The new Swallows and Amazons film is released this week. Hazel Davis talks titties and taboos with the woman who brought Arthur Ransome’s much-loved novel to the screen.
Did you read Swallows and Amazons as a child? Was it a favourite?
Even though I was an avid reader, I had never read Swallows and Amazons. I’d heard of it but had just never got to it as a child. The fact I hadn’t read it meant I was not overburdened by a nostalgic memory of it. I came to it fresh but, at the same time, well aware of its importance and place in the hearts of so many people.
What do you like about the story?
I love that it is, in so many ways, a beautiful evocation of childhood. Arthur Ransome gets inside the heads of his children in a very real and authentic way. He somehow captures the child’s ability to play and imagine and to move from the imagined world to the real word, effortlessly, almost on a sixpence.
It feels truthful to children. I also love the sense of freedom that imbues the book. These children go off on an adventure, by themselves, across a lake, in a beautiful little boat. What could be better than that? It’s the childhood that so many wished or imagined they had.
Talk us through the controversy around Titty’s name [which was changed to Tatty for the film] and how you found a way around it.
Language evolves with time and the name has certain connotations now that it didn’t have when Ransome used it. It wasn’t an easy decision and we debated changing it long and hard. We also consulted with the Ransome Trust throughout.
The child who was the inspiration for the character in the book had adopted the name as a nickname herself. She borrowed it from a poem called Titty Mouse and Tatty Mouse. So, trying to stay true to the spirit of the original, we chose the name of the other mouse for our character.
I can completely understand why the name change might upset some fans of the book but her name in the book won’t alter. It’s there for all time.
How does the new version differ? Were there any elements that you were set on keeping?
There are certain events and places that are iconic to the book and its story and had to remain. For example, the telegram the Swallows receive from their dad giving permission to sail to the island, “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN”, the war with the Amazons, the two boats themselves, Captain Flint’s houseboat, night sailing, John being accused of something he didn’t do and the sense of injustice he felt as a result, Tatty’s ability to imagine and inspire her siblings with her stories. They were all crucial pegs in my adaptation.
“My mother seems to pop up in almost everything I write. I think she’s even present in Mrs Jackson in Swallows.”
But a novel is not a film. They are different beasts and we felt that more was needed to sustain a cinema audience. There had to be real peril and jeopardy but we didn’t want to impose elements that didn’t spring naturally from the book or Ransome himself. There’s a sub-plot in the book where robbers target Captain Flint and the contents of his houseboat. That happens in our film too but the robbers are spies.
While doing our research we discovered that Ransome had worked for MI6 as he travelled back and forth from Russia. He couldn’t write about that in his book so he created his alter ego (Jim Turner, aka Captain Flint) and made him a reclusive writer. Therefore it seemed a natural step to make our Captain Flint (aka Ransome) a spy. That’s the most obvious change to the story.
You don’t shy away from tricky subjects (Dear Frankie, Golden Wedding, AfterLife). Do you enjoy the challenge?
There’s an old maxim that people say to new screenwriters; write what you know. But what it seems to mean to me, is write who you know. My mother seems to pop up in almost everything I write. I think she’s even present in Mrs Jackson in Swallows.
My sister has Down’s Syndrome and their relationship was the inspiration for AfterLife. My father was abroad a lot when I was a child and I find absent fathers a recurring theme in most of my work, despite the fact he was a hugely positive influence on me. This is definitely present in Swallows and was one of the themes that resonated most with me.
How and where do you write?
Anywhere and everywhere. In the last two weeks I have written in airport boarding queues, on trains, in the back of taxis or at my desk in my pyjamas with a massive pot of tea. Deadlines sneak up on me – they are my nemesis. For me, the bulk of the writing happens before I put a word on the page. When the time comes it bursts out and I can write for hours on end to get it down.
At the beginning it is definitely the author’s. By the end I feel we both have a stake in it. Not all authors want to be involved, They sell their rights and leave you to it. I’m happy to be left to it but I also enjoy the collaboration.
The key is to blend. So there are no jarring inconsistencies between book and film. In that regard, having the author work alongside can be incredibly productive. Sadly, I couldn’t do that with Arthur Ransome.
Do you ever worry you’ll upset readers with adaptations?
Of course. Taking on any book is a huge responsibility. But my job is to serve both the book and the film audience. You have to be guided by what will make the best film. The book remains. It’s always there to be picked up and reread and enjoyed. Any film version is a companion piece.
Do you miss acting and how different is your life now?
I miss being around actors in the rehearsal room with the chat and the bonding.
Writing tends to be more solitary and it’s the director and producer who are your companions on the way. I love being part of a creative team. I work better bouncing off other people so it’s a joy to be there when the actors come on and filming starts.
This Swallows and Amazons is written and directed by women. Do ‘details’ like this matter to you?
It’s a happy coincidence but all four of my feature films have been directed by women. Sadly, that is not the norm. Fewer than 10 per cent of all features made in the US and UK last year were directed by women. Those statistics are shocking and it’s an imbalance that has to be addressed.
“In the last two weeks I have written in airport boarding queues, on trains, in the back of taxis or at my desk in my pyjamas with a massive pot of tea. Deadlines sneak up on me – they are my nemesis.”
The fact that Philippa Lowthorpe, our director, is the first woman to win a Bafta for her TV direction is a sad indictment of the industry.
I do think the fact both Philippa and I are women has informed the style and tone of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely not saying women are best suited to writing and directing family dramas – far from it – but they often don’t often get the chance to do other genres. It’s worth saying that we have some pretty thrilling action sequences and stunts in Swallows.
What projects have you got coming up?
I have some lovely projects on the go. I’m in the middle of adapting Emma Healey’s bestselling novel, Elizabeth Is Missing for STV and BBC. This is a bittersweet book about dementia, memory and loss. I’ve also got an original comedy drama series with BBC Scotland about the menopause (honestly, it is funny) and am working on a series about a group of women who married GIs and went to America in the pipeline.
As always, these are never definite until the camera turns over. You have to have quite a few eggs in your screenwriting basket and look forward to one hatching.
Swallows and Amazons is in cinemas on 19 August.
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Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".