Robin Williams’s early nineties feature, The Fisher King tells the story of a professor, Parry, (played by Williams) driven to homelessness by a traumatic event caused in part by Jack (Jeff Bridges), a top “shock DJ” in New York. Clinically insane and wandering the streets while in and out of asylums, Williams’s character brings an air of whimsical sorrow to a heavy-handed neo-Arthurian parable of free speech and capitalism.
Inspired by Arthurian legend, The Fisher King takes its name from the similarly titled character from medieval legend. Described by Alan Lupack as “the guardian of the grail”, this king “is often but not always identified with the maimed king who is wounded in the thighs or genitals, whose wound is related to the fertility of the kingdom, and who can only be healed by the Grail knight” (444). In this sense, then, the Grail Knight is the reluctant Jack while the maimed king—and in this incarnation, Williams’s character certainly is maimed by his insanity since he is homeless—is of course Parry. If we were to examine the “fertility of the kingdom”, this would obviously be New York City, though it may be more accurate to say that it is the state of Jack’s radio station, that locale which led Jack and Parry to meet, albeit through tragedy. Following the legend as closely as one can while transporting said mythos to early nineties New York City, it will surprise no one that by the end of the film, Jack fulfills his role as the Grail knight, healing Parry who had been sent into a coma.
Adapting part of a legend to film is no easy task. As demonstrated by incorrigible after incorrigible bastardization of the Arthur-figure, it is easy to miss the whole idea and instead chase the dragon that is desire; in short, imagination takes over where historical accuracy never managed to take off. The Fisher King, though, sidesteps this shit-pit, if only barely.
Since this adaptation is set in modernity, it is not a take on the legend itself. This is fine. Because there are many different forms of adaptation, not all of which require a direct route to the source material, simple trans-historical juxtaposition works well: the director, Terry Gilliam, is merely chopping out the premise of the fisher king legend and re-contextualizing it within postmodern parameters. The result is the bare idea—that of a maimed king who is healed by the grail— becoming the base for an original story.
Great! It may not be the most involved adaptation to grace the silver screen or the most historical, but as a text meant to introduce medieval stories to new audiences, it performs extremely well. Perhaps someday we will see an adaptation of the Fisher King story which closely follows the source material (though, perhaps not). Regardless of whether we will or not, however, Gilliam’s The Fisher King is a fun take on what is easily considered dry material.
Why Gilliam’s film works well is due to how it represents medievalism. Typically, when one thinks of the medieval period, the phrase “the Dark Ages” comes to mind. Although today researchers are starting to realize that the “Dark Ages” might not have been so dark as previously believed, back in the nineties such research was still in its infancy, so we can hardly blame Gilliam for adhering to this mindset. Why this is relevant is because Gilliam fuses this brutal, violent understanding of medievalism into American capitalism.
Early in the film, a heavily intoxicated Jack wanders the city looking for relief from his self-hate over the terrible incident he caused. Resolved to take his own life, he ties concrete slabs to his feet. Before he can make the jump, however, a vehicle pulls into the docks. It is of course vigilantes, apparent Rightist thugs who wander the city in search of homeless people to brutalize and murder.
Thankfully, Jack is saved by Parry, who evidently wanders the city as a lone knight-figure, protecting his fellow homeless and mistaken-homeless from fascistic violence. Observers will recognize that such a scene is something rarely seen in today’s mainstream films; in a time where American cities are waging a virtual war on the homeless, criminalizing pro-homeless charity and even erecting “anti-homeless spikes” in areas where homeless people can sleep, a scene in a major feature film by big-time actors where homeless characters are violently attacked, indicates a progressivism rarely seen today.
Gilliam, then, is revealing to us the seedy underbelly of capitalism. Though during the day gleaming centers of finance ignore the begging homeless, only occasionally dropping some spare change into their filthy cups, at night the real monster is revealed—that of a Nazi-esque para-militarism determined to smother non-heteronormative, neuro-divergent societal elements. It is a reminder that life can be snuffed out as easily under capitalism as it could under a monarch.
The genius of Gilliam’s picture is that the police never become involved. The homeless self-organize and form their own defense committees; the authorities, then, do not care about you. Just as ruling kings do not care about whether a peasant community is ravaged by thuggery if the crops get sowed and harvested; at times, the state may even hire such fascistic thugs to cleanse communities of religious and social deviations if it threatens production or the status-quo. Such a mindset is well transported into modernity and demonstrates how today and yesterday may not be so different after all.
I could go on but any more details would be ancillary to the points I have just addressed. Really, at the end of the day, The Fisher King presents a well-thought and passionate topic extrapolated from its origins to the present. Though the film does trip on itself in certain places, such as in the depiction of obsessive-stalker types as romantic heroes, even these could perhaps be forgiven if such is contextualized as romanticized neo-knights. Whatever the case, though, there is much to recommend about the fisher king and so I have no problem in advocating that any aspiring Arthurian scholar view it at least once.