Medieval mishaps and smarmy suitors are afoot in the upcoming film adaptation of Catherine Called Birdy, based on the 1994 Newbery Honor-winning novel by Karen Cushman. The movie is set for a limited release on September 23 by Amazon Studios, before being available to stream on Prime Video on October 7.
The film is written and directed by Lena Dunham (Girls; Tiny Furniture); produced by Tim Bevan (Les Misérables), Eric Fellner (Emma.), and Jo Wallett (Emma.); executive produced by Liz Watson (Industry) and Michael P. Cohen (Generation); and stars Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) as the titular character, Lady Catherine “Birdy,” Andrew Scott (Sir Rollo, Sherlock), Billie Piper (Lady Aislinn, I Hate Suzie), Joe Alwyn (Uncle George, The Favorite), Dean-Charles Chapman (Robert, Game of Thrones), newcomer Michael Woolfitt (Perkin), Rita Bernard-Shaw (Meg, Eternal Beauty) and Ralph Ineson (Golden Tiger, The Witch).
Fourteen-year-old Lady Catherine “Birdy” (Ramsey) dreams of a life of countless adventures like her Uncle George (Alwyn), who has joined the crusades. In exchange for skipping tasks meant for young ladies, Birdy’s mother (Piper) insists that Birdy must keep a diary that chronicles her daily life and complaints. When Birdy discovers her father (Scott) intends to marry her off to the wealthiest suitor to resolve his debts, she decides to try and thwart every single suitor with the help of her friends, goatherd Perkin (Woolfitt) and the servant girl Meg (Bernard-Shaw).
The book had previously been optioned in 1996 and the option renewed several times until 2004. It wasn’t until early 2012, that Holly Frederick, a film and TV agent at Curtis Brown, forwarded Cushman a letter from Dunham that began: “Dear Ms. Cushman... My name is Lena Dunham. I’m a writer and filmmaker living in New York City... I would be very honored by the opportunity to bring Birdy’s story to life in a new medium.”
Cushman told PW she was “gobsmacked” and “overwhelmed” on receiving the letter, having previously seen Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture, and was “game” to have the same person adapt Birdy. “Lena said she’d been wanting to make the book into a movie since she was eight,” Cushman said. “And over the ensuing years, she has made it happen.”
Filming the movie proved to be a challenge. The initial stages of filming began in early 2020, but had to be suspended because of Covid. Cushman, along with her husband and daughter, had been scheduled to fly to England to watch the filming. Unfortunately, Covid struck before they could get there. “When filming began again [in 2021], the set was closed so we never did get to visit,” Cushman recalled. “It’s probably better that way. I might have gone all fangirl. Andrew Scott! Joe Alwyn! I did get to see lots of photos of the actors in costume on the set, so it made the movie a little more real for me.”
Cushman was still lightly involved behind the scenes, but said she never wanted to write the script. “Lena sent me a very early script of the movie, and I made some comments, which she considered carefully,” Cushman said. “The final script is delightful, and the finished product is, as I keep telling myself, my book but her movie.” Even before the book was optioned, Cushman had a dream Birdy in mind. “When the book was first published in 1994, I imagined Anna Paquin as Birdy. A few years went by and Anna grew up, so my dream Birdy became Jena Malone, who was Lucy Whipple in The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. She, too, aged out and I started imagining her as Birdy’s mother. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones and didn’t know Bella Ramsay, but she’s a perfect Birdy. I had no ideas for the rest of the cast but having seen the movie, I’d say Lena could not have assembled a better cast.”
Unfortunately, not every scene can transfer from page to screen. Scenes with Birdy and the dancing bear at the fair didn’t make it into the movie. But fans of the book can look forward to a certain scene involving Birdy’s mother in childbirth. “As I was writing the scene [in the book], I loved that Birdy’s mean and gross father showed a different side, a strength and love that pulls her mother through,” Cushman said. “And I thought Andrew Scott made the scene even richer and more touching.”
Cushman is currently busy promoting her latest book War and Millie McGonigle, which is set in in San Diego in 1941. And another book is in the works, Sally O’Malley Discovers the Sea, about a girl on her own in Oregon in 1894.
Cushman hopes audiences are able to relate to Birdy in the way she is determined to have her own future, even while struggling with forces outside of herself—such as accepting societal and family expectations and learning to live with compromise—that ultimately contribute to shaping her identity. “I want them to see the character fighting for what she wants and values,” Cushman said. “Despite circumstances, who we are is something no one can take away from us.”