Adaptations and Retellings

The idea of adapting a story and retelling a story may sound much the same, but I’d suggest they’re slightly different things. Adapting a story is finding a way to tell a story in a new medium. For example, adapting a story to be filmed as a movie or told in an audio. Retelling is more like what happens when I tell a story to someone and then that someone tells the story to someone else, emphasizing the parts they liked and adding new details, and so on.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I recently watched David Lowery’s film The Green Knight. Although I’m a fan of early Arthurian literature, I had never read the original poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The movie certainly reminded me of Arthurian literature of its period. The poem is believed to have been written circa 1380 AD. Arthur’s knights gathered for revels and a quest happened. A hunt formed an integral part of the quest and beheadings happened. All of these elements reminded me of Culhwch and Olwen, which appeared in written form around the same time, but is believed to have originated in the 11th or 12th century.

I enjoyed the film a lot and it encouraged me to seek out the original. After doing some research on the web, I decided to give Simon Armitage’s translation a try. I found his translation very readable and I appreciated it that it’s printed side-by-side with the original Middle English. Some of Armitage’s modern colloquialisms did pull me briefly out of the story, but overall, I thought he did a fine job of conveying both meaning and poetic sensibility. I also learned that the movie The Green Knight was much more a retelling than an adaptation.

Calling The Green Knight a retelling is by no means intended as a criticism. I enjoy retelling stories and have sold several of my retellings over the years. I think a retelling can bring new insights to characters, highlight hidden elements in stories, and make older stories more relevant to new audiences. The poem alludes to quests and trials as Gawain travels to complete his quest at the Green Chapel. The movie visualizes two of those quests, drawing on another story for one of those quests. David Lowery clearly emphasized Gawain’s class and privilege, then used the quest as a way for him to learn the value of courage. In the poem, Gawain doesn’t need to learn courage as much as he needs to learn honesty and perhaps even that it’s acceptable to be afraid.

It took me about the same amount of time to read Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as it did to watch the movie. I’m glad I did both. Also, it’s worth noting, the introductory material to Armitage’s translation was fascinating. I learned, among other things, that because Germanic languages tend to emphasize first syllables, early Germanic poems tended to use alliteration. Because Romance languages tend to emphasize last syllables, their poems tended to rhyme. English takes words from both and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was an early example of poem that used both techniques.

I share a retelling of Arthurian legend as part of my novel, Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order Vampires, which you can learn more about at: http://davidleesummers.com/dragons_fall.html

I also adapted the early story Culhwch and Olwen. Learn more about that at: http://davidleesummers.com/cando.html

4 comments on “Adaptations and Retellings

  1. I don’t recall when–if ever–I thought about the different emphasis in alliteration/rhyming depending on whether it’s a Germanic or Romance language tradition. Thanks for bringing that out.

    The first time I remember becoming very aware of alliteration was when I was a youngster. I was fascinated by one of Edgar Allen Poe’s phrases from his poem “The Raven”: “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain….”

    There’s of course this quote attributed to Robert Frost: “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Any time something is adapted or translated, something of the original is lost, but the adapter or translator can add something to fill in for it. That’s certainly true of adaptations of literature to movie/TV/stage production where much of the literary description of what the reader can’t see is replaced by visual depictions they can.

    • Yes the discussion on, the origin of rhyming and alliteration was new to me and a compelling idea.

      Thanks for the Robert Frost quote. It provides good food for thought when considering both Lowery’s movie and Armitage’s translation.

  2. I remember Sir Gawain from college and how his bragging got him in so much trouble. I also recall how, in the end, he was getting married and the woman told him he had to choose: she could be ugly in the daytime but beautiful with him at night, or beautiful in the daytime but ugly with him at night. Gawain had learned enough wisdom to let her decide. My professor thought that was clever and enlightened of Gawain, but I remember being disgusted that her appearance was the only thing that seemed to matter.

    • Sir Gawain’s bragging definitely gets him in trouble, but I do wonder if you’re conflating another story with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I have heard the story of the woman who comes to a knight and offers him the choice of being beautiful in the daytime but ugly at night and so forth. However, that story is not part of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, at least not as translated by Simon Armitage.

      In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain finds his way to a castle where he’s given hospitality by a knight and his wife. The knight and Gawain make a vow. The knight will go hunting and give Gawain anything he catches. Gawain will, in turn, give the Knight anything he receives during the day. During the day, the knight’s wife comes to Gawain and kisses him. Each night, Gawain kisses the knight. In the end, the wife gives Gawain a sash of protection. Gawain ultimately gets in trouble because he does not give that sash to the knight.

      I believe your story is in the Arthurian canon, but my recollection is that it’s a different poem, although one of the later ones that I’m not as familiar with.

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