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Adapting Ambiguity in David Lowery’s The Green Knight

Adapting Ambiguity in David Lowery’s The Green Knight The Green Knight. Dir. David Lowery. Perf. Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury. A24, 2021. Let me tell you instead a new tale. I’ll lay it down as I’ve heard it told. Its letters set, its history pressed, of an adventure brave and bold. Forever set, in heart, in stone, like all great myths of old. —The Green Knight, opening monologue While watching David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), I was struck by the feeling that I was witnessing something very familiar. This familiarity was not necessarily traceable to the narrative details of the film or to their correspondence with its source, the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Rather, I realized that what I was recognizing was the experience of struggling with a complex text, and the process of interpretation that accompanies such challenging encounters. I was witnessing Lowery’s encounter with the text play out, as well as his efforts to think through and render cinematic its many ambiguities. Lowery’s discussion of his engagement with the poem would seem to support this viewing experience. In his foreword to the movie tie-in edition of the Middle English poem, he lists several perplexing questions about the poem that emerge from what he describes as a ‘labyrinth of scholarly interpretation’: a testament to the richness and complexity of his source material (viii–ix). He also confesses that he began writing the film’s screenplay before he had finished rereading the text, so that he perceives in the film ‘evidence of my very linear and rather literal journey through a text I did not thoroughly comprehend’ (viii). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he contends, ‘resists adaptation’, and yet he feels the impulse to try again: ‘I imagine a not-unhappy life spent obsessively adapting it, again and again, each refined iteration illuminating a different aspect of the poem, offering some perspective on the whys and hows of its resonance’ (ix). In short, The Green Knight is not an attempt to produce a definitive Sir Gawain film; on the contrary, it is a film that signals throughout that it is, ultimately, a version of the tale: one which is in conversation with countless others. As the film’s opening monologue (quoted above) suggests, any myth is plural in nature: it is told in ways influenced by the manner in which the storyteller heard it, with the storyteller ultimately determining how one iteration of many will unfold. It is simultaneously new and old. Indeed, the monologue is itself a loose modern translation of the second stanza of the Middle English Sir Gawain, marking the film as one version of one version of a tale. Whatever film’s (and Sir Gawain’s) narrator tells us, this story’s letters are hardly ‘set’, its history hardly ‘pressed’. Instead, Lowery’s film extends an invitation to its audience: to travel alongside its Gawain (Dev Patel), to observe his struggle with the meaning of his own story, and to struggle alongside him to choose among the countless possibilities which add up to a meaning for that story. In order to accomplish this considerable feat, Lowery anchors his film’s literal and interpretive journey in some key decisions. The most important of these is Lowery’s selection of a Gawain (one of many possible Gawains from Arthurian lore) whose lack of perfection is apparent both to himself and to others from the start of the film. In order to create potential for the character to grow into the knight he wants to be, Lowery reveals in the extra feature ‘Boldest of Blood & Wildest of Heart: Making The Green Knight’ (included in The Green Knight’s Blu-ray/DVD release) that rather than go with the virtuous Gawain of many Arthurian legends, he chose instead to write a Gawain who is ‘a little bit of a brat’ and ‘a little bit of a cad’. This is apparent in the film’s intriguing follow-up to the opening monologue. From one side of a wall, we watch the thatched rooftop of a building on the other side of the wall catch fire, and a woman and a man emerge through a door in the wall. The woman mounts the horse waiting outside the wall, then rides after the man, who has drawn a sword. As this uncontextualized event unfolds, the camera slowly zooms out, revealing that we are watching it from within a neighbouring brothel where Gawain slumbers, oblivious to what is happening just outside. When asked for a story about himself later that day, this version of Gawain will have none to tell: his character is defined in terms of unrealized potential. The ambiguities that characterize The Green Knight and its relationship with the Middle English Sir Gawain flow from Lowery’s choice and Patel’s masterful performance of an insecure and frequently perplexed Gawain, who is presented problems without obvious answers which require that he make choices with momentous consequences. One excellent example comes early in the film, in the depiction of the Green