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.




The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”

A novel in the form of letters?  I admit it wasn’t much of an appeal to me at first. After it has maintained its position on the New York Times Bestseller List for months, and now the trade paperback holding the first spot there, I just can’t resist anymore.

The book begins with a series of letters between a London writer Juliet Ashton and her friend and publisher Sydney Stark shortly after WWII.  Later, upon receiving a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey of the Channel Islands, Juliet starts to correspond with the charming folks living there.

So how does the book title come about? Guernsey Island was occupied by the Germans during the war.   It happens that one night after a secret ‘pig out’, a few Guernsey residents are found breaking the curfew.  To find an excuse quickly when confronted by German soldiers, Elizabeth, our heroine, makes up the story that she and her fellow members have to leave a literary society meeting late as they’ve been so immersed in a German book.

This impromptu excuse soon takes shape in reality.  Thus begins the odyssey of reading, book discussions, and the members’ correspondences with Juliet Ashton.  Juliet is so immersed in their lives and moved by their situation that she later decides to go visit them, making the Guernsey Literary Society the subject of her next book.

Many of the letters are poignant descriptions of lives during the difficult war years.  The Guernsey residents have to suffer the searing pain of evacuating their own children to England for safety, seeing the young and healthy sent to war, finding others just disappear to concentration camps, and hearing eye witness accounts of heroic sacrifices for utter strangers. While all these years on the Island, they have to endure deprivation of food, basic necessities, and freedom. But the literary society meetings and the few reading materials in their possession remain their lifeline to humanity and dignified living.

“Everyone was sickly from so little nourishment and bleak from wondering if it would ever end.  We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”

Author Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in February 2008 and was succeeded by her niece Annie Barrows in finishing the novel.  In the Acknowledgment, Shaffer had written these words in December 2007:

“I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art — be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music — enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”

Despite the subject matter, 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.  Mind you, these are not your academics and scholars.  The Guernsey residents are mainly pig farmers and vegetable growers.  As we read their letters, we soon see them as friends, Amelia, Dawsey, Isola, Eben, Eli, Elizabeth and little Kit…

And, am I such a Jane Austen fan that I’m seeing this:  Juliet Ashton (J.A.), Dawsey (Darcy), and Elizabeth, beloved heroine of all time.

What impresses me most is that the Guernsey Islanders are so willing to open their hearts and lives to writer Juliet, an absolute stranger, mainly because of their common love of the written words.  They find it an honor to be able to correspond with a real life writer, pouring their hearts out in respect and admiration, and quickly confiding in her.  A writer as a celebrity and friend?  It’s just fiction, you may say. But, why can’t it be real?

As for the art of letter writing, has it been lost as some have claimed, or has it merely been transformed into … yes, blogging, for example?  Because as I was reading the book, it flashed by me at times that I was reading some blog posts.  Are the writings that we post in the blogosphere a kind of open letter?  Our exchanges in the comment box our correspondences?  And, to push it a bit further, the telegram of old the early form of twitter?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition, 2009, 288 pages.


Click here to go to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society website.  As for the potato peel pie recipe, yes, at the Jane Austen Society of North America website.