It’s hard to find something in pop culture that most people would agree with, but at least there’s one general statement about media that rarely causes argument: There’s broad agreement that a book is usually better than a movie or a story show adapted from it, no matter how faithful or artistic the adaptation might be. No one seems to agree on whether it’s better for an adaptation to faithfully follow the book or go its own way. Still, some screen interpretations of a book seem to be universally despised for what they change. Take the latest adaptation by Jane Austen convictionwhich gives the novel a tremendously modern update and transforms Anne Elliot from a somber, sensible woman into a snarky, sarcastic one.
So to the fans of Karen Cushman’s Newbery Honor-winning historical novel Catherine, called Birdy, it might seem odd that writer-director Lena Dunham changed the book’s ending for the big screen in favor of something more modern. It might be even stranger to say that this time the changed ending actually improves the plot. Sometimes books aren’t cinematic enough to play well on screen, and so is Dunham and her team understand, so they updated Cushman’s story to make it more cohesive and compelling as a film. With game of Thrones‘Bella Ramsey leads the cast, Catherine named Birdy is the rare book-to-movie adaptation that’s making some big changes for the better.
[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.]
Cushman’s 1994 novel is pretty dark. Catherine, called Birdy is the medieval diary of 14-year-old Catherine, the only daughter of an English lord. The book begins with just an account of her days until her father decides to marry her off. She then spends her time avoiding suitors before getting engaged to a wealthy man who is much older than her – old enough to have grown children. She runs away from home to take refuge with her newlywed uncle, but eventually she accepts her fate and decides never to lose her self-confidence even if she gets married. Luckily for her, her potential suitor dies in an accident and Catherine is instead engaged to his much more age-appropriate son. It counts as a win for the period!
for young readers, Catherine, called Birdy resembles the books “Dear America” or “American Girl” – yes, there is an engaging narrative, but Also, the book is brimming with details about a period of time and can inspire a fascination with history. Catherine’s diary entries not only show her spunky, strong-willed, humorous voice, but also the everyday life of a medieval noblewoman, from boring household chores to more exciting celebrations.
The day-to-day aspects of Catherine’s life in the book are fascinating, especially for an intermediate-level audience who may not have been exposed to the real-life story of the period. When Catherine talks about spinning cloth, keeping birds, attending village festivals, or recounting the way various saints were martyred, it is all part of her daily life. But for modern readers, it’s a glimpse into a way of life long gone and strangely unfamiliar.
Trouble is, while the daily chores of a 14-year-old in the Middle Ages make for interesting reading, they don’t make for a particularly interesting movie. Much of the book’s charm comes from Catherine’s plucky voice, and while the film’s voiceover captures some of that, the film can’t tell a story through the voiceover alone. It needs a more concrete line. Thus, Dunham’s script makes Catherine’s upcoming engagement a more central plot point earlier.
The biggest change in film is that Catherine’s family is far more sympathetic than her book counterparts, especially as film as a medium naturally departs from a limited first-person perspective.
It’s a tactic adopted by Netflix’s adaptation of shadow and bonewith an entire episode that leaves protagonist Alina to focus on her best friend, the tracker Mal (Archie Renaux, who incidentally plays Catherine’s monk brother Edward Catherine named Birdy). One of the biggest criticisms of Mal in the books is that he comes off as jealous and controlling, but a lot of that comes from the book’s first-person perspective, filtered through Alina and her insecurities. But on the show, Mal’s side of the story is fleshed out, and some of his dialogue and actions read as less aggressive than Alina realized. He becomes a more compelling character, and their relationship turns from a one-sided crush to a beautiful mutual longing.
in the Catherine named Birdy, many of Catherine’s family’s actions are still framed by her narrative and point of view. But it also offers a wonderful irony, because when Catherine says something, the audience gets to see what her parents, brothers, and the other people in her life are actually doing. Her father in particular, Lord Rollo (the wonderful Andrew Scott), becomes less of a lazy glutton who squanders his family’s money and treats them like objects, and more of a complicated figure who loves his family while still wanting the best for his Errors in the squandering and mismanagement of her estate.
Catherine cannot see the conversation he is having with his counselor about marriage as she is only listening through the door. But the audience can, and can see Rollo’s pained face as he realizes the only solution to the family’s financial woes is to arrange a marriage for his only daughter. Dunham chose to make Catherine’s family more complex for viewers, but that means the original ending of them being totally okay with their forthcoming arranged marriage would be unsatisfactory and steer them back in an unsympathetic direction. So that is also changing. While the film’s ending is definitely more modern than one would expect in medieval times, it also feels more narratively satisfying. Catherine’s fate is not left to chance, and her family’s involvement seems plausible given how Dunham weaves it into her past plots.
It might be strange for book purists to hear that a changed ending actually improves the story. But in some cases, changing a book’s themes or clearing up its ambiguity creates something different that still preserves the general feel of the book but can stand on its own. That Series of unfortunate events TV series, for example, answered a question in the series finale that author Daniel Handler left unanswered for years. While Handler continued to build the Snicketverse with spinoffs and how-to guides, a television series is more finite and ending more satisfying than willful vagueness.
Dunham chose a similar path with Catherine named Birdy. It’s not a faithful adaptation of the book, but it’s the adaptation that works best for an audience discovering this story on screen. Catherine named Birdy The film tells a tighter story than the book’s delightful diary entries, and it needed an ending with more finality than a diary that just ran out of pages. It’s an updated version of the story, but not updated out of cowardice about a tragic ending or a “how are you fellow kids” attempt to appeal to young people by being “nervous” or “different.” Instead, the changes come from a desire to expand on the best parts of the book. Catherine’s sharp narrative and insight into her daily life in the Middle Ages, together with a more narratively coherent ending, strengthens the film and lets Dunham seek her own path and audience.
Catherine named Birdy is in theaters now and streaming on Prime Video starting October 7th.