This month’s “Page To Screen” was going to be The NeverEnding Story, but I made a last-minute decision to save it for later. As time would have it, over my break I saw a 2018 Netflix movie, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I liked it so much I bought the book it was based on and devoured it in a few days. That’s unusual for me right now because my time is so divided, but the story is just that good. Put it this way: If you love books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society just might feel downright home-y.
Written in letter form, the novel is set in 1946 and centers around writer Juliet Ashton, whose wartime humor column has been compiled into a book, Izzy Braeburn Goes To War. It’s selling like hotcakes and Juliet has been everywhere on a book tour, where she’s fêted with teas and various functions. Juliet keeps up a lively correspondence with her friend and publisher, Sidney and her best friend, Sophie, who love that our heroine has all this notoriety.
Adding to the excitement is Juliet’s mysterious admirer, Mark Reynolds, an American officer stationed in Britain. Mark sends her armloads of flowers everywhere she goes and Juliet is quite intrigued. They finally make plans to meet, after which they start dating. Juliet is dazzled and thinks she’s in love.
While she enjoys her life, Juliet feels weary. Her apartment was bombed out during the war. The ironic thing about that was her fiancee at the time moved all her books down to the building’s basement so he could put his trophies on the shelves, and Juliet was so mad at him she broke up with him on the spot. If she had left the books in the basement, she could have saved them. Worse, Juliet’s parents were killed in one of the Nazi bombing raids and she suffers from survivor’s guilt.
Like everyone else in the post-war world, Juliet keeps plugging along, and when she receives a letter from a Dawsey Adams of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, she’s suddenly interested. The Channel Islands, for those who aren’t familiar with them, were the only parts of the British Empire occupied by the Nazis.
Dawsey is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and all because of a pig. Meaning, one night during the German occupation Dawsey and some friends went to the house of a lady named Amelia to partake of a pig she’d kept hidden away and recently slaughtered. Eben the postmaster also dropped by with a pie made out of potatoes and potato peelings, making the pig roast a real feast. This was no small thing, because the Nazis confiscated almost all of the pigs and other livestock on the islands to feed their own soldiers. The people got one candle a week, half a pint of milk a day, no sugar, no butter, no salt, and the only flour to be had resembled cracked grain and birdseed. To cook and eat a side of pork was sheer bliss.
The party atmosphere was so heady that Dawsey and company stayed out past curfew. When they inevitably ran into some stern Nazi officers, one of the group, Elizabeth, fumbled out that they had been at a book club meeting. From then on, the group met every Friday to discuss books and forget the war for a little while.
Juliet is so captivated that she starts corresponding with each of the members, who let slip details and stories about life during the occupation. The Times wants Juliet to write an article about the group, who don’t seem to mind at all. Like any proper writer, though, Juliet soon decides to visit the group in Guernsey and get the real flavor of the place and its people. The trip is, of course, much more than she has bargained for.
There’s a sweet story behind the crafting of the book. American author Annie Barrows’ aunt, Mary Anne Shaffer, was a gifted writer and storyteller. Unfortunately she was never able to finish anything she started, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. Her greatest wish was to have something published, and she always hoped she could write something people liked.
Shaffer hit a dead end while researching Kathleen Scott at Cambridge in 1980, and on a whim she decided to fly to Guernsey. No sooner did she get there than the entire island was fogbound, leaving her stranded in the airport without even a taxi available. There was nothing to do but raid the vending machine and avail herself of the airport’s substantial bookstore. Here Shaffer struck gold, as she discovered a wealth of information about Guernsey during wartime. When the fog finally lifted, she flew home with her stacks of books, the wheels in her head turning.
However, it took twenty years for Shaffer to start writing Guernsey, appropriately enough, at the urging of her book club. She would never finish it as she was unwell, and asked her niece, Annie, to complete it for her. Shaffer died in 2008, the same year her novel was published.
