The Green Knight preserves a historic folklore myth for the modern day

Introduction

It’s a good day to be alive kings and queens. Today we’re talking about a new film — The Green Knight. Out now in theaters, The Green Knight is a medieval low-fantasy film, directed by David Lowery. This movie was released by A24 — which may mean something to many people watching this — and has become somewhat divisive in its critical reception. I ended up liking this movie a lot, but I think I can explain why you might not like it. There’s really only two things to talk about with this movie:

  • Dedication to adapting a folklore story
  • Technical accomplishments

Premise

We’re going to start with the premise then give some background. The Green Knight is an adaptation of a 14th century folklore tale generally known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

(Quick aside: there is a lively discussion on the internet about the correct pronunciation of Gawain. I have chosen to side with the movie’s pronunciation — feel free to share your argument for where you stand in the comments.)

The Green Knight is a story you can summarize in a few sentences and I am going to resist the urge to do that. Thematically it is a story about courage, duty, faith, honor, and a bunch of other things. Those themes should be evident when you see the movie. Whether or not you like it, depends on what you’re looking for.

Background

As I mentioned, this movie is directed by David Lowery who is a tested director at this point in his career. I think the most notable film to reference is A Ghost Story. He’s done other movies such as The Old Man & the Gun and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but The Green Knight feels very similar to A Ghost Story. For one thing, they’re both shot in 4:3. They are also both very intentional with their dialogue, relying moreso on the filmic language to convey story — all that good stuff like framing, montage, the actor’s performance and etc. I welcome filmic storytelling as a general rule, but it was especially important for A Ghost Story because it didn’t have much of a plot. You can say the same thing about The Green Knight. Not a lot of story to cover, so it focuses on how it’s told.

Now I want to give a spiel about what The Green Knight is before I talk more critically about its successes and failures.

The Green Knight is very explicit about its origin as an adaptation. The beginning of the movie has a disclaimer informing the audience: hey this is an adaptation of a story that’s pretty old! The story of The Green Knight has been around for close to 700 years. It is one of the most well-known stories in the history of mankind, but yet you may have never heard it yourself. The reason why you may have not heard about it, is tightly intertwined with why your experience may be like many audience members who did not like it.

So why is it you may not like The Green Knight? I would say before our current moment, stories were very different than how we experience them now. Prior to moviemaking, a story only survived through time if it had something meaningful to say. We now live in an era of commercialized storytelling and that is most people’s experience with stories. Through film, stories have become a component of a product meant to entertain. They no longer have to prove themselves by their own merit. This is largely because filmmaking is honestly one of the most incredible innovations in human history. Not because filmmaking itself is so revolutionary, but it has revealed humanity’s capacity to use stories as a way to understand the world.

The greatest strength of filmmaking is it is the only artform that can portray a story and doesn’t require any traditional education. If you have been civilized to the point of understanding language, you can watch pretty much watch any movie in existence and get something out of it. This is without even mentioning silent films that have even more universal appeal. You don’t have to be literate, you don’t need to identify techniques, you don’t have to understand stylistic doctrines, you don’t need to know anything to watch a movie. Experiencing stories — especially through a series of pictures like film — is innate and intuitive for humans. I would go further and say humans require stories to understand anything. That is why myths, folklore, or a really good movie can be so powerful. There’s a reason all religious texts are not a bulleted list of things to know, but a compilation of stories. These stories are not in addition to something we already know, the story itself is how we know anything at all.

Most people don’t have that relationship with stories because movies have become a commodity — something to consume or pass the time. We don’t have a deep relationship with stories because we experience so many of them that don’t make an impact. The industry around moviemaking is taking advantage of your innate appreciation for storytelling and using it to keep you engaged with content. Whether that is binging a Netflix series or keeping you showing up to Marvel movies, the goal is for you to constantly consume. Stay on the platform or provide value to a shareholder.

Before I become too much of a hypocrite, let me be the first to say I love a lot of the movies I am describing. I think there is a place for film as entertainment. Some of my favorite movies are films designed to be entertainment. I think you can gain something meaningful from entertainment. I even think you can genuinely love the artform of filmmaking while still only engaging with movies that are meant to be entertainment. In the same way you can love reading while only engaging with books that are meant to be entertainment. You might love Harry Potter and Game of Thrones but you’re never going to read Dante’s Inferno or The Epic of Gilgamesh. By that same token, you might love movies. You might love medieval-era movies like Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven, but that’s not going to help you in deciding if you like The Green Knight. It’s not that kind of movie.

This is an adaptation of a story that’s been around for 700 years. Now you might be thinking: “I’m not interested in this movie for the same reason I’m never going to read The Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s old and irrelevant to my life.” Let me be the first to say, I am with you in that view. I don’t read ancient tomes for exactly that reason. It’s a torturous process and even if I subjected myself to that misery I’m unlikely to get anything out of it. BUT! Experiencing stories through movies is innate in human beings. Which means I am far more likely to watch a film adaptation of The Epic of Gilgamesh then I am to read that fucking book. If I were to watch such an adaptation, it would be the only way I would ever experience a story that’s been passed on for centuries. The Green Knight is exactly that kind adaptation. It is an attempt to bring this story to film. It is not modernized for new audiences. It takes this very old, revered, meaningful story — that has undoubtedly shaped the lives of many people across many nations over the past half millennia — and puts it in a format that anyone can appreciate. I think that is an incredible accomplishment, and that’s why I ended up liking this movie so much.

