Why ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ changes the book’s ending

Throughout history there has been one universal truth: a teenager is a teenager, no matter the era. That’s the sensibility of Catherine Called Birdy, a new film based on Karen Cushman’s 1994 young adult novel of the same name. The book, about a rebellious teenage girl living in the English feudal system of 1290, has been loved by readers for nearly three decades. One such reader, who discovered the novel at the age of 10, is the film’s writer and director, Lena Dunham.

“It was the first time I’ve read a character, maybe since Eloise, that I felt really reflected both who I was and who I wanted to be,” says Dunham, speaking in London ahead of the film’s release. “And so the book was always with me. I would read it a few times a year. It was like my comfort book, my comfort book. When I was in college I started reading a lot about women who rebelled against medieval culture, like Christine de Pizan – I was really fascinated by her poetry – and started thinking about that time. Then when someone close to Girls asked me, “Is there a piece of – to use a very Hollywood word – intellectual property [intellectual property] would you want to conform?’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I know what it is.’”

Dunham walked us through the process of bringing the book to the big screen, from casting his unique heroine to shooting her own at the end.

The important things first

Bella Ramsey in "Catherine named Birdy."

Bella Ramsey in Catherine Called Birdy.

(Alex Bailey/Prime Video)

Dunham first secured the rights to Cushman’s novel 10 years ago. Back then, movies based on young adult books were fantastic or dystopian, like The Hunger Games or Twilight. Dunham wasn’t sure there was room for something more realistic with a teenage protagonist who didn’t have any special powers.

“It was literally and figuratively from another time,” Dunham recalls. “And so it took me a while to find the partner, which turned out to be a working title, who understood what was meant.”

Dunham eventually wrote the screenplay in the fall of 2019. She had Cushman’s blessing to make the story her own, and Dunham made some key changes. Because Birdy’s novel was written as a diary for her brother Edward, a monk, Dunham used voice-over to preserve the feeling that the character was speaking directly to the viewer. She added new scenes and removed others (attentive readers will note that Birdy doesn’t particularly save a bear in Dunham’s adaptation).

“In a way, when I made the changes, I thought it was just an elaboration on Karen’s story,” says Dunham. “Not necessarily changing, just expanding because she’s a character that you can always imagine more and more of. If there’s a scene or a character that doesn’t appear in the book, it’s not like I take Karen’s work and change it. It’s more about building the world. And so I like to think that if you liked the film, the book can be a match and vice versa.”

Cast of “Birdy”

A young woman smiling with two handfuls of mud

Bella Ramsey in Catherine Called Birdy.

(Alex Bailey/Prime Video)

Slated to start filming in spring 2020 – that plan was apparently delayed – and Joe Alwyn, who plays Birdy’s beloved Uncle George, was the first actor to be cast (Dunham wrote the role specifically for him). However, the adaptation’s success depended on finding the right actor for the role of Birdy, a spunky teenager who’s not only messy, messy and emotional, but also sensitive and intelligent. Dunham only dated one person: Bella Ramsey, best known for playing Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones.

“Nina Gold, our casting director, said, ‘I think I know who this is,’ and pulled out a picture of Bella,” recalls Dunham. “I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ Before Bella came in and read, there had always been a blur where Birdy’s face was and now I could see the face. And I knew Birdy lived and died in the movie because she’s in every frame [because] even when we’re not looking at them, we’re looking through their eyes. It just took someone who had Bella’s deep empathy and humanity. And Bella is really freaking funny too.”

The casting is particularly effective because Ramsey, now 18, was a real teenager when he made the film in early 2021.

“It was really important because it’s just about being a messy teenager, as Lena said, with no special skills or passions aside from avoiding her chores, or great romance aside from being with Uncle George destroy,” notes Ramsey. “It’s more about existing as a teenager. I think I also learned that times can change, the world around you can change, but the experience of being a teenager is always the same. Just with different challenges depending on the time.”

Characters reimagined

A young man and a young girl in 13th-century dresses brandish swords in the film "Catherine named Birdy."

