David Lowery’s The Green Knight has earned a solidly Fresh Tomatometer score thanks to largely positive reviews and its position as theatrical counter-programming against the glut of big-budget summer blockbusters hitting theaters as of late. It’s a reimagining of the late 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which tells one of the most well-known stories in Arthurian legend canon – the tale of Sir Gawain, who accepts a terrifying challenge from a stranger on Christmas, and the quest he must embark on one year later.
It was a bold choice for Lowery to adapt a 700-year-old chivalric romance for the 21st century, and one that required a number of changes so that a story so profoundly rooted in the morality and literary style of the Middle Ages resonated with a modern audience. Here are five ways he changed the original Arthurian epic to do just that… and one important way he kept the medieval story intact.
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In Lowery’s vision of Arthurian legend, the Green Knight is a primal supernatural entity, one whose ties to the natural world are right in his design. He is the Green Man of ancient myth come to life with his bark face accented by a beard made of curling twigs. Neither fully man nor tree, he harkens back to an older, pagan time when the lines between the natural world and the supernatural were far more blurred. Even the offshoot “branches” that crown his head vaguely evoke the horns of Cernunnos, the Celtic Horned God and lord of wild things. It’s deliberate character design meant to evoke the ancient unease of humanity realizing it doesn’t have full control of the world, and it’s a smart decision on Lowery’s part.
The design of the Green Knight in the original poem is a less wild thing; the antagonist is more nobleman who just happens to be green. When Arthur’s court meets him, he’s kitted out in forest green finery, with emeralds and jewels encrusting his ax and bridle, his fine-spun clothes trimmed with silk and ermine. It was a striking image, one that made an impression in the late 14th century, but one that today would fail to impress modern moviegoers who have seen it all. By stripping the sense of rich civility from the Green Knight, Lowery draws out the inherent otherness of the character and tinges it with horror.
(Photo by © A24)
When the original poem was written, it was during a time in the Middle Ages in which Morgan le Fay’s role in Arthurian legend was transitioning from benevolent protector to villain. As patriarchal Christian morality took root and began heavily influencing writing of the era, Morgan (Arthur’s half-sibling), previously an amalgam of earlier revered, magical female Celtic deities, was recast as a malevolent sorceress of evil intent. Her role was often to play the antagonist in the mythology, intent on causing chaos in her half-brother’s court.
Her motivations for summoning the Green Knight and arranging the challenge in the original poem were fittingly petty: hoping Arthur would take up the challenge, Morgan merely wanted to frighten Guinevere in a bit of spite. Gawain taking up the challenge instead was coincidental. That’s a flimsy and wildly outdated premise to build a story around in modern times. Lowery changed Morgan’s connection to Gawain and, in doing so, changed her motivation. By making Morgan Gawain’s mother in the film, her game, while harsh, made much more sense. A petty, inexplicably cruel woman sending a man to his potential death because she’s miffed at another woman is nonsensical and regressive; but a powerful woman secretly pushing her son to find his greatness is something one can understand, if not necessarily agree with.
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As with so many things in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” what makes perfect sense in a medieval poem doesn’t translate so well to the big screen in 2021. This is arguably never truer than with Gawain himself. Dev Patel’s portrayal of Gawain is vastly different than the Gawain of the poem; while he’s less likable, he’s also more relatable.
Poem Gawain was not so much a character in his own right, but a noble archetype and morality tale in one. He was meant to be the chivalric ideal and had the depiction to match. In fact, Gawain held himself to such a high standard in the poem that his test was to learn he was human and fallible, and that perfection is something that only God himself can achieve. Gawain is pious and pure, humble and extraordinarily chaste, courageous and benevolent to all he meets.
Thus, Lowery was presented with the Captain America problem: how does one make a character so inherently perfect interesting? Marvel achieved it not by changing Captain America, but by changing the world around him. Lowery achieved it by doing the opposite: keeping the world the same but changing Gawain. His Gawain is far more flawed than the version in the poem, an entitled wastrel who is squandering his potential in sex and drink. Purity and chastity are not in movie Gawain’s nature and his test, in many ways, is the opposite of the test presented in the source. Poem Gawain had to learn that even great knights can wobble; movie Gawain had to see if he could even be great at all.
As a heroic ideal, The Green Knight’s protagonist is quite lacking, but as a character whose struggle makes sense for moviegoers today, he’s incredibly timely.
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“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a true hero’s journey, an epic quest of man vs. nature, but moreover, of man vs. himself. There are only a handful of characters in the original poem and Gawain spends large chunks of the story by himself. For the purposes of depicting the Christ-like trials of a noble knight in a chivalric romance, it works; for a modern movie adaptation, however, it makes for an awfully boring on-screen story.
Lowery wisely recognizes this and addresses it by adding three characters who seamlessly blend into the story while playing key roles in Gawain’s growth. Essel (Alicia Vikander) is the earthly temptation he must set aside to fully devote himself to his quest; the Scavenger (Barry Keoghan) is meant to shatter the naiveté and sheltered worldview Gawain holds; Winifred (Erin Kellyman) presents Gawain with a test of his altruism and chivalry. Each brings something essential that Gawain must learn in order to evolve, and their use provides a blueprint for how to add original characters to Arthurian adaptations that still feel as vital and necessary to the story as any characters in the old mythology.
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Adapting an older story requires an insightful balance of knowing what to keep and what to cut: Too slavishly devote yourself to the original source and you risk dragging the story down with unnecessary scenes; deviate too far and you risk undermining the very aspects that made the original story so beloved in the first place.
While Lowery certainly added to the story, he also excised certain parts with a decisive hand. The most impactful edit was Lowery’s compression of the poem’s lengthily told three-day hunting scene, during which readers follow Lord Bertilak as he rides out each day to hunt, with the third and final day offering a parallel narrative with Bertilak chasing a wily and evasive fox as Gawain tries to evade Lady Bertilak’s aggressive advances back at the castle. It’s a great bit of symbolism, but an unnecessary part of the story that would have further dragged down the already slow-burn movie.
Condensing it kept the crux of Gawain’s quandary intact in the film while not killing the momentum that was building up heading into the third act.
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Though Lowery took plenty of liberties with the original poem, The Green Knight remains true to the spirit of its source. So many layers are packed into “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” but what truly holds it up are two tentpole themes that remain searingly relevant: the duality of the pagan natural world vs. ordered Christianity, and the core story of a knight discovering the man he truly is. Remove or change other elements and the story still largely stands on its own, but remove those two foundational pillars and it comes crashing down.
Lowery’s instincts for what to change and what to leave intact served him well, and the result is the old, archetypal story told in a fresh new way. One that feels urgent and modern, and yet true to its source. After Hollywood’s recent, multiple failed attempts to bring more Arthurian stories to the big screen, it might look to The Green Knight for an example of how to make Camelot and its endless well of stories relevant again.
The Green Knight is in theaters now.