Knight’s (Ralph Ineson) Christmas game. Two important choices work in concert with Patel’s inexperienced Gawain to accomplish a complex engagement with the corresponding sequence in the poem. First, Lowery gives us an old King (Sean Harris) where the Middle English poem specifies a ‘sumquat childgered’ (‘somewhat boyish’) Andrew (2007) (86) Arthur whose court is later derided by the Green Knight as including nothing but ‘berdlez chylder’ (‘beardless boys’) Andrew (2007) (280). Lowery’s decision to age up the King is hardly unprecedented; Stephen Weeks chooses to depict Arthur as advanced in age in both his Gawain and the Green Knight (1973) and in his 1984 remake of the film, Sword of the Valiant. And yet Lowery’s decision serves a purpose that Weeks’s lacks. Lowery’s mature King has a markedly different outlook on the Green Knight’s Christmas game than that of his source. Whereas childgered Arthur advises Gawain to play the game in such a way that his opponent will not have the opportunity to return the blow (i.e., Gawain should aim to kill the Green Knight during his ‘turn’), Lowery’s King instead sends Gawain into the game with a different piece of advice: ‘Remember, it is only a game’. With these words, the film nods to one of the great interpretive puzzles of the poem: how is Gawain meant to play the game? When Gawain chooses to decapitate the Green Knight, is this the right choice, or wrong one? Here, again, Lowery’s engagement with the poem’s ambiguities stands in contrast to Weeks’s decision to have the Green Knight in both of his films explicitly present the Christmas game as a beheading game, thus removing any ambiguity about the challenge and Gawain’s choices when playing it. Lowery instead draws attention to the possibilities inherent in the Christmas game by explicitly spelling out the range of forms that the blow-to-be-exchanged may take—‘a scratch on the cheek’ or ‘a cut on the throat’—in the presentation of the game’s rules. This opens up several ways of interpreting the scene and the resulting developments, essentially multiplying the ways that the audience can experience the film as a result of those interpretations. Thus, despite Lowery’s perception of his journey through the Middle English narrative as ‘very linear and rather literal’, it’s difficult for me to reconcile this viewpoint with the experience of watching the film. To me, it’s telling that the one piece of Gawain scholarship that Lowery singles out for attention in his movie tie-in foreword is Geraldine Heng’s landmark essay, which begins by observing that ‘“a” text is…a heuristic fiction, since a text is really many texts in the same body’ before arguing that Sir Gawain contains within it a feminine text which is perceivable ‘at the limit of the masculine narrative’ Heng (1991) (500–1). As Lowery puts it, ‘Does the poem strike you as a model of early feminist literature? If it doesn’t, know that it can’ (ix). Indeed, even without the nod to Heng, it would be difficult not to read Lowery’s representation of women in the film in terms of powerful networks (to name just a few examples: the role of Gawain’s mother [Sarita Choudhury] and sisters in summoning the Green Knight; the choice to have the protective belt created by and gifted to Gawain by his mother and re-gifted later by the Lady; and the brilliant casting of Alicia Vikander as both the Lady and Gawain’s lover Essel). But also noteworthy is Lowery’s attention to the plural nature of the text he is working with. His attentiveness to the potential for multiple reading experiences translates to the screen; it manifests in exploratory representations that leave room for viewers to work through the poem’s puzzles too, if they want. Gawain is not alone in his struggle to make sense of his world. The audience is on a kind of meaning-making journey as well. One final way The Green Knight is presented in relation to a multiplicity of Sir Gawains has to do with its use of titles. In the Blu-ray/DVD extra feature ‘Illuminating Technique: Title Design’, title designer Teddy Blanks discusses the purpose, placement, and design of the film’s distinctive titles. If the fonts and designs look familiar, that’s because many were gleaned from the paratextual details and typography of various Sir Gawain editions (particularly those in the public domain). Blanks also discusses Lowery’s request that he use the extra time allotted by the film’s delayed release in order to experiment with the titles and use them to move towards a ‘weirder’ version of the film. The titles, on the whole, draw The Green Knight into an intertextual network of Sir Gawains and related Arthuriana. They bring to mind Lowery’s suggestion that enthusiasts of the Middle English poem should ‘consider exploring other translations. Weigh them against one another: see how the classic Tolkien edition compares to the modern vernacular of Armitage’s, and how Weston’s falls in between’ (ix). And while the titles’ fonts and designs collectively point to the medieval, their amplified ‘weirdness’ works together with the film’s off-beat approach to set