How The Green Knight Turns A Centuries-Old Poem Into A Stylish Adventure

Director David Lowery and star Dev Patel weigh in on turning a medieval mystery into a sleek adventure with modern sensibilities.


When trailers for The Green Knight first hit the internet back in early 2020, the reaction was immediate--the combination of director David Lowery's signature aesthetic sensibility and star Dev Patel's heartthrob status seemed like the ideal combo for fans of both medieval history and medieval fantasy. But this combination was anything but an easy get from the story's source material--a 700+-year-old medieval poem popularly known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

On top of its mysterious origins (the author of the story has never been identified), scholarship has varied between historians, medievalists, and even literary giants like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. No singular interpretation of the text is the same, with versions and translations picking up different historical and cultural contexts to emphasize. Everything from chivalric romance to early Christianity to queer homosociality in medieval Britain has been discussed using the Green Knight story as a framework. What's more, the text's lack of specificity in key areas (Gawain's quest, for example, is never really elaborated on much beyond vague allusions to hardships and challenges) makes any definitive answers impossible.

So the question becomes: How does one of history's most ambiguous texts become one of 2021's sleekest? Well, according to Lowery, it's all about knowing what you're getting into right from the start.

"I wanted to embrace the notion that the best I could hope for would be to scratch the surface, just illuminate a fraction of the original text and give some perspective where some light hasn't been shown before," Lowery explained in speaking to GameSpot. "My primary hope was that I wouldn't make something that did a disservice to the poem. I didn't want to disrespect it. Ultimately my hope is that people will watch the movie and then read the poem; it's worth reading and re-reading and exploring multiple translations. It's a gift that keeps on giving in that regard."

This approach already worked on the film's star, Dev Patel, who admitted he had never read the story prior to being introduced by the project. "I didn't know the poem existed," Patel said. "I was that person. Very embarrassing. And then I read the script and went down the rabbit hole. After that, it was very easy to just submit to David's vision. I was so eager to be a part of it."

But it wasn't a walk in the park. The cast and crew were often working in less than ideal conditions, in freezing cold castles on location in the UK. Despite the film's overt surrealism and magic, very little green screen was used. This meant Patel was very frequently left in some compromising positions.

"David went to great lengths to achieve that beautiful imagery. There was a lot of trudging through streams with improvised pulley systems for the camera equipment. The horse and I were shivering at times," he laughed. "Even the interiors were freezing. You could see your breath."

Sometimes, nailing the look was the name of the game. While Lowery explains that every detail was meticulously researched, the process of making a movie like The Green Knight required a certain amount of creative wiggle room. "We gave ourselves permission to free ourselves from the constraints of history," he said. "The movie does not take place in any historical period on planet Earth. We pull from all sorts of different periods in medieval history, from the architecture to the costumes. Sometimes this was budgetary--we couldn't afford to shoot in all the castles we wanted to shoot in so sometimes we'd have a 17th-century castle and a 9th-century castle in another scene. Same with the costumes. But everything was definitely considered. We knew where we were deviating [...] We knew where we were breaking rules. We knew those rules existed so we were making choices from a point of education and reason."

"And sometimes," he admitted with a smile, "we just did things because it looks cool."

The movie does indeed look very cool. During his quest, Gawain encounters everything from ghosts to bandits to literal giants, in addition to the monstrous Green Knight himself--played with purely practical prosthetics by Ralph Ineson. These details were made specific for the film, and yet another example of Lowery's vision extrapolating on the otherwise incredibly vague details offered up in the poem.

"Depending on which translation you read, [Gawain's] whole journey from Camelot to the Lord's castle is probably like a page and a couple of stanzas. And in those stanzas there are references to things like giants and serpents and great battles. I wanted to have that classic episodic structure of a quest, and I didn't want to have him get to the Lord and Lady's castle too soon. So I took all those influences and expanded on them [...] whether it's a moment where [Gawain] fails to be chivalrous, or a darker shade of King Arthur's legacy," Lowery explained. "These are extrapolations from the text but also opportunities for me to add the color that I wanted to, and add extra shades I felt were important to the story."

Ultimately, the story of Gawain and the Green Knight isn't going anywhere. After standing the test of time for hundreds of years, it's unlikely that the interpretations and scholarship will ever nail down a single definitive analysis--and that's exactly why a movie like The Green Knight is able to stand as strongly as it does. With a clear sense of vision, a healthy creative license, and a powerhouse cast anchored by Patel, The Green Knight stands as the offbeat action-adventure fans have been patiently waiting for.

The Green Knight hits theaters on July 30.

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