Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Review (11 Minutes)

I have a lot of things I want to write about. A lot of things I should write about, instead of playing another round of Terraforming Mars (I just really get excited about space sometimes). My book, for one. A CAPC article on Spiritfarer, for another. I have a blog post in mind about Ready Player One that I really ought to put together sometime, and I actually have a blog post written out about how Catcher in the Rye has a deeply problematic attitude toward sex, but: this thing is a lot more recent and actually timely, so I’m going to write about it instead.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, before it was a movie, is one of the oldest works in the English language, and is in what we would call Middle English, like Le Morte D’arthur and The Canterbury Tales. It’s one of my favorite stories–I wrote my first college paper on it, and I’ve taught it several times in class, despite it being probably a bit too advanced for most high schoolers. It’s fun, it’s clever, it’s got fascinating moral questions involved.

THE POEM

No, Tolkien didn’t write this poem, he just did one of many translations.

Quick rundown of the poem: Arthur’s giving a Christmas party at Camelot when this massive knight dressed all in green, with green hair and everything, comes in and offers a deal. He’ll take a hit from one of Arthur’s knights if that knight will agree to take a hit from him in a year. Gawain agrees, and chops off his head, whereupon the knight picks up his head and says Gawain should seek him out in a year to get his head chopped off.

Because Gawain’s an awesome knight, he leaves in the Autumn to seek out the Green Knight. He finds this lord, Bertilak, who knows where the Green Knight is. He stays at Bertilak’s house, where the lord’s beautiful wife tries to seduce him, but Gawain, despite being majorly into the lady, holds off because (a) he’s a guest and you don’t do that to your bro, and (b) he’s got a deal going with said bro that he needs to give Bertilak whatever he “gets” in the castle that day. Finally the lady accepts that Gawain’s too honorable to give in, but offers him a love-token to remember her by–a green belt that she says will make him invincible.

Gawain takes it, and doesn’t tell Bertilak.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Gawain finds the Green Knight, and is required to kneel and not even flinch while the Green Knight swings at his head–but the Green Knight misses, only giving Gawain a little slash on the neck. Gawain jumps up and is super excited because holy cow now the promise is fulfilled and he can just take on the Green Knight in a good old-fashioned battle, but Green Knight just laughs. Turns out he’s Bertilak, and this whole thing–including the attempted seduction–has been a test, devised by Morgan le Fey. Gawain pretty much passed it–except for the belt. That’s his failure, and that’s why Green Knight gave him a knick on the neck.

(Side note here: This is far from the only time in medieval epics when the host of a castle gets his wife or daughter to attempt to seduce a protaganist as a test of character. Guess lords just thought it was fun playing games like that.)

Gawain is “passing wroth”, as they say, and tears off the belt and says he’ll take the blow again without it, and throws in some medieval sexism for good measure about how this is just typical and how women always lead men astray. But the Green Knight refuses, and says he thinks Gawain’s done pretty good, all things considered. He even invites Gawain back to dinner to celebrate New Years with him and his wife. Gawain, understandably, refuses.

Gawain goes back to Camelot and tells the whole story, showing the belt. Everyone’s super impressed and tells Gawain he was awesome, not having sex with the lady and totally being willing to get his head chopped off. But Gawain doesn’t think so. Gawain thinks he’s a complete and utter failure, for being so afraid of death that he was willing to betray his vows. The poem ends, then, on a note of ambiguity. Is Gawain being too hard on himself, or is he, indeed, not the perfect knight everyone sees him as?

THE MOVIE

So I was initially hesitant, but eventually greatly excited, to see news of A24’s adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story doesn’t exactly lend itself to the sort of fantasy epic movie you see these days, and I worried they were using the name-recognition for some action-packed story with massive armies and convoluted gadgetry. However, subsequent trailers showed that they were indeed keeping it small and focused around the central conceit–if using somewhat… bizarre imagery to tell the story. Which honestly, made sense. Medieval poems are not meant to be realistic, strictly speaking, and the strange imagery suggested a lyrical approach. I felt hope that this might be a genuinely engaging adaptation.

And it… sorta is? I’m still sorting through my opinions on it. It makes several glaring changes to the story that in some ways eliminate the central message and tension at the core of the poem, but at the same time it gets at similar ideas in a totally different way. It’s an interesting movie, but it isn’t a good Green Knight adaptation.

