As TV continues to try to fill the void left by HBO's Game of Thrones, the streamer that brought us the raunchy and profane The Witcher is back at it again, this time with a decidedly different target audience: the pre-teen set. Dropping on Netflix today, The Letter for the King is a sprawling fantasy epic filled with magic, swordplay, political intrigue, and other adventures in the Game of Thrones mold, but without any of the naughty language, nudity, or graphic violence.
Based on a Dutch YA novel first published in 1962, the series takes place in a standard fantasy landscape modeled after medieval Europe. Thousands of years of war between the kingdoms of Unauwen, Dagonaut, and Eviellan are about to come to an end as the ruthless Prince Viridian (Gijs Blom) conquers his enemies and turns his sights back home with plans to overthrow his own father. The fate of all three kingdoms soon rests with an unlikely and possibly even ineffectual young knight-in-training named Tiuri (Amir Wilson), who is charged with traveling a great distance through dangerous territory to deliver a letter to the king of Unauwen detailing the prince's treachery. Along the way, Tiuri will be chased by Viridian's soldiers, bounty hunters, and even his own friends. He also picks up some allies on his quest, including the cunning and resourceful Lavinia (Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, daughter of Andy Serkis, who is also featured) and a clever horse that may be the smartest character in this entire story.
In broad strokes, the plot of The Letter for the King bares some resemblance to recent Oscar nominee 1917, minus the single-camera-take gimmick and the traumatic horrors of battlefield combat. In other respects, this is very much a YA tale, centered on teenage and pre-teen characters and sanitized for consumption by that audience. The kingdoms in this world seem to have zero racism or sexism, and the show's cast is diverse to the point of distraction. Tiuri's mixed-race background goes unmentioned, and we're to believe that a teenage Asian girl (Thaddea Graham) with an inexplicable Irish accent (nobody else has one) is a prime candidate to become a knight of the realm. As important as representation in media is, the actual Dark Ages weren't exactly known for their inclusiveness or egalitarianism. Even a token attempt to address bigotry or racial and gender oppression could make for compelling storytelling, but instead those topics are completely ignored.
In their place, the series is content to trot out every Hero's Journey trope in the YA guidebook, from great prophecies of a Chosen One with superpowers destined to save the world, to a wizened mentor figure living as a hermit. The villain of the piece is a twentysomething emo douchebag who seems to be channeling Jared Leto for reasons best left unquestioned. It's very difficult to take him seriously with the lock of hair strategically swept down over one side of his face like he just stepped out of an anime.
For all that, The Letter for the King could be a lot worse. The show has handsome production values and tells its story with adequate competence. Unfortunately, that story is rather formulaic and uninspired. Perhaps it felt fresher back in 1962 before the basic template had been become so prevelant, or perhaps this television adaptation has been watered down too much from the source material. Whatever the cause, this Letter could use a rewrite.
All six-episodes of The Letter for the King are now streaming on Netflix.
Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.