design, costuming, and music (all detailed in the ‘Boldest of Blood’ extra) in order to establish a unique approach to movie medievalism that stands apart from the kinds that might be evoked in those titles. David J. Williams has suggested that what keeps prior attempts at adapting Sir Gawain for the screen from reaching their potential is a tendency towards realism that ‘emphasiz[es] the familiarity and accessibility of the text at the expense of its medieval otherness’ and misses that it is likely ‘the very strangeness, the alterity of Sir Gawain…that appeals’ Williams (1997) (392). This is one of The Green Knight’s accomplishments; it contributes to the many iterations of Sir Gawain one which embraces the poem’s compelling strangeness by situating it in a striking, ‘modern’ medieval. It is a unique contribution not just to the set of Sir Gawain adaptations, but also to cinematic representations of the medieval. REFERENCES Andrew , Malcolm , and Ronald Waldron, editors. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , 5th edn. Liverpool : Liverpool UP , 2007 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC ‘Boldest of Blood & Wildest of Heart: Making The Green Knight’ . The Green Knight , directed by David Lowery, A24, 2021 . Blu-Ray/DVD. Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Gawain and the Green Knight . Dir. Stephen Weeks. United Artists , 1973 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Heng , Geraldine . ‘Feminine Knots and the Other: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , PMLA , vol. 106 , no. 3 , 1991 , pp. 500 – 14 . Google Scholar OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat ‘Illuminating Technique: Title Design’ . The Green Knight , directed by David Lowery, A24, 2021 . Blu-Ray/DVD. Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Lowery , David . ‘Foreword to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ . The Green Knight , translated by Bernard O’Donoghue. New York : Penguin Books , 2021 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Sword of the Valiant . Dir. Stephen Weeks. The Cannon Group , 1984 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Williams , David J . ‘Sir Gawain in Films’ . A Companion to the Gawain-Poet , edited by Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson. Cambridge : D.S. Brewer , 1997 , pp. 385 – 92 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Adaptation Oxford University Press

Adapting Ambiguity in David Lowery’s The Green Knight

Adaptation , Volume Advance Article – May 27, 2022

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The Green Knight. Dir. David Lowery. Perf. Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury. A24, 2021. Let me tell you instead a new tale. I’ll lay it down as I’ve heard it told. Its letters set, its history pressed, of an adventure brave and bold. Forever set, in heart, in stone, like all great myths of old. —The Green Knight, opening monologue While watching David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), I was struck by the feeling that I was witnessing something very familiar. This familiarity was not necessarily traceable to the narrative details of the film or to their correspondence with its source, the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Rather, I realized that what I was recognizing was the experience of struggling with a complex text, and the process of interpretation that accompanies such challenging encounters. I was witnessing Lowery’s encounter with the text play out, as well as his efforts to think through and render cinematic its many ambiguities. Lowery’s discussion of his engagement with the poem would seem to support this viewing experience. In his foreword to the movie tie-in edition of the Middle English poem, he lists several perplexing questions about the poem that emerge from what he describes as a ‘labyrinth of scholarly interpretation’: a testament to the richness and complexity of his source material (viii–ix). He also confesses that he began writing the film’s screenplay before he had finished rereading the text, so that he perceives in the film ‘evidence of my very linear and rather literal journey through a text I did not thoroughly comprehend’ (viii). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he contends, ‘resists adaptation’, and yet he feels the impulse to try again: ‘I imagine a not-unhappy life spent obsessively adapting it, again and again, each refined iteration illuminating a different aspect of the poem, offering some perspective on the whys and hows of its resonance’ (ix). In short, The Green Knight is not an attempt to produce a definitive Sir Gawain film; on the contrary, it is a film that signals throughout that it is, ultimately, a version of the tale: one which is in conversation with countless others. As the film’s opening monologue (quoted above) suggests, any myth is plural in nature: it is told in ways influenced by the manner in which the storyteller heard it, with the storyteller ultimately determining how one iteration of many will unfold. It is simultaneously