In this guest editorial screenwriter Andrea Gibb takes us on her journey bringing the beloved book to the big screen.
I first got involved with ‘Swallows and Amazons’ in 2007. Nick Barton, one of the producers, had seen my film ‘Dear Frankie’ and liked it. That had a child at the centre and, as the most important characters in ‘Swallows’ are the kids, Nick felt I could write them for the screen.
I hadn’t read the book as a child but the minute he gave it to me, I fell in love. I was struck by its power as an evocation of childhood and by the simple truth of its message; children love to play, explore and imagine. It’s how they learn about responsibility, loyalty and friendship and it’s our duty as adults to help them do this.
Captain Flint and Mother do this brilliantly in the book. They’re the best of adults because they can still play. The trouble arises when Captain Flint stops playing with the Amazons and removes himself back into the adult world.
Even though the book was written over eighty years ago and portrays a very different time from the present day I agreed to adapt it because it still has something important to say about freedom and our relationship with the natural world. Especially in this age of technology and helicopter parenting. The Swallows and Amazons are no different to kids today who dream of having a great adventure. Who wouldn’t want to sail to an undiscovered island, set up camp and have a pretend war with two mysterious girls? If Ransome’s story could inspire 21st century kids to get off their screens and go outside more then that would be a good thing. We also hoped it would take them back to the book itself.
So I set off on my own great adventure. In the company of Ransome and his wonderful characters.
The process was a lengthy one. Most films take about six years to make it to the screen, ours was no exception. Being a screenwriter is not a job for the faint-hearted. You have to be resilient, tenacious, persistent, thick-skinned and open to other opinions. It’s not like being a novelist. There’s constant input from the director, producer, executive producer, and financier. Some of this is invaluable. Some not so useful. But it’s crucial to consider it all then trust your instincts to apply it best to your script.
It’s inevitable in any development process that a script takes some unwanted detours. I’d reached a bit of a wall with mine when Philippa Lowthorpe (director) came on. We both shared a vision for the film and quickly formed a strong creative partnership. We spent many hours discussing the story, character, style and tone. I’d write, she’d read then ask questions or make suggestions. Together, we interrogated every scene then I’d go off and write again. It was the perfect way to work. I felt trusted, empowered to do my part of the job. She says her work benefited too because we were in each other’s heads throughout, working almost symbiotically.
Every different adaptation brings its own joys, its own problems. A book is not a film but a completely different beast. Cinema requires a different kind of story-telling, a different form of engagement. When we read a book, our own film plays in our heads. No film adaptation is likely to match that. Certain decisions need to be taken that may not please fans of the book but none of these are ever taken lightly.
The aim is always to stay true to the spirit of the original even if it means changing a plot strand or adding new elements. The job of the adaptor is to write the film.
First, it’s important to identify the essential scenes and iconic moments. The telegram from a father to his children: “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers won’t drown” is one of those and had to stay. As did so many other things; the war with the Amazons, the stones weighing down the tents, Captain Flint’s houseboat, the green parrot’s feathers on the Amazon’s arrows – and the beautiful little boats themselves.
Ransome’s children were also precious cargo. For me, they represented the different phases of growing up and there’s great variety in their personalities. We did, however, introduce more conflict into their family dynamics because it seems a more realistic representation of kids today. Like most siblings they fall out and make up constantly but their loyalty to one another is never in question. The fact our Swallows bicker a bit more doesn’t alter the strength of their family bond.
We also gave them more personal obstacles to overcome. Susan doesn’t start out as a great cook nor John a great Captain or Roger a great swimmer. They learn to be these things and triumph because of it. The hope is every child in the audience can identify with this.
Perhaps the most controversial thing we did was introduce the spy story to increase the jeopardy. We didn’t want to impose anything inauthentic so looked to Ransome for guidance. Our research revealed he’d been a spy in Russia, working for MI6. When he modeled Captain Flint on himself he wrote him as a slightly grumpy novelist as he obviously couldn’t make him a spy. But we could. So our Captain Flint, who is Arthur Ransome, becomes a spy. An organic progression that comes from the source itself. It felt like a gift from him to us.
What remains intact, we hope, is the fun, excitement and idyllic atmosphere that Swallows and Amazons gives us all. The beauty of the Lake District, the freedom of adventure and the innocent joy of children exploring together. Ransome’s book still exists in all its glory, to be picked up and read at any time. All we’ve done is offer another version. In the same way, our film was never intended to replace the wonderful 1974 film and is most definitely not a remake. I didn’t even watch it till after ours was finished as I wanted to ensure I was coming to the material fresh. Our version is just a companion piece – an addition to the canon.
For some screenwriters the film adventure ends when they hand in the shooting script. This is a pity. A writer’s involvement is not a threat but a crucial resource. I was re-writing on set throughout the shoot and was shown every cut. It’s been an invaluable experience which reminded me how fluid the screenplay is as a form. You have to be flexible and work with problems thrown up by weather and locations or even the actors.
It’s a shame when the writer is omitted from publicity material, not invited to festivals and rarely given the opportunity to talk about their own stories. It’s described as industry standard but it’s only standard if it’s allowed to be so. Present as a team and you’re received as a team. I was lucky enough to work with a director and producers who believe we all make the film together. We bring our individual talents to the party and are stronger for it.
Ultimately, the film should be the winner.
Our thanks to Andrea Gibb.