This week, I showed the 2001 Heath Ledger film A Knight’s Tale to my A.P. Literature students. Now, I know that there is a perception out there that English teachers show movies in class so they can get out of preparing for class that week. And that is completely, utterly… not always untrue. But in this case, I actually did have a reason; the movie served as a companion piece to the text we had just finished, Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” from The Canterbury Tales.
Don’t snicker. I actually have several good reasons for showing the film in class. Consider…
1. Anachronisms: You want to teach anachronisms, A Knight’s Tale is the text for you. The film is gloriously, gleefully, brazenly anachronistic, from the small details (Kate the blacksmith emblazons a Nike logo on a suit of armor) to the rocking, 1970s-infused soundtrack. (The film takes place in the 1370s, but as director Brian Helgeland has quipped, the 70s are the same regardless of the century.)
Now, Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale”—the story, not the film—doesn’t have a ton of anachronisms, but it does have a biggie: the tale involves several Roman gods (Mars, Venus, and Saturn), but at the end, Theseus describes Jupiter in decidedly Christian terms, calling him the Prime Mover and the force of Love in the universe. So Chaucer is sort of imposing his Christian beliefs onto this pagan world, which could be considered deliberately anachronistic. And speaking of…
2. Chaucer, in the Flesh: We see Geoffrey Chaucer in the film—pretty much all of him, actually. (The first time we meet Chaucer, he’s trudging down the road nude.) Now, is this a historically-accurate Geoffrey Chaucer? Far from it. Yeah, this Chaucer does make several overt references to one day writing Canterbury Tales (including that great line when he tells the Pardoner and the Summoner, “I will eviscerate you in fiction”). And yeah, director Helgeland, who also wrote the screenplay, said he read about a six-month period where the real Chaucer went missing, and so the events of the film could technically take place during that time. But that’s about it.
But purists be damned: this is a medieval film that opens with “We Will Rock You,” for crying out loud! Are you really going to skewer it for its historical inaccuracies?
(One fun tidbit: actor Paul Bettany, who plays Chaucer in the film, apparently did some research on the poet, in order to figure out how to play him, before deciding to go with his own interpretation. The reason? “I got hold of a picture of Chaucer,” Bettany reports, “and it turns out he’s an enormously fat, bald, bearded dwarf.”)
3. “Changing Your Stars”: Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” proceeds from a common mythological trope: gods are mean. And out to get us. And anything we try to do to improve our lot in life is fruitless, because the mean gods are running the show. The film A Knight’s Tale takes a decidedly more optimistic angle on the “fate vs. free will” subject: that we absolutely “change our stars”—the term poor squire Will Thatcher (Heath Ledger) uses in his quest to become a knight.
(And here’s something cool that one of my students brought up: people living in the Middle Ages never would have thought that humans could, in fact, control their destiny. That’s a relatively modern belief. So anachronism is not just part of the form—e.g. the soundtrack— but it’s part of the content as well. How awesome is that?)
4. Featured Females: Contrasting the two female leads from these two works—Emily from “The Knight’s Tale” and Jocelyn from A Knight’s Tale (played by Shannyn Sossaman)—could generate some good discussion, I think. The two could not be more different: Emily is this completely passive young woman, who watches as her two suitors battle to the death for her, all the while not wanting to marry either one of them but knowing that she has to; Jocelyn, on the other hand, is a feisty proto-feminist who gets Will to lose his matches to prove his love. As far as which one is the more interesting character, Jocelyn wins by a long shot…. but I don’t know if I’d call either one of them particularly likeable.
(Incidentally, no one—I mean, no one— was rooting for the Will-Jocelyn romance. Why didn’t the film at least entertain the possibility of Will getting together with Kate, his loyal blacksmith played by Laura Fraser? Wouldn’t they have made a better couple?)
5. It’s Just a Fun Movie: In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer talks about how good stories both delight and instruct. And while A Knight’s Tale may be a little lean in terms of “instructing,” it more than makes up for it on the “delighting” side. The film mixes some great action scenes with some legitimately touching ones. (My favorites: the scene when all of Will’s friends help him write a letter to Jocelyn, and the scene where Will is reunited with his blind father.) Plus, it has a great villain in Count Adhemar (played by Rufus Sewell, who has that certain “I hate him just by looking at him” quality). Plus, it’s got a great message about realizing your dreams.
But what I like most of all is the friendship between Will and his gang of merry pranksters. It’s clear that these five people truly care about each other, and I think their friendship gives a lot of heart to what could have been a typical Action-Adventure-Romantic-Comedy-Jousting-Movie-Featuring-Songs-from-Bachman-Turner-Overdrive.
So if you haven’t seen A Knight’s Tale in a while, give it another look. You will not be found wanting.
Here’s the online version of Canterbury Tales.