BASED ON: Netflix’s ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,’ and the Book That Inspired It

The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, screenplay by Don Roos, directed by Mike Newell based on a novel of the same title written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (Now streaming on Netflix.)

The Netflix original movie tells the story of the German occupation of the Channel Island of Guernsey during WWII and the ways in which the tiny island community copes with their situation. In some ways, they’re creative in their predicament: one small band forms a reading group, of sorts. In other ways, occupation becomes a veritable prison for the inhabitants and boredom ensues, evidenced by the serving of potato-peel pies as the culinary staple of choice.

The novel executes the story by way of written letters between the main characters. After the conclusion of the war, Juliet Ashton (played by the lovely Lily James of Downton Abbey fame) hears of the underground literary society and begins a written dialogue with the former members, in hopes of impressing her publisher in London. The entire novel then, alternates in these back and forth letters between her and the society. When she arrives at the island at novel’s mid-point, correspondence in this same letter form continues between her and her publisher, Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode).

The novel’s chosen medium is essentially personal narration for nearly 300 pages — it’s like reading dialogue the entire time, without there actually existing a line of dialogue. It makes for a tedious read to say the least. To borrow language from the translation field, I’m glad the filmmakers decided not to adapt this using formal equivalence. For had the film told the story entirely through letters, as the novel did, it would have required tremendous amounts of voiceover … a smart choice only if Terrence Malick directs your film.

Don Roos’ best adaptation technique is to write the story more in real time — Juliet interviews the islanders on past events, and her poking and prodding create the effect of an engaging procedural. Juliet soon uncovers the central tension between society members. They provide cover for Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, also from Downton Abbey) who mothered an out-of-wedlock daughter with one of the German officers.

Reading these events in the novel’s letters format produced what I would call a “settled effect.” Since the letters reference a past sin, the only thing left to do on the other side of its committal is to offer forgiveness. With the filmmakers’ adaptation choice to dispense with most of the letter writing, the morality takes on a more immediate effect. When Juliet first learns of Elizabeth cavorting with the Germans, an innkeepers’ judgmental quip on the whole indiscretion takes on a more considerable bite.

A wise screenwriting professor once told me when adapting material, try to answer the question: “What is the one thing the story is about?” The filmmakers accomplished that in capably updating this story of mercy and forgiveness. Discerning the “form” through which the novel tells the story, and determining whether or not that suited the big screen, was an even better question the filmmakers answered.

Image: Courtesy Netflix

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