The Green Knight vs The Northman: How to Adapt Folklore for a Modern Audience

I finally got around to watching The Green Knight earlier this week, and let me tell you this: it did not disappoint.

The 2021 fantasy epic directed by David Lowery and starring Dev Patel as Sir Gawain is an adaptation of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and it really feels like the epic it pitches itself as: the sense of scale, the grandeur of it, the look, the feel, the sound. Everything comes together to create this enveloping tone of magic and mystery that captures the feel of the original work while still forming the basis of a great movie for modern audiences.

And you know what it got me thinking about? The Northman.

The Northman, not totally dissimilar to The Green Knight, is an attempt to bring centuries-old folklore and mythology to a modern audience in the form of a fantasy epic. But where the two diverge is that The Northman is genuinely terrible.

But why? What is it about these two movies that allows them to start from a relatively similar place – well-respected directors bringing to life a piece of legend for a 2020s audience as a historical fantasy epic – and have one end up brilliant, and another end up…well, like The Northman?

What it fundamentally comes down to, for me, is the difference in the lead of each story. The Northman is a reasonably straightforward adaptation of the myth it’s drawn from, right down to the gruellingly boring masculinity, the complete sidelining of the female lead’s motivations, and what feels like a frustrating lack of nuance. The Northman is faithful to its source material to a degree that I found detrimental. The story it’s trying to tell is based on tropes and storytelling techniques that are hundreds of years old; by today’s standards, they look downright dull. Not every movie has to be a Rashomon-style intricate masterpiece when it comes to breaking down boundaries of storytelling, but this story looks simplistic and feels limited by the measure of modern movie-making (to my eyes, at least – I’m aware a lot of people adore The Northman, and it’s clearly made a big impact as a blockbuster hit too). Alexander Skarsgard’s leading man Amleth feels true to the time, which is to say, not particularly interesting or as in-depth as the leads we’ve come to expect from Robert Egger’s movies (such as his excellent double-hander with Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe, The Lighthouse).

Whearas The Green Knight inserts a relatively modern lead into this centuries-old story. Dev Patel’s Gawain is emotional, he’s expressive, he’s intensely flawed, aspects which are present in the original Green Knight story, but which Lowery eases out into the forefront over the course of his adaptation. Dev Patel has a real deftness to his performance, an emotional literacy that never feels contrary to the strictness of the medieval fantasy setting, but allows for an engaging emotional depth that’s lacking in The Northman. He still exists and fits into this world, but he’s influenced by a modern critical eye that makes him a far more compelling lead. Gawain’s more in line with the kind of leading man that’s developed in modern cinema, and feels far more suited to the modern audience The Green Knight is playing to than The Northman’s staid, blunt-edged Amleth.

And I think that’s particularly interesting when you consider The Northman’s story is apparently a major influence on Shakespeare’s Hamlet – a piece of writing which is regularly credited as featuring the first “modern man” in literary history. There was room, I believe, to work this aspect in to the adaptation of The Northman, despite it’s ancient origins, but instead Eggers decided to opt for the enormously limited and, for me, exceptionally boring take on the leading man he showed us on-screen.

Adapting folklore and ancient mythology requires, of course, some depiction and representation of the society they were first created in. But that does not mean writers or directors have to present that society or the morals captured in their stories uncritically or without a modern interpretation. The Northman’s inability to move past its source material is what limits it, while The Green Knight’s embrace of the more modern leading man is what allows it to soar.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Refinery29)

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