WARNING: Spoilers for The Green Knight below.
A24’s latest, The Green Knight, is based on the late 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”–here’s how the movie compares to the original story. After more than a year’s delay, A24 made the decision to hang onto the film for a theatrical release rather than sell it to a streamer, and it appears their gamble was a smart one. The Green Knight has gotten rave reviews and has done better than hoped for in its opening weekend at the box office considering it’s an indie film in the pandemic era.
It follows Dev Patel’s Gawain, a young man in the court of King Arthur (and the legendary king’s nephew) who is idle and directionless. He needs something to inspire him to greatness in order to become a knight and join the Round Table. That something arrives in the form of the supernatural appearance of the Green Knight, who appears at Camelot one Christmas and challenges Arthur’s knights to a duel. Gawain takes him up on his challenge and it sets events into motion that find Gawain leaving Camelot in order to track down the knight a year later, to potentially deadly consequences.
David Lowery’s film is a stunning adaptation of Arthurian legend. It hews true to the spirit of the original poem, right down to certain details, but he also takes some liberties with it, excising certain things and adding others, as well as modifying some elements to make it work better for the medium of the screen. Here’s a breakdown of the major ways The Green Knight changes the original story and poem.
The Green Knight Looks Far Different
In the movie, the character design for the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) is exceptionally wild, his tree bark face and beard of twigs meant to evoke the ancient pagan deity the Green Man. For a millennium, the Green Man has been depicted as a male figure whose face is surrounded by or made of leaves, with variations including vines and ivy, twigs, and branches. The Green Man is often associated with the old pagan god Cernunnos, the Horned God of Celtic polytheism. The Green Knight, like the Green Man and Cernunnos, represents all things wild, nature and animals, all green living things, and the hunt, and his appearance in the movie is a clear visual representation of his status as a creature of nature.
The Green Knight is depicted quite differently in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” however. In the original poem, he’s far less primal and wild in appearance. Instead, he’s described in language that portrays him as looking like a fine and wealthy nobleman. His clothes are not rough armor, as in the movie, but inlaid with jewels and made of silk, with burnished gold accents and ermine fur trim on his mantle, and long, gleaming locks of hair–it’s just that everything, from his hair to skin to his clothes to his horse, is bright and verdant green. The extravagant and bizarre appearance was one meant to astonish medieval readers of the era.
Arthur Is Much Younger In The Poem
The Arthur of the movie, played by Sean Harris, is not a King Arthur in his prime, but an Arthur who is older, frailer, and clearly not too many years away from death. When the Green Knight challenges the court, Arthur even expresses regret that he can’t be the one to take up the challenge, allowing that while his heart is still ready to fight, his body is not up to the task. Much of Lowery’s film is ambiguous and up to interpretation, but it all lends an air of urgency to Gawain’s need to prove himself. He’s Arthur’s nephew and has a real shot at being the heir to the throne–which is hinted at when the childless Arthur suddenly takes an interest in Gawain. However, Gawain as he is is absolutely unfit to be a knight of the Round Table, much less the King of Camelot.
In the poem, this isn’t as much of an issue. There is no implied need to hurry along Gawain’s growth, as King Arthur is still a young and virile ruler in the original story. So young, in fact, that a few lines imply he hasn’t yet matured and become the wise king he came to be known as: “He was so jolly in his youthfulness–and just a bit juvenile./He wanted live to be lighthearted, liking much less/To loll around for very long, or a long time to sit./This way his young blood and restless brain kept him busy.” The atmosphere at court is fresh and full of promise, unlike the Arthur at the end of his rein in the film.
Gawain’s Personality Is Quite Different
Similar to the depiction of Arthur, the Gawain in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is also somewhat lighter-hearted and has a more positive depiction. He is quite literally a paragon of medieval knightly virtue, the walking embodiment of the chivalric code. Gawain is exceptionally pure-hearted and pious and chaste, and, as he’s already a knight in the poem, puts quite a bit of pressure on himself to live up to his status as a knight of the Round Table. In fact, Gawain’s greatest flaw is that he holds himself to far too high a standard, and the quest reframes his view of himself in a more realistic context.
