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Adaptation, Pt 4: Bye-Child And The Butterfly Tattoo

We’ve heard about what an adaptation entails, adapting true stories and what publishers think of the process, so now is the right time I think to take a look at two specific adaptations. Watch out for spoilers.

First up is Bernard MacLaverty’s Bye-Child (2003). An award winning short film (part funded by long term Bang2writer Scottish Screen), Bye-Child is taken from the poem by Seamus Heaney. This was of particular interest, since adapting from poetry – bar the usual suspects like Homer -had not really occurred to me. But why not? Poems are just as rich in visuals and offer up all kinds of opportunities for adaptation story and character-wise, whether it’s a reconstruction or a reimagination you’re wanting to do.

Bye-Child was very much a reconstruction. Telling the story of a child kept in the henhouse by his mother, the poem hints at why – but MacLaverty then goes much futher, offering a backdrop that includes incest and an abusive father, forcing the woman to keep the child in the henhouse to conceal it when the father attempts to murder it. This was a clever embellishment, for immediately we’re asked to empathise with the woman and her extraordinary action, even feeling sorry for her when the local priest discovers what she has done, taking the child away from her. Set in the 1960s, Maclaverty juxtaposes the discovery of the child against Armstrong’s moon landings, begging the question HOW we can fly to the moon, yet not ensure children at home are looked after properly. It’s easy to see why this work has been adopted by the educational sector in particular: schools use this work as part of their poetry curriculum and and the Teacher DVD resource pack can be bought online.

MacLaverty wanted to talk more about the background of his work and his adaptation rather than the machanics of getting it from the page to the screen, but he did mention that Heaney had said “do what you like with it”. This unnerved Maclaverty, especially given the embellishments he had made and he said his heart was in his mouth when he sent a VHS copy to Seamus Heaney, as he feared he wouldn’t like it – he “would have been gutted” if he didn’t. Happily for Maclaverty, Heaney gave the work a big thumbs-up and it’s even received a BAFTA nomination.

The second look at adaptations came in the form of Stephen Potts, responsible for the writing of the upcoming The Butterfly Tattoo, a lesser-known book by none other than Phillip Pullman (it was apparently previously called “The White Mercedes”). Stephen did not obtain the rights himself; instead a small Dutch production company called Dynamic Entertainment did – Stephen replied to an ad they posted on Shooting People (damn his hide, must’ve missed that one!). Dynamic Entertainment spent quite a bit of time negotiating with Pullman and had the “brass neck” to ask Pullman for a low-priced option on his book so they might make a low budget film of it – and he said yes! [This just goes to show what Birlinn said is true: always worth asking.]

As with any script commission, competition was high in getting the script gig for adapting The Butterfly Tattoo. Whilst Stephen was waiting to hear from Dynamic he read the book – something that was to pay dividends, since they asked for a a twelve page treatment in the next stage from him and three other writers on the shortlist. He got through that stage and it was narrowed down between him and one other writer, but Dynamic Entertainment couldn’t decide between the two! They said they wanted “more” but were very vague, only that they wanted that something “more” in the next nine days… Stephen was unsure what to do next, so took the week off work and wrote a draft and submitted that! He called this draft “draft zero”, it wasn’t long enough and the kind of “emetic draft” Peter Broughan spoke of, but it was enough to get him the gig.

After that, it appears the project took off at rocket-like speed. Stephen signed the contract last March and he did a draft a month, the project going through four total before being shot last August. Though a seven month turnaround, editing took a further six months – but even so, this is a suprisingly short amount of time to knock out a feature film. It looks quality too – we were shown a clip of the beginning and you can view a clip online too. It’s been submitted to Edinburgh and Cannes and they’re looking for a distributor at present; just like they attracted investors on the basis of the Pullman name, they’re hopeful a distributor will feel the same.

It’s worth noting that Stephen is a published author himself of five children’s novels: given the Pullman novel is aimed at a teenage market, perhaps Stephen had a natural bias towards not only the material, but what was best for the story in adapting it? Certainly Pullman apparently liked the script and was supportive of the project, though again this was more of a reconstruction – Stephen said he couldn’t have done anything that Pullman was against either. I hope the project does find a distriubutor – would be great to see an indie filmmaker triumph with an adaptation and hopefully open the gates to many more. Best of luck!

NEXT: My final post on this course – How Do You Adapt? Adrian’s Adaptation Checklist.



An excellent teacher’s resource on Bye-Child, including the full poem text can be found here [PDF].

An analysis of the poem can be viewed here.

Bye-Child on IMDB

Read about the making of Bye-Child, including how it was developed and funded, here.


View a teaser trailer for The Butterfly Tattoo here.

Click here to read a synopsis of Phillip Pullman’s book (warning: spoilers).

Stephen Potts’ Shooting People Card.

An interview with Stephen Potts about his own books, here plus a list of his books.

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8 thoughts on “Adaptation, Pt 4: Bye-Child And The Butterfly Tattoo”

  1. Hey Lucy,

    I was fascinated by the Butterfly Tattoo story.

    The way he went from no real direction to this adaptation really
    lifted my spirits as well as being a real eye opener.

    What a speed!

    It sounds promising for Stephen so good luck to him.

  2. Yes and Stephen was so approachable and interested in what everyone else was doing during the rest of the course, which was great. Really nice guy, I hope he gets loads more jobs off the back of The Butterfly Tattoo.

  3. You forgot to add. Mwa ha ha. Not a real mustache twirling threat without it.

    You’ll also need to get the old mustchio from your local evil nemisis superstore. Or I suppose Tescos.

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