Finally, Guernsey from Book to Screen

It was nine years ago that I posted a book review of The Guernsey Literary and the Potato Peel Pie Society, the post-WWII set, epistolary novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It’s a book of letters between the writer Juliet Ashton and her publisher, and later the members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which is an impromptu excuse made up by quick-thinking Elizabeth to avoid arrest by German soldiers as she and her friends are caught walking home after curfew.

To prepare for German advances, residents on Guernsey evacuated their children and sent their young men to war. Later as the Channel Islands were under enemy occupation, the people were stripped of their freedom and had to endure hunger, casualties and disappearances of loved ones.

Here are some thoughts in my book review post:

“Despite the subject matters, readers will find the book witty and delightful. Authors Shaffer and Barrows have depicted a myriad of lively characters, charmingly joined in their humanity by their strengths and weaknesses.  Yes, we can also visualize the madness of war. But we’re relieved to see too that people can weather hardship much better when they have a common bond, here, in the reading and sharing of fine literary works.”

A few years ago I read that the NYT Bestseller would be turned into a movie and that Kate Winslet would play Juliet Ashton, and later, Rosamund Pike. And so we wait. Now we have Lily James, and I’m glad. She’s a younger Juliet, but her screen presence is always appealing, albeit the adaptation doesn’t give her much of a chance to shine as in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. She belongs in the singing and dancing limelight, maybe not unlike her character Lady Rose in Downton Abbey.

Lily James as Juliet Ashton (1).jpg

Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot from Downton) as Sydney, Juliet’s publisher, is a solid supportive figure. Surely what he wants is more books from her, but Sydney knows she can’t be forced to do anything she doesn’t want to. Nice play between the two, and some effective scenes as he tries to help Juliet dispel haunting war memories.

How do you turn letters into a movie? Director Mike Newell focused on storytelling and it worked. The helmer of Mona Lisa Smile (2003) and perhaps the more memorable, Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), had chosen to depict the dramatic narratives in the letters rather than the actual reading and writing of them; the writing part can be done by another character, the typewriter.

There are fewer literary mentions in the movie, and the book club scenes are kept to a minimum but interesting. Don’t miss the one at the end when the credits roll. We hear the sound of the typewriter, remember Atonement? With just two hours for the movie, naturally a lot of the details are skimmed out. What’s left are the essentials, loss and love.

Kudos to Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley of Downton, of course, and many more), she leads all the way by holding the suspense, the reason for her pain. We see her expressive face conveys tensions and deep sadness. Viewers who have not read the book would find the movie a mystery slowly being revealed as Juliet investigates the Society’s history. I appreciate Wilton’s face, from which I can clearly see how the loss of loved ones can drag one down to mere existence and nothing more, if not for Kit (Florence Keen).

Joining the roles as Society members are veteran actor Tom Courtenay as Eben, Katherine Parkinson as Isola, and Kit Connor as Eli. The fine cast let us visualize the events of the book as experiences of real persons. This may well be the very reason why some hesitate to embrace movie adaptations of the literary. To the purists, the imageries and characters conjured up in their mind while reading reign supreme and they’d guard them with much possessiveness. In this case, however, I find the adaptation offers something that’s not in the book. I can see the restraints of the characters, the burden as keepers of secrets, their faces telling stories and then withholding some.

Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil from Downton) as Elizabeth is well cast, albeit not much time is spent on exploring her love story with the German soldier Christian (Nicolo Pasetti, limited appearance). The resolution to such a dilemma and its fallout will never be easy to find.

As for the love interests, or disinterest, Glen Powell aptly plays the rich American Mark Reynolds. Recognize him from Hidden Figure? He’s John Glenn there. Here, he’s the high flying socialite publisher. After Guernsey, Juliet has to be frank with him, and with much apology, returns his engagement ring. After just a short exchange, he gets up from the table, says goodbye and walks away, only to return quickly to pluck the champaign bottle from the ice bucket before he leaves for good. Just spot-on. Is that in the book?