Barrows says the response to the novel has been tremendous. People all over the world feel like they’re members of the Society and want to visit Guernsey. As someone who recently joined the ranks, I can attest to this–Guernsey’s tourism account on Instagram looks spectacular. I have a feeling if I ever visit, I’ll fall in love.
When it came to adapting Guernsey for the screen, there was a lot of demand for the rights to the novel, which were purchased by Fox 2000 in 2010. Originally Kenneth Branaugh was to direct, with Kate Winslet as Juliet, but scheduling delays put the kibosh on everything. Rosamund Pike was also considered for Juliet, but that fell through as well. It wasn’t until StudioCanal and Netflix hopped on board that things started moving, and filming took place in Devon in 2017, with Mike Newell directing and Lily James playing Juliet.
Naturally, a more conventional narrative structure had to be adopted; instead of the whole club writing to Juliet, she simply corresponds with Dawsey (Michiel Huisman). She’s also more well-along in her relationship with Mark (Glen Powell)–he even proposes before Juliet leaves for Guernsey, complete with a giant engagement ring that looks rather ostentatious in post-war England. The film has Juliet in Guernsey much sooner than in the novel, where she doesn’t leave until about halfway through.
There was also much more conflict in the story arc. Amelia (Penelope Wilson), who was very helpful and friendly in the book, is secretive and hard to crack at first, although she softens over time. It wasn’t that she was a mean person. The film also worked in a subplot about Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay), the club’s founder, who was sent to a concentration camp for helping a Polish slave. Her daughter, Kit, who she had with a doomed German soldier named Christian, has been raised by the group and calls Dawsey “Daddy.”
Amelia is afraid that if Juliet digs too deeply into Elizabeth’s whereabouts, it might somehow get back to Christian’s relatives in Germany who could possibly decide to take Kit away. Juliet makes it her mission to find out what happened to Elizabeth, not only for the group’s knowledge, but also for Kit, who is too young to really know how brave her mother was.
Other elements of the story were left intact. The relationship between Dawsey and Juliet is also pretty much the same, although it’s stated instead of seen. As in the book, Juliet feels stale, and it’s so obvious that even her landlady notices she’s not being kept awake by Juliet pounding away on her typewriter. What’s funny is that when Juliet hits her stride again, her landlady in Guernsey, who’s not the nicest sort anyway, gripes at her about typing in the wee hours of the night.
Most importantly, the Society meetings are just as integral to the movie as they are to the book. Members read or recite samples of whatever they’ve been reading, as well as giving their thoughts, all in the space of five minutes apiece. The sparky fun is all the more significant in its defiance of the Nazi occupiers, who wanted the Channel Islanders to just roll over and take whatever dust they were given.
The obvious question is, did I prefer the book to the movie? Well, that’s a tough one. I think the book is better than the film because it gives the reader more time to get to know the characters. On the other hand, I like the film, too. It’s comforting and invigorating with beautiful scenery and wonderful performances. And quite honestly, it’s hard to separate the two because those who see the film will likely want to read the book, and those who read the book will likely want to see the film.
The one fly in the ointment, at least for fans in North America, is that there’s no physical media available. Sorry, guys. Regions Two and Four are the favored few. It’s probably because certain markets saw the film in a theatrical release, so it may be a copyright issue. I don’t know, but derp. At least we Region 1-ers can see it on Netflix.
However one chooses to experience The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, it’s pretty hard to forget, and it’s easy to long for the Society to be real. Reading is both a refuge and a way of engaging with the outside world, which is why perusing books is such a delight. As Annie Barrows once wrote,
“The good news is that, as long as we don’t get too caught up in the space-time continuum, the book does still go on…We are transformed–magically–into the literary society each time we pass a book along, each time we ask a question about it, each time we say, ‘If you liked that, I bet you’d like this.’ Whenever we are willing to be delighted and share our delight…we are part of the ongoing story of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” (Shaffer and Barrows, pgs. 287-288)
Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for the Lucille Ball Blogathon…
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is available to stream on Netflix.
Shaffer, Mary Ann and Annie Barrows. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. New York: Dial Press, 2008.