It’s a far cry from the Gawain of the film, who is without purpose, a wastrel, and far less concerned with his reputation–not that he has much of a reputation at all when he’s first introduced, and certainly not one for chastity. Nor is he exactly in a hurry to pursue the Green Knight or to keep up his end of their deal. In fact, in Screen Rant’s interview with Dev Patel, the actor revealed, “One of my earlier discussions with David was, ‘How do we make this guy more likable?’ because he was really just quite awful!” It was a smart change on the part of Lowery, however; while the Gawain of the poem was considered the chivalric ideal of the time, it’s a depiction that would be largely outdated today. But an idle, privileged young man who has much growing up to do is something that can resonate with modern audiences.
Morgan Le Fay’s Role & Motivations Are Different
David Lowery deliberately kept all characters save for Gawain himself, his peasant lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander), and Winifred (Erin Kellyman) anonymous. Arthur is merely referred to as “The King,” and Gawain’s mother, played by Sarita Choudhury, is simply referred to as “Mother.” However, Gawain’s mother in the movie is Morgan le Fay, the legendary sorceress of Arthurian legend. In the film, she clearly has a hand in setting the supernatural events into motion, working with her sister witches in a summoning circle to apparently call forth the Green Knight. Gawain clearly needs a push, and Morgan is the one who manufactures it. It’s not entirely clear if Morgan le Fay’s motivations are entirely altruistic–she clearly wants her son to grow up and become a man, to see if greatness lurks within. Yet it’s also clear her brother, Arthur, is not long for the world, and it’s possible that Morgan is determined to see her son on the throne but knows he’ll never be accepted if he doesn’t earn the respect of the court and the Knights of the Round Table. The rest of the film is left incredibly ambiguous, but it’s strongly implied that Morgan le Fay has a hand in Gawain’s strange encounters and various tests.
In the poem, Morgan le Fay’s motivations are far pettier. She is not mother to Gawain in the poem–in fact, Gawain’s mother is usually depicted as being Morgause, Morgan le Fay’s sister, in the wider mythology. It doesn’t much matter to Morgan le Fay who takes up the quest in the poem; Gawain just happens to get in her way. Morgan’s intentions in the poem are simply to frighten Guinevere beyond reason by the vision of the Green Knight and to cause a little chaos in King Arthur’s court; at this point in history, Morgan le Fay was well past her earlier depictions of being a benevolent and wise protector. Instead, she was depicted as a chaotic neutral enigma at best and an outright villain at worst. By making her Gawain’s mother in the movie, there’s a stronger connection between Gawain and the instigator of the quest and it lends the events more depth and meaning. Likewise, leaving Morgan le Fay’s involvement ambiguous is a strong choice the movie makes. In the poem, it’s revealed it had been Morgan all along, orchestrating everything from the start for her own pleasure. The movie never explicitly reveals this, not to Gawain and not to the audience, concealing Morgan le Fay’s hand in manipulating her son.
There’s No Scavenger, Winifred Or Essel In The Poem
Lowery’s adaptation, which he also wrote, adds a few characters that aren’t in the poem. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has a much more streamlined cast of characters and, while Gawain meets all manner of beasts on his quest, he doesn’t come across any other people until he gets to the manor of Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert (played by Joel Edgerton in the movie) and Lady Bertilak de Hautdesert (also played by Alicia Vikander). While it works for the poem, it doesn’t make for the best on-screen story, particularly in a film where Dev Patel’s Gawain already carries a good portion of the film entirely alone and interacting with nothing but the elements.
Each additional character adds something specific and symbolic to the film. The Scavenger (Barry Keoghan) illustrates just how naive and, frankly, pampered Gawain is. He doesn’t see the obvious, which is that the Scavenger is clearly a bandit and cutthroat. Gawain has lived a life of privilege at Camelot and it doesn’t occur to him that anyone would lack honor or dare rob him and the Scavenger emphasizes just how ill-equipped Gawain is for the wider world at the start of his quest. Their meeting place on the killing field is also an important bit of juxtaposition with the noble reputation of Arthur. It’s clear that Arthur is a compassionate and warm man, but he is also a renowned and mighty ruler, and medieval rulers don’t keep their throne without violence. Arthur is a great man, but he’s still one whose knights and soldiers have slaughtered thousands.
