MINOR SPOILERS FOR A RECENTLY RELEASED MOVIE AND A 14TH CENTURY POEM
There’s a list of movies that I was excited to see before COVID hit and everything fell to shit, and The Green Knight was one such film. I can’t say that I’m a huge Arthurian legend nerd–I know the stuff covered on the animated Gargoyles series and that Sir Lancelot, the best knight ever who also fucks the king’s wife, was created by the French–but it’s been a passing interest. But add in a spooky atmosphere and I got hooked just by the trailer. And after what feels like years of waiting, it’s finally here, ready for me to watch on a Tuesday afternoon in a nearly empty theater. Progress towards life getting back on track!
The story follows King Arthur’s nephew, Gawain (Mr. Dev Patel), which I thought was pronounced like “guh-WAIN” but the movie alternatively uses “go-WIN” or “gar-WIN” if the accent is particularly thick. He’s not quite knight material yet, but that doesn’t stop him from accepting the challenge from a mysterious foresty Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, AKA William from The VVitch). They engage in a little game: Gawain strikes at the Knight, and one year later he will meet with the Knight to receive an equal blow. Turns out this is more complicated than he thought, because Gawain decapitating the treeman doesn’t end the game prematurely. Cut to one year later and Gawain is off to face his possible death. Along the way he has little adventures like meeting a friendly fox, doing a favor for a girl who is clearly a ghost, and getting involved in a love triangle in a House of Mystery. Does Gawain survive his encounter with the Knight? Is it all “off with your head” instead? I’ll never tell!
Had I done research before seeing this, I would’ve found out that this is based on the 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” with a few dashes of new material. The idea of a “beheading game” is apparently an old trope of chivalric romance stories, so that’s a fun little glimpse back in time. The original story follows much the same beats: Green Knight gets decapitated, Gawain meets him a year later to literally put his neck on the line. What this movie added is the idea that Gawain is a person, not a heroic knight of fable. He’s terrified to face a possible death, while the Gawain of legend flinched slightly when the axe was coming down. Bit of a difference, but it humanizes mythical figures.
I can see why people could have issues with the film. It’s a bit slow, and the episodic adventures don’t really feel like they connect well enough. Gawain gets rewarded for bravery and punished for cowardice, although that theme could’ve been accentuated more. The part that had me personally the most confused was the love triangle thing, complete with technology beyond its time, a woman who looks exactly like the girl Gawain left behind, and a blindfolded old woman. The other adventures make more sense while that felt obtuse. Or, rather, archaic, because the Lord, Lady, and old woman are straight from the poem while the other adventures are more or less created for the movie. Reading how the poem ended actually tied a lot of things together that the movie left dangling, making overt connections that the movie only toys with. The movie’s ending is a little different from that of the poem, so it becomes a risky choice: do you go into the movie without reading of the poem and have no clue what will happen, or do you read up on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and start making connections near immediately? To each their own, but with hindsight, I took the former and would probably have preferred the latter.
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