In the final season of animated Hollywood satire BoJack Horseman, Princess Carolyn – a hugely successful movie agent who also happens to be a pink cat – has a pitch for a film: a retelling of Robin Hood from Maid Marian’s perspective, to be directed by Sofia Coppola. The idea is presented as a punchline, and highlights the show’s ability to lay bare the industry’s hunger for profit above all else. The pitch is an easy way to tap into a paying audience who now demand better female representation. The notion that Princess Carolyn is trying to help get more women on to the screen is never entertained.
It probably hadn’t escaped the attention of the BoJack writer’s room that in real life, a project called Marian already exists. After a heated bidding war in 2017, Sony Pictures scooped up the spec which would star Margot Robbie and follow the fair maiden as she takes over Robin Hood’s legacy after he dies. The project hasn’t moved forward since its announcement (alongside her DC Comics duties, Robbie has just been cast as the lead in a female reboot of Pirates of the Caribbean), but it adds to a growing trend of male-centric stories being retold from a female perspective.
The most recent of these reinventions is Cursed, the big budget Netflix miniseries that’s rooted in Arthurian legend and follows the story of Nimue (Katherine Langford), a gifted young woman destined for notoriety. Based on Tom Wheeler’s bestselling novel, the 10-part series charts Nimue’s quest to find Merlin after a violent attack on her childhood home leaves a mighty sword in her custody. She befriends Arthur along the way.
It’s worth noting that Cursed is good, even great by the final episodes. Langford – who made her breakthrough in 13 Reasons Why – is a commanding lead who can pull off densely choreographed fight scenes with aplomb, while Frank Miller’s attachment as co-creator means that heavy doses of stylised violence are guaranteed.
Yet the show is at its weakest when latching on to Arthur’s legacy. Each reference serves as a stark reminder that an original female-fronted project, brimming with new characters and concepts, isn’t as bankable as riding on the coattails of a dusty, male-fronted story.
The same feelings came to mind when Mirrah Foulkes’ Judy & Punch hit screens. A feminist folklore revamp, it saw Mia Wasikowska’s talented puppeteer violently ostracised for sticking it to her abusive husband and leading a small rebellion against her fearmongering hometown. Released on the same day in the UK was Ophelia, a feminist, female-directed reworking of Hamlet that starred Daisy Ridley as the Prince of Denmark‘s doomed beau.
The latter received a tepid response from critics, with its ambition fizzling out despite the novelty of its concept. Judy & Punch at least piqued interest with a scatty blend of Monty Python-style pantomime and theatrical retribution. Through its muddled tones, the film managed to present some valid questions about the harmful attitudes towards women that are embedded in traditional stories.
Foulkes film was full of originality, right down to the off-kilter language that was written for the characters to speak. Whereas Ophelia, a flop that was quietly pushed through cinemas in a limited theatrical release, just wasn’t. Both, however, echo Princess Carolyn’s pitch – that studios will readily make films and shows for paying audiences with an appetite for women’s stories, but within the safe confines of worlds that have already proven to be successful. Worlds inhabited by instantly recognisable characters like Arthur, Punch and Hamlet, where the novelty of having them pushed to the periphery of the story is masked as female empowerment.
At a time when the industry is still far from reaching parity when it comes to female representation – both behind the camera and in front – it’s positive that these women’s stories are actually being told, with robust characters at their core. In the case of Cursed, Langford’s character is followed from her genesis, as she goes on to lead an army and navigate through a complex journey of self-discovery over a 10 hour narrative arc.
But these stories are blocking other filmmakers and studios from taking risks. The money could be spent on unique stories from which they can learn and adapt. A lot of pressure sits on original female stories to succeed as so few make it to distribution, but over the last few years more and more success stories are pushing through. Female representation on screen was always going to be the first battle, now it’s a case of deciding which stories need to be lifted the most, and it starts with leaving feminist revamps firmly in the past.