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Catherine Called Birdy

MOVIE | Amazon’s book adaptation stuffs modern pieties into a children’s story set in medieval England


Alex Bailey/Amazon Content Services

<em>Catherine Called Birdy</em>
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Rated PG-13
➤ Prime Video

Amazon Studios’ new film Catherine Called Birdy adapts Karen Cushman’s 1994 Newbery Honor book of the same name. The story is set in medieval England, but from the opening scenes the filmmaker gives the movie a contemporary twist. And these changes definitely make this a case where the book is better than the movie.

Fourteen-year-old Catherine, who goes by the nickname Birdy, is the daughter of a minor nobleman in medieval England, but she finds the expectations placed upon a nobleman’s daughter hard to bear. She doesn’t consider her privileged position an honor, and she’s ill-suited to learning ladylike pursuits.

The film’s conflict arises from Birdy’s desire for freedom and her repugnance at the idea of marriage. Her spendthrift father hasn’t given Birdy much thought up to this point, but now that she’s getting older he sees an opportunity to get out from under his debts by arranging a profitable marriage for Birdy.

Karen Cushman’s classic novel entertains children while teaching them about life in medieval England. Amazon Studios’ adaptation fails at both these things.

In her author’s note, Cushman says the medieval world is very ­different from ours. It’s different in how people live, how they think, and what they value. Cushman researched the Middle Ages, and in the novel she tried to reflect the realities of medieval village life accurately.

Amazon Studios’ version of the story teaches viewers almost nothing about medieval England. Instead it goes out of its way to conform Cushman’s story to contemporary pieties. The film revels in its anachronisms. It has a folk-pop soundtrack. The cast includes white, black, and Asian actors. A gay character gets thrown in. And there’s no reverence for the Church, an institution that dominated medieval life.

I wasn’t surprised at these changes. Lena Dunham, most known for ­creating HBO’s comedy-­drama Girls, directed the movie and wrote the script. Dunham’s other work is ­feminist, licentious, and crude. The novel is for children, but many parents won’t appreciate the movie’s suggestive material, and a good bit of the movie is devoted to somewhat tasteless talk of menstruation.

The end of the story also gets a rewrite. In the book, Birdy comes to terms with her role in her family and her society. In Dunham’s movie, after 90 minutes of selfish behavior Birdy gains the freedom to become medieval England’s only individualist.

Catherine Called Birdy isn’t a movie for little girls who enjoyed the book. It’s a movie for adult women who feel liberated when they mistake autonomy, license, and crassness for maturity.


Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD's Arts and Culture Editor. He is a World Journalism Institute, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University graduate, and he teaches at Houston Baptist University. Collin resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.

@collingarbarino

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