How Cinema Shapes and Changes Folklore
Gather ’round the fire to hear how filmmakers turn to classic folklore to spin modern tales. Let’s begin with The Green Knight.
It’s been several weeks now since I saw The Green Knight for the first time, and I think I’m finally ready to talk about it with friends and family. For a movie that features a talking fox and a giant, green tree-knight, I have to say that the film moved me in ways I didn’t think movies could.
The Green Knight is the latest film by acclaimed writer and director (and editor) David Lowery. His previous films include A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (plus the upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy).
It’s a fantastical retelling of a famous medieval folktale and 14th-century poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which tells the story of an Arthurian knight named Gawain and his “beheading game” with a mysterious and supernatural green knight.
The film explores some rich, deep, and heady (pun intended) themes of honor, legacy, and death. While this may sound like a pretty straightforward folktale, it’s really anything but.
The Story of The Green Knight
First, let’s focus a bit more on The Green Knight and its Arthurian folklore. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century Middle English poem. Due to its date, its author is unknown, but is generally attributed to what scholars refer to simply as the Gawain Poet. Despite its mysterious origins, it has remained one of the main legends surrounding King Arthur and his Round Table.
As you can see in the video above (produced by A24, the studio behind Lowery’s film), a general understanding of the legend is helpful when watching The Green Knight. It also underlines many of the characters and themes that have remained steadfast in different retellings of the tale over years and mediums.
Yet, this film is indeed an entirely new retelling. So much so that it could be seen not as another faithful adaptation, but rather as a new story that shares some of the key players and motifs.
Folklore in Cinema
How much power does cinema actually have over folklore itself? To answer this question, we need to look back at the earliest days of film production. Some of the first moving images captured were of some of the most famous tales and stories of their time.
Like other forms of art—literature and theatrical performances—as film became the popular new medium, audiences would demand more retellings of their favorite folkloric tales.
Some notable examples over the years include:
And, while The Green Knight wouldn’t be classified in the horror genre, per se, in the past few decades this genre has become one of the most popular modes of retelling and recasting popular folklore for modern audiences.
Films like A24’s The Witch and Midsommar come to mind, as well as plenty of other folk-horror films that represent one of the largest subgenres of horror.
How Different Filmmakers Use Folklore
Modern cinema provides many examples of filmmakers who create their own folklore—see the Star Wars movies or the deep universes of comic book franchises like Marvel and DC. And while Jedis and Avengers are more recent additions to popular culture than King Arthur and his court, the themes at the core of their stories are timeless. Essentially, the theme is the thing.
Even with seemingly “traditional” folklore-based filmmaking, like Lowery’s take on Sir Gawain, it’s the themes—how they’re interpreted for the age, how they fit into today’s world—that perhaps matter most, regardless of how they change the story.
One of the best examples of this might come from Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, a film which controversially retold the story of Jesus Christ. As a filmmaker, Scorsese made several narrative (and cinematic) decisions which ultimately changed some of the key components of the gospel narrative source material. These decisions were quite controversial at the time. And, while the film was well-received by critics, it might have contributed a bit to its poor box office showing.
We can also look more recently at films like Midsommar, another A24 film, which reimagines classic Scandinavian and Norse paganism folklore. While these tales and motifs might not be as well-known to Western audiences, filmmaker Ari Aster makes specific references to elements of the Old Norse religion as a way to ground the film before eventually turning its folklore into a classic slasher horror movie.
Tips for Shooting and Editing Folklore
How do filmmakers actually handle these folklore decisions while writing, shooting, and editing? David Lowery shared some rare insight into his creative process for the Vanity Fair YouTube channel. If you haven’t watched it all the way through yet, I highly recommend you do. Lowery details much of his original inspiration and dives into shooting, lighting, and editing one of the most pivotal scenes in the film.
When the topic of folklore comes up, Lowery explains his approach to reshaping a classic tale by making conscious choices based on practical elements—like changing the story to include Morgan le Fay as Sir Gawain’s mother simply for “narrative convenience.”
Shaping and Creating New Stories
It’s important for filmmakers to realize that reimagining popular folklore for the screen is simply a continuation of perhaps the most glorious of human traditions—sweet, sweet storytelling.
Stories of love, loss, and lies. Faith, friendship, fear, and folly. Loki, Lancelot, the Lion King, whatever. In all of their forms, these folk stories and lessons we pass down convey our shared history. Changing them is less about self-editing the past and more about exploring how the past has shaped our modern sensibility and informed how we peer across the campfire and into the darkness of the future.
Overall, it can be a heavy weight to put on your shoulders, but if you’re indeed looking to tell meaningful stories that tackle these rich, deep, and (indeed) heady themes, maybe it’s important to have an understanding of why you’re doing it.
For more resources exploring filmmaking, folklore, and theory, check out these articles:
Cover image by Eric Zachanowich (via A24 Films).
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