarial than in the book, and Morgan is spunky, and a bit more colloquial in her speech and manner.
Lance departs with Tom to Cornwall. They talk a bit, and Lance tells Tom to wait while he goes into the cave to look for Merlin. Merlin and Raxas both look pretty silly. Raxas is forgivable, due to the limitations of budget and logistics of the show but Merlin looks like he's wearing a costume shop rental. Again, the conversation covers the same general territory in the book.
Changes: The dialogue is a good mix of new stuff ("Now there are weapons that can fire whole cities in an instant...and poison the earth for longer than you have slept.") , and lines that worked in the original. The impression I get from the original story, when Lance said he had left his walking stick in the cave, that was just a cover so he could get at the elixir, but here, when he returns to the cave, he happens upon the bottle, and only then does the idea to drink it occur to him.
Outside in the real Stonehenge, Merlin orders Raxas to prepare Tom to be sacrificed. Lance orders him to stop and boasts that he could take the knight apart. Merlin is considering it, and that decides that he definitely wants to see Lance hacked to bits when Morgan shows up on his side. He gives Lance the weapons and armor, but no horse. Lance says that he still needs his squire "Tom", which was a cool move. They fight, Lance cuts the head off the Hollow Knight, but he still fights on. (Also, even in the low quality Youtube videos, it's clear that they removed the head of the knight in post production, as there is a conscpicous black dot where his head should be that never quite matches the rest of the darkness.)
When Lance is distracted, Merlin is about to blast him with unconvincing 80s CG. But Morgan unleashes her own fake looking special effects first! But then Merlin retaliates and kills her. Lance destroys the knight, then advances on Merlin, blocking his lightning and cleaving his staff in two when close enough. Merlin ages to death like so many other villains have before him.
Morgan is not quite dead after all. Lance and Tom check on. She tells Lance and Tom that the right fork on the road will take them back home. But, on the left fork, they see a matte painting of a castle, and decide to walk towards that instead.
I'm pretty sure this is why they gave Lance a beard. It's the easiest way to make it clear that he's become younger. Last Exit to Babylon, the fourth volume of the Collected stories of Roger Zelazny, have little more detail on why various changes were made, such as the absence of horses, and it's an interesting read.
I think the biggest problem is the splashy, dramatic magic. These effects are simply awful, and I say this as lifetime fan of Classic Doctor Who. Martin is a canny writer,and no dummy. For the rest of the episode, he removed or adjusted whatever wouldn't work on TV. Those effects simply do not work at all. They're silly, they're fake and they take me out of the movie.
Overall? It's a decent adaptation. Better than Damnation Alley, certainly. Martin did what he could within the constraints of the medium as it existed then. This wouldn't have made me seek out Roger Zelazny, but it wouldn't have scared me away, either.