It’s hard to find anything in pop culture that most people agree on, but at least there’s one broad statement about media that rarely starts arguments: It’s widely agreed that a book is usually better than a movie or show adapted from it, no matter how faithful or artistic the adaptation might be. What no one seems to agree on is whether it’s better for an adaptation to faithfully follow the book or chart its own course. Still, some screen interpretations of a book seem to be universally despised for what they alter. Take the most recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which gives the novel an egregious modern update, turning Anne Elliot from a somber, sensible woman into a snippy, sarcastic one.
So to fans of Karen Cushman’s Newbery Honor-winning historical novel Catherine, Called Birdy, it may seem odd that writer-director Lena Dunham changed the book’s ending for the screen in favor of something more modern. It may be even odder to say that this time, the changed ending actually improves the plot. Sometimes, books aren’t cinematic enough to play well on screen, and Dunham and her team understand that, so they updated Cushman’s story to make it more cohesive and compelling as a movie. With Game of Thrones’ Bella Ramsey leading the cast, Catherine Called Birdy is the rare book-to-film adaptation that makes some huge 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 bleak. Catherine, Called Birdy is the Middle Ages diary of 14-year-old Catherine, the only daughter of an English lord. The book starts off as merely an account of her days, until her father decides to marry her off. Then she spends her time evading suitors, before becoming engaged to a wealthy man who’s much older than her — old enough to have adult children. She runs away from home to seek sanctuary with her newly married uncle, but she ultimately accepts her fate, resolving to never lose her sense of self, even as she’s being married off. Luckily for her, her would-be suitor dies in an accident, and Catherine ends up betrothed to his far more age-appropriate son instead. For the time period, it counts as a win!
For young readers, Catherine, Called Birdy is similar to the Dear America or American Girl books — yes, there’s an engaging narrative, but also, the book is chock-full of details about a specific time period, and may just kickstart a fascination with history. Catherine’s diary entries not only showcase her spunky, strong-willed, humorous voice, but also the day-to-day life of a medieval noblewoman, from humdrum chores to more exciting festivals.
The mundane aspects of Catherine’s life in the book are fascinating, especially to the target audience of middle-grade readers, who may not have exposure to real history from this time period. When Catherine talks about spinning fabric, keeping birds, and attending village festivities, or gives her thoughts on the way various saints were martyred, it’s all part of her daily life. But for modern readers, it’s a peek into a way of life that’s long gone and curiously unfamiliar.
The problem is that, while the daily chores of a 14-year-old in the Middle Ages make for an interesting read, they don’t make for a particularly interesting film. So much of the book’s charm comes from Catherine’s plucky voice, and while the movie’s voice-over does capture some of it, the film can’t tell a story via voice-over alone. It needs a more concrete throughline. So Dunham’s script makes Catherine’s impending betrothal a more central plot point earlier on.
The biggest change in the movie is that Catherine’s family is far more sympathetic than their book counterparts, especially since film as a medium naturally exits a limited first-person perspective.
It’s a tactic embraced by Netflix’s adaptation of Shadow and Bone, with a whole episode that leaves behind protagonist Alina to focus on her best friend, tracker Mal (Archie Renaux, who incidentally plays Catherine’s monk brother Edward in Catherine Called 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 in the show, Mal’s side of the story is fleshed out, and some of his dialogue and actions read as less aggressive than Alina perceived. He becomes a more compelling character, and their relationship turns from what feels like a one-sided crush into beautiful mutual pining.
In Catherine Called Birdy, much of Catherine’s family’s actions are still framed through her narration and point of view. But that also offers some wonderful irony, because when Catherine says one thing, the audience can see what her parents, brothers, and the 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 loves his family and wants what’s best for them, in spite of his mistakes in overspending and mismanaging their estate.
Catherine can’t see the conversation he has with his advisor about marrying her off, as she only eavesdrops through the door. But the audience can, and they can see Rollo’s pained face as he realizes the only solution to the family’s financial struggles is to arrange a marriage for his only daughter. Dunham chose to make Catherine’s family more complex to the viewers, but that means the original ending of them being totally OK with her impending arranged marriage would be unsatisfying, and veer them back in an unsympathetic direction. So that changes as well. While the film’s ending is definitely more modern than what would be expected in the Middle Ages, it also feels more narratively satisfying. Catherine’s fate isn’t left to chance, and her family’s involvement seems plausible, given how Dunham threads it into their earlier actions.
For book purists, it might be strange to hear that a changed ending actually improves the story. But in some cases, changing a book’s themes or clearing up its ambiguities creates something different that still keeps the book’s general feeling, but can stand on its own. The Series of Unfortunate Events television series, for instance, answered a question in the series finale that author Daniel Handler left open for years. While Handler continued to build out the Snicketverse with spinoffs and guidebooks, a television series is more finite, and closure is more satisfying than deliberate vagueness.
Dunham chose a similar path with Catherine Called Birdy. It isn’t a faithful adaptation of the book, but it’s the adaptation that works best for an audience discovering this story on screen. Catherine Called Birdy the movie tells a tighter story than the book’s delightful diary entries tell, and it needed a conclusion with more finality than a journal that simply runs out of pages. It’s an updated version of the story, but not updated out of cowardice over a tragic ending, or a “How do you do, fellow kids” misplaced attempt to appeal to young people by being “edgy” or “different.” Instead, the changes come from a desire to augment the best parts of the book. Catherine’s sharp narration and the insight into her daily Middle Ages life, juxtaposed with a more narratively cohesive conclusion, make the film stronger, and let Dunham seek her own path and audience.
Catherine Called Birdy is out in theaters now, and will stream on Prime Video starting Oct. 7.