Director David Lowery’s highly anticipated film, The Green Knight, is adapted from the anonymously written 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” which most English majors have had to read at least once. It tells a rather simple story about King Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain, who accepts a challenge from a supernaturally oversized knight on New Year’s Eve—and has one year to deliver on his side of the bargain. On his journey to find the Green Knight, Gawain encounters the usual Arthurian tests of honor and character, and comes out the other side a little more worse for wear than some of his fellow knights of the Round Table.
Even those very familiar with the poem might be confounded by elements of Lowery’s adaptation starring Dev Patel. And while some aspects are intentionally vague, in a long-ranging chat with Vanity Fair, Lowery did his best to clear up some mysteries—starting, of course, with that very puzzling ending.
Okay, Did Gawain Die or…What? Well, yes and no, right? In the poem, after some flinching, Gawain takes his blows without ever taking off the magical green girdle (or belt, if you prefer) protecting him. In order to tease Gawain for his deceit, the Green Knight gives Gawain a little nick on the neck as punishment. Gawain goes home and lives out his life while wearing the sash as a mark of his shame. Lowery, however, had something else in mind.
In the film, the lengthy section following Gawain back to Camelot, onto the throne, and through the fall of his kingdom was foreshadowed by an earlier moment where a tied-up Gawain envisions his own skeletal corpse in the woods, only to have the camera spin back and show him alive and well. So we can assume that everything we see back at Camelot, including Gawain’s head falling off, is a long “what if?” sequence in which Gawain imagines what his life might have been like if he escaped the Green Knight’s chapel alive, but carrying the shame and deceit of having failed at his promise.
Lowery wanted to use that extended sequence to achieve something very specific: “I wanted to write an ending where his head gets chopped off, and that’s a positive thing,” he says. “That’s a happy ending. He faces his fate bravely, and there’s honor and integrity in that. But that doesn’t mean that he’s dead, he’s killed. He received the blow that he was dealt, and all is set right within the universe of the film.” We, the audience, are relieved when Gawain accepts his fate in the end, because it spares both him and his kingdom all the misery of that war-torn fantasy. We also get to see his head both come off and not.
Lowery said he shot a more “explicit” and “definitive” version of the ending, but that it put “too sharp” a point on the film: “If people were to watch a movie in which Dev Patel gets beheaded at the end, they probably would like to leave the theater feeling differently than they do with the more ambiguous version.” That ambiguity may leave the ending open to interpretation, which Lowery is fine with. “Even amongst ourselves—Dev, my producers, and I—we all had slightly different ideas about what that ending [means]. If we cut to black, what happens next?” Let’s call it the Sopranos approach to medieval fantasy.
Okay, but Who Is the Green Knight? In the original poem, the answer to this question is very clear. Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert, the character played by Joel Edgerton, has been transformed by the sorceress Morgana/Morgan le Fay into the Green Knight in order to test and expose the true nature of King Arthur’s “honorable” men. Morgana and Arthur, sister and brother, are forever at odds with each other in Arthurian tales. In Lowery’s version of the story, Morgana is also Gawain’s mother and played by Sarita Choudhury.
Lowery, too, shows Morgana as the orchestrator of Gawain’s entire test—though her motivations here are very different. “In the book, you get this deus ex machina appearance by Morgan le Fay and she’s like, ‘I was behind everything, Lord Bertilak and the Lady were possessed by me and I was also this character.’ … She’s vital to the story, but she really only shows up in the last two or three pages of the text. I definitely wanted to avoid that.” Instead, Lowery decided to make the whole gambit much more complicated and personal.
“It became a drama about a mother and a son in a way that I hadn’t intended,” he says. “All of a sudden, I was writing about my own relationship with my mom, and the fact that I stayed, I lived under her roof for far longer than I should have. I had failure-to-launch syndrome, and she eventually had to force me out.” Morgana’s trick with the Green Knight and the Lady and the bet are all part of an effort to push her layabout son into the world and test his mettle.
What, then, was her planned outcome? Is she rooting for her son, or trying to torment him? Sending him to his death or giving him protection? Lowery says the answer is even more complicated. “She gives him the [protective] girdle. Is that in opposition to what she’s done in the Great Hall on Christmas morning? The answer is that it’s just messy. I think about that in my relationship with my mom. It’s just a messy relationship, and probably not exclusive to my own relationship with my mom.”
