I had to go and see it.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society film came out in cinemas last week, and I was at the cinema as soon as I could throw myself through the doors. As a born and bred genuine Guernsey donkey – one currently living 350 miles away and feeling a little homesick – I was dying to see my homeland represented on the big screen. I read the book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, years and years ago, and I enjoyed it. Oh, it had its issues – quite a lot of them, when it came to historical accuracy – but it was inoffensive, and had some stellar characters that propelled it into something a bit special.
Could the film live up to expectations and show my beautiful island in all its glory?
The fact it’s taken me over a week to write this review probably says quite a lot…
I’m going to go right in and say: I raged my way all the way through this film. It’s a good thing my friend Hannah and I were among only about eight people in the cinema at the time, because every so often I couldn’t help but expectorate a hiss of “FUCK OFF” or “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?”.
I honestly don’t know how to write this review, because I had so, so many issues with this film. I should probably divide it into two sections: issues with the adaptation from the book to a film, and the problematic nature of its representation of Guernsey.
Let’s start by ignoring any historical or geographical nitpicking: let’s just look at why the adaptation from book to film left me cold.
The key focus of the story is right there in the name: the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society. What the hell happened to it? The society itself and its impact on the islanders, giving a place of comfort and culture during the Occupation, spreading far beyond its original members… there was very little sense of that. Even the core members of the Society are reduced in the film. The characters of Will and Booker seem to have been absorbed into Eben Ramsay, whose quiet dignity in the story has been removed, to be turned into a bumbling drunk. In the book, I loved the character of John Booker, and his fabulous backstory – I was very sad he was missing from the film, I would have loved to see him on the screen. Even the character of Kit was sanitised and simplified to your traditional on-screen kid: quiet and compliant, not the fierce little fireball of the book.
My absolute, absolute favourite character in the book was Isola Pribby. She’s a Bronte-obsessed potioneer, and, to put no fine a point on it, beautifully mad. In the film, she’s reduced to a slightly nervy semi-alcoholic, played by Katherine Parkinson (of The IT Crowd fame): she did a fairly decent job with what she was given, but she should have been given a lot more.
By sacrificing the ‘Guernsey’ characters, the filmmakers have clearly chosen to focus on Juliet Ashton instead; in the book, too, she’s the central narrative voice (even though the format of the book is epistolary, she remains the focal point of the letters right until the very end). And in the book, she’s a pretty fabulous woman: independent, feisty, and very intelligent, with a well-realised wartime backstory that ties all the key elements of her personality together. In the film, this has been reduced to a scene of her facing the reality of her bombed-out flat, and that’s about it. No surprising failed romance, no warrior of literature running towards the burning British Library: just a nervy, slightly wet character who rarely shows any of the gumption of the book. Where are the flying teapots?!
The character who drives the plot the most – the catalyst for all the characters coming together, and the spark that starts Juliet’s eventual writing project – is Elizabeth McKenna. But you’d hardly know it from watching the film: for a start, so many characters have been cut, the way she weaved her way through so many islanders, leaving such an impact, is almost entirely missing. You can hardly understand why Juliet is so hell-bent on finding her, whereas in the book she is a fully-fleshed character with an interesting back-story. Ultimately it was an insult to the character – and to real-life history that shouldn’t be forgotten – that the eventual conclusion to her story was not seen on screen.
This detail (trying to avoid overt plot spoilers here, but probably not doing a great job of it) is one of several things cut to give more weight to the (sigh) love story. Tension-building scenes in a pub between Juliet and Dawsey Adams… oh, so not necessary. The character of Remy, so instrumental in the book, is nothing more than a name briefly seen on a piece of paper, not even spoken aloud. The entire Oscar Wilder plot line that gave so much comedy (and so much Isola) – completely cut. Isola the detective: gone. I understand that timing is limited on the screen and every book has masses cut in its adaptation, but come on. These could have added so much depth – indeed these latter three storylines run neatly alongside each other, giving a fantastic juxtaposition between the tragedy of the war and the resilience (and hilarity) of the islanders. A horrible omission, certainly.
Despite all the above ranting, this is the side where my real rage comes through. All of the above is taking the book of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society as just that: a book. Not necessarily a book about Guernsey. Just a well-written story with some fabulous characters. Enjoyable. Poorly adapted.
But what the hell has it done to my island?
Again, the clue is right there in the name. Although the story starts in London, and its central character is English, this is supposed to be at its heart a story about Guernsey.
