There is a common thread about pop culture that is rarely discussed: No matter how faithful or artistic the adaptation might be, a book is usually superior to a movie or show that is adapted from it. What no one seems to agree on is whether or not an adaptation is more likely to follow the book or chart its own path. Take the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion, which changes Anne Elliot from a somber, gentle woman to a sarcastic one.
Karen Cushmans Newbery Award-winning historical novel Catherine, Called Birdy may seem strange because Lena Dunham changed the ending for the screen in favor of something more contemporary. It might even be odd that Dunham and her team updated Cushmans' narrative to make it more cohesive and compelling as a film.
[Ed. note: This post contains ending spoilers for the book version of Catherine Called Birdy and discusses general changes to the plot for the film version.]
Catherine, Called Birdy is a Middle Ages diary of 14-year-old Catherine, the only daughter of an English lord. She first avoids suitors, then finds herself engaged to a wealthy man who is much older than her to have adult children. Fortunately for her, her would-be suitor passes away in an accident, and Catherine gets married to a younger son instead!
Catherine, Called Birdy, is a contemporary biography that is similar to Dear America or American Girl. The book is chock-full of historical information, and may just reinvigorate a fascination with history. From mundane chores to more exciting events, Catherine's diary entries include all of the above.
Catherine's everyday activities are fascinating, particularly for middle-schoolers, who may not have experienced the real history of this time period. When Catherine talks about weaving fabric, keeping birds, and attending village gatherings, it's all part of her daily life. For current readers, it's a glimpse into a long-gone and strangely unfamiliar way of life.
The problems with the books are that, while they are enjoyable, they do not make for an enjoyable film. While the books voice-over does capture some of it, the film cannot tell a story through a more direct throughline. So Dunhams script makes Catherine's upcoming betrothal a more central plot point earlier on.
The most significant change in the film is that the Catherines family is far more accepting of their book counterparts, especially because film as a medium naturally departs from a limited first-person perspective.
The Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone uses a one-sided crush to focus on Alina's best friend, tracker Mal (Archie Renaux, who plays Catherines monk brother Edward in Catherine Called Birdy). Some of that dialogue and actions feel less aggressive than Alina's.
Catherine's actions remain framed through her narration and point of view. This also offers some wonderful irony, because when Catherine says one thing, the audience can see what her parents, brothers, and other people in her life actually do. Particularly, her father, Lord Rollo (the marvelous Andrew Scott), becomes less of a lazy glutton who wastes his family's money and treats them like objects, and more of a complicated figure who wants whats best for them, despite his mistakes in overspending and mismanagement
Catherine cant see the conversation she has with his advisor about marrying her off, because she only speaks through the door. The audience can, and they can see Rollos's shocked face as he realizes that the only way to solve the family's financial problems is to enlist a marriage for his only daughter. So that change comes about. Catherine's fate isn't left to chance, and Dunham's alter ego seems to be plausible.
For book purists, it may be surprising to learn that changing the ending improves the story. In some cases, changing the themes or eliminating ambiguities creates something different that retains the book's general feeling, but can stand on its own. While Handler continued to build the Snicketverse through spinoffs and guidebooks, a television series is more limited and closure is more satisfying.
Catherine Called Birdy isnt a faithful adaptation of the book, but its the one that works best for a viewing audience who discovers the story on film. No changes are made out of cowardice over a tragic conclusion or a How do you do, fellow kids misplaced attempt to appeal to young people by being edgy or different. Instead, the changes are made because of a desire to strengthen the film.
Catherine Called Birdy is now available in cinemas, and it will be available on Prime Video starting October 7.
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