A film with a huge heart and a mouthful of a title. At first, I certainly found myself wondering whatever does a potato peel pie have to do with a literary society, only wishing now that I had stumbled upon this wonderful story earlier, and preferably read the novel that the film is based on first. This adaptation is utterly delightful, but once you have learned the secrets of the plot, the novel would inevitably lose any essence of intrigue and mystery. The good news is that the plot of the film diverts quite significantly from the original novel, so you may still enjoy the novel after seeing the film if you want to compare the two.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview screening of this beautiful film, which tells the story of a quirky bunch of people who inadvertently ended up forming a literary and potato peel pie society during the German occupation of Guernsey, a British island off the coast of Normandy. What began quite humorously as a cover story to hide a contraband roast pig, the society continued to meet up weekly to keep up appearances, but soon developed into a close knit group of kindred spirits who bond over literature. When the group runs out of new books to read, a chance letter sent to London brings Juliet into the fold, changing all of their lives forever.
We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.
Lily James is the perfect leading lady as Juliet Ashton, a passionate yet mildly successful writer. Her first novel, a biography of Anne Brontë – sold only 28 copies, before finding success writing a column under a pseudonym. We first meet Juliet as she attends her book tour at Foyles bookstore in London. She has found herself at a crossroads in her writing career as she is expected to write another book under her pen name, but yearns for something more fulfilling. Despite being romanced by a dashing American who showers her with flattery and roses, her feelings towards him are fairly lukewarm. By chance, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a pig farmer from Guernsey, who is in possession of one of her second hand books. Dawsey is looking for a book about Shakespeare by Charles Lamb for his literary society. Juliet takes it upon herself to post it off to him and a beautiful friendship unfolds between the two of them over the course of many letters.
I felt a real connection to this story, and through the lens of Juliet I felt understood as a literature lover. There are plenty of allusions to literature and books. While reading is a solitary adventure mostly, there is something very special about meeting other likeminded book worms in the wild and sharing a love of books. Readers can be impossibly hard to find in the real world as they do tend to hide out in the comfort of their own homes, snuggled up with a book and cup of tea.
I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.
Juliet finds herself captivated by Dawsey’s story and decides to visit the island for herself. She is quite shocked to find the group are highly guarded and although they share a magical evening of literature together, Juliet becomes deeply invested in uncovering their story. She begins to piece together snippets of what transpired during the war, hoping to understand why they are so reluctant to talk about Elizabeth, the absent founder of the group. Make sure you pack some tissues.
The film brings the German occupation of the Channel Islands to life, with the wanderlust inspiring landscapes of Devon and Cornwall posing as Guernsey. The backdrop forms part of the romance of the plot, think lush green cliffs, rugged coastlines, quaint cottages, country gardens, old farms and pristine beaches.
Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.
Interestingly, the novel was written by two authors, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. While Shaffer did all of the research and was the initial dreamer of the society, Annie Barrows finalised the novel that was eventually published. Sadly, Shaffer became quite unwell after completing the first draft of the novel and did not live to see her work published or become a success. Annie Barrows reworked Shaffer’s original draft to transform the story into a work that could be published.
The film adaptation is a much tidier version of the original story with a more simplistic romance plot and recognisable faces. Four of the cast members worked together on Downton Abbey, Jessica Findlay Brown (Lady Sybil), Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot), Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley), and Lily James (Lady Rose).
After all, what’s good enough for Austen ought to be good enough for anyone.