So why, on the big screen, do I see absolutely nothing about the place where I grew up?
I know due to practical production considerations, none of the film itself could actually be filmed on the island. Just about excusable, in the world of CGI. I had high hopes it could work anyway: that the time difference between now and the 1940s would work in the film’s favour.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
Most of the film was shot in Devon and Cornwall, and guess what? It shows. Scenes that I believe are supposed to be St Peter Port are so obviously Cornish they might as well have stuck someone eating a massive clotted cream scone in every scene. There are exterior shots that show enormous sweeping cliffs, a vista that goes on for miles and miles and miles. Well, Guernsey does have its impressive cliff walks, and stunning scenery… but it’s all a lot more compact. One of the things I adore about Guernsey is how tightly-packed it all is: narrow roads lined with granite walls, a sense of comfort and safety (and when you’ve been there for eighteen years, a little claustrophobia). I didn’t get any of this from this film. When characters are standing on the cliffs and you can see for miles and miles, all I could think was: where are those miles and miles? Because it looks like I’ve got a huge part of my little island to explore if I’ve missed all that.
Guernsey isn’t just cliffs and poorly-realised fishing villages, of course, and its history didn’t begin with the Occupation. It’s bursting with beautiful, iconic landmarks, from the stunning Castle Cornet (first thing you see when you come to the island by boat, as characters in this film supposedly did) to the coastal Martello towers, built to defend the island from the French in the 18th century.
Yes, I understand the filming limitations – but how hard would it really have been to get some of these in? You simply can’t have a film about Guernsey without featuring Castle Cornet. It’s a travesty. Or Fort Grey. The Little Chapel, for God’s sake. Or the underground hospital, so vital during the very war this film is about.
But, of course, people who didn’t grow up in Guernsey won’t notice these missing landmarks or historical icons.
Because there was absolutely no historical or geographical context whatsoever.
As I explained before, yes, the intricacies of the plot have been sacrificed to try and turn this film into a much more conventional love story. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that, realistically, Juliet Ashton and Dawsey Adams could be corresponding from pretty much anywhere, really. If you didn’t already have some basic knowledge about the Channel Islands and their occupation by Nazis in the Second World War, you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. Yes, there were establishing shots of the German invaders marching through town (trying to emulate a fairly iconic photograph, I believe) and a scene featuring the aftermath of the bombing of the tomato trucks. But why was this happening? Where was it happening?
I’m not asking for a documentary. I’m not asking for a hefty Star Wars-style ream of text at the start of the film. But it needed something. It was next to impossible to fully empathise with the Guernsey characters without knowing the true magnitude of what they suffered, on such a small island. Contrary to appearances in the film, it’s only 25 square miles: definitely nowhere to run or hide from the German oppressors. That sense of claustrophobia just wasn’t there.
I’ve mostly complimented the book, in opposition to the film, but in this sense, the book is nearly as fault-filled as the film. It does show that the people who wrote the book were not native Guerns, and though they obviously did extensive research, there’s a lot missing. Names, for a start. Very few of the good old fashioned Guernsey surnames get a mention – of all the main characters, there’s perhaps one who could have fit in. The film just added to this: no Guernsey names, no Guernsey accents. Newsflash: having someone randomly singing Sarnia Cherie or flinging in the odd ‘a la perchoine‘ doesn’t make it OK.
I’m not even going to get into the Occupation scenes. I just don’t have the energy. When the Nazis invaded, one of my grandparents was evacuated to the mainland; the other stayed on the island for the duration. I’ve heard so many stories throughout my life, handed down through my mum and through other relatives. I can still remember my Granny Daph’s vitriol about ‘Jerry Bags’, years after she passed away. Tales, too, from my granddad’s side, of German collusion and brutality that would never have made it to the screen.
One other thing? This film was released at the end of April. Why not wait until May 9th?
Oh, of course, if you’ve only seen this film, you won’t know why May 9th is so important. It’s Guernsey’s Liberation Day – the day it was liberated from the occupying forces in 1945, a day after the war ended. It’s probably the most important day in Guernsey’s history, and its national holiday. I would have liked to see much more about it in the film – it was one thing that was beautifully captured in the book, but hardly mentioned at all on the screen.
At best, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an inoffensive, slightly dull film with all the most interesting parts of its source material removed. If you haven’t read the book, you’ll probably find it pleasant enough, if a little bit boring.
And if your blood runs with Guernsey milk, you’ll find it a travesty.