new and old. Indeed, the monologue is itself a loose modern translation of the second stanza of the Middle English Sir Gawain, marking the film as one version of one version of a tale. Whatever film’s (and Sir Gawain’s) narrator tells us, this story’s letters are hardly ‘set’, its history hardly ‘pressed’. Instead, Lowery’s film extends an invitation to its audience: to travel alongside its Gawain (Dev Patel), to observe his struggle with the meaning of his own story, and to struggle alongside him to choose among the countless possibilities which add up to a meaning for that story. In order to accomplish this considerable feat, Lowery anchors his film’s literal and interpretive journey in some key decisions. The most important of these is Lowery’s selection of a Gawain (one of many possible Gawains from Arthurian lore) whose lack of perfection is apparent both to himself and to others from the start of the film. In order to create potential for the character to grow into the knight he wants to be, Lowery reveals in the extra feature ‘Boldest of Blood & Wildest of Heart: Making The Green Knight’ (included in The Green Knight’s Blu-ray/DVD release) that rather than go with the virtuous Gawain of many Arthurian legends, he chose instead to write a Gawain who is ‘a little bit of a brat’ and ‘a little bit of a cad’. This is apparent in the film’s intriguing follow-up to the opening monologue. From one side of a wall, we watch the thatched rooftop of a building on the other side of the wall catch fire, and a woman and a man emerge through a door in the wall. The woman mounts the horse waiting outside the wall, then rides after the man, who has drawn a sword. As this uncontextualized event unfolds, the camera slowly zooms out, revealing that we are watching it from within a neighbouring brothel where Gawain slumbers, oblivious to what is happening just outside. When asked for a story about himself later that day, this version of Gawain will have none to tell: his character is defined in terms of unrealized potential. The ambiguities that characterize The Green Knight and its relationship with the Middle English Sir Gawain flow from Lowery’s choice and Patel’s masterful performance of an insecure and frequently perplexed Gawain, who is presented problems without obvious answers which require that he make choices with momentous consequences. One excellent example comes early in the film, in the depiction of the Green Knight’s (Ralph Ineson) Christmas game. Two important choices work in concert with Patel’s inexperienced Gawain to accomplish a complex engagement with the corresponding sequence in the poem. First, Lowery gives us an old King (Sean Harris) where the Middle English poem specifies a ‘sumquat childgered’ (‘somewhat boyish’) Andrew (2007) (86) Arthur whose court is later derided by the Green Knight as including nothing but ‘berdlez chylder’ (‘beardless boys’) Andrew (2007) (280). Lowery’s decision to age up the King is hardly unprecedented; Stephen Weeks chooses to depict Arthur as advanced in age in both his Gawain and the Green Knight (1973) and in his 1984 remake of the film, Sword of the Valiant. And yet Lowery’s decision serves a purpose that Weeks’s lacks. Lowery’s mature King has a markedly different outlook on the Green Knight’s Christmas game than that of his source. Whereas childgered Arthur advises Gawain to play the game in such a way that his opponent will not have the opportunity to return the blow (i.e., Gawain should aim to kill the Green Knight during his ‘turn’), Lowery’s King instead sends Gawain into the game with a different piece of advice: ‘Remember, it is only a game’. With these words, the film nods to one of the great interpretive puzzles of the poem: how is Gawain meant to play the game? When Gawain chooses to decapitate the Green Knight, is this the right choice, or wrong one? Here, again, Lowery’s engagement with the poem’s ambiguities stands in contrast to Weeks’s decision to have the Green Knight in both of his films explicitly present the Christmas game as a beheading game, thus removing any ambiguity about the challenge and Gawain’s choices when playing it. Lowery instead draws attention to the possibilities inherent in the Christmas game by explicitly spelling out the range of forms that the blow-to-be-exchanged may take—‘a scratch on the cheek’ or ‘a cut on the throat’—in the presentation of the game’s rules. This opens up several ways of interpreting the scene and the resulting developments, essentially multiplying the ways that the audience can experience the film as a result of those interpretations. Thus, despite Lowery’s perception of his journey through the Middle English narrative as ‘very linear and rather literal’, it’s difficult for me to reconcile this viewpoint with the experience of watching the film. To me, it’s telling that the one piece of Gawain scholarship that Lowery singles out for attention in his movie tie-in foreword is Geraldine Heng’s landmark essay, which begins by observing that ‘“a” text is…a heuristic fiction, since a text is really many texts in the same