The Green Knight is director David Lowery’s fascinating and somewhat confounding adaptation of the chivalric tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an anonymous 14th-century English poem, possibly written by several people. The poem itself has provided fodder for medieval scholars for some time—including Tolkien—and is a major influence on perceptions of chivalric romance as well as contemporary fantasy literature, mixing as it does the pagan and supernatural with Christian allegory. The film takes the broad strokes of the poem to craft its own approach to the hero’s pursuit of honor and destruction.
Gawain (Dev Patel) is King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) nephew and an aspiring knight, but he’s failed to perform any knightly tasks, spending more time drinking and carousing with Essel (Alica Vikander). His mother (Sarita Choudhury) might be Morgan le Fay—she’s certainly represented as a more pagan presence than the early Christian Arthur—and encourages her son to meet his destiny. That destiny arrives in the form of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a giant green man who appears at Christmas to propose a game: a duel between himself and one of Arthur’s knights. The game comes with a caveat: if the knight can land a blow on the Green Knight, he will undertake a journey the next Christmas to the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight will return the blow in kind. Gawain volunteers and cuts off the Green Knight’s head, thus finding himself on a journey the following year to locate the Green Chapel and complete the game.
The film addresses most of the poem’s structure through the chivalric tests Gawain meets in the pursuit of his challenge, though its completion means certain death. The Green Knight teases out the conflict of reigning Christianity with encroaching nature and natural processes, represented by the Green Knight, as Gawain encounters challenges to his quest and the value of his honor
Lowery crafts some remarkable imagery, utilizing a bizarre medieval poem in a way that we perhaps don’t expect from our current crop of sword and shield epics. Gawain’s challenges include facing a group of war-time scavengers who rob him, a saint who has lost her head, poisonous mushrooms, and a castle controlled by a Lord (Joel Edgerton) with some games of his own. The pacing of The Green Knight may seem glacial in places, but that’s the nature of dreams (and The Green Knight is undoubtedly shaped more as a dream than as any kind of reality). The pacing and fluidity of the images recalls Tarkovsky over Peter Jackson, making the film more a contemplation of one man’s pursuit of death than a standard “fantasy epic.”
But there’s a hole in Lowery’s adaptation, however beautiful and contemplative, and it’s something that the original poem has…well, not in abundance, but in evidence. Humor. The structure of the story is, in itself, humorous, in an early medieval period, “we’re all gonna die at the age of thirty” kind of way. The concept of a friendly Christmas challenge in which one participant is basically conned into chopping off the other one’s head is funny—but it’s the sort of dark humor one expects from a time period where games were almost always deadly, and a story that was all about the complexities of chivalry, Christianity, nature, and power. The Green Knight’s challenge can only end in death, but he proposes it and then proceeds to mock Gawain’s aspirations to chivalry by picking up his own head and walking off with it.
Lowery’s film doesn’t follow out the ending of the poem, which is a legitimate choice, but unfortunately he also sacrifices the story’s humor, preferring instead to remind us, almost continuously, that this is a Very Serious Film. By extension, this makes certain scenes unintentionally funny (like the CGI fox having a conversation with our knight nearing the end), and means that the viewer misses the significance of many scenes—not least because the film itself doesn’t seem to notice their significance.
Gawain, the poem, for such a short work, has a remarkable level of complexity, driven in part by its context. Lowery’s film doesn’t establish that context in any meaningful way. That is a result not of a lack of exposition—no one wants a long background explanation of the rules of chivalry during an epic fantasy film—but an unwillingness to actually follow through on the plot as the film establishes it. The significance of Gawain’s visit to the castle and his agreement with the lord is lost because the film fails to depict that significance and its relationship to the Green Knight’s challenge. While the central conceit of the story, such as it is, is related by the Lady (also played by Alicia Vikander) in teasing out the symbolism of the color green, even this fails to knit the film together as a whole. Gawain is a remarkably inactive protagonist who seems unaware of the rules of his own culture, and his remarks about “honor” ring hollow. Perhaps this is the film’s conclusion, that honor and pursuit of glory is ultimately a pursuit of death, but then it doesn’t really care to delineate the deep importance of honor and the chivalric code to the time period, the world of the poem, or the proposed world of the film. It’s hard not to pause and ask why Gawain doesn’t just go home. This is a fault of the film itself—contextually, Gawain’s choices should make sense, but it needs to show us why.
While I applaud the introduction of an alternative narrative for Gawain, it’s not at all clear what Lowery wants the conclusion to be. Gawain faces death and must choose whether to fulfill his knightly quest or flee from it. We understand that, but what does it matter when being a knight has no apparent meaning in the film? This is not to say that The Green Knight is a failure, but it is an incoherent text. The imagery is gorgeous, the performances studied, the slow pacing remarkably effective. But the historical, philosophical, and religious underpinnings—which this film must have, to be more than an exercise in adaptation—are somewhat confused. The Green Knight wants to be a complex allegory of the death drive, but fails to touch on its own narrative’s chivalric code or the inherent dark humor at its core. At the end, The Green Knight is more a midsummer night’s dream than a medieval romance—beautiful, strange, and ultimately superficial.