The Medieval Romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was published in the 14th century. Over six hundred years later, the film The Green Knight starring Dev Patel was released in 2021.
The movie has many differences in plot and tone. Not only does it add characters and extra storylines, it even changes the ending.
In the original text, the setting is told as a merry celebration in King Arthur’s court in Camelot. Arthur himself is described as so merry he was almost like a child. Guinevere is described in a similarly cheerful manner, as beautiful and finely dressed. While the movie still begins in Camelot, the colors and dull and cold, and Arthur, as well as Guinevere, look tired and old. Additionally, there is an added introductory scene that introduces Gawain instead of having him enter the story after the other nobles. We also see eerie scenes of Gawain’s mother practicing pagan ceremonies with her daughters in conjunction with the arrival of the Green Knight (in the original text, this is performed by Gawain’s aunt).
As the plot continues forwards, the catalyst of the plot remains the same: a Green Knight enters the court (although in the film he is literally made of green flora, and the sounds of his movements are replaced by the sounds of trees creaking and branches snapping) and challenges the boldest knight in the company to a game wherein the knight may strike a blow against the green figure and in one year’s time, that knight must find the Green Knight to be dealt a blow of equal strength and placement on their body. And as in the original tale, Gawain volunteers to play the mysterious knight’s game, severing the Green Knight’s head completely from his body, whereupon the Green Knight picks up his head, unharmed, and reminds Gawain of the deal before leaving while cackling.
However, things diverge from the original text when a year passes and Gawain must travel to meet the Green Knight. The film adds in one or two more quests that Gawain must go through before finding the Green Knight. Only the last is mentioned in the book, wherein Gawain stays with a man in his castle and receives food in exchange for anything he is able to receive in the manor. However, in the original text, it is revealed that the Green Knight is the same man who took him in, but he was made to look like the Green Knight by Morgan le Faye in order to trick the entire court at Camelot. The Green knight feigns two blows, but Gawain is eventually given a nick on his neck and sent on his way instead of having his head cut off. Even though he feels shame, he still returns to Camelot and his fellow knights support him. However, in the film adaptation, Gawain meets with the Green Knight and he is the one who flinches twice before accepting his fate. Before his death, he sees what could be if he runs away from the ax he faces. However, he decides that he is finally ready to die. Then the Green Knight congratulates him and tells him that he is an honorable knight. Then the Green Knight raises his ax and aims for Gawain’s neck. But then the screen cuts to black as we hear the sound of the ax landing and this ends the film without confirming or denying whether Gawain lived or died.
The themes of honor that pervade the original text are present in the film adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the 2021 version has a twist to its view of honor. Gawain is constantly questioning himself in this version and is far from the knight in shining armor that the original Sir Gawain was. This Gawain sleeps with prostitutes, runs from danger, and can be selfish to the point of ruining other people’s lives. Thus, it makes sense that these two versions of the same character have two different endings. Even with these different endings, these films both contain commentary on aspects of their contemporary societies. So, despite all these changes, I still believe that the 2021 film encompasses the style and structure of English Medieval romances quite well as the knightly protagonist struggles through trials of the mind and body to achieve some form of understanding or growth.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – York University.” Translated by W.A. Neilson, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, York University, 1999, www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_neilson.pdf.
The Green Knight. Directed by David Lowery, Ley Line Entertainment, Bron Creative, Wild Atlantic Pictures, Sailor Bear, 2021.