Swallows and Amazons: A classic adventure for modern audiences

24 Aug 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

9 mins
Swallows and Amazons
Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons is a new adaptation of the beloved Arthur Ransome novel of the same name, about a group of British children embarking on a daring adventure whilst on the summer holiday of a lifetime in the Lake District. The previous film version, made in 1974, has long been one of Into Film's most popular titles, and we're confident that this new one will prove just as popular.

Since first being published in 1930, the novel has found its way onto the bookshelves of countless children around the world, occupying a space next to the likes of C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton and Edith Nesbit. It also appears on legendary Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyasaki's list of 50 Recommended Children's Books.

The story - inspired by the author's own experiences teaching children to sail on the Lakes - perhaps sounds a little old-fashioned to a generation for whom the word 'streams' may conjure up thoughts of watching television rather than countryside and flowing waterways. But that's exactly why the filmmakers felt this was an ideal time to return to the story: the themes of self-discovery, adventure and exploration - as well as celebrating the joy of the great outdoors - offering a perfect antidote to our increasingly digital lives.

The challenges and logistics of getting any film made are tough, but for producer Nick Barton, his dream of making a new version of Swallows and Amazons started way back in 1992 - long before many of the eventual cast were even born! It was only in 2007, after screenwriter Andrea Gibb began work on the project (which she envisaged as an Into The Wild for kids) that the project really began to take shape. For Gibb, the magic of the story was the way it captured a child's perspective on the world. This translates to the film fantastically well; the audience thinks the Amazons really are pirates, because that's how the Swallows view them. It is the adults that encroach on the children's world, rather than the other way around. Gibb was also attracted by the story's universal themes of loyalty, duty, betrayal and responsibility. Check out our fantastic interview with Andrea Gibb at the bottom of this page.

Whereas the previous film (and the novel) were set in 1929, the filmmakers here decided to move the period setting to 1935, to push events slightly closer to World War Two. With the Walker children's father away in the navy, the writers felt this added another layer of complexity to the story, as the growing threat of real conflict looms subtly but ominously in the background. 

Research into Ransome's life yielded material for another addition to the story. During World War One, Ransome had been stationed in Russia, covering the Russian Revolution as a journalist, but was suspected by the Bolsheviks of being a British spy - just as MI5 believed he was actually a spy for Russia! As it turned out, Ransome was indeed working for MI6 at the time, and it was this remarkable double-life that the filmmakers chose to weave into the story of Swallows and Amazons, through the Ransome-like figure of the mysterious Jim Turner.

The film opens with a hugely exciting train battle, which sets the stage for an intriguing subplot about a pair of gentleman seeking to hunt down the enigmatic Turner. These revelations about Ransome's life places him amongst an unusual tradition of legendary British writers - all of whom have been remarkably successful on film - who had previously worked covertly in British Intelligence. The list includes Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, and perhaps many more we don't know about!

What with retaining an authentic period setting, the filmmakers knew they would have to work hard to make the story feel relevant for today's young audiences. Director Phillipa Lowthorpe wanted the film to be fresh and accessible, but without sacrificing the spirit of Ransome's book - those elements of adventure, taking risks and exploration - which they felt may not appeal to the young people of today. Lowthorpe and Gibb were also keen to evoke the adventurous spirit of classic films about childhood, such as Whistle Down The Wind and My Life As A Dog

The filmmakers are helped in this by the identities of the children themselves, which bridge a wide range of ages within the same family. John, the eldest, is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, who is forced to take on the mantle of responsibility for his siblings while on holiday - particularly with their father being absent with the navy over the summer. Susan is the eldest girl; extremely practical, scientifically minded and with a great love of nature. Second sister Tatty is seen as the emotional heart of the story, while the youngest, Roger, throws a slightly mischievous, and endlessly inquisitive personality into the mix. The filmmakers were struck by how contemporary Ransome's characters seemed. In particular, the female roles were strikingly modern for the time, with Susan and Tatty proving at least as adventurous, brave, funny and spirited as the boys - if not more so.

Great care was also taken to ensure that the period setting felt natural and authentic - a process that extended to costumes, hair, make-up and props - but not in a way that made the film look and feel alienating to modern audiences. To help achieve this balance, the filmmakers looked to other films of the period - legendary titles such as The Third Man and The 39 Steps - as reference points to help the film feel believable, and to avoid period clichés or exaggerations.

The family aside, the biggest other role in the film is that of nature itself. The setting is crucial, and great care was taken to find the right locations for the Walkers' adventures across the Lake District, Yorkshire and Scotland. The landscapes are vital to the plot, not only presenting the scale of the challenge the children must face - and the risks involved - but also in presenting a majestic space that many young people watching may not have seen before; a space more spectacular than anything green-screen can produce.

However, there was one aspect of the story that the filmmakers knew would resonate with modern audiences: the weather. The film may take place over the sort of long, hazy summer holiday we've all experienced, but the children also have to contend with cloud, rain, wind, and mist. A true British summer, in other words! Despite that, after seeing Swallows and Amazons, don't be surprised if your members find themselves determined to head out and explore the big wide world, seeking adventures of their own!

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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