By Molly Freeman
Photo courtesy of Duncan Harris.
Like any art form, folklore changes, goes through growing pains, and adapts to the current culture of the time. The fairy tales and folk stories you grew up with are not exactly the same stories your parents or grandparents heard before you.
The generation that grew up with the now-iconic Disney cartoons of the mid-‘90s do not know the same stories that were originally written by Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm brothers.
One of the oldest folktales–who also has his own Disney flick–is Robin Hood. JC Holt traces the first mentions of the character in various works to between 1261 and 1300. Robin Hood has evolved over the past 700 years and can still be found in different incarnations today.
The newest version of Robin Hood to grace popular culture will be in BBC America’s upcoming television series, Notthingham. Deadline reported that the “soapy class drama” will be a Game of Thrones-style reinvention of the classic folk tale in which the Sheriff of Notthingham and Robin Hood are the same person.
When King John’s men kill the Sheriff’s wife, he launches a one-man war on the Crown. He raids the King’s men, noble loyalists, and political allies, and then gives the prizes to the lower classes in order to start a rebellion.
However, those that have noticed the influx of superhero movies and television to pop culture over the past few years might see something familiar in Deadline’s description of the new show:
“By day, he remains the reviled Sheriff, loyal servant of the King, but by night he puts on a hood and, using the intelligence he gains from his office, attacks the King where it hurts the most—his coffers.“
Who else does that sound like? Batman, maybe? But more than that, the series description sounds exceptionally similar to that of The CW’s gritty superhero drama, Arrow–also based on the folk hero of Robin Hood.
So Robin Hood–as well as the Sheriff of Nottingham–are changing and adapting to modern culture, but this is not the first time. The character started off as a bandit, a criminal who was of the lower classes and stole from the rich, but has grown into a hero, a romantic, and one with a moral compass.
Modern fans of Robin Hood probably know the character best from the Disney retelling, Robin Hood, from the ‘70s, or the two successful films from the early ‘90s–Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
However, BBC America’s retelling of the famous folk character comes at a strange time. Between the early ’90s and current day, there were few adaptations of Robin Hood–and even fewer that were financially or critically successful. Even through the recession, our culture had outgrown the folk tale of the bandit who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.
But the network seems to have found a niche within a culture that is salivating at anything remotely resembling a superhero. Even with the perfect timing, though, Cole Haddon is heading the project along with executive producers John Davis and John Fox.
While Davis and Fox’s studio, Davis Entertainment, is responsible for the critically beloved series, The Blacklist, Haddon created NBC’s Dracula, which lasted for a single, short season–which was critically panned. Given Haddon’s failed attempt at modernizing the classic horror character, Dracula, it leaves fans wondering how he’ll fair with Robin Hood–especially given the new direction of the folk hero.
It’s not impossible for Nottingham to find success among other superhero series like Arrow and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, or the upcoming Gotham and The Flash. The Sheriff’s struggle in Nottingham between right and wrong, revenge and justice, is a timeless theme of superhero stories and comic books.
Batman has most often epitomized the thin line between revenge and justice. With each incarnation of the caped crusader, there is a narrative choice taken in regard to whether Bruce Wayne risks his life on a nightly basis because he’s a true hero, or because he’s seeking revenge for his parents’ deaths.
Similarly, Oliver Queen on Arrow has struggled with his decisions of who lives and who dies. Is he a murderer if he kills bad people? Can he save his city without killing anyone? These deeply moral questions take a superhero series on a teen-driven television network to the next level and make it appeal to everyone.
If Haddon, his team, and BBC America take notice of what is making shows like Arrow a success, they might yet do justice to the folk hero that is Robin Hood. They certainly have the current cultural trend on their side, but we’ll have to wait and see before making any judgment calls on Nottingham.