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’

The Australian - - ARTS - MIKE NEWELL DI­REC­TOR

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

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