Small stories stand out on an occupied island
People ‘were annoyed in a small, domestic, parish-pump way … Out of this you could get some funny things happening as well as some tragic things’
heavily on them. Juliet throws herself into the work of discovery; she is also drawn to the idea of writing about the society. At the same time, she is burdened by a sense of the responsibility that would be involved.
James understands this feeling, she says, referring to a scene in which Juliet says to herself, “‘What if I’m not a good enough writer?’ I don’t know many actors who feel, ‘I’ve got it’ or ‘I did that well’. I think most people are on a quest to figure out how to do it or what it is that makes something come alive or feel real. I think that’s what keeps us going.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was written by American editor and bookseller Mary Ann Shaffer, who visited the Channel Islands on holiday and was fascinated by the occupation stories she came across. Shaffer was in her 70s when she began the novel. It was accepted for publi- cation, but she died before the editing and rewriting could be completed. She entrusted it to her niece, children’s author Annie Barrows, to finish. The epistolary novel was published in 2008 and was on The New York Times bestseller list a year later.
This origins story was a pressure, too, James says. The film has just had its Guernsey premiere, and Barrows was in the audience. “It was the first time she’d seen the film, and she said she felt that her aunt would have been proud and happy. It must be so emotional for her because the film is so much about the love and power of books, of books bringing people together and creating family.”
Juliet feels another kind of creative dilemma: should she write what sells or write about what’s important to her?
It’s a theme that resonates with Newell, he’s happy to admit. As a filmmaker, “there’s the stuff you do because apart from anything else you have to pay the school fees, and the stuff that lies close to your heart that you’d do no matter what — and ( The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society) was one of those. If you look back on your working life, it probably splits down the middle.”
To achieve the authenticity he sought for the film’s small details, it proved impossible to shoot in the places that inspired the story. “The designer and I went to Guernsey 18 months ago, but the trouble is that it isn’t authentic any more. It’s been gentrified, it’s a wealthy, pretty holiday island, and it would cost a fortune to bring it back to the sort of shabbiness that it would have had.”
They shot the film in Devon and Cornwall but did their best to create and maintain a sense of place during production.
“We took a large room, and the designers put up every picture they could lay their hands on that would show you what it was like back then, so we would consult that regularly,” Newell says. “I would take the actors round and show them, they were all very aware of the historical details.”
Another issue, he says, was the place of reading in the narrative. The book group is formed by accident, we learn in the film’s opening scene, but its literary foundation turns out to be very important. This was an element of the novel that wasn’t easy to bring to the screen, Newell says. He remembers an early preview that had a favourable response, apart from an observation that struck home. An audience member said: “There’s not enough reading in the film.”
The movie had been completed and there wasn’t a budget for reshoots, Newell says, but there was a solution at hand, “a clean, clear way of doing it”. They filmed some extra material for the closing credits in which we are offered scenes from meetings of the reading group in full flight, “when you get this wild mishmash of enthusiasms, bits of Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare and Treasure Island, on and on and on. It was a terrific lot of fun selecting that.”
Lily James in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society