Dedication to adapting a medieval story

The first thing to say when assessing this movie critically is to acknowledge how it is not the movie you might think it should be. The Green Knight wants to be assessed for its dedication to adapting this old story, not to be compared to other medieval-era movies. The appeal of a movie like Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven is identical to the appeal of any action adventure movie. You get swept up in the drama, you appreciate the sense of epic scale, maybe there are some good battle sequences. The Green Knight doesn’t have any of that. Without detailing too much of the plot, The Green Knight is about how we choose to define the story of ourselves. This story is told in the context of a main character who has almost certainly started out on the wrong foot. I think the essence of this story is very relatable and it’s the essential appeal of the movie, but it doesn’t have all that other stuff you might expect.

For example, The Green Knight is described as an epic fantasy adventure, but at no point is there a “fight” of any kind. Even though the movie begins with a kind of trial by combat, there is no fight scene. Never do two swords touch one another. That is never a source of drama in this story. Our hero — Sir Gawain — has a brief introduction sequence, then runs into some classic trials and tribulations. There are people who want to help him, people who want to hurt him, and some characters where it’s not clear how things are going to go down. This is where the movie’s drama comes from.

I really liked how this movie segmented its storytelling in clearly defined chapter titles. Like literally, every 10 or 20 minutes there is a title card on screen for the next sequence in the movie. I thought this was a smart thing to do because it sets your expectations with the film. Whenever a title card drops, it’s an indication the conflict of the past few minutes has been concluded. You can ask yourself: what has changed? What have we learned? Did the character gain or lose anything significantly? How does this relate to the rest of the story? You can view The Green Knight as a succession of short stories culminating in the eventual fate of our main character. The stories aren’t necessarily building off one another — characters don’t return after their given scene — but each scene has a point that connects to a general theme. I also think these titles were necessary to keep modern audiences engaged. Otherwise the movie may seem like a meandering trek through the woods where some stuff happens sometimes. Many layman reviews have said this movie was boring. I didn’t have that experience. The chapter titles let me know where I was in the movie and there was always something happening. I was always engaged by what was going on.

In terms of things this movie is not. It’s also worth saying The Green Knight doesn’t have relationships with other characters in the traditional sense. Sure, there are characters Gawain interacts with but they’re all conduits for a theme reinforced throughout the story. It’s like he’s talking to the idea of a character more than he is talking to an actual character. This might sound strange, but when you view the movie as a connection of bigger themes, it’s a very intuitive viewing experience.

For example, one of the early scenes is between Gawain and the King. The King expresses he doesn’t know anything about Gawain and asks him to tell a tale so he can better understand who he is. Gawain admits he has no tale to tell. Following their conversation, a strange knight appears offering someone to partake in a strange game. Gawain is the first to accept this offer, and that’s the kickoff for the rest of the movie.

I really loved this scene. On its surface, you see our main character try to connect with a member of royalty and then make a fool of himself in a weird game. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see the themes underlying these scenes. The King is a father figure and a stand-in for Gawain’s relationship with his own self-worth. He is being asked, what value do you bring to this world? And I don’t mean value as a measurement of how the community benefits. I mean literally, Gawain is being asked: what are your values? Do you embody one at all? Do you have anything to contribute the world? Gawain says no. He has no story and as such he is not providing any value. This is the impetus for the next scene. Gawain is the first to accept the offer from the Green Knight because he wants to prove his value. He’s yearning for an opportunity to define his life’s story and this is the first option that showed up. This isn’t a complicated analysis. You don’t need to understand film theory to follow what I just said. It’s all very intuitive because it’s not written by a Hollywood producer who specializes in marketing, it’s an old story based on what mankind has learned over several centuries. One of those things is a man has a desire to prove his worth and sometimes that means accepting risky and stupid challenges for the sake of having definition in his existence. You don’t need a multilayer analysis to figure that out and I’d say that’s true for the rest of the film as well. There’s a simple story to follow, but underneath it are themes that make the events more impactful and they’re all pretty easy to understand.

Now there is a caveat I have to mention now before people misunderstand my priors on this movie. If you were to ask me: do you like movies that require interpretation? Almost always my answer is no. That question brings to mind movies like The Fountain, Enemy, or more recently I’ve Been Thinking of Ending Things. These movies are incoherent. They are incoherent because they were made by pretentious filmmakers who lost the thread on their own creativity. The Green Knight is not one of those movies. You don’t need to decipher its true meaning, there’s just more to get out of it if you think about it a little bit.