True love belongs to Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones) who begins it all with his letter to a name and address written on a book he happens to stumble upon. The moment he encounters Juliet as she sets foot on Guernsey, his fate is sealed. Dawsey is good at restraints, until he can’t hold it anymore at the end. The setting may be different but who gets to pop the question remains true to the book.

A movie as well can offer the scenery which the book can’t. But then again, imagination may still be needed as the shooting location is not actually Guernsey Island but North Devon. Click on the link to check it out.

What doesn’t need imagination is also my favourite scene: Dawsey’s carving of the juicy roasted pig.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is on Netflix.




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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

24 thoughts on “Finally, Guernsey from Book to Screen”

  1. I saw “The Guernsey Literary & The Potato Peel Pie Society” recently on Netflix and loved it. Thanks for identifying the actors playing some of the parts ~ they seemed so familiar so when you mentioned their roles on “Downton Abbey” it all suddenly made sense.


    1. Barbara,

      As I was writing the post, I laughed at myself for orienting the actors according to Downton! Just shows how monumental Downton Abbey is, it’s a platform to catapult young actors to stardom. Lily James is the prime example, others may not be as ubiquitous as she is, but still has maintained big screen presence, and that’s Jessica Brown Findlay and Dan Stevens.


  2. I just watched the movie series and was thoroughly enchanted. ‘Twas good seeing some wonderful actors (Downton Abbey dear ones too) slowly and carefully unfold a painful story from a frightening time in the past. Some parts of the past cannot be made all of right. There are scars. The book club brought a community of spirits together to help stitch together the wounds each had experienced.


    1. Heather,

      It’s a two-hr. movie, and as one commenter suggested, it should have been a mini-TV series, at least give it a few hours to draw out the characters and stories. However, considering the time limit, it’s a production well done. Time to head to the book. 🙂


    1. Ellen,

      Umm… that just might be the reason they don’t make it into a TV mini-series. 🙂 I sure hope you will be able to find time to finish it and most importantly, enjoy it. You’re welcome to come back and share your thoughts after. Have you read the book?


  3. I loved the book, which I just read 24 hours before seeing the movie. That was a mistake. The book, as all books are, is so much richer, hearing more of the voices and of course, with a subplot that is so powerful in the book but there just wasn’t time for in the movie. And of course, they juggled the chronology so Juliet was already engaged officially when she went to the island. Minor, but I think it made a bit of a difference. And how I wanted Sydney to visit and meet up with Isola! I loved Juliet’s correspondence with Sophie, too, and all that was lost.

    Does that mean I didn’t like it? Nope. I loved the film. I just saw it too soon. I’d be inclined to say “see the movie first” if you’ve not already read it because then the book will add so much more and you won’t miss what was omitted. (However, it seems as though many who do that never get to the book and that would be a shame.) That said, everything about the film was so beautifully done, from the casting (Doc Martin fans will recognize his first assistant, “Pauline” too, and I loved the Downton folk!) to the exquisite sets. While there isn’t enough time in the film to really develop the relationships with the richness of the book, one gets the idea.

    I still, though, wish that instead of being a film, they’d done the whole thing as a four or five-hour BBC mini-series. It would have adapted well to a longer format, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jeanie,

      You’re absolutely right! On all counts. The book is bound to have more storylines and deeper character development. While the movie, limited to just two hours, has to cherry pick. And with that in mind, I think they have picked the crucial scenes, albeit I mentioned above too that Elizabeth with Christian love story is not explored here at all, and that’s a miss. Also, if you want to see more actual book club discussions, you’ll be disappointed too. So, a mini-series will be the best to please book lovers, but, may have logistic problems with the filmmaking part, for various reasons and limitations.

      I read the book 9 years ago, so I’ve forgotten some details and some of the storylines. So, I don’t feel so much of a loss than for you, who just finished reading it and hold high expectations for the movie. I really don’t have high expectations at all, to be honest, since, umm… it’s a Netflix movie. (That’s the reason why that major buzz over the weekend, the all Asian cast “Crazy Rich Asians” made a highly risky decision to turn down a Netflix offer and headed to the big screen, which proved to be the right move for them. Now it’s a cinematic milestone.)

