The Green Knight (2021)

This movie is sitting at the crossroads of several subjects I'm obsessed with, which fascinates me but concerns me on your behalf. I'm not entirely sure how long this review is going to be, but "excruciatingly" isn't out of the question. Because of that, I'm going to approach this out of order and start with a summary of my thoughts in the hopes it will give you enough information to make up your mind about whether or not to watch The Green Knight without having to endure God knows how many thousands of words ranting about Arthurian legends, modern fantasy, myth theory, Christmas media, and the point at which these subjects intersect.

The movie is absolutely breathtaking to watch. Everything from the score to the sets to the costumes and makeup is beautifully designed, shot, and edited. This uses new and old filmmaking techniques (including at least one matte painting) to create something that looks and feels truly unique. It's a dream of a fairytale crossed with a living painting, gorgeous and engulfing... and more than a little nonsensical. It's operating by its own logic, so if an utter lack of realism is a deal-breaker, move on. Likewise, be aware you're sacrificing a traditional narrative for something that's intensely evocative. Some people will find that refreshing; others will feel unsatisfied by structural choices. I experienced both emotions at the end of the movie, so take that however you like.

Regardless, I loved the experience, even if some choices frustrated me. It's an incredible movie, but I'm under no illusions it's for everyone. If what I've said so far sounds amazing, track it down. If it sounds like a chore, skip it. If you're on the fence, watch the trailer for a sense of the feel (just be aware it spoils some moments that would be better enjoyed fresh).

Right then. That concludes the part of the review any sane person would have any interest reading. If you're still here... well, don't say you weren't warned.

The Green Knight is, of course, an adaptation of the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Like any self-respecting nerd, the first thing I did after watching the movie was read the first translation of said poem I could find to understand what had been changed. For reasons that may or may not make sense, I'm going to start with a synopsis of the poem, then discuss what was different in the movie.

The poem starts on New Year's with Arthur and his court celebrating. The titular Green Knight bursts into the hall carrying a holly branch and a massive axe. He then challenges the knights to a game: one of them may strike him with his axe on the condition they seek him out a year later and give him the opportunity to return the blow. As should be obvious from the poem's title, Sir Gawain (Arthur's nephew) agrees to the terms and promptly cuts the knight's head off.

This doesn't work out quite the way he expected, as the Green Knight picks his head up, tells Gawain to find him in the Green Chapel in a year and a day, and carries his head out.

Gawain is surprisingly fine with this, because the knights are fearless paragons of virtue. A year passes, and Gawain heads out to find the chapel, having numerous unexplained adventures on the way.

Eventually, he reaches a castle, the lord of which assures him the chapel is nearby. Gawain agrees to stay for a few days. He also agrees to a weird proposition where the castle's lord will give Gawain everything he hunts in the woods in exchange for anything Gawain receives in his castle. Gawain agrees for whatever reason.

Gawain gets a bunch of animals out of the deal, while his host ends up getting kissed three times by Gawain. See, the lord's wife spends the time trying to seduce Gawain. He rejects her advances, accepting only a kiss a day, which he then passes on to the lord.

Until day three, that is, when he also accepts a magic girdle that protects its wearer from any harm. He of course neglects to mention this to his host during that day's trade, figuring it'll protect him from the Green Knight.

Also, there's an ominous old woman who's hanging out in the castle. She'll come up later.

On the appointed day, he shows up to face the Green Knight. After a couple fakeouts, the knight nicks the back of Gawain's neck, drawing blood but not seriously hurting him. This is because the lord of the castle was secretly the Green Knight all along, the lady's affections were a test, and the cut on the neck amounted to an A-minus (should have handed over that girdle). Also the mysterious woman was Morgan le Fay, who was behind everything.

Gawain feels like a heel for being a coward, but no one else blames him. He heads home, and the poem ends.

The primary reason I wanted to start with the original is I'm pretty sure the movie assumes you're familiar with it. There are numerous changes, but the vast majority feels at least partly referential. You need to understand the story that isn't being told to appreciate the one that is.

The exception to this is the only change I strongly dislike, and it's also the most common in Arthurian adaptations: the identities of key women are conflated for simplicity.

I'm this case, the movie changes which of Arthur's half-sisters is Gawain's mother from Morgause to Morgan le Fay. I'm assuming this was done to streamline the story. Morgan le Fay has a role in the poem, while Morgause doesn't appear. By swapping them out, the movie gives the antagonist a relationship with the main character. 

Only she's not really the antagonist anymore. Or rather she is, but one of the other cuts - one we'll get to in a moment - is the explanation at the end. If you know the story, you'll catch the clues that Morgan le Fay appears in disguise in the castle at the end, but if you don't... there's just a random old woman with a bandage over her eyes. Also, her actions make far less sense if it's her son in danger, particularly because in this version Gawain is in line for the throne. If Morgan le Fay has a son set to take over, wouldn't she just bide her time? I know it's normally bad form to root around for plot holes, but when an adaptation adds one that wasn't in the source material... isn't that kind of an unforced error?

I also find it a bit odd they had Morgan le Fay give him the "girdle" (here a green sash). I assume they added this both to gloss over having her send her son into danger and to establish the object early on. He actually loses this one, only to get another (or maybe the same one?) at the end. It's a bit convoluted.

On top of that, the movie adds a love interest for Gawain, in addition to the lady in the castle. We're not given a great deal of information about Essel, but she clearly loves Gawain. He seems to care for her, as well, though the extent of his affections are far from clear. He refuses to answer her when she asks if he'd ever be willing to marry her, which is pretty much an answer in itself. We actually get a firmer "no" later in the movie, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

A minor change relevant to my interests comes in the form of the timing. The original story was set on New Year's Day, while the movie moves this up a week to Christmas. I'm fairly certain this is primarily a situation analogous to translation. When the poem was written, Christmas was quite literally a twelve-day period which included New Year's. Strictly speaking, it still does, though some places - America, in particular - don't see it that way. Moving the timeline up a week maintains Christmas themes without losing anything too significant.

It might also connect this with a later Christmas tale, though I could very easily be reading too much into the ending. More on that when we get there.  

The more jarring change from the source material is the portrayal of Gawain, Arthur, and the knights in general. These aren't fearless knights committed to virtue no matter the cost - they're far more human. Actually, Gawain isn't technically even a knight yet, though I suspect that detail is included for theme more than plot, as it comes across as something of a technicality. Regardless, he's insecure, rash, and a bit cowardly - basically the antithesis of how he's presented in the poem.

Despite these changes, the story unfolds virtually the same way. The Green Knight proposes his game, Gawain cuts off his head, and a year later he's got an oath to keep. I should note, just as an aside, both the original and this adaptation skip from that Christmas season to the next with only a brief acknowledgement of the changing seasons. I mention that just in case anyone doubts this thing should be categorized as a Christmas movie, though frankly I should think the themes would be enough to settle the argument.

The quest to find the Green Chapel is different, as well, mainly in tone. The original of course implied excitement and feats of strength - we're told Gawain fought dragons, giants, and so forth. We weren't really shown any of it, though: the poem breezed past this.

The movie puts a more melancholy spin on everything. The journey is a sad, desperate one, undertaken by a character who seems unsure of his motives and goals. There are allusions to a few of the encounters mentioned in the poem, but the combat is more or less entirely gone. Instead we see the gentleness of nature contrasted with the violence of men. This is most apparent when he encounters a group of giants, asks one for help, then shrinks away as it reaches for him. The giant backs away when it realizes Gawain is scared - nature is never cruel in the movie.

Contrast that with a fairly substantial added plot beat occurring early on when Gawain is robbed and left for dead. He has to free himself and recover at least some of the objects he lost, most importantly the axe, which is also a departure from the original (this one's pretty self-explanatory - having him bring the same axe makes for a more compelling resolution).

The axe reappears at the conclusion of one of the movie's most interesting sequences in which Gawain encounters the ghost of Saint Winifred and recovers her head. For all intents and purposes, this was entirely invented for the movie, though it fits the tone perfectly.

Also worth mentioning is the presence of a fox, loosely inspired by the fact the lord in the poem killed such an animal and gave it to Gawain. In this version, the fox appears to Gawain throughout his adventure, then actually speaks to him at the end (its dialogue is lifted from the last thing the lord says to Gawain before the knight goes to the Chapel). I'm a little annoyed this moment was in one of the trailers - I think I'd have loved the surprise (I mean, I still like the scene, but I think I'd have loved it even more).

The events at the castle play out differently, as well. Everything is a bit more serious and less friendly, particularly on Gawain's behalf. He doesn't seem to know what to make of anything or anyone there, and he remains suspicious of their motives. The movie also truncates his stay, reducing the gift exchange to a single kiss, and even this is claimed by the lord rather than freely offered. As in the original, Gawain keeps the artifact that will supposedly protect him from harm. Also unchanged is the presence of the old woman, depicted with a blindfold mirroring one worn by Morgan le Fay when she summoned the Green Knight at the start of the movie. If you know the poem, the connection is pretty obvious, but it's otherwise unexplained.

And the reason it's unexplained takes us to the end of the movie, which is radically different. Gawain arrives in the Green Chapel a bit early and finds the Green Knight stationary, seemingly rooted to the earth. He lays the axe at the knight's feet and waits for an entire day for the knight to awaken. The scene then starts playing out more or less as it does in the poem (albeit with more dramatic weight). Then, when the Green Knight is about to swing the axe a final time, Gawain apologizes and flees.

This kicks off a montage in which he returns to Camelot, is knighted, becomes king, has an illegitimate son with Essel, is married to a noblewoman, wages war, watches his son die, loses popular support, and eventually finds himself alone on the throne with his enemies about to break in. This is more than fifteen minutes long with no dialogue, and we're repeatedly shown he never removes the sash. The sequence ends with him finally removing it, and his head immediately drops to the floor.

The movie then cuts back to the Chapel, revealing this to have been a vision. Gawain asks the Green Knight to wait, then he removes the sash and sets it on the ground. The Green Knight, impressed, kneels to stroke Gawain's face and calls him brave. Then, in a compassionate voice, adds, "Now, off with your head."

And the movie promptly ends without showing us what happens.

There's a lot to unpack here. I mean, A LOT. But since this website is what it is, I'm going to start by asking a question that's been nagging at the back of my head since I watched the movie: is the vision inspired by A Christmas Carol? It serves a similar purpose by showing Gawain a possible future then giving him a chance to change. And the fact the movie's set at Christmas (as opposed to New Year's), coupled with the presence of at least one other ghost, makes the whole thing at the very least reminiscent of that story. This is admittedly a stretch - I'm not claiming this as any sort of definitive interpretation or anything - but it at least seems plausible.

Regardless, the decision to end the movie without the traditional resolution is clearer, thanks to this video in which writer/director David Lowery spells out the movie's central theme (I'm referring to what he says after the 13 minute mark, though the whole video is worth a watch). In short, it's because the movie is about prioritizing moral behavior over legacy, in part because no legacy is truly eternal. I see why he chose something from the Arthurian cycle to make this point - chivalry plays into this idea neatly, even if the movie also kind of pokes holes in the chivalric code.

By amputating the end of the poem, Lowery is able to highlight this moment and essentially reframe the narrative around Gawain's decision (which itself deviates from the original, where he kept the girdle on). In a sense, it doesn't matter what happens next. Perhaps the next moment will play out like in the original, and Green Knight will spare Gawain. Or maybe he'll simply cut his head off, as per the rules of the "game." The outcome doesn't matter, because ultimately Gawain's fate is the same. No matter what happens next, he will eventually die and be forgotten. What matters is how behaves, not how he's remembered.

There's a speech given by the wife of the lord (i.e.: the Green Knight) that implies as much. It's also worth noting that she's played by the same actress who plays Essel, though honestly I didn't even notice (I did notice the Green Knight and the lord were the same actor, though... I mean... of course they were). Interestingly, the old woman in the castle is played by a different actress than Morgan le Fay, though she's supposed to be disguised magically, so I guess that makes sense.

Of course, that's only one of several themes. The movie also plays with the struggle between Christianity and the remnants of paganism it was replacing, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an adaptation of Arthurian lore that doesn't. This of course also ties into themes around nature and environmentalism (not a lot of trees around Camelot, you'll note). Gawain's relationship with Essel has classist implications, and we see the edges of this in his interactions with the thieves who rob him. This mostly plays into themes of legacy, which is naturally connected to the drive for power. And all of it is connected back to feminist themes - paganism, women, and nature are all connected in the movie (and in Arthurian myth, of course).

I'll leave others to explore these ideas in more depth, because I want to focus on how this movie - and more importantly the source material - tie to myth theory and trends in Christmas media. Because of course I do - did you forget what site you were on?

Here's the thing: for several years now, I've been trying to understand why so many Christmas movies incorporate elements drawn from James Frazer. I don't want to get too in-depth here, but everything from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to Prometheus seems to reference (or at the very least mirror) elements of The Golden Bough. Only The Golden Bough isn't really connected to Christmas, so I've known for a while something was missing.

I'm wondering if the missing puzzle piece might be Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, a poem which encapsulates the ideas of The Golden Bough but is also set at Christmas. This isn't a perfect theory - as far as I can tell, Frazer didn't include it in The Golden Bough (or at least not in the abridged edition I've got), which feels odd given how many boxes it checks. Regardless, if someone were already inclined towards Frazer's ideas about sacred kings, ritual sacrifice, and resurrection, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight wraps it all up in a Christmas bough of holly (I'm so sorry - no more puns, I promise).

I realize this isn't a demonstrable causal link, but at the very least it seems like a likely origin for a great deal of modern holiday media. To be clear, I'm not suggesting an unconscious connection between ancient stories and modern holiday fare - rather, I suspect a generation of writers were trying to recreate what they thought Christmas "meant" by using their understanding of Frazer's theories and the holiday. And I suspect Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a piece of the template they were using.

All this has more to do with the poem than this particular adaptation, but I did warn you this was going to meander. And regardless of whether my instincts are correct, I don't think it's a stretch to say this movie plays with ideas drawn from various forms of myth theory (at the very least, the depiction of the Green Knight as a version of The Green Man implies the filmmakers were familiar with some theories around those being related, if not iterations of the same character or root myth).

Of course, this review has drifted so far off topic, it's kind of absurd to even call it a review. Personally, I enjoyed falling down this rabbit hole, but I assume anyone without an existing interest in this sort of thing must be lost and annoyed.

And that, in a nutshell, is the best metaphor I could ever hope to offer for the experience this weird, confusing, beautiful movie provides. Highly recommended, I loved the hell out of it, but don't whine to me if you're left confused and exhausted.

On a related note, while researching this review (or whatever the hell it was) I discovered there are at least two other adaptations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight out there. Guess I'll have to track those down, too...