Letter for the King … a review

In 2020 Netflix started streaming Chris Clarck’s and Chloe Moss’ “A Letter for the King”, a fantasy series in the young-adult genre to mixed reviews. Already in 2008 had Dutch filmmaker Pieter Verhoeff tried and failed to bring this material to the big screen. But a review must also include 3 books set in this fantasy world by author Tonke Dragt, published in 1962, 1965 and 1979. I will review it all.

Letter for the King

In March 2020 Netflix released all 6 episodes of Season 1 of “Letter for the King“. With a 57% and 50% scores from critics and audience on Rotten Tomatoes it can be argued the series was not a big success although better than the 28% audience score for the 2008 Dutch cinema interpretation “Brief aan de Koning“. YEt the original source material, a children’s book by Dutch female author Tonke Dragt has sold over 1 million copies and has seen more than a dozen translations, including in English, to generally very favourable reviews despite its age. So what did the Netflix series and the Dutch movie get so wrong, and what is it that makes the books nevertheless still so attractive?

Synopsis

To get the review of on a good start, I think I should cover a very brief synopsis of the content of the three books, the characters and the basic plot. This will not be spoiler-free.

The book Letter to the King (1962) recounts the story of a young squire, Tiuri, whose final tests for knighthood lead him to stumble into a mission with geo-political implications in the fantasy world of the book. This world is composed of three countries, the Kingdoms of Dagonaut and Unauwen, separated by a high mountain range, and the anarchic lands of Eviellan ruled by local war-lords and the theatre of episodic wars with either of both kingdoms.

Letter to the King tells the story of Tiuri’s coming-of-age mission to deliver an all important letter, his ‘heroes journey’, which not only takes him from adolescence to adulthood but also along a vast array of people, some of which will become his best friends, such as Lavinia, while others turn out to be his worst enemies. The book focusses very much on this story and adds world-building and wider political entanglements as back story but never at the expense of the character arcs that matter most.

Tonke Dragt takes enough time to paint a decently detailed picture of her world and the story-format of a journey lends itself particularly well for this. All major characters are adolescents and all faces their own questions to answer about what they want in life and how they want to live. There are clear echoes here of Frodo and Sam’s journey from Lord of the Rings, and there is even a kind of Tom Bombadil, but never with the same epic scale of Tolkien. It is all very human, there is no room for ‘high magic’, but there is a persistent attention to moral and ethical themes. The two antagonists of the book, Jaro and Slupor, also have arcs fitting with these themes.

The second volume, Secrets of the Wild Wood, follows Tiuri and his best friend Piak in the months after Tiuri’s completion of his mission from the first book. Their newly found adulthood is challenged by personal emotions but even more so by the geopolitical situation they get ever deeper entangled in. It is here that the tale of Unauwen’s twin Princes, Iridian and Viridian, takes centre stage and their conflict draws Tiuri and Piak inexorably into it.

Tiuri attempts to escape all this by focussing on helping his friend Marius, from book 1, who has been driven from home and family. But like a proper fate, it all turns back to the source: the conflict over Eviellan. All of Tiuri’s choices and deeds in the first book get a new quality, when in almost solitary confinement he must face some of his worst fears and dilemma’s.

Of both books, the second volume is no doubt the most impressive in its thematic wealth, its diversity of characters and its more solid world- and history-building. Having read these books as a teenager, and having read them to my daughters when they were little, I fully understand their enduring appeal. The narrative never gets overburdened with exposition and world-building, is always ultimately focussed on what goes on in the hearts and minds of the main protagonists and provides a variety of antagonists that give a nuanced presence of evil that embodies enough epicness to feel as a real threat without drifting off into the hyperbolic.

Though the books have no high magic, there is plenty of low magic to give many events and some characters a touch of mystery and supernatural influence. Whether it is the way Marius registers his surroundings, the behaviour of Tiuri’s horse Ardanwen, or the hallucinations he has when wounded in battle, there is a distinct yet understated magic register in the story-telling of these books. In the final book in which Tonke Dragt revisited this world, 1979’s The Dangerous Window, she builds on this low magic and makes it an essential ingredient in a collection of short stories that cover some events with some tie to the events and characters in the two preceding books, and many unrelated events whose description nevertheless helps build a somewhat more complete lore, though still sketchy, of the world she has created. This book has unfortunately not been translated into English … yet.

Netflix

The 6 episode Netflix series carries the title of the first book of the three. Episode one dwells on the very first chapters of the book and it is immediately clear that the series’ writers decided to up the ante on the magic front. Most depictions still fit very much in a low magic context, but some start building a high magic setting with Shamans, rituals and prophecies that are absent in the source material. However in the first two episodes I didn’t find this distracting at all and instead thought it was a pretty neat experiment with the source material.

New themes

The same is true for the inclusion of race, sexuality and gender themes into the story. In the original books they are mostly absent, although Marius’ arc can be read as a commentary on 1960’s ableism while Lavinia’s arc is a clear rejection of common 1960’s female role-models. The inclusion of racism and racist prejudice is handled relatively carefully. Rather than focussing the discussion on colour the Netflix series consistently connects it with ethnicity. This prevents the slightly awkward thematization that can be found in a more recent Netflix series: Shadow & Bone. That series is set firmly in a similar genre, but the experience and effect of racism is handled very inconsistently across characters of different colour and different ethnicity and basically reduced to the one-person issue of the main character.

