In 2003, English newspaper The Guardian polled the public on its favorite British novels. Out of 100 titles, Katherine by Anya Seton was 95. Katherine refers to Katherine Swynford, mistress and later, remarkably, wife of John of Gaunt, the 14th century English monarch, younger brother of The Black Prince, uncle to King Richard II, and failed aspirant to the Castilian throne. Through their four children, Katherine and John are the progenitors of the Tudor, Lancaster and York royal lines. Katherine would survive two bouts of plague, the 100 Years’ War with France, and Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt. She was nanny to the future King Henry IV and sister-in-law to The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer. She spent her girlhood dependent upon the charity of others, but would die the widow of one of the most powerful men in England, and so the world. She is among the more remarkable women history has ever known, and though the latter may have failed to record her as comprehensively as others of lesser achievements, Seton’s imaginative novel yet manages a dynamic portrait.
All of which begs the question: Why hasn’t Katherine been made into a film?
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the novel’s publication. The occasion provides us with a timely excuse to call for a modern, cinematic commemoration. Much has been written about the lack of wide-release quality films for women, though the success of movies like Maleficent, which has earned over $500 million worldwide and surpassed blockbusters Godzilla and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 domestically, testifies to the earning potential of such films. Thematically, female leads in action films The Hunger Games and Divergent reflect our growing acceptance of strength as a feminine ideal, while the question of what it means to be a feminist has been much in the news. (Divergent star Shailene Woodley recently told Time magazine she does not consider herself a feminist because she likes men and has no desire to place herself above them, for instance. More tragically, the events of May’s Isla Vista shooting inspired the Twitter phenomenon #YesAllWomen, in which women shared their experiences with commonplace and extreme misogyny.) In other words, both the marketplace that traffics in dollars and cents, and the culture that traffics in trends, seem ripe for an entrant of Katherine’s make.
This “make” is comprised of three elements: The first and most important, a compelling protagonist; the second, conflict of a romantic and action-packed nature; and the third, a sweeping historical landscape that is at once escapist for being temporally remote, and resonant for touching upon issues – populist uprisings, the paradoxical nature of womanhood, even Freudian psychology – with modern parallels.
On the basis of the story itself, there’s hardly a reason not to adapt Katherine into a major release. One could argue the span of time covered within the novel, several decades, is too large to adequately depict in two hours. This would indeed be a valid argument if the book were less episodic. Happily, there are several major dramatic events, from the suspicious death of Katherine’s first husband, to Katherine and John’s early courtship, to (our pick) the Peasant’s Revolt and Katherine’s subsequent journey of atonement, which could each sustain a feature in its own right.
So if we are to accept Katherine’s cinematic viability, there’s fun to be had in compiling a wish-list of players. We would suggest the following:
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Known for war films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, Bigelow may seem an odd choice. Jane Campion, maybe, or Joe Wright, with their backgrounds in literary fare (Campion’s take on poet John Keats in Bright Star, Wright’s adaptations of Atonement and Anna Karenina), penchant for love stories, and lush visual styles, might seem better suited to a period romance of Katherine’s design. But we love the idea of bringing a gritty style to bear upon material already rife with sentiment. Imbuing the Peasant’s Revolt with the kind of tension and realism for which Bigelow is known, for instance, would make the story’s romantic elements seem that much more earned, heightening as it would our understanding of the stakes, and therefore more romantic than the softest atmospherics. We believe under Bigelow, the politics of the period would get their just due, to the dynamic benefit of the romance plot. Not to mention, she’s probably a good safeguard against a kind of The Other Boleyn Girl misstep.
Katherine: Jessica Brown Findlay, or an unknown
Findlay certainly has the right look for Katherine, a woman renowned for her beauty. Any hesitation stems from the “Downtown Abbey” star’s roles to date. We may have seen her act defiantly as Lady Sybil Crawley in “Abbey,” choosing to marry the family chauffeur over a fellow aristocrat, but never yet steely, or, better yet, intermittently unlikable. Findlay may look just right, but she seems more the gentler Katherine circa the first half of the novel, rather than the complex woman of the second. There might yet be an unknown actress who embodies both.
John of Gaunt as portrayed in Seton’s novel is a Mr. Darcy figure: Many mistake his serious public demeanor for arrogance, but he inspires devotion in those who know him best, and of course, removes his hard shell for Katherine. McAvoy’s ability to convey a range of emotions, particularly tortured (see: X-Men: Days of Future Past, Atonement) in a manner suggestive of, but that does not overly emote, inner struggle, makes the actor well-suited to the role of a proud monarch with unresolved childhood fears. It’s about time the Scottish McAvoy played a royal.
Screenwriter: Abi Morgan
Morgan would seem a nice complement to the politically minded Bigelow. The writer’s diverse credits include Shame, The Iron Lady, The Invisible Woman, the upcoming Suffragette, and the dearly departed BBC TV newsroom series, “The Hour.” Her women are strong as well as flawed, and her projects character-driven but not myopically so, featuring people who interact with their social, political and historical contexts. Her previous works testify to her ability to write romances, political pieces, period films, female protagonists and men with serious psychological hangups. She’s the lynchpin in our dream construction.