One must always be wary of the adaptation of a great - or, at least, beloved - work of literature into another medium. Something is always lost in the translation, and one cannot always be certain that anything will be gained.
Fears can be set aside in the case of Netflix's take on The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This was an epistolary novel set in the immediate aftermath of WWII, in London and Guernsey, with a charming balance of whimsy and PTSD. How do good-humored people grapple with surviving a tragedy? How does one laugh when the world is burning, or when walking among the ashes?
In this case, one tells a fairly simple story of people who are mostly good and drawn together by chance, and one casts several people from Downton Abbey to assist.
You may be curious, first, as to how I came to adore the story and how honestly came I to my skepticism of an adaptation. Well, you see, I read the book first as a recommendation from a book club - a literary society, if you will - in the summer of 2009, just as the book was cresting the NY Times bestseller list. The simple construction of letters from and to Juliet allows for a fairly swift advancement of plot (it’s not a thick tome), but rich portraits of many characters for all that they’re just pencil sketches. I re-read this book at least twice, returning for the tales of love - between friends, for stories, and romantic, too.
Written by Mary Ann Shaffer with assistance from her niece Annie Barrows, the story follows writer Juliet as she embarks on a book tour to support the collection of comedic essays she wrote during the London blitz. She’s dealing with the loss of her parents and fiance, and her flat, but has good friends in her publisher, Sydney, and his sister Sophie. While being pursued by an American gent, she receives a letter from Dawsey, who came upon one of her books (as in, a book that used to belong to her and so had her name on the flyleaf) by happenstance, and wrote to her to ask for recommendations for more to read by that author. They become pen pals and she learns about the titular society of which he is a part. She decides to write about how literature sustains us as humans and this group in particular, and heads to Guernsey for research. As one might imagine, she has a hard time leaving.
The movie is fairly faithful to the original, excising some characters and simplifying the way the society learns about the fate of Elizabeth. Played by actress Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil in DA), she is only seen in flashbacks, but spoken of often, as she invented the society, and left behind a little girl named Kit. Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) is a quiet charmer and pig farmer and the guardian of Kit, and for a while it’s unclear if he’s also her father. The book introduces a French woman, Remy, who knew Elizabeth as a sort of rival for Dawsey’s affection, but in the film Juliet is only contending with the memories of Elizabeth and her own indecisiveness (she’s proposed to by that American bloke - twice! in the book - but ultimately turns him down, because we all know she belongs in trousers on that pig farm, writing all the books).
Juliet is played by Lily James (Cousin Rose on DA - where Findlay’s character also dies before the two meet!), and I was very skeptical of how she might pull off playing the writer I’d loved so much. Happily, she was not too saccharine, conveying the moments of grief and post-trauma and ambivalence that anyone, even a generally optimistic and sunny person, would truly feel in the aftermath of a war (and the revelations of her friends’ stories). When the script oversimplifies, James is able to convey satisfying complexity beneath. And, as the character of Sophie is mostly cut, Juliet’s friendship with Sydney (the yummy Matthew Goode, another DA alum) is plummy and delightful.
Particularly poignant in the film is the depiction of when, early in the war, the islanders send their children away in anticipation of the German occupation. Society member Eben (Tom Courtenay) has to put his grandson, Will, on the boat. The scene is mostly designed to show how Elizabeth was a beacon to all (she gives her father’s medal to the little boy to keep his spirits up), but it was one of the most gut punching elements. The Nazis shown in the flashbacks aren’t actually that terrifying, but imagining what kind of fear would inspire you to ship your children away to a theoretical haven is plenty harrowing (to me, a parent). As noted in this review, the story/movie could easily have been strengthened by even more foregrounding of Elizabeth.
Without spoiling much more, I’ll simply say the rest of the cast is pretty spot-on (in particular, Penelope Wilton, who plays Amelia; like her character Isobel Crawley in DA, she is materteral to the younger characters, and embodies grief and joy and indignance like nobody else). (But I also liked Katherine Parkinson, who brings a sweet vibrancy to the closeted spinster Isola that could have been too goofy or pathetic in less deft hands.) The script is warm, if reductive. The direction is straightforward but lovely, with the seaswept vistas and rocky walks you’d hope for in a period piece set on an island in the Channel. I don’t know that I’ll return to the film as often as I did the book, but it is as cozy as a shepherd’s pie and a worthwhile companion if you’ve a fire going and a hot toddy in hand.