Cambridge film-lovers were the first in Britain to see the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel The Butterfly Tattoo. The screening, which was part of the Cambridge Film Festival, was followed by a question and answer session with director Phil Hawkins and stars Jessica Blake (Jenny), Duncan Stuart (Chris) and Christopher Dane (Fletcher).
There was unfortunately little time to quiz the director and actors, as the cinema was needed for another film, but the lively audience managed to get in a few questions. Hawkins spoke of his nervousness in adapting Pullman’s work, but said that Pullman, who was ‘very involved’ with the adaptation, put his mind at rest.
‘I asked Philip if he was worried about us changing his book, but he said, “No one’s changed my book. It’s on the shelf right there,”‘ Hawkins said.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers did feel some aspects of the book would have to be changed in the transition to screen, most significantly the technology. It’s an important plot point that Jenny and Chris, the two main characters, lose contact with one another for several days. In the book, which was published in 1992, ‘the height of technology was answering machines’, Hawkins said. In the 21st century, it’s much harder for people to remain out of contact without losing their mobile phones.
Hawkins also felt that Pullman’s novel had a naivete about it that he tried to remove in the film.
‘The essences of the characters are the same, but it needed to grow up, needed to be a bit darker,’ he said.
The young stars of the movie were unknown actors (‘fresh out of university’, as Jessica Blake put it) and spoke of the difficulties they had in bringing their characters to life. Duncan Stuart found it hard to get into the mind of Chris, as his character experienced things he himself had never experienced. Blake struggled to perform when scenes were being shot outside, and traded a humorous anecdote of filming a party scene surrounded by drunken Oxford University students.
And what of the film itself? Well, Pullman fans have nothing to worry about: it sticks close to the essence and tone of the book, if not always the plot. Like many of Pullman’s works, The Butterfly Tattoo is set in Oxford, and the film lovingly captures the sights and character of that city. The filmmakers made a point of using unsigned bands from the Oxford area in the soundtrack, which further reinforces the Oxford flavour.
Keen-eyed Pullman fans will spot a couple of meta-references to Pullman’s works. When Jenny calls Chris from a payphone, there’s an ad for a fortune-teller named Lyra stuck up on the wall of the telephone box, while Jenny herself picks up a copy of a book called The White Mercedes (the original title of The Butterfly Tattoo).
And we can rest easy.
‘Philip’s happy with the film,’ Hawkins said. ‘He’s seen it several times.’
The Butterfly Tattoo will be screening again on Monday, 21 September at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse cinema at 11am, and will be released in the UK on 25 September.