Disney is deep in the midst of the superhero saga called The Avengers. It’s also weeks away from re-launching another mega series with the seventh episode of Star Wars. Both these movies are not merely franchises; they are what is nowadays termed as ‘cinematic universes’. But it seems Disney wants more! The studio has now set its eyes on the story of a mystical creature, several centuries old… Merlin.
The wizard Merlin, who you must have heard a lot of when reading on King Arthur and his exploits, has regularly surfaced in pop culture now and then. He has already been depicted in various forms in different British or American movies. In the 1963 animated movie of Disney, The Sword in the Stone, Merlin was said to be one of the most powerful wizards in the world, who educates young Arthur. His long white beard and his eccentric ways made that character quite popular. Many live action movies too have cast Merlin, notably played by Nicol Williamson in 1981’s Excalibur, Stephen Dillane in 2004’s King Arthur and by Sam Neill in the Emmy nominated television mini-series Merlin. Merlin had put on his act in Shrek The Third as well, and it’s rumored that Guy Ritchie’s 2016 movie on King Arthur will have Djimon Hounsou playing the role of the mentor though shunning away from the ‘Merlin’ name and appearance. Also, don’t forget the BBC series Merlin that ran from 2008 to 2012 with a younger version of the famous character.
With so much about Merlin already displayed by Hollywood, what does Disney have to offer? Disney has identified the 1996 book The Lost Years of Merlin written by T.A. Barron as the place to begin its ‘Merlin saga’. I call it saga because it really is one! After this book, T.A. Barron wrote another ten books to complete his 11-book series on Merlin. The synopsis of the first book is given below.
A raging sea tosses a boy upon the shores of ancient Wales. Left for dead, he has no memory, no name, and no home. But it is his determination to find out who he is—to learn the truth about his mysterious powers—that leads him to a strange and enchanted land. And it is there he discovers that the fate of this land and his personal quest are strangely entwined.
The synopsis gives little away, but essentially it is an origins story for Merlin. Merlin is a 15-year old boy in the first book. Mix that up with a lot of wizardry, and you get the feeling that we may be moving towards a Harry Potter-like series in a medieval setting and without Hogwarts of course. The opportunities that a fantasy book series can provide for a movie studio is humongous, but it all depends on how terrifically well the first one turns out to be.
Disney seems to have found the near-perfect screenwriter in Philippa Boyens to pen the screenplay for the first movie. Boyens has worked on one of the greatest fantasy movie adventures of our time, The Lord of the Rings trilogy followed by The Hobbit trilogy. She has had a great working relationship with Peter Jackson and was also on board the director’s version of King Kong. Boyens even won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay back in 2002 for her work with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh on The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Quite evidently, Boyens knows how to convert a fantasy story into a larger-than-life screenplay. Knowing that a great first film could be the key in creating a movie franchise worth billions of dollars that could run a decade long, Disney seems to have gone with the best available option here. However, the screenplay would only be the first step; the directors and the actors would come in next where again Disney would have to play its hand wisely. Going by the recent track record though, one cannot accuse Disney of not being ambitious enough. Nor is the studio complacent. It has been bold with its movie choices; it has been wise with its directors; it has been smart with its marketing of movies. Getting the Merlin saga onto the big screen might still be a few years away, but these could be the early indicators of Disney’s next big thing.