First, Sir Gawain. Oddly enough, I felt no qualms about Dev Patel playing Sir Gawain, and I never really heard anyone else voice them either. You’d think it’d be controversial, an Indian actor playing a British follklore hero, but there was nothing. He doesn’t even seem out of place in the film, perhaps because of its very stylistic nature. He fills the role with great personality, showing a wide range of emotion and vulnerability in Gawain’s character, seeming both a vulnerable, directionless youth, and someone who aspires to be a knightly hero with great deeds to his name.

It’s an interesting character, but it’s not the character in the poem. Sir Gawain in the poem is one of King Arthur’s most loyal knights, who takes the challenge of the Green Knight as a way of protecting his sovereign and restoring the honor of Camelot. Sir Gawain in the movie is not even “Sir” Gawain, simply Arthur’s nephew who has barely spoken with his royal uncle before the movie starts, who challenges the Green Knight not to protect Arthur so much as to establish his name as a doer of great deeds.

Sir Gawain in the poem is also considered the pinnacle of chivalry, one of the greatest knights, not just in loyalty and prowess, but in valor, honor, courtesy, etc. He’s a virtuous knight. On the other hand, while Dev Patel’s Gawain has a certain honor and gallantry he aspires to, he makes no pretense to religiosity or virtue. Perhaps this is an element that would simply not translate well to a modern story, but the movie opening with Gawain waking up in a brothel seems… deliberately subversive.

In a way, this makes Gawain’s quest more interesting, as a way of a young knight establishing himself, rather than that of a veteran upholding his reputation–Gawain choosing what sort of knight he wants to be. But it also undermines the great importance of Gawain’s hunt for the Green Knight in the first place, turning it into a quest for self-fulfillment instead of the greatest test of a veteran,

Second is the challenge itself. The Green Knight simply suggests (via letter) a friendly swordfight. When Gawain takes it (because he’s a nobody who hasn’t proved himself yet), the Green Knight kneels and offers his neck to be cut. Arthurs warns Gawain to take the fight as just a game, but Gawain straight up chops the head off, and then things proceed. Unlike in the poem, Gawain chopping off the Knight’s head is seen as a failing, not a sensible move.

Third is when Gawain meets Lord Bertilak. (There’s a bunch of added filler which is not bad).

A lot of the plot elements are the same. Understandably, they streamline the seduction–but it’s really almost as if Gawain does, in fact, give in to Lady Bertilak. Not going to expand on that except to say that it is a very… borderline case. Then in a very odd bit, Bertilak catches Gawain outside the castle and implies that “I think something was given–and I could take it, if I wanted.” It’s almost suggesting that Bertilak has entrapped Gawain as a way of compelling Gawain into having sex with him. The sequence feels like the director doing a “this is what is really going on in this part of the poem” interpretation.

The meeting with the Green Knight is where the director just goes completely into left field, though. (SPOILERS, obviously)

You never find out that the Green Knight is Bertilak. There’s no revelation that this whole thing has been an elaborate test, or what even was the point of that bit in the castle–that’s just left as another irrelevant adventure.

In fact, Gawain doesn’t even keep the belt on.

There’s a sequence–which really accomplishes its purpose rather well–where Gawain imagines himself fleeing, surviving, going back to Camelot and becoming king, living out the rest of his life–but it’s a paltry, unfulfilling life, haunted constantly by the knowledge of his failure. It’s easily the most depressing bit in the film, and is a big part of what left me feeling so disturbed when I left the theatre.

The sequence ends, and Gawain is still facing the Green Knight. He takes off the belt, and says he’s ready.

The Green Knight says, “Well done, my brave knight. And now… off with your head.”

And that’s it. That’s the end. Cut to black.

On the one hand, it has a big impact–what if the deal was as fatal as everyone assumed? What if it really was about a knight meeting their death with courage and dignity and there was no last-minute “twist” that turned it into a happy ending?

On the other hand, it completely undoes the whole ambiguity–is Gawain a good knight, or a bad one? What even was the point of this “test?”

The ending is in part what makes me feel the movie is a good story on its own terms, but not on any level a faithful interpretation of the poem, and in fact one that betrays most of its key themes.

On a basic level, an ending like that pictures very well the medieval ethos at the heart of the poem–that dying well is better than living poorly. The director states, in an interview, that the purpose of the “escape fantasy” where Gawain imagines himself running away to lead a miserable life as the new king of Camelot was to give the “off with your head” ending a triumphant feel instead of a depressing one. And it truly does! It was an immense relief to me to realize the whole thing was a fantasy, and the moment when Gawain took off the belt seemed to crystalize his transformation to a man of honor.