In the film, Morgana is, in some ways, also the Green Knight. She’s definitely that mysterious, older blindfolded woman lurking around the scenes with Bertilak. And, seen from a certain point of view, she’s Bertilak and the Lady (Alicia Vikander) as well. Morgana devising a temptress tailor-made for her son might explain why the Lady looks identical to Gawain’s girlfriend Essel (also played by Vikander), without the class distinction that makes their future together so impossible. (Though his mother’s involvement also makes that bedroom test scene even more…messy.) She’s pulling all the strings. One shot toward the end of the movie drives that idea home: As Gawain enters the Green Chapel, the camera spins around the Green Knight’s face. He appears to be sleeping, and actor Ralph Ineson’s features subtly and digitally transform. Blink and you might have missed it, but the most obvious face that emerges is Joel Edgerton’s
“That shot is very dark, and in working with [the digital effects artists at] Weta, we were seeing how far we could take it in terms of subtlety where, if you just aren’t paying very close attention, you won’t notice that it’s not just Joel,” says Lowery. “He turns into every character’s face. It starts with Joel, then it turns into [King Arthur actor] Sean Harris, Alicia for a moment, then she changes into Sarita, and then into Dev himself.” Lowery thinks showing that the Green Knight is somehow everyone takes the story beyond the simple duality of the poem. “That moment was a reminder for me and for the audience that this entire journey, and all of these encounters, have all been about the pursuit of one thing. And it all goes back to the choice that Dev makes, which is why the final face you see there is his own.”
So, What Is the Ending Trying to Say? It’s an ambiguous conclusion with an ambiguous antagonist, so the good news is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean. But Lowery has his own ideas here.
The poem itself is often considered a story of the tension between the more conservative Christianity of Arthur’s court and the freewheeling paganism of the Green Knight and Morgan le Fay. Or, to put it another way, a war between civilization and nature. In the film, Alicia Vikander has a tremendous monologue about the encroaching green taking over the Earth, which may be the key to understanding Lowery’s point of view.
“My parents would love for me to say it’s not a war,” Lowery says. “But in 2021, I have to say, I kind of view it that way. I find great solace in the fact that the last image of the film is the Green Knight, and that he has the higher ground. I’m someone who loves peace, and I want to live in a world where those two things can exist hand in hand and with mutual benefit to both. But in our culture now, I don’t see that happening. I wrote that monologue for Alicia to represent my own feelings. What she’s describing may sound terrible, but I find great comfort in it. There’s a beautiful inevitability. What she’s talking about makes me feel better about the world we live in.”
This is why Sean Harris’s King Arthur and Kate Dickie’s Queen Guinevere are depicted as sickly, waning monarchs. “The only references to Christianity in the film are from King Arthur,” Lowery says. “The idea is that there’s some rot at the heart of that court. At the same time, I really loved the goodness that Sean brought. In the screenplay, I described them almost as looking like children or extraterrestrials. Sean’s performance is so warm that it counteracts that in a really beautiful way. It’s one of the richer aspects of the film.”
Why Is Gawain Not a Knight? Speaking of Camelot and the monarchy: The title of the poem is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” But Lowery opted to save Gawain’s knighthood until the final moments of the film. “Then you have the anticipation and the expectation that by the end, maybe he will become a knight—or maybe even achieve what he needs to be worthy of knighthood, to be worthy of the Round Table, to be worthy of Camelot,” Lowery explains. Without the promise of the glory of knighthood waiting for him, Lowery says, why would Gawain keep going on this torturous journey? The answer the poem gives is for chivalry, honor, and duty. But Lowery wanted to make Gawain’s motivation a little more external than that.
What Should We Make of all the Color in the Film? The Green Knight is a lush film with some unusual pops of color. To understand why Lord Bertilak and his Lady are coded in a dark, rich blue, Lowery says, you’ll have to ask costume designer Malgosia Turzanska—who, he swears, had a very good reason for choosing that shade. As for the green, Lowery says, they had to use some restraint in not flooding the film in the color. “We tried to be careful about the amount of green, and we often had a very ochre or a very blue version of green. It was just a little bit too heavy-handed, and also just aesthetically didn’t look that great. [Director of photography] Andrew [Droz Palermo] found that green turns into neon really quickly—the color of Slimer in Ghostbusters.”