Letter for the King clearly highlights the systemic nature of the racism against people with the ethnicity of Eviellan. Episode 2 tries to start the discussion of gender-roles a similar treatment via a reasonably entertaining rewrite of Lavinia’s character and situation and by spending a little more time with the character Iona, which does not feature in the book.

The first two episodes do a good job in establishing that, in contrast to the book, the series’ writers have chosen this to be a group journey of a set of characters instead of focussing on Tiuri and his friend Piak. As a result they seem to have decided to have no narrative need for the Piak character from the book and basically ditch him while retaining the name for a different, new, character.

Father and Child

In the two books about Tiuri, the father-son relationship plays a key role and looms over all the events in a subtle fashion. The 2008 Dutch film, which in many ways stayed much truer to the letter of the source material, this aspect was largely butchered by fairly awkward scenes which were often too much “on the nose” or badly acted by the lead playing Tiuri. In the Netflix series, the dynamic between Tiuri and his father is handled very well, and adapted in a striking and satisfying way to the additional themes inserted by the writers. Having cast David Wenham as Tiuri’s father was a stroke of genius. Unfortunately the writers decided to give the relationship very little screen time and “deal” with it in essentially one episode. Instead they choose another member of Tiuri’s party to have father-issues that are however so darn predictable and one-dimensional that it left me really missing the wasted opportunities here. The same is true for Lavinia’s relationship with her (rewritten) father (played by Andy Serkis). Here too, staying closer to the original and giving them more time would have allowed a huge improvement. The fact that the 2008 Dutch film does even worse on both counts is hardly solace.

Episodes 3 to 6

In the early episodes the positives clearly dominated for me. I enjoyed watching them and every episode left me eager to find out what came next. The inclusion of Viridian and Iridian, who in the books do not actually appear until book 2, was mostly fine. I enjoyed Gijs Blom‘s lethal and slightly maniacal Viridian a lot in these first two episodes. Not quite the threat that book 2’s Viridian would be, but nevertheless a credible one.

But in Episode 3 this as well as several other aspects of the narrative start to derail. In their thirst for more magic and more threat, Viridian’s danger is hyperbolically turned up very many notches. For unknown reasons the writers also seemed in a hurry to combine even more multiple book-characters into single series characters, while also adding additional episodic stakes that seem to have nothing to do with either the story or the underlying themes.

Because the writers choose to make Viridian the villain of their 6 episodes season 1, it means they also needed to ditch the actual villain from book 1, who is rewritten into a weird and utterly dysfunctional side-plot that neither propagates the story of the series and merely provides some exposition of Viridian’s hyped-up threat.

Prince Iridian, who in book 2 is the main opponent of Viridian, as a result also no longer serves any purpose in the series and is deployed for … comic relief, I guess? Where book 2 places Iridian and Viridian at opposing moral ends of the story and places Tiuri in the middle of the dilemma’s that this conflict generates for all other characters, the Netflix series basically removes that dimension entirely and butchers the corresponding characters.

Murk

Now for those wo never read the book the reduction of Iridian to a clownesque figure in the series might not be much of a problem by itself. But it has the, probably unwanted side-effect, that Iridian’s basic absence as a force for good makes Viridian’s threat-level near to unsustainable. By episode 5 the series has made Viridian a Vishnu-like “destroyer of worlds”, although the way in which he is supposed to do that remains vague and convoluted. The point of the “Letter to the King” also sinks into this story-telling murk, a little deeper every episode. In the final two episodes t becomes increasingly clear that the writers of this series, perhaps in an attempt to subvert audience expectations, have decided not only to butcher the books’ characters for no particularly good reason, but they also put their own characters to the sword. After building up Tiuri’s character over several episodes, with a fairly interesting and original back-story that included some very relevant, 21st century, themes they basically abandon that arc in the final two episodes.

The end

The final resolution of the story is a similarly gratuitous reduction of characters. It is the kind of disappointing end after which none of what came before makes any thematic sense any more. Not only that, the ending chosen also blows any possibility to use book 2 as material for a second season out of the water.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of this series. But after that the writers quite literally seem to lose their own plot. Although the 6-episode format gave them plenty of time to do a proper, original and imaginative interpretation of book 1, they decide to abandon not only any semblance with the book after episode 3 but also their own story-threads that they had quite carefully crafted. Episodes 3 through 6 are a rather awkward and in parts embarrassing romp through writing-room ideas that never should have made it to screen.

This is such a pity because in terms of visual imagery, actor performances, and budget this could have been so much better … if only they had developed episodes 3 through 6 to be coherent with 1 and 2. What we have now is an abysmal Dutch film from 2008, a promising but ultimately failing Netflix series of 2020 and a fantasy world that begs being explored properly in a manner that modernizes and updates the themes and narratives of the source-materials while managing to retain, or perhaps even exceed, their quality. Perhaps in 2032 we might find someone who will be willing to give it another try. In the mean time … we can still read the books (to our kids).

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