So on that level, the adaptation works, and indeed is more stirring in that it suggest Gawain truly does die for his honor. This was the medieval mindset–the ancient Anglo-Saxon mindset, for that matter, and likely the mindset of people in other cultures I’m less familiar with. You can’t control fate, you can only meet it. You must “take the adventure that fate has granted you.” If a dragon attacks your kingdom, cowering in the castle is simply not an option, you need to go out and meet it, even if you end up being burnt to a crisp. If you’re sitting with all the knights at a table and a magical cup floats through the hall, you must take up the quest to find it again. Or, say, if a Green Knight comes in to suggest a “game.” You’ve been presented with a challenge. Maybe you’ll die, maybe not, but you need to try. There’s a line in the poem, when people tell Gawain he doesn’t need to meet the Green Knight:

Þe knyȝt mad ay god chere,/ And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde? / Of destinés derf and dere / What may mon do bot fonde?

Oh right.

“But Gawain he made good cheer. / He said ‘Why should I fly? / In occasions good or ill / good men can but try.”

So on that level, the adaptation works. But here’s the thing–I’m not positive the director intended that, or that it quite works. Possibly because the concept of “honor” is nebulous in the movie, and indeed in the modern mindset.

The “escape fantasy” segment doesn’t really show Gawain’s life as miserable because of the dishonorable secret. The misery that he’s inflicted with–having to desert the woman he loves, marry another he doesn’t, losing his son, experiencing war, revolt, desertion–doesn’t really have to do with a lack of honor, at least not in any way that’s clear. The director really seems to be saying that life, itself, is not really so great and is full of misery and pain.

And this gets at the heart of the differences, which come down to the director actually rooting for the Green Knight.

See, the director also says that he sees the Green Knight as emblematic of nature–which is true in a way, since the Green Knight was likely a medieval reference to the “Green Man” of pagan tree-worship. Alicia Vikander, who plays Lady Bertilak (as well as Gawain’s prostitute-lover) has a long speech about how green (plants) always survive and supplant, how trying to kill them never works and how they eventually fill and destroy buildings and castles.

This is probably why the Green Knight is never revealed to be Bertilak. The director intends the Green Knight as an elemental avatar, to him it ruins the point for the whole thing to turn out to be a moral test. Indeed, the point is that nature SHOULD kill Gawain and the petty miserable life of civilization that he represents. Arthur, in the movie, is a frail and sickly man, which the actor manages to turn into a saintly, sensitive king, but which the director also flatly states he intended to show how Arthur’s christian Camelot is sickly and dying.

Basically, then, while the original poem is in part about defending Arthur’s modern christian civilization from the dark magic of pagan nature-worship, the film adaptation is about how modern civilization should really just collapse already and let nature take over–a viewpoint that does exist among certain (fringe) environmentalists.

ADAPTATION

This gets at two interesting questions–Who determines what a story means, and what makes for a good adaptation?

Many people assume the answer to the first is fairly simple–a story means whatever its author intended it to mean. They shaped the tale, after all, and presented the characters and the world and the actions and consequences, so their intended message is what shaped the overall story, so that is what it means.

However, no less a scholar and writer than CS Lewis disagreed with this. “…an author doesn’t necessarily understand the meaning of his story better than anyone else,” he told Dr. Clyde Kilby, a fan of his, in a letter. (It took me a long time to find this specific quote, but since Lewis is one of the most misquoted authors in the English language, it was worth the effort). Lewis saw literature as seeing through another person’s eyes at the world, but you might see something quite different there than what the original author intended. Modern scholarship views a story’s meaning as something “navigated” between author and reader. People can, of course, read things into stories that aren’t there, but an author can end up making a totally different point then they intended.

An example: Quentin Tarantino sees himself as an anti-violence movie director.

No, really. Quentin Tarantino considers all his movies to be about how violence is hollow and results in emptiness–and how films that glamorize it are cheap schlocky hack jobs. It’s actually easy to see this in films like Inglourious Basterds, where the titular Basterds are simple psychopaths who stumble into and nearly ruin a perfectly good assassination plan put together by a Jewish cinema owner.

Shosanna’s plan to burn down the movie theater goes off without a hitch; the Basterds are essentially a distraction.

But here’s the thing. Does anyone watching a Tarantino flick actually see that? Tarantino may intend a message like that, but the way he lingers on violence and exults in savagery instead amounts to a fetishization of death and gore. The meaning that Tarantino has created is one that glorifies violence–in part because, while he may think he’s making an anti-violence film, he still thinks violence in films is fun.

