Although it is difficult to find anything in pop culture that most people agree on, there is a general rule about media that rarely starts arguments: No matter how faithful or artistic the adaptation may be, an adaptation will always be better than a film or show that follows the book's path. Still, some screen interpretations of a book seem to be universally despised for what they alter. Take the most recent Jane Austen's Persuasion adaptation, which transforms Anne Elliot from a somber
Karen Cushmans Newbery Award-winning historical novel Catherine, Called Birdy, may seem odd that Lena Dunham altered the book's conclusion for the screen in favor of something more contemporary. This time, Dunham and her team updated Cushmans' tale to make it more cohesive and compelling as a film.
[Ed. note: This post includes ending spoilers for the book version of Catherine Called Birdy, as well as discussion of 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 goes to school to find refuge with her newly married uncle, but she accepts her destiny, never losing her sense of self. Luckily for her, her would-be suitor dies in an accident, and Catherine gets betrothed to his younger son instead.
Catherine, Called Birdy, is an American Girl book, in that yes, the narrative is engaging, but it is also chock-full of historical information, which might spark a curiosity for history. From mundane chores to exciting celebrations, Catherines diary entries offer a compelling narrative.
Catherine's everyday activities are fascinating, especially for middle-grade readers, who may not have heard the real story from this time period. When she talks about spinning yarn, keeping birds, and attending village celebrations, it's all part of her daily life. But for modern readers, it's a glimpse into a long-gone past.
The trouble is that while Catherine's daily tasks in the Middle Ages make for an interesting read, they do not make for a particularly interesting film. The story requires a more specific throughline, so Dunham's script makes Catherine's impending betrothal a more central plot point earlier on.
The biggest change in the film is that the Catherines family is much more accepting than their book counterparts, especially since film as a medium naturally exits a limited first-person perspective.
The Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone uses this tactic in its entirety, leaving aside protagonist Alina to focus on her best friend, tracker Mal (Archie Renaux, who plays Catherines monk brother Edward in Catherine Called Birdy). Despite the initial criticism of Mal, Mals side of the story is fleshed out, and his interactions become more compelling.
Catherine Called Birdy, many aspects of Catherine's family's actions are still framed through her narration and point of view. Yet, when Catherine says one thing, the audience can see what her parents, brothers, and other people in her life do. Especially, 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 complex person who desires what is best for them, despite his mistakes in over
Catherine can't see the conversation she has with his advisor about marrying her off, but the audience can see Rollo's disappointed face as he realizes that the only solution to the family's financial difficulties is to marry his only daughter. This does not necessarily mean that Dunham's film would end in a different direction.
It may seem strange for book purists to learn that changing the ending improves the story. In some situations, changing a book's themes or clarifying its ambiguities creates something different that retains the story's general feel, but can stand on its own. A television series is more limited, and closure is more satisfying than deliberate vagueness.
Catherine Called Birdy isnt a faithful adaptation of the book, but the film is the one that works best for an audience that discovers the story on screen. It's an updated version of the story, but not one that's altered out of reluctance to make a compelling argument for young people by being edgy or different. The changes come from a desire to enrich the book's strengths, and allow Dunham to pursue her own path and audience.
Catherine Called Birdy is now available in theaters, and it will be available on Prime Video starting October 7.
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