Patel’s striking golden cloak is meant to invoke the golden mantle Gawain wears in the poem; in Lowery’s version, it “gradually just becomes a very muddy yellow over the course of the movie.” There are also some pops of red lighting on both the Merlin figure in the court (Emmet O’Brien) and during one terrifying underwater dream. “The most obvious version is just vitality and death combined,” Lowery says of the use of red. “Definitely, going underwater in that sequence needed to have a little bit more red blood, to be honest. It needs to get your blood pumping. The easiest way to do that was to just go with red.”
What’s With the Fox? Is the fox who seems to be working both for and against Gawain another manifestation of Morgana? Unclear. But its presence invokes a very famous and lengthy section of the poem in which Lord Bertilak goes forth on three hunting trips. Lowery decided to mostly skip that portion, because he didn’t want to leave Gawain’s perspective for so long. But there’s a nod to the hunt in some shots of a tapestry in Bertilak’s house. “That’s our allusion: the tapestry and the fox. Any scholar of the poem will know we skipped over all that stuff, which we did for a specific reason.”
Excuse Me, but You Got This Far Without Explaining That Headless Lady! Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman) doesn’t appear in the original poem but Lowery was inspired by a mention of Holy Head in the original text to include her. Winifred is a virginal Welsh martyr of the 8th century whose fiancé cut off her head when she told him she wanted to become a nun. Legend has it a healing spring appeared where her head fell, which is why we see Gawain fetching her head out of a body of water. Gawain has no real association with Winifred; in legends, it’s Saint Beuno who replaced her head and brought her back to life. Here, though, Gawain gets the job done. Kind of.
What About That Creepy Scavenger? Barry Keoghan’s ominous character is not in the poem either. His appearance is an allusion to the film Barry Lyndon. “You know, the famous scene with the highway men who accost him on his way? I thought it’d be nice to have a little nod to that,” Lowery says. Lowery also wanted to use the Scavenger’s introduction to further cut into the legend of Arthur. The corpse-choked battlefield Gawain travels across was inspired, Lowery says, by the Battle of Badon, in which King Arthur was said to have killed 960 men all on his own. Lowery’s take on that battle calls into question Arthur’s “peaceful” reign.
Another prime inspiration, Lowery says, was Ron Howard’s 1988 PG-rated adventure Willow, about a fledgling magician played by Warwick Davis and the scoundrel Madmartigan, played by Val Kilmer, who battle an evil queen to save their kingdom. One Green Knight shot in particular, of a skeleton in a cage at a crossroads, is a direct homage to Madmartigan.
Lowery further engaged with his love for ’80s fantasy and adventure by deploying the occasional matte painting and as many old-school practical effects and in-camera tricks as he could, in order to give The Green Knight its throwback feel. “The aesthetics of those ’80s and ’90s films,” Lowery says, “they didn’t have the tricks up their sleeves that someone like Peter Jackson or even we had. There’s a tactile quality that helped stick them in my head. I love Willow because I was seven years old when I saw it, but also [because of] its craftsmanship.”
The Green Knight’s throwback vibe was also strategic. “We couldn’t afford to do an actual, literal period piece set in the 14th century with enough period-accurate costumes,” he says. “So [we were] finding this weird middle ground where it doesn’t have to be true to history and yet also feels grounded. Films like Willow and Ladyhawke did that really well.”
Once and for All: How, Exactly, Do You Pronounce Gawain? This has been a question debated by Gawain scholars for centuries—and if you thought Lowery’s film would settle it, think again. “Guh-wayne” and “Gow-in” are both on the table here, as well as Sean Harris’s intriguing “Garr-win.” Even Lowery didn’t see that one coming. “It wasn’t until day one of shooting Sean Harris. I know that he does nothing without putting a tremendous amount of thought and effort and research. I didn’t understand the way he was saying it, but I also was like, well, you know, throughout history, it’s been said many times in many different ways, and I’m not going to question about it. Let’s just go with it.”
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