Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. Last week: director Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword reminds us of the wide range of approaches that filmmakers have taken towards staging the Matter of Britain across the decades. It gives me great pleasure to spend a full week delving into some of the many other flavors of King Arthur films that have preceded Ritchie's contemporary stab at the material.

The 2001 two-part TV movie The Mists of Avalon is perfectly fine, and that's a goddamn pity. Marion Zimmer Bradley's source novel, first published in 1983, is thoroughly terrific, and after T.H. White's The Once and Future King, I'd go so far as to call it the 20th Century's second-best retelling of the myths and legends of King Arthur. It deserved a rousing triumph of an adaptation, not the well-meaning, slightly dull yawn that it got instead.

I promise I won't turn this into a whole "the book is better because of this list of minute alterations that the screenwriter made" thing, but I need to do that right at the start, just to clarify what the project is. The reductive but accurate way to talk about The Mists of Avalon is that it's the standard Arthur story, told via the perspective of the women in his life, filtered through neopagan feminism. In Bradley's version of the story, "neopagan feminism" ends up being insistently important; the book is as much about the war between the Celtic religions of the British Isles and the resurgent Christianity that swept Great Britain a couple of centuries after the Romans left as it is about the human proxies for that struggle. It's a more partisan take on the same animating conflict found in the roughly contemporaneous film Excalibur. The movie version of The Mists of Avalon buffs that a bit. It's still "about" pagans sparring with Christians, but it's much less willing to be read as anti-Christian, and so much of the depth of world-building in Bradley's book (which has only a glancing relationship with actual history or what little is known of pre-Christian religious practices in Britain) is based in the richness of the culture she depicts. Partially for time and partially, I strongly suspects, because of skittishness, Gavin Scott's teleplay can provide only the most superficial representation of the same, and the plot itself shifts in a small but decisive way. Frankly, I'm not quite sure what The Mists of Avalon intends to be about, and I'm even less sure what it succeeds in being about.

It's still mostly Bradley's thing, though, which means that we're taking the perspective, first and foremost, of evil sorceress Morgan le Fay, here operating under the lightly Frenched-up name Morgaine (Julianna Margulies). And also here operating as an agent of good. Morgaine, daughter of Igraine (Caroline Goodall), is a descendant from a line of priestesses in service to the nameless Goddess whose presence is seen in all the ebb and flow of the natural world and its cycles of birth, death, rebirth, sex, and all the rest. She is also, unfortunately for her, the daughter of the Christian Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall (Clive Russell), and this puts her into the sphere of politics as they existed in whatever period of British history we've landed at (the presence of Saxons as an invading force says it's the 6th Century; the costumes and social structure say 10th. Of course, the promiscuous "somewhere between the fall of Rome and the Norman invasion" setting is pretty much par for the course with Arthurian stories, though the emphasis on historical social transitions calls attention to it more.

In terms of what happens, The Mists of Avalon leaves almost everything alone: Morgaine's half-brother Arthur (Edward Atterton) becomes King of All Britain, the siblings inadvertently sleep together and produce a son, Mordred (Hans Matheson), the king's marriage to Gwenwyfar, unerringly pronounced "Guinevere" (Samantha Mathis), is scuttled by her affair with the knight Lancelot (Michael Vartan), Mordred uses the chaos to sneak in and bring down the court at Camelot, Arthur dies. The big difference here is the emphasis is on a whole different set of characters and interests than Malorian tragedy. The focus is instead on how most of this has been orchestrated by Igraine's sister Viviane (Anjelica Huston), the Lady of the Lake, which is the title that accrues to her as the high priestess of Avalon. The politicking we generally see, then, is on the part of the priestesses in service to the Goddess: Viviane on the one hand, along with Morgaine, and in opposition Viviane's other sister, Morgause (Joan Allen), who has gotten a bit too enthralled with the power struggle of the British men.

This is all direct from Bradley's book, and it's utterly delectable, if only for the novelty of seeing such a well-worn story as the fall of Camelot turned around on its axis. The big problem with the filmed version of The Mist of Avalon is that damn near everything good about it is secondhand, and as a movie it's pretty much non-stop drabness. It was made for $20 million, a more than healthy budget for a basic-cable original, but even after dropping the whole production in the Czech Republic, one of Eastern Europe's hubs for cost-conscious filmmaking, the whole thing looks awfully chintzy. Director Uli Edel doesn't help matters by trotting out too many slow-motion sequences and too much reused footage, and other general signifiers that scream "this was made according to the standards of late-'90s genre television". The cinematography is as strong as should be expected from an old genius like Vilmos Zsigmond - the softness and color diffusion of the titular mists is particularly striking, but even he falls into the trap of somewhat overlighting some scenes, calling attention to the artifice of the costumes and sets.

The sense of bland '90s television mediocrity seeps into the drama itself. Going hand in hand with its defanging of the material's themes, The Mists of Avalon does everything in its power to make things easy to consume. This manifests, first and most disruptively, in Morgaine's constant voice-over, plopping blocks of prose over everything and generally sucking the life out of the action. There's not one single point at which the film needs Morgaine's inner monologue, as it generally just repeats information we've received visually, or even in dialogue. It also calls the most possible attention to Margulies's tremendously unimpressive performance, stilted and hung-up on her accent. The cast is not, generally, all that impressive: Allen gives one of the only bad performances of her entire career as a plodding melodramatic villain, and Huston is somewhat boxed in by the mechanical way the plot uses her character. Mathis's Gwenwyfar is quite excellent, actually, so there's that. Not a single one of the leading men is worth a damn, all of them somewhat interchangeably handsome. But anyway, the only genuinely damaging performance comes from Margulies, who occupies the film's largest role and puts virtually nothing into it but a series of poses and troubled expressions.

It's primarily in the film's shallow, shabby treatment of Morgaine that we're left with the unpleasant, annoying certainty that we're watching something slapdash. 2001 was the year of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; while it's obvious that Tolkien is more marketable than Bradley, and no version ofΒ The Mists of Avalon would ever get aΒ LotR-sized budget, it's that kind of grandeur of production and directorial ambition that this material deserves. Instead, it ends up feeling thoroughly adequate, only just able to present the sweeping landscapes of post-Roman Britain and populating them with flat characters who are good only at moving the plot forward, never at catching our emotions. It's perfectly watchable and twice as forgettable, and leaves no real trace of the thorniness and complexity that a feminist, pro-pagan take on one of Western Europe's greatest patriarchal myths should have been able to achieve almost by default.