      Without much info to start with about the production, I was pleasantly delighted to see four Downtoners there. And you’re totally right too to suggest, for this title:
      Movie first, then book. Let’s hope the Netflix show can prompt viewers to head to the book after watching. 🙂


  4. I agree about the Elizabeth and Christian story. Actually, if you weren’t paying total attention, one might miss that Kit was Christian’s daughter. It’s said but I think only as explanation. I didn’t miss the book club discussions, although it would have been fun to see a snippet — like the tail end of a poem or as it is wrapping up to get an idea they actually DID talk about the books! But not so important. I missed Juliet’s voice and humor that comes through so well in the book. I loved Lily James and how she played the character but the script didn’t bring that out as well as the writers. Again, you don’t miss it if you don’t know… But I”ll watch again. Don’t know if this is simultaneously hitting big screen but with that fabulous scenery I’d love to see it there.


    1. About Kit’s identity, I think the movie has not only alluded but has explained to viewers explicitly, for that’s the reason why Amelia has to be so guarded and protective of her and the Society’s history; esp. after they found out Elizabeth had been killed by the Germans, they needed to raise her as secretly as possible, for she is now her only living relative, or else Kit would be sent back to Germany. By saying this to Juliet, Amelia shows her love for the child and a total change of mind from, and regretful of, her stance on the issue during the War.

      And will the Netflix movie go to the big screen? It’s always been an either or question: Netflix or the conventional theatre. That’s the Oscar qualifying issue as well. But, things are changing so fast nowadays, nobody can predict anything. 🙂


  5. Nice to see your write-up Arti. I read the book in 2008, and saw the film back in May so I’m not able to make detailed comments. The film and the book are saved from being predictable chicklit by the deeper WW2 stories. I have warm memories of both, but nothing more really. However, I loved seeing actors like Lily James, Penelope Wilton, Katherine Parkinson, Tom Courtenay and Matthew Goode. Lily James is gorgeous and Penelope Wilton such a strong actor.


    1. I didn’t re-read the book before watching the movie, so not comparing details to details but just a general impression here. A major difference is the tone I feel. The book is more light-hearted and witty, the movie is more serious and somber. I think Lily James is suitable for the former kind of mood, perky and cheery, so that’s a little regrettable that the movie doesn’t allow her more of such characterization. Have you watched Mamma Mia! Here we go again? She’s wonderful in there. That movie really showcases her talents.


        1. Know what? I like this one more. Sure it’s pure escape and why not, we’ve been having bad news and not getting any breaks here (more affected here in Canada with our Neighbor turning against us!) Anyway, throw away your thinking hat and dance a little with MM! I’d say. 🙂


  6. Great review. I just need to read the book and watch this film asap. I also imagine it is difficult to turn a book which contains letters into a film. Any book-to-film adaptation is challenging, but how a film could convey successfully different voices and different feelings is sometimes just beyond me. I will be next reviewing “The Bookshop” which is based on a book and I do not think that they incorporated the part of letters into a film that successfully. Sometimes the actor just read his letter into the camera, and I thought it felt contrived/artificial.


    1. I think Guernsey is a much better movie than The Bookshop. Appreciate your review of it. Thanks for stopping by the Pond and throwing in your two pebbles.


  7. I kept thinking this film had already debuted. I saw some ad about it being on Netflix and sent it to my mom (who has Netflix) but she couldn’t locate it either. Anyway, I’d listened to the audiobook version and loved all the voices– had a “dramatization” feel to it. Lily James seems perfect for the role.


    1. nikkipolani,

      I’d listened to the audiobook too and thought it was very well done. Seldom do they actually have different narrators voicing the various characters. Usually just one. And yes, the movie is on Netflix.

      Thanks for stopping by the Pond. 🙂


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