What the Movie Got Right: Reviewing “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”

It may be blasphemy to say this, but in some ways, the movie was better.

Don’t get me wrong: I love The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society novel. It’s a wonderful book, one that I own, have read and plan to read again, multiple times. Its epistolary format, which is not easy to get right, is very well done, and the characters are delightful. It’s a great book about the healing powers of friendship and reading, and a good portrait of a traumatized period in history: World War II and its aftermath. Despite the darkness of their times, the characters find hope, healing, laughter, and even love. This is a great positive message, one that can be applied to our own times.

This doesn’t change the fact that the movie, released on Netflix in August 2018, had more resonance in some respects.

The book is more a series of vignettes and short stories than a novel; the overall plot only loosely strings the individual scenes and anecdotes together. This would have been next to impossible to get right in movie format, and the movie didn’t try. Instead, it has a nice, coherent plot, with fewer twists and turns, and extraneous characters eliminated. I was sorry to miss some of the historical anecdotes, but glad the movie didn’t try to include them all. Instead, it has just enough flashbacks to explain the present plot and the characters’ actions and motivations.

And, ah, those characters. The characters in the book are quirky and delightful—but just a wee bit too cheerful. Juliet Ashton, the protagonist in both book and movie, identifies Americans as being “unmangled” by the war—but she doesn’t show many signs of being mangled herself. None of the characters do. They’re all just a little too energetic, too cheerful, too optimistic and friendly, for people who’ve just come out of occupation, bombing, and the sheer, nauseating stress of World War II.

They’re also a little too forgiving and liberal. It seems rather unlikely that people living in occupied Guernsey would completely and cheerfully accept Elizabeth McKenna’s affair with a German officer, as the Society members do in the book; or, at least, that they would do so without some initial disapproval or resistance. That none of the islanders bat an eyelid at Sidney’s homosexuality also rang a little false. Yes, I know Brits back then were more accepting of homosexuality in practice than in theory, but still. There was a little too much extending of hands in friendship in the book, both in the present plot and in the remembered vignettes.

By contrast, the characters in the movie are far darker and more complex. The movie Juliet is definitely mangled by the war: she can’t step into a new apartment without a hideous flashback to when her first apartment was bombed. Her uneasy relationship with Markham V. Reynolds is amply illustrated, as is her disorientation at the end of the war and her sense of displacement. What in the book comes across as a vague sense of frustration and restlessness is portrayed in the movie as a desperate yearning to escape—and the developing realization that Markham is not the right escape route.

One thing I do wish the movie had copied the book in was Juliet’s developing epistolary friendship with the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. That was beautifully done in the book: Juliet builds sturdy relationships with members of the Society, as well as a few other islanders, by mail, and her going over the island itself felt perfectly natural, as did her warm welcome. The movie rushed it: Juliet invites herself over after only a few letters, and, while it’s made clear that this is due to a desire to escape her life in London as much as her own curiosity, it still felt too abrupt, and out of character.

But what she finds on Guernsey in the movie rings very true. While the book paints a picture of a healing landscape, in the movie the island is still extremely traumatized. Juliet does not receive a warm welcome and the Society members are hiding some secrets, both within the Society, and within themselves. This is a darkness that is almost completely absent in the book, but makes for a wonderful movie.

The movie also does a good job of cutting out extra characters in order to focus more deeply on the ones it keeps. Amelia Maugery is a great example of this. In the book, like the other characters, she’s just a little too cheerful and untrammeled. She’s also a little too unfazed by the German occupation, and by a foreign writer crashing into their midst (of course, in the book, she and Juliet are already good friends by the time Juliet arrives in Guernsey). In the movie, she greets Juliet with hostility, and we slowly discover a woman with a complicated history of loss in the first and second World Wars, and an understandable fear and hatred of German invaders. She’s terrified that Kit McKenna, whom she regards as a granddaughter, will be taken away and she’ll lose yet more family to the Germans. And she’s wracked with guilt over failing to support Elizabeth McKenna in her pregnancy—and it’s telling that she did fail to support her, due to being unable to get past her prejudices. Amelia is a darker character in the movie than in the book but a far more believable one.

The same is true for the other characters in the movie: they are darker, more complex, and more interesting than they are in the book. Even Adelaide Addison, a minor character who is caricatured in the book as a pompous, self-righteous old biddy, becomes something altogether more malicious in the movie, whispering poison and going through Juliet’s things. The characters’ reactions to Elizabeth’s affair with Christian Hellman were also far more believable than the cheerful, loving acceptance they show in the book. Juliet is horrified to learn that Elizabeth had a child with a German officer; a flashback shows Adam Dawsey trying to drive Christian off with a hostile poem at a Society meeting and Amelia is utterly unable to countenance Elizabeth’s pregnancy—with the result that she eventually loses Elizabeth. Adam’s terrified refusal to help Elizabeth save the escaped slave worker rang true for a stressed and frightened inhabitant of occupied territory—as did his guilt for the tragic consequences.

More minor characters are also more believably dark and complicated in the movie than they were in the book. The movie successfully illustrates the atmosphere of exhaustion and trauma hanging over both Guernsey and London, and there’s a sense of low-grade but steady anger emanating from even nameless characters. They’re healing—but slowly, and in some cases not at all. The sense of daily, exhausted effort is conveyed successfully, as is the strength needed to heal.

That this strength can be found in books and friendship is successfully conveyed by both the book and the movie. In both formats, the characters forge deep relationships of love, family and friendship through their shared stories and their shared love of reading. Juliet forges a new life for herself through love and writing and while the movie portrays this process more starkly, the novel shows it as well. Books and stories can get us through the worst of times—and that, ultimately, is what novel and movie both got right.