Thanks, Dev Patel! I Can't Believe How Well This 14th-Century Poem Is Going Over on Screen
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Is Thirsty and Delightful
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It’s gorgeous. It’s baroque. And yes, it’s very, very horny. Everything you’ve heard about The Green Knight is true, and I command you to go see this weird and wonderful adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight IF ONLY because there’s a talking fox.
A talking. FOX.
Get into it.
The Green Knight is based on the 14th-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s a tale of heroism, romance, temptation, morality, and more. It’s also a piece that countless students have snoozed over from one generation to the next.
Even Green Knight director David Lowery admitted that he was “all literature-d out” when he first confronted the poem in college (a feeling I can deeply identify with). But it’s delightful to see this historic poem brought to vibrant new life on the big screen and led by a dashing, big-name star. Dev Patel plays the titular Sir Gawain with a seriousness, hunger, and sense of bewilderment that fit the strange and spooky tale very well. His star power is richly evident, and along with David Lowery’s direction, you’ve got a dream duo.
A description of the film, though not spoilers per se, appear after this point if you’d like to skip or stop.
For a film based on a poem, much of The Green Knight elapses in silence—or rather, elapses without spoken dialogue in lieu of incredible, bizarre music. Part of me enjoys the way that the film doesn’t inject new language into the tale, instead favoring to paint vistas in the viewer’s mind much the way good poetry does.
As for paint colors, I hope that Color Palette Cinema posts about The Green Knight soon, because the aesthetic choices that Lowery makes manage to be both minimalist and extremely dramatic: think spare sets with rich-but-dirtied or muted colors. In the poem, the Green Knight is described as being “colored green,” and Lowery decided to take that cue and run with it. The eponymous Green Knight of this film appears to be a kind of humanoid-tree hybrid, a living embodiment of the natural world. At least that’s how I understood the figure as it was presented in this particular adaptation. Lowery is here likely pointing to interpretations of Gawain as a kind of pagan tale yoked to the wheel of the year, in which the midwinter figure of the Green Knight, who comes bearing a sprig of holly in the poem, is beheaded by the young sun god who represents the new year dawning (Gawain).
His carved face is reminiscent of bark, and his beard is made of roots. Later in the film, we even see him interacting with leaves.
In addition to imaginative leaps like this one, the film is further spiced up for contemporary audiences: where Gawain receives kisses from Lady Bertilak (also referred to in scholarship as Lady Hautdesert or the Lady of Castle Hautdesert, as she is never named in the poem), he receives… let’s just say a good deal more than kisses.
This is not the first time Sir Gawain has been adapted for film. Medievalists.net has a lovely and thorough rundown of the poem’s history in cinema, though some of its video links are broken. But previous adaptations have seemed at pains to render the film as a period piece in ways that retain its deep historicity at the expense of its strangeness and immediacy. Lowery’s Green Knight is like a modern horror fairytale that just so happens to take place in medieval times.
The most unique aspect of the film is its ending, which allows Lowery to have it both ways—we are treated to more than one ending (or are we?) which multiplies the possibilities of interpretation. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say at the end of this 700-year-old poem, Sir Gawain is wounded but not killed. In the film, Gawain is a kind of Schrodinger’s Knight: both alive and dead as we see him onscreen.
Though fiction and nonfiction can do this—can have it both ways and illustrate multiple eventualities and truths—I often think of the ability to inhabit multiple possibilities as a strength that’s endemic to poetry. Perhaps poetry does it best. (Fight me in the comments!)
This Is Pop Poetry
Lowery’s film is exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see more of: poetry welcomed into popular culture. And right now, the positive reception to The Green Knight has me excited for the future.
I also wished he would have gone further to integrate the text of the poem with the film. But this would be trickier for him with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as his source text than with texts written in later English, as translation is required. There is a library’s worth of things to say about what is gained and lost in translation, but suffice to say that merely choosing a translator or translation to work with as a filmmaker or secondary interpreter is a critically important choice, let alone the massive aesthetic and intellectual undertaking of translation itself.
Lowery has endorsed one translation in particular by writing the forward to a movie tie-in version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (please sweet Jesus let there be even more movie tie-in versions of poetry). When it comes to translation, Lowery had many brilliant things to say in the tie-in forward, including this:
The best one can hope for is a glimmer of a reflection of the original that, in the best of cases, might drive readers back to the source to discover everything you merely scratched the surface of.
Bernard O’Donoghue, who produced the tie-in translation, is as learned as they come in the realm of Middle English. His translation is bright and eminently readable. But these wins come at the expense of other considerable losses, as is the case with so much translation.
As O’Donoghue himself notes:
All great poetry is untranslatable, and this is perhaps particularly true of writing like the ‘Gawain’-poet’s, which is formally so highly wrought… the long lines of the original are principally characterized by a ringing consonantal alliteration. As most previous tranlators have agreed, it is not possible sustain this alliterative pattern—with three or more alliterating consonants in every line—without losing the precise meaning in modern English and without sacrificing any claim to idiomatic naturalness.
The interplay of consonants (i.e., not vowels) and alliteration (repetitive letter sounds at the beginnings of words, like quick quality quips) with the stress pattern prevalent in the original provide translators with a difficult task. It’s no wonder, then, that Lowery decided to focus on the content of the poem over its form in on-screen dialogue.
But there are other ways that Lowery also makes the film feel modern while retaining its essence, even in translation.
Old Texts & New Audiences
While I watched the film, I thought of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, one of my favorite literary film adaptations of all time (the aesthetic! HAROLD PERRINEAU!) Luhrmann managed to make R+J contemporary while still retaining so much of the original language of the play itself. “Give me my longsword, ho!” Old Capulet splutters as he reaches for an enormous, gleaming shotgun above a plate engraved with its model name: LONGSWORD. I will never not find this clever. Anyone can stage a period piece; it takes a good deal more artistry to make an old text feel new again.
Lowery succeeded here even as he held fast to the garb and setting of Gawain’s time period. There are no semiautomatics in sight. Instead of altering the film’s time period or setting, Lowery opts for a streamlined translation away from Middle English and a kind of minimalist, Phillip Glass-ian musical score that provides a contemporary “vibe,” as it were.
One moment in particular thrilled me with its poetic language, though it’s not pulled from the poem itself. Something like 2/3 of the way into the film, Alicia Vikander gives a dark and compelling monologue about the unstoppable, regenerative force of nature, which she casts as the distinction between the red of men’s blood and the creeping, eternal green of the earth. The sinister repetition of the words “red” and “green” had a hypnotic effect that I wished I could have felt for longer or in other scenes.
For contemporary audiences, envisioning the action of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might be difficult due to the poem’s length, its time period… you name it. Lowery succeeds marvelously, in this respect. There was so much to take in visually in this film that I felt like I was swimming through a museum or through a dreamscape. It’s a very impressionistic film for something wedded to a long narrative poem, and I can imagine that it will not resonate with audiences looking for a swashbuckling Arthurian flick.
But as an adaptation of the poem and as a literary adaptation packaged for modern, wide audiences, it’s a massive success that will certainly drive audiences back to the original text (it drove me back to it!) as Lowery hoped, and there’s certainly far more than just a “glimmer” of the original here for purists and medievalists, too.
What’s your favorite literary adaptation for film? What story or poem would you love to see featured in a feature film? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. I’ll write back—I promise!
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