Joe Alwyn and Bella Ramsey in Catherine Called Birdy.

(Alex Bailey/Prime Video)

In the novel, Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo, is a brutal man who is often described as brawny and obnoxious. In the film, he is played by Andrew Scott, who offers a more sensitive side to the character. He is a devoted husband to his wife, Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), and traipses through her estate in fine clothes. Dunham compares him to this dad who wears a lot of Gucci and a gold chain.

“He’s the one who changed the most from the book,” she says. “He’s a very brutal, almost like a primitive man in the book. And something that Andrew and I talked about early on was the idea that we didn’t want any of the male characters to feel like those anti-feminist male character stereotypes. Andrew really brought up this idea [that] Every single person in this world is trapped by conventions in their own way.”

“One of the first conversations [which] actually continued a lot, it was about how we can really personalize the relationship between Birdy and the father,” adds Scott. “And how the people in families who sometimes clash the most are the ones who are most alike. I was also interested in the idea of ​​how he could suffer from this macho society. And how about if he was a little less mature than he appears in the book? That he was someone who enjoyed the finer things in life, wearing silk pajamas and jewelry. To turn him into someone who isn’t a good swordsman.”

George, the object of Birdy’s affections in the novel and film, didn’t change as drastically, but Alwyn wanted to make sure the character’s relationship with Birdy felt clear. Initially, there wasn’t a moment in the script when George had an open conversation with his niece, telling her that he couldn’t save her from her fate of being married off for money. But after some discussion with Alwyn, Dunham added this scene towards the end.

“I interpreted him as this very recognizable figure in a young person’s life, no matter what age you are, if you have someone, whether it’s a neighbor or a friend or a family member or a teacher or whoever, that’s quite the knight in shining armor in your life,” says Alwyn. “That feeling was so understandable. Just like the moment when this facade collapses. You either realize, or are told, or a little bit of both, that they are actually quite normal. And as messy and sometimes as unhappy as the next person. I really liked the idea of ​​this relationship.”

Find the right ending

The film’s ending has similar emotional nuances to the novel, but it’s perhaps the biggest change Dunham made. In the book, Birdy’s intended suitor dies – a grotesque but wealthy man she calls Shaggy Beard – and she reconciles with a match with his son. The film is more open to interpretation, leaving Birdy in a place of self-acceptance.

“I like how ambiguous it is,” says Ramsey. “It enables freedom. [It’s about] the idea that she now has the knowledge and tools to deal with it [reality]… It is her realization that she can be free within the limits of her time.”

“I used to think that real art was going for the hard, hard end,” adds Dunham. “And often I would lean into things that I felt were uncomfortable or obscure. I remember Judd Apatow saying, “Sometimes it’s okay if people are nice to each other.” [But] doing something that was more for a YA and bowing in joy made me realize that it’s really nice to do. Movies should take us somewhere else.”

Cushman’s novel is feminist through and through, especially for the time of its publication (1994). It raises questions about the roles women are forced into and why they are forced into them. Dunham’s version reinforces these questions with a more contemporary feel. It retains the 1290 setting and historical details, but uses modern music, topical ideas, and an inclusive cast that reflects today’s audiences. However, the underlying social ideas are subordinate to the carefree, warm-hearted spirit of the picture.

“A historical film isn’t that accessible unless you really want to sit down and learn about things, which is absolutely an option and we enjoy it too,” says Ramsey. “But I just think it’s nice to have something so happy. Rather than being something serious medieval and incredibly depressing, it’s lighthearted and approachable but also feels like the times [period] with a fresh approach.”

“Lena has an almost unique ability to send a message through comedy,” adds Scott. “It’s an incredibly difficult thing that people really underestimate and I know very few people who are capable of it. You’re involved with the characters and you’re like, ‘Oh, this person is messy and wild and messy, and in a way it gives me permission to be like that myself.’”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-10-07/catherine-called-birdy-ending-explained-amazon-lena-dunham Why ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ changes the book’s ending

Sarah Ridley

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