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‘Pete’s Dragon’ Director David Lowery Takes On the ‘Green Knight’

The story of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ could be Lowery’s most demanding undertaking yet.
Petes Dragon
By  · Published on November 6th, 2018

David Lowery is a filmmaker who seems to have the best of both the arthouse and mainstream movie worlds. Although he doesn’t have very many features in his filmography, the director has cut his teeth on poignant and memorable works since his debut feature, St. Nick. His early indie directorial exploits were further supplemented by idiosyncratic behind-the-scenes work, wherein he edited films like Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, in particular. These credentials collectively paint an impression of a confronting filmmaker intent on capitalizing on unease.

Except Lowery immediately went from directing his moody sophomore picture — the Bonnie and Clyde-esque romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — to a big studio picture. He was tasked to reimagine Disney’s Pete’s Dragon for the modern age. Seemingly from out of left field, Lowery stitched together an excellent fantasy adventure movie that’s perfect for families, complete with gorgeous special effects and a wholesome, moving story.

Lowery’s resume has been rapturous and continually varied ever since. He made the intimate supernatural drama A Ghost Story right after finishing Pete’s Dragon and most recently released Fox Searchlight’s well-received crime comedy The Old Man & the Gun. Plus, Lowery’s positive affiliations with Disney have further led to another collaboration with the Mouse House: a Peter Pan remake that was announced in 2016.

Sadly, no new developments about that Pan redo have surfaced for some time. Lowery can still keep within the fantasy genre for his next romp of epic proportions, though. According to Deadline, the chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will receive the big-screen treatment once more. This time, Lowery teams with A24 (having previously worked with them on A Ghost Story) to bring a film simply titled Green Knight to the big screen. As observed by The Film Stage, this picture was once the brainchild of Terrence Malick. A happy coincidence, seeing as Lowery’s languid indies have often been compared to his.

The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an indelible Middle English poem based on Arthurian legend, circling themes of loyalty and honor. As the story goes, on New Year’s Eve in King Arthur’s court of Camelot, a giant green figure sitting atop a green horse enters the hall of feasting and celebration. He carries with him an axe and suggests a macabre “Christmas game.” The Green Knight will allow someone to strike him with his own weapon only if said challenger searches for him and receives the same blow one year later. The eponymous Gawain, one of the knights of Arthur’s Round Table, eventually steps up and cuts the Green Knight’s head cleanly off. But without so much as stumbling, the latter easily picks up his own severed head and leaves, reminding Gawain of the pact along the way.

What follows is a series of tests surrounding Gawain’s integrity. He meets a castle lord Bertilak and his seductive wife when traveling in search of the Green Knight to honor their agreement. Through this, we get to witness just how Gawain’s identity as a courtly knight — whose bravery is supposed to be unflinching and his manners, impeccable — is at odds with ordinary human fallibility. Once he is out of the “civilized” court of Camelot and thrust into uncertainty and literal wilderness, his primal instincts of survival and even lust kick in, potentially jeopardizing his strict adherence to knightly values.

Despite the fact that the story is told through the lens of a young knight, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is not a simple coming-of-age depiction due to its overt overarching themes of principles and appearances. Religious overtones — understandably common for a poem from the 14th century — directly inform Gawain’s code of conduct and his perception of sin. Furthermore, the narrative questions the iron grip of ingrained social mores and how they should interact with humanity’s innate proclivity for error. There are hints of fascinating gender dynamics, too, especially involving Lady Bertilak’s agency as an intelligent seductress.

For the time being, there are no screenwriters attached to Lowery’s project. Hence, we’re left wondering just how this tricky tale can be adapted into a movie. Two failed attempts by director Stephen Weeks is enough to stoke some worries about the Hollywoodization of Gawain’s adventures. Weeks’ first attempt came with 1973’s Gawain and the Green Knight, which was later followed by 1984’s Sword of the Valiant. Probably the most notable fact about either adaptation is that Sean Connery portrays the Green Knight in the latter. In fact, neither film receives points for fidelity. They take varying amounts of liberties with the source material, shoehorning romance and cooking up unnecessary subplots in the 1973 film while drastically changing the entire plot for the 1984 outing.

I get it, though; this is a tough one to translate. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has hefty chunks of potential narrative missing within its manuscript alone. A classic example of this is the series of adventures that Gawain embarks on as he journeys to fulfill his pact. At most, they are only alluded to.

Therefore, both the obvious changes and filler material of prior feature adaptations of this legend highlight possible issues for Lowery’s own take. It’s dangerously easy to miss the subtler themes and observations embedded in the poem. However, there is definitely value in including more narrative depth into Green Knight; arguably, that should happen. For instance, I don’t want Lowery’s movie to include original female characters only to have them serve as bland love interests for Gawain. Nevertheless, a concerted effort to focus on the women as a whole would make for a great counterpoint to discussions about chivalry. Basically, more Lady Bertilak!

The richness of Green Knight‘s visuals is pretty much a given, though. Whether Lowery is working in an indie or mainstream capacity, he puts together beautiful images for us to savor. Granted, he particularly had the prowess of the fantastic Weta Digital for Pete’s Dragon, but their joint creation of a fluffy green puppy-like creature is exceptional. The blockbuster ends up being a textural delight, encouraging us to savor the escapism of a warm and fuzzy mythical creature regardless of age.

We have no clue if Lowery will turn on the bombast or take a more low-key approach to Green Knight. Nonetheless, this historical epic proves to be as timely as ever in its dissections of societal expectations and there is no better time than the present to remake it, so long as those key themes are kept intact.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)