The Kid Who Would Be King, the new fantasy adventure from Attack the Block writer/director Joe Cornish, tells the story of a boy who turns out to be the inheritor of the legendary sword Excalibur. It's the movie that Cornish, who co-wrote Marvel's Ant-Man, has wanted to make his entire life.
CBR spoke with Cornish about the movie, in theaters this weekend, about bringing Arthurian legend into the 21st century while forging his own story.
The Kid Who Would Be King isn't merely a reinterpretation of classic tales, with a bullied English schoolboy who finds Excalibur and rallies a new Round Table to save the world, but instead a transformation of the myth, with children inheriting a grim world. That emphasis on young characters was crucial for the filmmaker.
"I liked the idea of kids seeing movies with kids in them," Cornish said, "with kids their own age in it. When I was a kid in the '80s, I was sort of the same age as Henry Thomas in E.T., I was kind of the same age as the kid in The Black Stallion when I saw The Black Stallion. And that's kind of missing from movies at the moment. When kids go to the movies now, they either see CGI characters with tiny legs and big heads or talking dogs, or they see Benedict Cumberbatch dressed in tights. So I really kind of miss movies for kids, about kids. Attack the Block was very much a movie aimed at older teenagers, and this is a movie aimed at pre-teens and younger teenagers. So in both movies I've tried to put the audience in the movie."
While tales of the Round Table are filled with a host of characters, Cornish zeroed in on new versions of Arthur, now the young but courageous Alex, and just three of his knights: Beivere becomes Bedders, Lancelot becomes Lance, and Kay becomes Kaye.
"Yeah, well there are lots of other knights. There's Sir Gawain and Percival, I mean there's a bunch of them really," the filmmaker explained. "But to be perfectly honest, these were the names that were most easily translatable to contemporary names. It was as simple as that."
"But Bedders was one of the members of a band called Madness, this kind of British ska band that were really big when I was a little kid, and one of their members was actually called Bedders," Cornish continued. "So when I thought of this idea as a 12-year-old, Bedders was one of the names I used. But you know, the Arthurian legend is long and has all these crazy tangents and sub-quests and myths inside myths, and it stretches all throughout Arthur's lifetime really. And there are all sorts of quests and objectives and an embarrassment of riches. It was more of an attempt to keep it a good little starting point."
That same idea carried over to Merlin. Rather than being depicted simply as an aged wizard, the characters spends most of the movie as a lanky teen who tries to prepare Alex and his knights for battle.
"Merlin's a pretty mad character in the myths. He's very unpin-downable," Cornish said. "He's not necessarily a benevolent wizard. He's a playful trickster, he's a little conniving. And he's such an ancient archetypal character that you've got to work to find a new take on him. I think, like, every wise and magical character in every fantasy movie we love is based to an extant on him, whether it's Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Doctor Who or any of the Harry Potter wizards."
"Merlin is probably one of the most influential fantasy characters there's ever been," he continued. "So I think the onus is on the author to try and find a different way to do him. And I love the idea that if he arrived in the modern world, you'd probably just mistake him for a crazy person, or like a hobo. There's also a '70s British TV series called Catweazle ... that was a big influence on me as a kid. So I always thought of the character Catweazle when I thought of my Merlin. Look him up! He's a crazy medieval sorcerer who arrives in the modern world."
Cornish has spoken about not just his love for the King Arthur stories, and how this was the movie he wanted to make when he was younger. But that doesn't mean he's completely in the tank for every adaptation of the stories. When asked whether he was nervous about tackling the legends himself, he replied, "Not really. I knew I was going to be writing in the voices of these kids who. To be perfectly honest, I find a lot of King Arthur movies to be quite boring and bad. I'm not a massive fan of medieval tedium. I really love John Boorman's Excalibur; it's a masterpiece. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a masterpiece ... the Disney animated Sword in the Stone. But a lot of the other ones I find quite hard work."
"I was motivated by making a fun, irreverent, silly, escapist, action-adventure version rather than anything to reverent to the ancient myth, which can always be a bit boring," Cornish ssaid. "Have you ever read [Thomas] Mallory? I just used the fun bits. It's basically like the original book, It's got the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin, the Holy Grail, all these incredible concepts that belong from the movies that are kind of unforgettable. Even if you don't know the details from the legend, most people know those five or six tropes. That's what I was really interested in, taking the cherries off the cake and ignoring the cake."
His own feelings about approaching those old legends with a new perspective became his guiding star. Cornish explained that, just like the lesson Alex has to learn over the course of the film, it's possible to embrace old stories without being beholden to them.
"I can say that's kind of what the movie is about," he said. "It's about how important it is for a new generation to rewrite old legends and not just repeat history and be beholden to the old ways of doing things. The whole movie is sort of permutation with that idea."
In theaters now, Joe Cornish,'s The Kid Who Would Be King stars Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Tom Taylor, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Rhianna Dorris, Denise Gough, Dean Chaumoo and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett.