How David Lowery’s The Green Knight is Different (and Better) Than the Poem

David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) is a grim re-imagining of a traditional knight’s quest.

Bizarre arthouse film or blunt criticism of man’s hubris?

The Green Knight differs from the original story in a big way. Unlike John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) or the popular TV series Merlin, the film takes an arthouse style approach: atmospheric, visually beautiful, and unquestionably disturbing. While it may not be classified as a horror movie it’s produced by A24, the same indie company that brought us Hereditary (2018), and A Ghost Story (2017), another artsy film directed by David Lowery.

If you don’t have a basic understanding of Celtic myth, occultism, magical horror, and medieval poetry—you’re pretty much guaranteed 2 hours of saying “whoa…huh?” at the screen.

To help clear up the confusion and give some context for a movie that has divided critics and viewers alike, here are 4 ways The Green Knight is scarier (and smarter) than the original.

  1.     Camelot is Rotting

As the film opens, we see Gawain seated on a throne, all regal and kingly like. And then his head bursts into flame. Welcome to the movie! We’re quickly tossed into a grim depiction of medieval life, complete with overcast sky and a creepy goat reminiscent of one of A24’s other ghostly films, The Witch (2015). A hungover young Gawain is woken by his lover in a brothel, a curious place for a character praised in traditional poems as the epitome of chivalric heroism, and hurries to prepare for a Christmas feast at the famous Round Table. It’s already a departure from older Hollywood visions of Arthur’s Camelot, but the grim re-imagining continues.

Arthur and Guinevere convey the familiar noble goodness we’re used to, but they’re represented as aging rulers in their twilight years. During the Christmas feast, we see through Gawain’s young and fearful eyes that the knights of the Round Table and the royals who lead them have had their glory days and are now declining in age and power.

This theme continues throughout the film. The world is beautiful, but in a decaying, impoverished kind of way. It probably smells like mold and old blood. But despite the medieval rot, Gawain receives gentle admonishment from his elders, including a kindly, “do better” lecture from his uncle (Arthur). Camelot is undeniably struggling, but the inhabitants cling to the old ideals of purity, chivalry, and glory.

In this sense, the film both subverts and echoes the original poem, which depicts Camelot in its young days, when all the knights were eager to take on great quests and adventures.

  1.     Paganism is Alive and Well

The same feast includes a critical speech, one of two in the movie. While Arthur addresses his knights fondly, speaking of brotherhood and Christian values, we alternate to glimpses of Gawain’s mother (Morgan le Fay in this version) casting a spell with bones and runes and smoke. David Lowery himself revisited this scene multiple times to get the balance between the Christmas speech and pagan ritual just right. I’d say he more than accomplished that feat.

It was refreshing to see the film diverge from more recent (looking at you Merlin) depictions of magic as sparkly and dramatic. Old myths that precede romantic stories about holy grails and maidens were full of giants, battles, mysterious sorceresses who seem human but turn out to be something very not human, and the constant theme of nature ultimately having the final say.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is a 360 continuous shot. Gawain has been robbed and tied up and as he lies dejected in the forest, the camera pans to show everything rotting away until he too is just a skeleton. Roll credits, our hero is dead. But then! The camera returns, bringing moss and leaves and plants back until Gawain is again alive.

My friend and I interpreted this in two ways, both of which I think are valid: 1) Gawain is imagining what will happen if he gives up and 2) Gawain is making the transition from the human world to the Otherworld, where fairies and ghouls exist. Lo and behold, shortly after this shot, Gawain stumbles upon the ghost of a murdered woman, a fox that serves as his animal guide, and the spookiest character of all…

  1.     The Green Knight is a Jolly Terror

In the original poem, Gawain takes up the Green Knight’s challenge because he is the strongest and bravest—in the film, the responsibility is thrust on him because he has yet to prove himself worthy of knighthood. The Knight’s entrance is more or less the same. A man rides into the feast hall on a massive horse, carrying a branch that he throws on the ground as a sign of peace. He is dressed in green armor and has green skin and hair. As the other knights look on in wonder, he cheerfully greets them and challenges them to a game: strike him with an axe and in one year, he’ll return the favor. It doesn’t sound particularly fun, but for a knight eager to prove himself, it’s the perfect opportunity for easy cred. After all, who could survive a blow from an axe?

But of course, the Knight is not a normal knight. This is made blatant in the film—rather than a Jolly Green Giant, he looks more or less like a tree man. A man tree? Treebeard? You get the idea. Under pressure from his uncle—and less directly his mother, who probably orchestrated the entire thing—Gawain accepts the game. He relieves the Tree Knight of his head and, horrified, realizes he’s screwed when the guy doesn’t die. Laughing madly, the Knight scoops up his head and rides back through the doors in true Headless Horseman fashion, very much alive.

No spoilers, but the Knight doesn’t appear in his true form again until the very end of the movie. Read the poem and you’ll sort of know what to expect—only not at all. In the original, Gawain and the Knight go off as friends once the trial is over. In the film, well. After a journey filled with trials and tests of his courage, Gawain realizes that facing death is not as brave and honorable as he’s been led to believe. In fact, it’s bone-chillingly terrifying.

Unlike most stories about heroic quests, Gawain finds that he was maybe just born a coward. Who can blame him though: wouldn’t you cry a little if you were about to be killed by an 8-foot-tall forest god?

  1.     Lady Bertilak is a Creepy Predator

Okay, so. If you’re cool with everything I’ve mentioned so far, this is when people (in my theater at least) were really thrown off. I think one guy shouted “what??!” and the rest of us just squirmed awkwardly in our seats. Fair warning, Lady Bertilak is wonderful…and possibly the real antagonist. An important note: she’s played by Alicia Vikander, who also portrays Gawain’s lover, Essel. If you pay attention to how they interact and the warnings she gives Gawain, you can assume this is probably not her real form, but a magical disguise meant to seduce him.

Lady Bertilak’s scene in the poem is summed up as just another trial he must overcome. They spend time together, sharing a few romantic words and a brief kiss. In the film, she is far more important: a sorceress who reads cards, a scientist with an early version of a camera and, ultimately, a sexual predator. During dinner, she delivers the second pivotal speech, accusing knights of prioritizing heroism when, in the end, everybody dies and goes back to nature:

“Red is the color of lust. But green is what lust leaves behind, in heart, in womb. Green is what is left when ardor fades, when passion dies, when we die too.”

After Gawain dutifully refuses her advances, Lady Bertilak gives us the most unsettling and, to some viewers, shocking scene. She wakes him up with a gift–a magical (green of course) protective scarf–and coercive sexual assault. This changes the movie from a traditional knight’s quest, to a story about a man who, from the beginning, has no chance of success.

There you have it. 4 spooky aspects of The Green Knight that force you to really think about what you’ve watched, whether you loved or hated it.

The movie has its flaws. But it captures something too often missing from contemporary hero stories: glory at the expense of decency and freedom ends only in death by Green Tree Knight.

As Essel asks Gawain before his quest, “why greatness? why is goodness not enough?”

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