While Winifred may not appear in the poem, but a wellspring associated with her is mentioned. In reality, Erin Kellyman’s Winifred is Saint Winifred, a historical figure and Welsh martyr from the 7th century who was pursued by a prince named Caradoc. Winifred, however, wanted to dedicate her life to God as a nun and kept spurning Caradog’s advances, so he tried to take her by force and rape her. Winifred escaped, but Caradog was so enraged that when he caught up to her, he beheaded her with his sword in a fit of anger. In mythology, St. Beuno took her head and returned it to her body, restoring and resurrecting her. In the movie, Gawain takes the place of Beuno, but in a far more awkward and less altruistic fashion. In the film, Winifred represents the worst sins of men and is a cautionary tale for Gawain to never let his lust or greed rule him.
Essel presents the greatest challenge of all for Gawain. Courtly love is all well and good, but, well, young men are rarely so courtly in real life as they are in chivalric romances. Gawain and clearly hot-blooded and full of virility, and he spends most of the first act more interested in thinking with his nether-parts than with his head. Because of this, Alicia Vikander’s Essel offers him his first painful lesson: the heart is not a plaything. She has clear feelings for Gawain and wants to be his lady, which Gawain realizes is impossible due to their differing class status. Gawain has seen her as a quite literal romp in the hay, and while he surely cares for her, the sudden reality of their incompatible situations intrudes in an unwelcome manner.
There’s No Talking Fox In The Poem Either
Sadly, there is no talking fox in the poem, but the one in the film has its roots in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” In the poem, there is an extended sequence where Lord Bertilak goes on a hunting trip each day for three days. The final day describes Lord Bertilak’s hunt for a fox that is wily and keeps slipping away. It’s a parallel for the situation concurrently playing out between Gawain and Lady Bertilak in which the Lady tries to seduce him and Gawain keeps cleverly dodging her advances. Eventually, the fox is killed and Gawain breaks, but while it’s an important part of the poem, it’s a section of the poem that can be excised without losing much. Just as Peter Jackson wisely axed the Tom Bombadil section in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, David Lowery excised the extended hunt sequence from The Green Knight. Instead, the talking fox and the shot of the fox hunt tapestry are clever ways to incorporate that section of the poem without belaboring it.
The Final Battle Of Wills With The Lady Is Quite Different
In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” again, Gawain is far more chaste and pure than the version in the movie. Therefore, his final test at Lord Bertilak’s manor resolves far more innocently. Lady Bertilak comes to his bedchamber to tempt him one last time, and after he puts up a good fight, evading her with words, he finally breaks and she kisses him three times. Afterward, he heads straight to the chapel to confess his sins and be absolved. It’s a far cry from how it plays out in The Green Knight, with Gawain letting Lady Bertilak get far more intimate with him, using her hand to tease him until he ejaculates all over the sash she gives him. It’s far more visceral and sexual in nature, but more realistic an encounter than that of the monkishly chaste knight in the poem. Likewise, while the poem version of Gawain leaves his hosts with good cheer, Gawain in the film bolts out of the manor, his surge of emotion proportional to the more primal and earthly events of the adaptation.
Gawain Never Removes His Enchanted Girdle In The Poem
Both poem and film versions of Gawain cling to the enchanted green girdle that will keep them safe but what each does with that girdle is quite different. In the film, Gawain has an extended flash-forward sequence in which he sees what his life will be like should he carry with him the shame of winning the Green Knight’s challenge through deceit. Finally accepting his fate, he removes the magical sash and it’s this, his submitting to his pending death, that absolves him and resolves his quest. Gawain’s test in the movie is to find his spine and to learn how to be brave in the face of adversity, even death.
The ultimate lesson the Gawain of the poem must learn is slightly different. He has no lack of bravery, though there are numerous times in the poem that he’s afraid. Instead, poem Gawain has to accept that he’s human and therefore flawed. Even the greatest of knights will make mistakes, and by comparison, Gawain is far nobler. The Green Knight, who, in the poem, is revealed to have been Lord Bertilak enchanted by Morgan le Fay, merely gives Gawain a knick on the neck with his ax for failing to disclose he was wearing the sash. The serious Gawain is overcome with shame at his deceit, but the Green Knight merely laughs and absolves him. Gawain’s deception only stemmed from the human instinct for self-preservation and the Green Knight can find no fault with that. The Gawain of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and the Gawain of The Green Knight can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, with the latter serving as a modern mirror to the version that strode across the page almost 700 years ago.
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