Lena Dunham Explains Why She Changed the ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ Ending

The birds take flight in more ways than one

Andrew Scott and Bella Ramsey in "Catherine Called Birdy" (2022)

Note: The following contains spoilers for Catherine Called Birdy.

Director Lena Dunham described Karen Cushman’s “Catherine Called Birdy” as a work ingrained in her DNA with a world easy to bring to the screen and populate, but she did want to give the story a more hopeful ending.

Dunham’s film follows Cushman’s story pretty closely, which focuses on young Lady Catherine, who goes by Birdy (Bella Ramsey), daughter of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper). Birdy’s impending arranged marriage to some random stranger drives the film’s plot, as she does everything humanly possible to turn off her suitors. 

“The last act shifts pretty significantly from the book, and that just had to do with a real desire to be able to leave Birdy’s character in a better place than we found her,” Dunham said in a recent interview with TheWrap. “The book has a beautiful ending, but an ending that’s slightly somber and quite realistic. Our ending has realism to it also. That came out of the dynamic between Birdy and her father that we built a bit differently than the one in the book.”

In Cushman’s book, Birdy ultimately escapes her last suitor who she calls Shaggy Beard, because he dies, but his son marries her in place of the older, gross man. Birdy is happy at the end of the book because she feels she will get along better with the son. The film ends with Birdy’s escape from Shaggy Beard as well, but not because he dies. Her father Lord Rollo, who originally ‘sells’ her to Shaggy Beard, tracks down his carriage and fights Shaggy Beard to win Birdy back.

Birdy dutifully records these events of her life in a journal, asked by her monk brother Edward (Archie Renaux) to do so in the hope that she would mature and become more learned

“In terms of how she matured, something that is in the book that we tried to bring out more [was] this idea of her starting to understand that other people [around her] are in pain,” Dunham said. “Birdy starting to realize that everybody around her is also trapped in their own sort of proverbial cage and experiencing their own challenges with the society that they live in was a really beautiful thing to watch Bella play.”

Several scenes in the film point towards Birdy’s growing awareness, like when she makes a very big sacrifice by giving Shaggy Beard’s silver to her brother Robert so that Robert can marry Birdy’s best friend Aelis (Isis Hainsworth). To spend Shaggy Beard’s money means that Birdy commits to marrying him, even though she does not want to.

“She definitely learns that she has to be her own hero. She realizes that she maybe can’t control the things that she would like to control,” Ramsey added. “There are other things in her situation that she can control so to focus on them and to just  be free in ways that she can be free.”

One thing Birdy can control at the end of the film is the fate of her pet birds. She releases them in her newfound freedom, closing the film out in a more hopeful way than the book does.

“That is like symbolic in a way of her just letting go of— it’s like letting the birds be free which is all that she wants to be and realizes that she she can be within the constraints of her time and the constraints around her — she can create her own freedom,” Ramsey said of that specific scene.

Dunham shared some bonus information about Ramsey’s relationship with the birds they used on set.

“[Birdy’s] not the only person trapped in her own sort of cage in a way. She’s been granted this moment of freedom and suddenly she doesn’t want to see anything else around her caged,” Dunham said. “I love that moment because just some trivia for you: The bird wrangler was really worried about how [his pigeons] would respond to Bella and she was pigeon whisperer. I feel like they knew that Bella was like an animal loving vegan because they just relaxed in her hands. One of them literally started rubbing his head on her face.”

“Catherine Called Birdy” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video October 7.