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The proper method of book to cinema adaptation is used by Catherine Called Birdy.

The unfaithfulness of Lena Dunham’s adaption makes it stand out.


There aren’t many things in popular culture that everyone can agree on, but at least one general observation about media rarely sparks debates: It’s generally accepted that, regardless of how faithful or creative the adaptation may be, a book is always preferable than a film or television programme that is based on it. Nobody seems to agree on whether it is preferable for an adaptation to closely follow the text or take a different path. However, some movie adaptations of books seem to be universally hated for the things they change. Consider the most recent version of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which egregiously modernises the book by making Anne Elliot a snippy, caustic woman instead of a gloomy, wise one.


Fans of Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman may find it strange that writer-director Lena Dunham modified the book’s conclusion for the screen in favour of a more contemporary one. It might be even stranger to claim that this time, the revised ending enhances the story. Dunham and her team revised Cushman’s story to make it more cogent and appealing as a motion picture because they recognise that sometimes books aren’t cinematic enough to play effectively on screen. The uncommon book-to-film adaption Catherine Called Birdy, starring Bella Ramsey from Game of Thrones, makes some significant improvements.


The 1994 novel by Cushman is a bit depressing. The sole daughter of an English lord, 14-year-old Catherine kept a diary during the Middle Ages called Catherine, Called Birdy. Before her father decides to marry her off, the book is only an account of her days. Prior to getting engaged to a wealthy man who is significantly older than her and old enough to have adult children, she spends her time dodging suitors. She flees her home and seeks refuge with her recently wed uncle, but she ultimately accepts her fate and vows to maintain her sense of identity while being married off. Fortunately for her, her potential suitor perishes in an accident, and Catherine ends up getting married to his much younger son. It represents a victory for the time being!


For young readers, Catherine, Called Birdy is comparable to the Dear America or American Girl books in that it has an interesting narrative but is also jam-packed with information about a particular era, which may just spark an interest in history. The notes in Catherine’s diary not only show off her feisty, strong-willed, and funny personality, but also the mundane tasks and exciting festivals that made up a mediaeval noblewoman’s daily existence.


Particularly for the middle-grade readers who make up the book’s intended readership and who might not be familiar with actual history from this era, the everyday parts of Catherine’s existence in the novel are fascinating. It is all a part of Catherine’s daily existence when she talks about spinning cloth, keeping birds, going to village celebrations, or sharing her opinions on how different saints were martyred. But it offers a curiously foreign glimpse into a long-gone way of life for readers in the present era.


The issue is that while reading about a 14-year-daily old’s activities in the Middle Ages is fascinating, watching a movie about them isn’t nearly as compelling. The voice of Catherine plays a huge part in the appeal of the novel, and while the voice-over in the movie does catch some of it, it isn’t enough to carry the narrative of the movie. It requires a clearer throughline. Thus, earlier in the story, Dunham’s script makes Catherine’s upcoming engagement a more important plot component.


The main difference between the book and the movie is how much more sympathetic Catherine’s family is. This is especially true given how naturally the first-person perspective of film is constrained.


Alina, the main character in the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone, abandons her for the duration of an entire episode in order to focus on tracker Mal (Archie Renaux, who also appears as Catherine’s monk brother Edward in Catherine Called Birdy). One of the most common complaints of Mal in the books is that he comes across as possessive and jealous, yet a lot of that is due to the first-person perspective of the book as seen through Alina and her fears. But in the programme, Mal’s perspective is developed, and some of his words and deeds come across as less hostile than Alina thought. Their relationship transforms from what seems to be a one-sided crush into beautiful mutual pining as he becomes a more intriguing character.


Many of the family’s actions in Catherine Called Birdy are still framed by Catherine’s narration and point of view. However, it also provides some amazing irony because the audience can watch what Catherine’s parents, brothers, and other family members truly do when she says one thing. Particularly, her father, Lord Rollo (the wonderful Andrew Scott), evolves into a more complex character who loves his family and wants what’s best for them despite his mistakes in overspending and poorly managing their estate. He also loses his reputation as a lazy glutton who wastes their money and treats them like objects.


Catherine just listens in on the chat he has with his advisor about marrying her off; she is unable to witness it. But the audience can, and they can see Rollo’s hurt face as he understands that setting up a marriage for his only daughter is the only way to solve the family’s financial problems. The initial ending of Catherine’s family being completely fine with her upcoming arranged marriage would be unsatisfying and steer viewers back in an unsympathetic direction, but Dunham wanted to make Catherine’s family more complex to the viewers. So that changes as well. The movie’s conclusion is undoubtedly more contemporary than what one might anticipate from the Middle Ages, but it also feels more rewarding from a narrative perspective. Given how Dunham ties Catherine’s fate into her family’s prior deeds, it is clear that her fate is not left to chance.


It may seem weird to book purists to learn that the story is really made better by a different finish. But occasionally, modifying a book’s topics or resolving its ambiguities results in something new that retains the overall mood of the original work while being able to stand alone. For instance, the Series of Unfortunate Events television series addressed a query that author Daniel Handler had left unresolved for years in the series conclusion. A television series has a shorter run than Handler’s spinoffs and companion books, and closure rather than purposeful ambiguity is more fulfilling.


Similar steps were taken by Dunham with Catherine Called Birdy. Although it isn’t a faithful copy of the novel, it is the adaptation that is most effective for an audience learning about this tale through film. The movie adaptation of Catherine Called Birdy tells a tighter tale than the charming diary entries in the book do, and it required a climax with more authority than a journal that just runs out of pages. It’s an updated version of the narrative, but it hasn’t been changed because the ending was terrible or because of a misguided attempt to be “edgy” or “different” in order to appeal to young people. Instead, the revisions were made to improve the book’s strongest points. The picture is stronger because to Catherine’s witty narration and the glimpse into her everyday existence in the Middle Ages, which are set against a more coherent narrative climax and allow Dunham to find her own route and audience.

Himanshu Mahawar

Himanshu Mahawar is the Editor and Founder at Flaunt Weekly.

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