Lena Dunham's 'Catherine, Called Birdy' Film Must Get These 6 Things Right
If you haven't heard, the book news of the week is that Lena Dunham is trying to adapt Karen Cushman's Catherine, Called Birdy . And while some have thought this is a surprising move for Dunham, even though it's a medieval middle grade novel, I know that the subject matter and themes are right up her alley.
Catherine, Called Birdy, it's no secret, is one of my absolute favorite books from childhood. It tells the story of Catherine, a 12-year-old girl who is being forced into an arranged marriage by her father. The parade of suitors comes to her door, but Catherine isn't giving up the fight to choose her own path, and she quickly uses her wit and killer pranks to send each and every one running.
Dunham has said that she's still looking for someone to fund "a PG-13 medieval movie," but if Hollywood has any heart, they'll give the feminist writer/actress/creator a chance to add her chops to the beloved story. If and when it does come to the big screen, there are things Dunham absolutely must get right, and luckily, I trust she will.
Now, who is starting the Kickstarter?
1. The Opening Line
The first line of Catherine, Called Birdy is so pitch perfect I still use it all the time around the holidays when family starts to pour in from all corners of the Earth. It perfectly encapsulates Catherine's character right off the bat, which is no easy feat for authors. Well done, Cushman.
I am commanded to write an account of my days. I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.
Dear screenwriter: Make this happen.
2. Catherine Herself Isn't Your Ordinary Protagonist
Catherine is a troublemaker. She curses, and loves it. She teases the younger children, she plays pranks, and is about as feisty a young woman as could possibly live in the Middle Ages. And this is why we loved her. She wasn't your cute little girl, all sugar-coated and Disney-fied. This is absolutely crucial to nail in the movie adaptation. But thankfully, based on Dunham's history of drawing complicated, anti-heroine heroines — in fact, this "unlikability" is what bothers a lot of people about Girls — that I trust she's not going to give us a mini-princess who sings to birds and has animal friends.
Especially because those animals would probably be fleas in Catherine's case.
But part of perfecting Catherine from page to screen is casting. And now that I've thought of who I want for Catherine, I can't accept anyone else. Because this is Hollywood, they likely can't actually cast a 12-year-old, but they can ensure it's a young actress. And this actress has proven to be tough, feisty, funny, and beautiful all rolled into one.
Who else but Arya Stark — Maisie Williams?
Can't you just picture her in this montage scene?
Today I chased a rat about the hall with broom and set the broom afire, ruined by embroidery, threw it in the privy, ate too much for dinner, hid in the barn and sulked, teased the littlest kitchen boy until he cried, turned hte mattresses, took the linen out for airing, hid from Morwenna and her endless chores, ate supper, brought in the forgotten linen now wet with dew, endured scolding and slapping from Morwenna, pinched Perkin, and went to bed.
Or in this one, turning off a potential husband:
I rubbed my nose until it shone red, blacked out my front teeth with soot, and dressed my hair with the mouse bones I found under the rushes in the hall. All through dinner ... I smiled my gap-tooth smile at him and wiggled my ears.
More importantly, there's no way Maisie would settle for marrying Shaggy Beard without putting up a fight.
3. So Many Pranks
This novel has inspired many a prank war in my life. We're going to need elaborate, hilarious pranks pulled right from the book and even some new Dunham-inspired ideas to fight off all these yucky old man suitors.
4. This Is The Middle Ages After All
Cushman was committed to not glossing over all of the hygienic issues of the era, and so should the movie. Luckily, we already know that Maisie can pull off dirty like a pro from her time on Game of Thrones.
But I want to see characters swatting fleas left and right. I want to see rats scooting around in the background. No one should have Hollywood pearly whites.
5. Come On Lena, Don't Do This To Us
Spoiler: There isn't some charming, clean-cut prince to save Catherine from the disgusting old men she is betrothed to wed. There isn't a boy next door she has always loved. There isn't some mysterious stranger who she keeps running into. Please, don't give Catherine a love interest to "save" her. Because as we all know, Catherine doesn't need him.
The far more important and resonant message of the story is not that love will save us. It's one that teenagers, especially women, will still relate to today: to find a way to make your voice heard among all of these forces that want to shut it down.
6. Just Because It's Hollywood Doesn't Mean It Needs A Hollywood Ending
Related to the last point is that no, Catherine doesn't magically escape her circumstances like Cinderella at the ball. Her father doesn't finally realize, Hey, maybe I shouldn't keep trying to marry off my pre-teen to disgusting old men. But that's not the point. The point is Catherine never gives up or loses her spirit.
She does grow up along the way, but she doesn't acquiesce. She still fights for what she believes in — women's rights, herself, living the life she wants — and she's still searching for a way to find happiness for her present and future.
It's a happy ending in its own right. It doesn't need a big fat bow tied around it.
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