As far as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in film adaptations of books. I will walk into a cinema (or, more recently, open a streaming platform) full of expectation, convinced – although the evidence suggests otherwise – that the film will somehow reflect exactly my own understanding of the book. Maybe it will even transcend it.
I have, on occasion, been proven right (Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement is an all-time favourite, and don’t get me started on the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) but more often than not, I am disappointed. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the theatre for the first Harry Potter film, having made the mistake of re-reading the book a short time before; I was in a perfect position to notice every difference, every detail that had been changed, every funny line of dialogue the writers had decided, for some incomprehensible reason, not to include. Why? I wondered disconsolately as we left the cinema. Why would they do this?
And yet the optimist in me prevails time and time again, which is probably why, when I saw that Mike Newell’s 2018 adaptation of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was on Netflix, I begged my husband to watch it with me. The fact that he agreed is a sign of how much he loves me; he’s had to sit with me complaining about far too many book adaptations.
If you haven’t read the novel, this post is going to contain spoilers. Run away while you can! The book is well worth a read. Here’s the gist of the story: in post-war London, writer Juliet Ashton is looking for a book idea when she begins an unlikely correspondence with Dawsey Adams, a Guernsey islander who belongs to a curious literary society. As their correspondence develops, Juliet becomes fascinated by this society, and the story of Guernsey’s occupation; she wants to feature them in an article. After exchanging letters with several members of the society, she decides to travel to Guernsey in order to meet them all – and this is when the story truly begins to unfold.
The opening of the film was one of its strong points. Of course, I thought – of course you would open this story with the genesis of the Society during the German occupation. The Guernsey islanders’ panic at being caught outside by the Germans after curfew, Elizabeth McKenna’s inventiveness, her bold claim that they are all members of a literary society in order to keep them from prison: it is a pivotal dramatic moment, even though in the book we only experience it in retrospect. In terms of casting, I felt that all of the members of the Society fit the bill. Some characters were missing; some had been blended together, but nothing unexpected. A two-hour film can’t hold the same amount of detail as a 240-page book.
Overall, I thought the portrayal of Guernsey reasonably faithful to the novel. Jane became Amelia’s daughter rather than Eben’s – a strange decision, which I assume was intended to emphasise Amelia’s character, and potentially to justify her strong opposition to Juliet’s project of writing about the society. The Oscar Wilde letters disappeared, and so did the attached Billie Bee subplot – unsurprising, perhaps, but a shame nevertheless, because of the humorous potential of this story. Remy never made it to the island, either.
My main issue, however, isn’t with what was left out, but rather with what was changed: namely, Juliet’s initial acceptance of Markham Reynolds’s marriage proposal, and her later retraction. Perhaps the writers thought that it would be more dramatic this way, but to me it seemed to severely undermine, and even transform, Juliet’s character. Her hesitation to accept Mark in the book – the fact that her previous experience of being engaged had convinced her that three months’ acquaintance was not enough to base a marriage on – made me like her more. She was a little grizzled, wearied by the war. At first, she was attracted to Mark because of the way he seemed untouched by the conflict, although he had served; but eventually, she came to realise that they valued different things, and that she could not love someone who had gone through this terrible war unscarred. That is why Dawsey Adams is a much better fit for her: like her, Dawsey has been through horrible things, and they have changed him. He understands grief, and life, in a way that Mark can’t, and this is of course embodied by Dawsey and Juliet’s shared appreciation of Charles Lamb’s writing.
It’s interesting to note that, while the novel was written by two women (Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, who assisted with important edits when Mary Ann’s health began to fail), the film was directed by a man, and the screenplay, according to IMDB, was written by three men. Perhaps this had an impact on the way some of the characters were represented (Mark’s role certainly seemed to gain in importance). The Hollywoodian focus on romance also took away from important connections that are made in the book between Juliet and the islanders.
I feel that adaptation should always be motivated by a love of the original story, a desire to bring it to the screen and preserve something of its strength and beauty, even though some changes may be necessary when changing mediums. For me, although The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society film did some things well, it missed that mark because, by changing Juliet’s story with Mark, it made her less of a character, taking away some of the strength and wilfulness which makes the book – and her letters – so engaging and memorable. While I was happy that, at the end of the film, the writers kept intact the dialogue between Juliet and Dawsey, it was not really enough to make me feel that the film had done the book justice.