body’ before arguing that Sir Gawain contains within it a feminine text which is perceivable ‘at the limit of the masculine narrative’ Heng (1991) (500–1). As Lowery puts it, ‘Does the poem strike you as a model of early feminist literature? If it doesn’t, know that it can’ (ix). Indeed, even without the nod to Heng, it would be difficult not to read Lowery’s representation of women in the film in terms of powerful networks (to name just a few examples: the role of Gawain’s mother [Sarita Choudhury] and sisters in summoning the Green Knight; the choice to have the protective belt created by and gifted to Gawain by his mother and re-gifted later by the Lady; and the brilliant casting of Alicia Vikander as both the Lady and Gawain’s lover Essel). But also noteworthy is Lowery’s attention to the plural nature of the text he is working with. His attentiveness to the potential for multiple reading experiences translates to the screen; it manifests in exploratory representations that leave room for viewers to work through the poem’s puzzles too, if they want. Gawain is not alone in his struggle to make sense of his world. The audience is on a kind of meaning-making journey as well. One final way The Green Knight is presented in relation to a multiplicity of Sir Gawains has to do with its use of titles. In the Blu-ray/DVD extra feature ‘Illuminating Technique: Title Design’, title designer Teddy Blanks discusses the purpose, placement, and design of the film’s distinctive titles. If the fonts and designs look familiar, that’s because many were gleaned from the paratextual details and typography of various Sir Gawain editions (particularly those in the public domain). Blanks also discusses Lowery’s request that he use the extra time allotted by the film’s delayed release in order to experiment with the titles and use them to move towards a ‘weirder’ version of the film. The titles, on the whole, draw The Green Knight into an intertextual network of Sir Gawains and related Arthuriana. They bring to mind Lowery’s suggestion that enthusiasts of the Middle English poem should ‘consider exploring other translations. Weigh them against one another: see how the classic Tolkien edition compares to the modern vernacular of Armitage’s, and how Weston’s falls in between’ (ix). And while the titles’ fonts and designs collectively point to the medieval, their amplified ‘weirdness’ works together with the film’s off-beat approach to set design, costuming, and music (all detailed in the ‘Boldest of Blood’ extra) in order to establish a unique approach to movie medievalism that stands apart from the kinds that might be evoked in those titles. David J. Williams has suggested that what keeps prior attempts at adapting Sir Gawain for the screen from reaching their potential is a tendency towards realism that ‘emphasiz[es] the familiarity and accessibility of the text at the expense of its medieval otherness’ and misses that it is likely ‘the very strangeness, the alterity of Sir Gawain…that appeals’ Williams (1997) (392). This is one of The Green Knight’s accomplishments; it contributes to the many iterations of Sir Gawain one which embraces the poem’s compelling strangeness by situating it in a striking, ‘modern’ medieval. It is a unique contribution not just to the set of Sir Gawain adaptations, but also to cinematic representations of the medieval. REFERENCES Andrew , Malcolm , and Ronald Waldron, editors. The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , 5th edn. Liverpool : Liverpool UP , 2007 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC ‘Boldest of Blood & Wildest of Heart: Making The Green Knight’ . The Green Knight , directed by David Lowery, A24, 2021 . Blu-Ray/DVD. Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Gawain and the Green Knight . Dir. Stephen Weeks. United Artists , 1973 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Heng , Geraldine . ‘Feminine Knots and the Other: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , PMLA , vol. 106 , no. 3 , 1991 , pp. 500 – 14 . Google Scholar OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat ‘Illuminating Technique: Title Design’ . The Green Knight , directed by David Lowery, A24, 2021 . Blu-Ray/DVD. Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Lowery , David . ‘Foreword to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ . The Green Knight , translated by Bernard O’Donoghue. New York : Penguin Books , 2021 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Sword of the Valiant . Dir. Stephen Weeks. The Cannon Group , 1984 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC Williams , David J . ‘Sir Gawain in Films’ . A Companion to the Gawain-Poet , edited by Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson. Cambridge : D.S. Brewer , 1997 , pp. 385 – 92 . Google Scholar Google Preview OpenURL Placeholder Text WorldCat COPAC © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) © The Author(s) 2022. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com

Journal

AdaptationOxford University Press

Published: May 27, 2022

References