With that said, there were some confusing moments but I think they have their justifications. There is a sequence toward the end of the movie where Gawain stays with a family. One of the family members is played by Alicia Vikander who plays a different role earlier in the movie. I thought using the same actor twice was needlessly confusing. They try to distinguish by her haircut, but Vikander is already so plain looking it wasn’t enough for me to notice any real difference.

Another confusing element was in that same sequence. The husband of the family says to Gawain he must return whatever is given to him on the estate. Gawain then receives a sash that is meant to protect him from harm. However, when Gawain leaves the estate and the husband asks for the thing he received back… Gawain doesn’t give him the sash. It is not as if Gawain refuses to give him the sash — or even acknowledges he received the sash and might have to give it back — it seems like the filmmakers forgot he got the sash. It seems like a plot hole. Until you do a minimal amount of research into this question and uncover some hundreds of years of debate discussing whether or not this so-called “plot hole” is an indication the sash is not a physical object but a metaphor for Gawain’s belief in God or potentially a spiritual trophy of some kind that’s awarded for his previous acts. Which is to say, some things in this movie can be interpreted differently and that may result in a lack of confidence in your own understanding, but I wouldn’t call the movie “confusing.”

For the most part, I found the story very approachable and I felt like I got a lot out of it.

Technical accomplishments

Beyond the story of the film, I loved a lot of the technical accomplishments in this movie.

The lighting in this movie is very focused on recreating realistic lighting from the medieval era. If you’re not a history major, you may not realize indoor lighting was very dark before there was electricity. This movie is also very dark in its interior scenes, to the extent I wonder if you should seek this film out in theaters because there’s no way your television is equipped to handle the black levels this film uses. Especially in the beginning, the early scenes in the king’s court are gradients of near blackness. It’s a unique look for a movie like this and I think it contributes to all the commendations this movie’s cinematography has been getting in the critical circuit.

Of the few creative liberties taken by the filmmakers, I enjoyed the interpretation of the Green Knight as an embodiment of nature. Various scholars of the original story have disputed what the author meant by referring to one of its central characters as “green,” but I think the depiction of him being made of tree bark and shrubbery was appropriate. So much of this story is about larger-than-life forces, I think it’s more than fitting the character who acts as a kind of judgement on man is one associated with the natural order of life itself.

Finally, I feel obligated to give a shout out to the actors in this movie. I don’t like talking about acting because it seems like such a ground-floor amateur analysis to say “wow, I thought he looked sad when he was sad.” I feel obligated to say something because the actors don’t have a lot to work with yet they are so effective at their roles. Maybe this is more of a compliment to the casting department. I was skeptical of Dev Patel as the main character, but he is really just enough likable, relatable, and charismatic to carry the film. All the supporting roles are also perfect type casting. I would list some examples, but they’re truly all perfect.  

Final Thoughts

If there’s any weakness in this movie it’s the protracted ending which is largely intended to break your assumptions on how the movie might end. The beginning of the movie makes it seem like it’s either going to go one way or the other way. The ending does a lot of work to propose an alternative, which I think it ultimately succeeds at but I’m not sure that success made the movie any better. Whatever problems do exist in the ending, it’s not really a problem after you know what’s going to happen. It’s one of those things where you’re pissed about it the first time you watch the movie and forget about it thereafter.

Which is another way of saying, this movie doesn’t really have any faults. I thought the introduction was excellent. I liked the art direction and look of the film. The actors are perfect for their roles. I was engaged and interested the entire time. Most important of all, I feel like I gained access to a historic and revered story that has been around for centuries. It also helps the story still feels relevant in the modern day, though it takes some minimal interpretation beyond what literally happens to get that from it. It’s a story I likely would never have the capacity to appreciate in its original form. It’s also a story that film critics, laypeople, and scholars all like. I can’t think of a movie that’s ever done that.

I would love for this to become a niche genre. A branching off of historical fiction into adaptations of historical folklore and tales. I think there’s a trend of interest in these older stories. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology or the popularity of the video game Hades seem like an indication of that. It certainly won’t be what most people want from movies, but I can’t deny the value of this experience.

If there is a standard to live up to for this potential genre, I think The Green Knight is it. It’s minimal in its modernizations, dedicated to adapting the source material, and conveys the weighty importance of the original story without any sacrifices to it. I think that’s why I can safely give this movie a 5 out of 5. That doesn’t mean it gets my highest recommendation or that anyone would like it. In fact, when I make my Top 10 later this year I can imagine it being beat out by other movies with lower scores. But if we’re talking about the movie’s success in accomplishing what it wanted to do. If we’re talking about if what it wanted to do has any value to an audience. I think it nailed its execution and I think this movie has a lot of value. You specifically may not like it, but that’s true of a lot of things. Believe me, I am the first person to criticize pretentious, dense, vague nonsense. I am the first to say “it’s not me, it’s the movie.” The Green Knight is not one of those movies. I couldn’t conjure a criticism of this movie that felt fair or genuine. I really liked it, it’s unique, and if it sounds like something you’d be interested in — it’s really a one-of-kind accomplishment.

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