Another example: I once read an article by a scholar who argued that Pride and Prejudice was a tragedy where aspiring feminist Elizabeth Bennet instead submitted to the patriarchal authority of her father and Darcy. This argument seems ridiculous on the face of it–until you realize that this is truly what a feminist sees in Pride and Prejudice. To a certain class of feminist, the moment when Elizabeth agrees to marry Darcy carries the same tragedy as the moment when Bella agrees to marry Edward instead of Jacob.

(Mind you, since the moment is portrayed as happy in the book, I think it ridiculous to assert that Jane Austen intended this, or that this “tragedy” is what gives Pride and Prejudice such enduring appeal. People don’t like it because it’s a tragedy, they like it because it’s a happy ending. The scholar who wrote the article probably didn’t like the book, which is her right, but that doesn’t change the meaning)

So while understanding the director’s intention in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is important, it’s not the whole story. He intended Arthur to be an almost alien otherworldly force, but the actor turned Arthur into a sensitive sage. To him, the story is about nature triumphing over society, but someone viewing the movie might instead see the medieval ethos of facing death with dignity.

Well, still, it is a far cry from the poem. Is it a bad adaptation?

This is the second question. If a work does not always mean what an author intended, then can an interpretation that changes the meaning be said to be bad?

Everyone has at least heard of The Shining, and is probably most familiar with the stunning adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. However, what is less known is how much Stephen King, the original author, hates that adaptation (he’s since warmed up to it). King even directed an alternative Shining (as a miniseries) that follows the book more closely than Kubrick’s does–though, since King is not Kubrick, it is decidedly worse.

It does have the brilliant segment where the topiary animals become Weeping Angel-style threats, so there’s that.

One of the key ambiguities in the film is whether the Overlook hotel is truly malevolent, or if Jack Torrence is simply an unhinged man driven crazy by cabin fever and alcoholism to violence against his family. King’s book, though, has little such ambiguity. There, the father is genuinely trying to be a decent man, fighting against clear spirits infecting the Overlook Hotel. He even manages to regain control for just long enough for his son to escape. He’s a father trying to do his best, but helpless in the grip of powers larger than himself.

Perhaps King is being disingenous when he claims in On Writing he had no meaning in mind when he, an author struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse, wrote a story about an author struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse and also evil hotel spirits. Perhaps not. Again, King is not necessarily the best judge of what his stories “mean.” Even if one doesn’t view Jack Torrence as a stand-in for King’s own tortured struggle with alcoholism, it’s understandable why King would object to such a dramatic shift.

One of these men is more obviously possessed than the other.

Yet unquestionably The Shining is an effective and brilliantly disturbing movie. It changes the characters, omits scenes and invents new ones, kills off characters that survive the book, and removes a central tension, creating instead a new ambiguity. It conveys the sense of terror in King’s book, the fear of isolation and of a possibly malevolent building.

King has since reconciled with the movie by taking a new stance toward adaptations of his work–viewing them as entirely their own thing. Based off his work, yes, but not necessarily “true” to those books. A book is not a movie, after all, and even a book is “based off” many other works. Even if The Dark Tower is nothing like King’s book The Gunslinger, that does not make it a bad movie.

It’s not bad, it’s just also not good, and it doesn’t have the same tone as the novels do.

You could say this of many films. Starship Troopers is a satire of a wholly serious sci-fi novel. Pride and Prejudice (2008) is an excellent movie, but in some ways completely reverses the original novel’s focus on, well, pride and prejudice. (It makes Darcy shy instead of proud, and severely downplays Lizzie’s realization that she never gave Darcy a fair chance after that first faux paus). A friend of mine once risked his entire relationship with me by saying the Lord of the Rings movies were not good adaptations of Tolkiens work, as they did not convey the flavor of Tolkien’s archaic language and prose. I’m not sure you could, quite, manage something like that, but I see his point.

I would myself say that a film purporting to be an adaptation can be a good film regardless of how well it conveys the source, but what makes it a good adaptation, as opposed to simply a good movie “inspired by” the original, is how well it conveys the themes and tone of the original source–particularly those themes that gave the original such enduring appeal. By this measure, King’s The Shining miniseries may be a good adaptation but a bad movie, while Pride and Prejudice is a bad adaptation but a good movie.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight toes this line very finely. It conveys some of the tone and themes but betrays the central moral. It is best viewed as a very divergent take on the poem. I don’t agree with the message intended by the director, though I think he conveyed more than he meant to. The poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a Middle English work that simply was never designed to be translated to film, and as a poem it is a brilliant and clever glimpse into the medieval mindset. They are each their own thing, and ought to be viewed as such.


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