I can’t remember if I’ve ever read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I never spent much of my time reading Middle English poetry. Although, I had an awareness of the story, so I might have briefly touched upon the subject. Now, normally, I don’t think it’s important to know the original text before you see an adaptation but I think this might be a bit different. After all, Middle English poetry isn’t something that many modern cinema audiences are necessarily ready for. Especially when the adaptation is potentially going to be mistaken for an epic fantasy action film. In the age of Game of Thrones, the idea of what fantasy is has become pretty specific and The Green Knight was sure to be that straightforward.
I’ll be honest, the fact that I last saw Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield probably prepared me for more laughter than I ended up getting in The Green Knight. I don’t know why because I knew it wasn’t going to a complete comedy festival. I do think there is fun to be found but the Middle English sense of humour is difficult to translate. I mean, it is a 14th-century text. It was never going to be up there with The Office or whatever. What it is, is another attempt to adapt the Arthurian legends for the big screen. I’ve been racking my brains and I cannot think of any truly successful attempt to bring the legend of King Arthur to life for cinema audiences. There’s Disney’s The Sword in the Stone but that’s about it.
So, The Green Knight already had a lot going against it even before you consider the global pandemic. Sir Gawain is one of the most famous Arthurian legends but the film does take plenty of liberties with the stories. Not an issue really. I can’t imagine anyone bar a few Middle English scholars really getting too worked up about it. The basic plot is there and David Lowrey manages to capture that chivalric romance pretty well. At it’s heart, this is the story of a man who wants to prove his worth. He is looking for a quest to show how gifted and heroic he is. How knightly.
On Christmas Day, the Green Knight appears at Arthur’s court and proposes a game. He will allow any of the knights present can try to land a blow on his under the condition that, one year later, they will be on the receiving end of an equal blow. The man who rises to the challenge is Gawain, Arthur’s nephew. Seeing his chance for glory and wanting his own story, Gawain behead the Green Knight after borrowing Arthur’s sword. Despite this set back, the Green Knight rises and reminds Gawain to prepare for an equal blow in one year’ time. The following Christmas, the young man sets out to face his challenge and accept his fate. However, his journey is anything but easy.
Rather than this being the tale of a man wanting to chase glory, we quickly learn that it is simply a man feeling compelled to. Gawain must fight between becoming the man he thinks he should be and living as the man he is. To the outside world, he speaks of honour and chivalry. Yet, behind closed doors he prefers to spend his days in revelry in brothels. Of course, it doesn’t help that his Uncle has one of the greatest legends ever. Is it any wonder that Gawain wants his own stories and songs? So, he leaps to the challenge without really contemplating his overriding cowardice.
It’s difficult to really talk too much about the story but The Green Knight is an absolutely beautiful film. We are taken on a rather leisurely stroll through rugged terrain and experience all types of weather. It won’t be for everyone but it is worth a shot. It’s a wonderful counterpoint to the age of superheroes, where masculinity has become associated with goodness. This explores an alternative side to that and shows a flawed representation of heroism. It plays with its source material and it plays with its audience. I don’t really know what to say about it other than it’s bloody brilliant.