Welcome to the inaugural post of my new blog series Pages to Screen where I will compare and contrast movies and serials to the books they are based on.
Pages to Screen - The Saxon Stories vs. The Last Kingdom
The Last Kingdom is based on Bernard Cornwell's The Saxon Stories, which is one of my absolute favorite book series, spanning fourteen novels (at least!). The Netflix series is five seasons, and a movie is forthcoming.
I've watched all five seasons of The Last Kingdom and have read eight of the novels with plans to continue reading and enjoying the hell out of the rest of the books.
How does the show match up?
Quite well, actually. The essence of Cornwell's novels is Uhtred, the fictional narrator, struggling with his identity as a Saxon raised by the Danes and the numerous obstacles stymying his desire to recapture his birthright, the fortress Bebbanburg in Northumbria. The Netflix series embraces this storyline as Uhtred rises from an orphan stripped of his birthright by a treacherous uncle to the top general serving King Alfred of Wessex.
Most important to the success of the Netflix series is the stellar performance by Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred. Dreymon embodies Uhtred as thoroughly as Peter Dinklage does Tyrion in Game of Thrones. For readers of the novels especially, Dreymon's performance is key to the series's success. The books are all about Uhtred. I hazard to guess fans of The Saxon Stories name him as one of their favorite heroes.
Does the show fall short?
At its core, the show doesn't fall short at all. It doesn't strictly follow the books, but Alexander Dreymon admirably brings Uhtred to life. There's plenty of intrigue, love interests, and gnarly battles to keep audiences vested in the tale.
There are, however, two areas the books outshine the show. Uhtred is obsessed with destiny. He often sees omens in the mundane and not so mundane and wonders what fate the three spinners weave for him. On the surface, the show covers this with Uhtred's reframe "Destiny is all." But Cornwell takes the theme of destiny and runs with it. You see, in the books, Uhtred is an old man retelling his life story in the great hall of Bebbanburg, having retaken his birthright years earlier. The reader knows this from the very beginning. When Uhtred states it is his destiny to do something, the reader, despite any modern sensibilities they might possess, believes, just for a moment, that maybe this destiny thing is real.
Also, the show lacks the emotional resonance of the books. Uhtred is a world-beating warrior in all five seasons of The Last Kingdom. However, in the books, we see wounds and ultimately age slow Uhtred. Eventually, he's reduced to watching his son perform the acts of pure athleticism and martial prowess that had made him the most feared warrior in England. This resonated with me. I was sad to see Uhtred grow old and happy he took pride in his offspring. Additionally, Uhtred growing old drives home the point physical ability alone was never what set him apart from his opponents. His guile and ability to see situations from both Saxon and Dane perspectives made him formidable.
Should I watch the show or read the books?
You can't go wrong either way. But if I was forced to choose, I'd go with the books. Destiny is all!