This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Matthew Stewart’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The only way to ensure a piece of literature’s ability to stand the test of time is to first provide it with a simple yet strong thematic foundation. Plenty of English authors - from Tolkien to Shelley to Shakespeare - have demonstrated understanding of this basic truth, and their works have consequently held their artistic merit and entertainment value for centuries. Naturally, many of the earliest Western classics are attributable to no one in particular, and their oral origins only serve to enhance their allegorical heft. Indeed, there is nothing quite as powerful as a good story that can be summarized with a single word.
One such story, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” stands as one of the greatest works produced during the thousand-year history of Arthurian legends. While it has garnered abundant praise for its cosmopolitan poetic style and encapsulation of the genre, its true excellence lies in the primitive nature of its message and the malleability of the surrounding narrative. A typical synopsis of the anonymous Gawain Poet’s original tale is bound to include, if not revolve around, the word “honor.” Many would classify Gawain’s story as one about honor, and they would likely go on to mention bravery, integrity, and duty - and they would not be wrong. However, any good adaptation must appeal to its modern audience, and the only way to successfully modify this story for 21st century consumers is to shift the thematic focus from honor to reciprocity.
Reciprocity - this for that - has always been a foundational plot element of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (it is a Christmas story, after all), but it has never been so clearly posited as the main component as it is in David Lowery’s “The Green Knight.” The American writer-director, whose December 1980 birthdate essentially puts him in generation limbo, evidently crafted his version of the tale with the current cultural climate in mind. His Gawain, as played to brilliance by Dev Patel, is psychologically examined like never before, which serves him well in the way of humanization. His story still takes place in the sixth century, but he behaves exactly like the young men one currently encounters on a daily basis. This is a Gawain for the millennial age.
This Gawain, like many present-day 20-somethings, is shown to be smart, capable, and even charismatic, but also aimless and dilatory - qualities that do not sit well with his elders. One of Lowery’s most important modifications is the establishment of the magical Morgan le Fay as Gawain’s mother and the heavy emphasis on his status as the nephew of King Arthur, thus making his apparent duty to achieve greatness much more crucial and, of course, much more anxiety-inducing. A key moment of characterization occurs when he is asked by his uncle to tell of one of his accomplishments and is forced to admit with tears in his eyes that he has none. Although his belief that he still has plenty of time to buckle down is immediately reinforced by Queen Guinevere, his lineal guilt is obvious, and his self-doubt begins to consume him.
Morgan is also developed further here than she is in the original story, as her conjuring of the Green Knight is supported by a purpose much deeper and more personal than that of simply testing her brother’s knights. Whereas Gawain only incidentally becomes the central character of the original narrative, he is quite intentionally driven to action in Lowery’s version. The way in which Morgan pulls the rug out from under Gawain reflects the desperate efforts of many modern mothers who feel responsible for their adult children’s societal shortcomings. Whether or not there is anything inherently wrong with Gawain’s chosen way of life depends on who one asks, but his cultural and ancestral background does demand better of him. In the unfortunate absence of family therapy, Morgan at least knows her son well enough to design a test based entirely on reciprocity - the concept by which he lives.
From the moment he agrees to participate in the Green Knight’s beheading game, Lowery’s Gawain finds himself involved in a varied series of “this for that” situations, and his role changes depending on who is on the other end of the negotiation. When the other party is the Green Knight, the stakes are clear, although this version of the character allows an unusual amount of leeway. This Gawain’s decision to execute the being shows foolhardiness and clouded judgment, as he could have dealt a softer blow that would have in turn lessened his reciprocal charge. He was simply desperate to resolve his depressed state by attaining some feeling of instant glory, and, as is made clear as his date with destiny draws nearer, likely never intended to hold up his end of the bargain anyway.
After his mother and uncle convince him that his only other choice is to live without glory, Gawain ultimately accepts his responsibility. The extent to which his medial encounters are instituted by Morgan is up for debate, but each is nonetheless meaningful in terms of the development of his character and the advancement of the film’s core message. A young scavenger gives Gawain simple directions and surprises him by demanding “a kindness” in return. Gawain immediately understands the euphemism to mean physical payment, but attempts to evade reciprocation because, in his mind, the situation does not call for it. To the scavenger - someone of the same generation but a lower class - it does, and his ire is justifiably sparked by Gawain’s initially disapproving attitude.
Later, Gawain faces a converse situation when the mysterious St. Winifred asks him to retrieve her severed head from a spring. When he attempts to negotiate a reward, she takes offense at his even asking and expressly admonishes him. If he was wrong to ask, the scavenger was as well, but they are only wrong in the eyes of those who champion the virtue of intrinsic motivation. In keeping with the source material, this undeniably ethical way of living is posited as the only way to achieve honor. However, for those who primarily find joy extrinsically and generally expect reciprocity, this is a tough idea to accept, and this Gawain represents that moral struggle.
Gawain’s experience at the home of Lord and Lady Bertilak aligns with the original text almost exactly, with the two men’s “exchange of winnings” game playing out as expected. Lowery does add more dialogue to the scenes, including a conversation between the lord and Gawain that serves as a moment of enlightenment in the progression of the latter’s arc. That is, Gawain clearly expresses that he views his pact with the Green Knight as just another “this for that” situation - just as his mother anticipated. As the older and more experienced Bertilak pokes holes in Gawain’s idea that accomplishing this single task will bring him permanent honor, his entire understanding of honor proves baseless. Again, it must be achieved intrinsically, but Gawain has no grasp on that way of life.
Just as it always has, the climax occurs during Gawain’s reciprocal meeting with the Green Knight, and, as expected, he flinches at the first two blows despite being protected by the enchanted sash gifted to him by Lady Bertilak. His limited understanding of the game’s guidelines made it more consequential than necessary, and his lack of preparedness now shows. There is no need to delve into the symbolism of the sash, nor of the color green nor the number three, as sufficient analyses on the subjects have existed for centuries. What is worth discussing is Lowery’s innovative approach to the narrative, which culminates in a bold break from tradition that brings the legend to a more complete end.
A faithful adaptation would have Gawain submit to the Green Knight’s third blow and be saved by the sash, and then be let in on Morgan’s scheme (that had nothing to do with him directly) before returning home and being absolved of any blame for his cowardice. While the original story ends there on a mostly positive note, Gawain appears in subsequent legends as a man of starkly dishonorable nature, and his selfishness is heightened to the point of pure villainy. Lowery offers an examination of the possibility of such a grim future in the form of an extended fantasy sequence that occurs as Gawain prepares for his opponent’s third blow. In his mind, he has only two choices, and he ultimately resolves to remove the sash and accept his fate, fulfilling his duty while also providing reciprocal balance. He achieves glory while remaining true to himself and, by avoiding his prophesied doom, decides his fate all on his own, as have all other versions of Gawain before him.
The true beauty of Lowery’s adaptation lies not in the most stunningly shot scene nor in the most mellifluous monologue, but in simple lines uttered by Gawain - lines that are carefully placed throughout the film to drive its message home. “I’ve got time.” “Was it not just a game?” “I fear I’m not meant for greatness.” “Honor… is why a knight does what he does.” “Is this all there is?” “I’m ready now.” Lowery makes the protagonist more dynamic and endearing than he has ever been, not by superfluously padding his story, but by reshaping it in a way that honors tradition and appeals to current sensibilities. It is not simply a modern adaptation, but a prime example of how to update a dated tale for a modern audience.