Swallows and Amazons

Sail, camp, build boats and dream

A new film based on the much-loved novel Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome is set to introduce the current generation of children to the simple pleasures of those growing up in 1930, when the novel was written.

The film, adapted by WGGB member and Film Co-Chair Andrea Gibb, follows four children who dream of escaping the tedium of a summer holiday with their mother. When given permission to camp on their own on an island in the middle of a lake, they are overjoyed, but they soon discover they may not be alone.

Due for release in UK cinemas on 19 August 2016, the film is set against the backdrop of the Lake District. It is directed by Philippa Lowthorpe and stars Andrew Scott, Rafe Spall, Kelly Macdonald, Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield. An earlier film adaption of the book was released in 1974.

We caught up with Andrea Gibb to find out more.

How did you get involved in this project, and when did you start work on the script?

I was approached by the producer, Nick Barton, late in 2007 to see if I was interested in adapting the book. Nick wanted a writer who could get inside the mind of the child and he’d seen my film Dear Frankie and liked it. One of the main characters in Frankie was a 10-year-old boy and we’re in his head for a great deal of the film. It took a year or so after that to finalise the rights to the book so I didn’t start writing the first draft until 2009.

Was Swallows and Amazons something you had read as a child, and if so how did that affect the process?

I hadn’t read it but I obviously knew about it. I read it for the first time when Nick sent it to me so this meant I didn’t have a nostalgic view of it but was coming to it fresh. By the same token, it also meant I was reading it with an adult’s eye so it was crucial to remember that it was written for children and about children. It was very important to all of us, throughout the process, that the children in the film owned the world. They are the dominant point of view.

What are the key considerations for the screenwriter when working on an adaptation?

I’m sure every writer has a different approach. Take William Goldman for example. He uses a highlighter pen when he first reads the book and marks the events or characters that jump out at him. He does this several more times with different coloured pens. The passages that are highlighted in every single colour are the ones that make it into his screenplay. I keep two notebooks. One has details of scenes, characters and dialogue from the book that I feel are essential. The other is more stream of consciousness; images, colours, music that jump into my head when I’m reading and re-reading.

I try to trust my first instincts when I’m considering adapting a book. Do I love it enough to spend the next five years with it in my head? Even if this is the case, do I have a sense of how I would tell it visually? Is there a compelling story? Or does it need to be changed too much? Do I feel a real connection with the central character? I’m now much better at turning down projects that I might love but can’t see a way to adapt. I once convinced myself I could adapt a book because I connected so strongly with the photograph on the front cover. I thought I knew how to do it. I didn’t.

I then ask myself a series of questions. What are the scenes and events in the book that are dramatically essential or iconic? What are the novelist’s main themes and preoccupations? (The essence of the story, if you like.) How do the characters relate to each other and the world they inhabit? What drives the story? What is the overriding tone and how does this dictate style? The same things you’d ask of any screenplay.

Were you influenced by the earlier film adaptation (in 1974) and TV series (in 1963)?

I didn’t watch either of the earlier versions on purpose as I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by what had come before. I wanted it to feel fresh. But that doesn’t take anything away from any previous incarnations. I like to think of our film as a companion piece to them.

How did you deal with the challenge of making a 1930s classic relevant to a modern audience?

The main thing we wanted to preserve was the notion of freedom and the spirit of adventure that imbues the book. Ransome’s children inhabit a world where imagination and play are encouraged and applauded. It’s a lovely gentle tale. However, children today are more used to faster paced stories with lots of visual effects and CGI. We wanted to maintain the classic style of storytelling while upping the stakes and jeopardy. We hope it’s an exciting adventure story that still retains the charm of the book.

The original Swallows and Amazons book became a series. Any plans for further films?

Let’s see how this one goes!

How long – from development to screen – did the project take? Can you outline your involvement in the different phases, including on location?

It took about eight years from script to screen but that wasn’t continuous. Like many films there are pauses or changes of direction. Development is not always linear. I’ve been involved from day one and am delighted to say I have an excellent working relationship with Philippa (Lowthorpe, director) and the producers, Nick Barton and Joe Oppenheimer. This has been a proper collaboration and I’ve been included at every stage. I was in rehearsals, on set and consulted throughout post-production. It’s been fantastic. This should be the norm.

How did you find working with children and how did they respond to your script?

The kids were great. They are almost all first time actors and took to it like ducks to water. Pardon the analogy. They are very natural and spontaneous. They got right inside their characters and really owned them. They even learnt to sail.

How closely does the script follow the original book and are you able to comment on the character Titty being renamed Tatty?

There are differences, inevitably, but the central heart of the book remains. This is still a story about children being given responsibility, using their imagination and going on an adventure. Where we did make changes, we tried to keep them organic to the original story and authentic to Ransome’s life. We did all of this in consultation with the Arthur Ransome Trust who control the author’s estate. The same goes for the name change. This was not done lightly but after a great deal of discussion and consideration. Once again, we went back to the source. Ransome’s character was inspired by a little girl nicknamed Titty after a poem about Titty and Tatty Mouse. We just chose the other mouse.

Christine Langan, Head of BBC Films (which produced the film), has said Ransome’s book presented a world far from today’s health and safety obsessed society and that the film was “timely” because there “is a sense of freedom in the book and a sense of innocence that people perhaps miss.” Do you agree with that?”

I do. Ransome’s book inspired generations of children to sail, camp, build boats and dream. If our film can inspire a new group of children to take up sailing or to put down their phones and their iPads and go outside and build a den or look at the stars then that would be great.

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

I have several more book adaptations in the pipeline: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson for television. I’m also writing two original dramas for the BBC and an episode of Call the Midwife.

You are a long term member of WGGB, and are also the Co-Chair of the Film Committee. Why do you think the union is important for screenwriters, and why should people join?

Writing can be a very lonely business and joining a union is a great way of connecting with other writers and supporting each other. The WGGB does a fantastic job of fighting for writers and their rights. It really is the case that together we are stronger.

Watch the trailer of Swallows and Amazons: