Very few movies — or television shows — adapted from literature ever remain truly faithful to the original source material. Many come close, but there is usually some detail that is often missed in translation.
David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” is one of those rare gems. A24 Studios — known for their arthouse horror projects — produced this intensely faithful adaptation on a modest $15 million dollar budget.
The source material is a 14th century epic poem from Arthurian Legend categorized as a chivalric romance, a reference to the oft-romanticized notion of chivalrous knights; this is especially poignant given the legendary mythos surrounding King Arthur and his Round Table Knights.
Most movies based on these legends often focus on Arthur drawing Excalibur from the stone and becoming king of the Britons or they focus on the end of his reign. Such films are given a 12th-century aesthetic; Lowery places his setting in the more historically appropriate 5th century.
Lowery — who wrote the script — takes some artistic license with some story elements, but threads the plot points in a way that makes sense; the film depicts Gawain (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) as Arthur’s nephew and the son of Morgan le Fay.
The poem only alludes to some of Gawain’s adventures between leaving Camelot and being hosted by a Lord and Lady prior to facing the eponymous knight at the story’s conclusion; the film fills in the gaps in captivating and harrowing ways. Joel Edgerton — who plays the lord — once played Gawain in 2004’s “King Arthur” opposite Clive Owen.
Several themes get explored. Various scenes of Gawain’s travel depict large swaths of forest cut down for human consumption for construction and warfare while the Green Knight symbolizes nature's irrepressible capacity. However the most important theme is the constant reminder that knighthood is not often the romantic ideal from stories past.
There are several moments — even right up to the very end — when Gawain has his entire worldview challenged through conversation or experience. He is frequently presented with opportunities to turn back and lie about how his quest ends. For those familiar with the story, it’s not surprising he summarily refuses.
The story is a master class in understanding the importance of following through on promises while creating a balancing act between conflicting ideals. At least twice audiences — and Gawain — are incepted with his future rise as king, but the young knight knows that heavy is the head that wears the crown.
The films cinematography and costuming are sublime as is the use of its soundtrack. Sweeping tracking shots and steady long takes provide audiences with the vast, untamed grandeur of ancient Britain. It is shot exclusively in Ireland, making great use of the natural scenery.
The film’s color palette – filled with striking symbolism against a bleak winter backdrop – is breathtaking. The film uses Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” with one midpoint scene employing a 180-degree Dutch angle visually telling the audience Gawain’s world is upside down and will never be the same again.
While CGI is used, it is done so sparingly. Other films of this genre would use motion capture CGI to animate the titular knight; Lowery instead adorned actor Ralph Ineson in practical prosthetics to make him appear one with nature.
There might be something lacking for audiences unfamiliar with the source material, but this is one of those soon-to-be cult favorites that will be a must-have for any cinephile’s physical movie library.
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