Riding Netflix's wave of fantasy: The Letter for the King

Riding Netflix's wave of fantasy: The Letter for the King
Ruby Serkis and Amir Wilson in a scene from The Letter For the King

Netflix’s epic new series. The Letter for the King, may fill the Thrones-sized hole in your viewing, even it is primarily aimed at younger viewers, writes Ed Power.

It's a trivial complaint considering the state of the world at the moment but for Game of Thrones fans the past nine months have been a bit of an endurance test. 

With no Jon Snow or Mother of Dragons in our lives, what are we to do?

This unsatisfactory state of affairs is set to come to an end as a new epic fantasy arrives on Netflix. 

Just like Thrones, The Letter For The King is epic, action-packed and brimming with intrigue. The difference is you can watch with your kids.

“It’s like a Pixar movie,” says Ruby Serkis (22), who plays Princess Lavinia.

“Kids will love it. But adults can enjoy it at a different level.”

Fantasy, even more than science fiction, was traditionally regarded as a refuge for dweebs, misfits and people who know too much about Dungeons and Dragons (as if there is anything wrong with knowing too much about Dungeons and Dragons).

And all that despite the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

However, perceptions started to change when Jaime Lannister pushed 10-year-old Bran Stark out a window in the first episode of Game of Thrones in 2011. 

In the years since, the genre has blossomed into the hot new trend on the small screen.

We’ve already had big-budget adaptations of Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher novels and a prequel to Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, both on Netflix. 

The BBC has got in on the action too, with its new version of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Amazon is meanwhile readying a multi-million dollar prequel of Lord of the Rings. 

Even more intriguingly, it is also adapting Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, regarded within fantasy as the missing link between Tolkien and George RR Martin.

The streaming platform this week takes another shot at slaying the ratings dragon, with The Letter For The King, adapted from a classic Dutch young adult novel by Tonke Dragt. 

The book is a publishing sensation, selling over a million copies since 1962 and despite an English translation not appearing until 2013.

The Letter for the King has also inspired a musical and a 2008 Dutch-language movie. And now it comes to Netflix, with its storyline more or less intact. 

In a gritty medieval world not a thousand miles removed from Westeros, 16-year-old Tiuri is training to be a knight.

While participating in all-night vigil as part of his initiation he responds to the request of a dying warrior who tasks him with delivering the crucial message that gives the show its name.

It’s exciting stuff, that borrows its hero-on-a-quest structure from Lord of the Rings and Frodo’s mission to chuck Sauron’s shiny bauble into Mount Doom. 

And just like Jackson’s adaptation, it was filmed in New Zealand (as well as in Prague).

The look and feel, however, are 100% Thrones. All is overcast and mucky, grown-up characters are unshaven and potentially open to a bit of swearing in the right circumstances. 

We’re definitely at the gritty end of the fantasy spectrum.

“There are undoubtable parallels with Game of Thrones,” says Thaddea Graham, the Chinese-born Irish actress who plays flinty hero Iona. 

“Both are medieval fantasies. What sets this show apart is that everyone in the family can watch.

It’s a coming-of-age story, a journey of self discovery. It’s about these young adults trying to fix the broken adult world.”

Graham speaks in her natural Belfast cadences. It’s still a novelty hearing an Irish accent in a big-budget costumed romp. The young actress was determined her voice – her real voice — be heard.

“We all had a chat with our writer, Will Davies, when we got to New Zealand. He said it was very important that these characters feel like real people. 

And for me, obviously, my accent is my accent . He said, ‘Let’s keep that... that’s real to you, that’s your truth, let’s make it Iona’s truth as well’.”

“To look like I do and to sound like I do, and for it not to be challenged, is fantastic,” she continues. 

“For people at home to hear our accent on a Netflix show… it’s really empowering.

It makes you feel that we have a space and that we are accepted, which his really lovely.”

There are parallels with Game of Thrones. Both are medieval fantasies, but what sets this show apart is that everyone in the family can watch it.

Serkis meanwhile acted opposite her father Andy, who has himself has a claim to fantasy immortality having played Gollum in the Jackson films.

“It was a really special thing to do,” she says.

“He was only in for a couple of days. We had a lot of fun. It’s bizarre being father and daughter… and playing father and daughter.”

As the star Amir Wilson has to carry much of the series on his shoulders. 

In a curious coincidence he went straight from filming Letter for the King in New Zealand to shooting the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in Cardiff.

“I’m never going to watch a medieval fantasy again,” he laughs.

Any fantasy at all actually. No, I’m joking. They’re both fantasies but they’re very different.”

Of the two, The Letter for the King was by far the more physically demanding. 

His Dark Materials is slow-moving and contemplative — largely concerned with deep questions about spirituality and the nature of self (as well as channelling Pullman’s abiding dislike of CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia).

Some of the cast members of The Letter for the King.
Some of the cast members of The Letter for the King.

“In New Zealand we had to do boot camp,” says Wilson. “There was stunt-training in the morning and horses riding in the afternoon.”

“Acting with horses can be interesting,” adds Serkis. “There’s a lot of multitasking. Acting while you’re trying to control a horse is different.”

The fire-breathing dragon in the room, of course, is coronavirus, which is causing havoc in film and television (shooting has just been halted on season two of The Witcher and on Amazon’s Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time shows).

“It’s the same for everyone really,” says Serkis. “It feels as if everything is on hold.”

At her side, Wilson mumble something and she laughs.

“He says he’s going to spend his time off reading Macbeth for his GCSEs.”

This young cast are obviously as sensible as they are talented.

  • The Letter for the King debuts on Netflix this Friday

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