I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight yesterday. The 14th century poem of unknown authorship that was the inspiration for David Lowery’s latest A24 fantasy film. The film isn’t really an adaptation, or, God forbid, a “reimagining” but a translation of the older epic into contemporary form. Where the Gawain poet’s world is suffused with color, courtly ritual, subversive wit, and Christian allegory, Lowery’s demands stories about flawed but ultimately righteous heroes played by recognizable but not too-recognizable performers navigating a perplexing world of desaturated colors and shadowy interiors. Modern Hollywood filmmaking demands a degree of ambiguity, in that the movies must be able to support a variety of readings, either to satisfy the needs of word-of-mouth promotion (often by inspiring outrageous takes, pro and con, online) and repeat viewings and purchases (theatrical, home video and streaming), or avoid any kind of potential political minefields from right or left by promoting either a blandly vague centrism or by merely presenting a self-contradictory and incoherent text. This applies as much to blockbuster filmmaking (the Disney complex and the films of, say, Denis Villeneuve) as it does to the pseudo-indie films of fashionable distributor A24. All of which is to say that I quite like Lowery’s The Green Knight. It’s a great example of the kind of thing that it is. Look at it as a Daniel Lanois production, swampy and mysterious, with echoes of the old and weird but not quite the real thing. The poem, though, is the thing itself. Not the patina of weird but simply weirdness that sneaks in sideways through the margins of the seemingly familiar and ancient. The Basement Tapes to the film’s Time Out of Mind.
Fitting the medieval poem into a modern idiom requires a great many changes. Gawain in the poem is an upstanding young man who strictly follows the chivalric code of honor for almost the entire story. A somewhat pompous but well-liked figure who is hailed as a hero wherever he goes. Gawain in the film is a callow youth, inexperienced in war and not especially competent at questing. The people he meets on his journey condescend to him, when they aren’t outright stealing from him and leaving him for dead in the wilderness. While the text of many a classic epic expounds of the virtue and honor and ideality of its hero-figures, they tend to be exactly the kind of dumb boys Lowery and star Dev Patel present in the film (think Achilles and his petulance, Gilgamesh and his temper tantrums, the Pandava princes continually making bad deals with their evil brothers over and over in the Mahabharata). One suspects that the true flavor of these oral tradition poems is lost a bit on the page, though in Burton Raffel’s translation of The Green Knight one can almost hear the troubadour winking at the audience as he expounds on Gawain’s virtue.
If The Green Knight is, in many ways, a very silly poem, the scenario it depicts is rife with potential meanings. It is, as they say, a very rich text. A monstrous green giant shows up at King Arthur’s Christmas celebration and challenges any of his knights to trade a blow with him. Whatever he receives he will give back in exactly one year. Gawain, out of nobility in the poem and from a desire to prove himself in the film, accepts the challenge and promptly chops the guy’s head off, assuming, reasonably enough, that a dead man won’t be able to return the blow. But when the knight simply picks his head up and remounts his horse, telling Gawain he looks forward to their next meeting, the consequences of Gawain’s rash decision become clear. His doom is now ensured: in one year he will either lose his head or his honor.
In both versions of the story, Gawain lives it up for almost a year and then heads on his way. The poet tells us he had many adventures along the way, but skips them in order to get to the end, where the knight finds a remote castle run by a mysterious man and his wife. The film fills out the story with two adventures, one in which the hapless Gawain is robbed blind by commoners and another where he helps St. Winifred regain her severed head. The former reinforces Gawain’s youthful incompetence and strips him of the privileges of class and power. The second adds to the severed head motif, fuel for essays exploring the film’s depiction of mind/body duality, or the conflict between rationality and earthly spirituality, or what have you. Mostly it adds to the dreamy vibe that Lowery hopes to establish with his long pans and eerie music, as does a brief sequence where Gawain espies a group of indifferent giants walking among the clouds. The Gawain of the film is desperate, lost, confused, and alone, sentenced to death for reasons he doesn’t quite understand but is compelled to follow nonetheless. Where the poem Gawain is aspirational, the film Gawain is relatable. He is all of us.
The castle sequence is largely unchanged, though Lowery makes a modestly perplexing decision regarding the casting of his lead actress, Alicia Vikander in a dual role as Gawain’s peasant girlfriend back home and also the lady of the castle. The casting implies that the two are possibly the same woman, or that Gawain sees all women he’s attracted to the same, or that one or both of them are figments of his imagination. The poem gives the occupants of the castle a dual role as well, but as the Green Knight and Morgan Le Fay, witchy half-sister of King Arthur who enchanted her husband in order to spook Queen Guinevere and only by accident provided a quest for our hero. The film has a Morgan as well, but makes her Gawain’s mother (Gawain is Arthur’s nephew in both poem and film, but his mother is unnamed in the poem. In many sources, his mother is Morgause, Morgan’s sister, though it’s important to keep in mind that this was all made-up stuff interweaving centuries of multicultural traditions and not designed by a corporation with a staff designated to track continuity). In the film, Morgan conjures the Green Knight seemingly as a way for her son to accrue some credibility points as a knight in order to bolster his future claim to Arthur’s throne. One can then take the story as a tale of helicopter parenting gone horribly wrong when Gawain’s rash beheading sentences him to premature death, or conversely as a mother’s elaborate scheme to scare the hell out of her boy so that he shapes up at stops being such a hedonistic fail-son.
Either way, both film and poem end with Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight and his having to make a choice about how he will face death. Gawain has been given a belt he believes will save him from the demon’s axe (whether it’s actually magical or not is ambiguous in the text, left up to how the bard chooses to deliver it). In both versions of the story Gawain flinches, despite the belt, at the first swing, but ultimately removes the belt and chooses to face his death. In the film this is preceded by a long montage where Gawain imagines how his life would play out if he cheated death and ran away, what his future would be like knowing he has acted dishonorably. It conjures memories of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and equates Gawain’s dilemma to Jesus’s own: willingly submitting to your own execution in the belief that it will make a world a better place (through sacrificial redemption of humanity’s sins or simply by not having a crummy king on the throne of Camelot). The poem ends with the reveal that it was basically all a prank, that the Knight and Morgan were just goofing around, but Gawain has proven his great virtue and honor nonetheless. The film ends, as it must, more ambiguously.