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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Sword in the Stone’

The Sword in the Stone

Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman

Written by Bill Peet

Starring Rickie Sorenson, Richard Reitherman, Robert Reitherman, Karl Swenson, Junius Matthews

How important is fidelity in a movie adaptation? And, more to the point, do you need to be familiar with the source material for a movie to get more enjoyment out of that film? I’ve considered these questions with previous movies covered on the show, and my overall opinion remains the same. A movie is a movie, and a book is a book (or play, or musical, or what have you). I wouldn’t say “never the twain shall meet,” but frankly, one story can and should be able to work in various media. Though it doesn’t often happen, we’ll sometimes see movies that are better than the books they’re based on. All too frequently, we find the cinematic adaptation is a letdown.

There’s never one specific reason why an adaptation fails; the filmmakers can hew too closely to the source material and thus sap their movie of any creative life, or they can diverge from that source too far. What’s most galling to me—what will always be most galling—is a sentence I first heard when I walked out of The Da Vinci Code both disappointed and a bit groggy. (Yes, I nodded off a few times, which is rare for me.) Neither my wife nor I were impressed with the film, but when we mentioned it to friends or family who had read the book, we were told the same thing: “Oh, you should really read the book.” Now, let’s be clear: this was not a case of friends and family just saying, “Hey, the book that film is based on is very good. Because it is very good, you should check it out.” This was people saying, “You’ll get more out of the movie if you read the book.” To which I say, bull.

Whenever I mount this argument, I need to couch it by saying I am not advocating intentional illiteracy or something outrageous like that. But I don’t need to read a book to get more out of a movie adaptation. If the people behind the movie can’t actually tell the story in cinematic form, it’s not a case of the audience failing the story. It’s the filmmakers failing the story. I get concerned when I see movies that get supplemental tie-ins, like a comic book or animated prequel, or something equally ridiculous. The movie is all the audience should need for that specific story to work.

In the case of the 1963 Walt Disney Pictures film The Sword in the Stone, I’d say the movie fails as an adaptation, but mostly just fails as a story. I imagine not everyone who’s seen the film is aware that the film is based on the T.H. White novel of the same name, which would become the first in a five-book series. People may know that the story isn’t original; Walt Disney came up with many stories and characters, but not the legend of King Arthur. They may not realize it’s based on the beginning of such an expansive series, one that’s certainly well-regarded but hasn’t had the same specific lasting power of something, say, Tolkien wrote.

As such, when I watched this for the show, I was able to just look at it as a movie, and was disappointed in the final product. A lot of—frankly, anything that’s not from Pixar—Disney animated features aren’t very long, and this is no different, running just under 80 minutes long. But more than most, The Sword in the Stone feels awfully slight. While the audience is clued into the significance of the object in the title, the main character, a young boy named Arthur (nicknamed Wart for his scrawny nature), has no idea. When he pulls the sword from the stone in the film’s climax, something no other human has ever done, he doesn’t know why it’s a big deal until he does so a second time in front of adults, and they tell him that, oh, by the way, he’s the King of England now.

From what Mike and our guest Marjorie Jensen said on the show, that’s essentially what happens in the book, in that there’s no buildup or ceremonial nature to Wart yanking the sword from the stone. My hope is that it works a lot better on the page, because the execution here is too tossed-off. It feels more like the filmmakers essentially saying, “Hey, we have to end this movie soon! Let’s make sure the kid pulls the sword quick!” There’s nothing natural about it, partly because Wart is not a character who changes at all throughout the film. As Mike mentioned on the podcast, while Wart ostensibly receives an education from the famed wizard Merlin, we don’t see him learning any serious lessons or enacting that education in practice. When Merlin encourages the boy at the end of the film, his tiny body dwarfed not only by the royal robes and crown atop his head but by the cavernous throne room he’s sitting in, it feels glib and pointless. Merlin knows the boy will grow up to be King Arthur, eternal hero. We know it. But it’s only because we’re familiar with pop culture, not because the boy in the film will logically morph into King Arthur.

Arthur is, unfortunately, a cipher, as much as Mowgli was in The Jungle Book. I don’t care about him as a character, specific to this movie. If I separate myself from the legacy of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, he’s just not involving. He learns nothing. He’s an audience surrogate, one whose agency is almost nil. So then, as with The Jungle Book, what matters more is for the supporting cast to pick up the slack. In that film, we have Baloo, Bagheera (who’s frankly as much a main character, as he’s one of the few consistent presences), King Louie, Shere Khan, Kaa, and even the vultures. They may not all be excellent, but they’re colorful enough to make you forget in the moment that Mowgli’s a drip. The Sword in the Stone gives us Merlin, Madam Mim, and (if I’m being very generous) Archimedes. The balance isn’t there.

Merlin is meant to be prickly yet lovable, a paternal figure who takes the place of Ector, the bullish and doofy would-be knight who’s Wart’s foster father. The idea of Merlin, though, is more fascinating than the character. Even that idea is more compelling than Wart, sadly; when he literally sends himself to Bermuda by accident late in the film and vanishes for the majority of the climax, it may make sense within the story (what will Wart do without a sure hand of guidance?) but it sucks the fun out of the room. Archimedes is, perhaps, a little fun to be around, but as he’s voiced by Junius Matthews, the same person who voiced Rabbit in the Winnie the Pooh shorts, he sounds like a wet blanket. Even if he’s meant to be something of a wet blanket, that only makes his character so charming.

And then there’s Madam Mim. One of my biggest problems with this film is its lack of a clear antagonist. A person could, I imagine, mount the argument that Wart is his own worst enemy, that he needs to grow up and conquer his fear and general lack of authority before he can face off with famous nemeses. That argument would be fascinating if the Wart of this movie had such struggles. Instead, it’s not even him who fights Madam Mim, the closest we have to an actual villain, it’s Merlin. And hey, don’t get me wrong, this sequence is pretty solid, a decent excuse for the Disney animators to show off their skills in an otherwise drab-looking film. But it’s one scene, one that honestly doesn’t serve much of a function in the overall story.

That’s the real problem with The Sword in the Stone: it doesn’t feel like a full story, like it’s ever complete. We’ve just read the prologue to one of the most recognizable legends in Western literature, but I’d like to get more than just that. I’m glad the books exist, and look forward to reading them. That said, I’d hope that the first book in the series doesn’t feel so empty, so unfinished, so barely present as its adaptation.