“If books do have the power to bring people together, maybe this one will work its magic.”
This sentiment is at the core of the recent film adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s charming novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. In this story, books establish romances, unlikely friendships, and new life directions.
The film’s heroine, London-based author Juliet Ashton, finds comfort in books and her writing career in the wake of World War II. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, a group of friends on the island of Guernsey takes comfort from their weekly book club, which had become their saving grace when Nazis took over their island during the war. The club members have dubbed themselves “the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” in reference to their love of literature and to a pie made from potatoes and potato peels, which they ate at their first meeting. Food scarcity during the war made real desserts scarce, but they found humor in it when they faced it together at their meetings.
The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society opens in the aftermath of the war and focuses on Juliet Ashton’s unlikely friendship with these book club members on Guernsey. Those relationships, which grow from perseverance during hardship and a common love for books, are the lifeblood of this screen adaptation and do excellent justice to the original novel.
As a devoted fan of the book, I approached the movie with cautious optimism and was pleased overall with the result. Though the film structures the story differently than it is presented in the book, the movie retained the joyful spirit of its source material and stayed true to the book’s themes of friendship, love for reading, and the power of books to enrich the lives of individuals and communities.
The novel version is unique, as the story unfolds almost exclusively through letters exchanged between the primary characters. It’s a delight to read, but as this format would be difficult to translate to a screen, the fundamental changes for the film were understandable overall.
In the book, Juliet Ashton is a London-based writer who is searching for a new writing project. In the midst of this career uncertainty, she unexpectedly builds pen-pal friendships with the group of Guernsey islanders who formed their book club during World War II. Soon, she expresses interest in her letters to all of them that she might like to write about their book club for her next writing endeavor, and she gains their trust as they continue to exchange letters. After many months and many letters, she does write about them, and then she excitedly travels to Guernsey to spend personal time with the people she has already come to know on paper.
By contrast, the film depicts Juliet as much more eager to meet the Guernsey book club members in person almost immediately. While she does still exchange letters before traveling to Guernsey, she does not wait long to go, and she has only written to one of the book club members before deciding to try to meet all of them in person. When she arrives in Guernsey onscreen, she appears initially too eager, even off-putting for some of the Guernsey residents, and she soon realizes she must learn how to win the islanders’ trust during her stay. This is a noticeable contrast to the book, in which she was sure of the affection and trust of all the book club members before she went to Guernsey.
In the film, Juliet’s need to prove herself worthy of the islanders’ trust drives the other main difference from the book. The founder of the Guernsey book club, Elizabeth McKenna, is also central to the story. In both the book and the movie, Elizabeth remains physically absent from Guernsey, and the audience learns her story alongside Juliet. Eventually, Juliet learns that Elizabeth was arrested and deported from Guernsey before the end of the war, and her fate becomes a key plot point. The film ties Elizabeth and Juliet more closely together than the book by giving Juliet a major part in discovering what became of Elizabeth. This role helps Juliet do the work of winning over the approval of other members of the Guernsey book club.
In the book, however, Juliet remains a spectator of Elizabeth’s fate along with her Guernsey friends. She has already grown close to them by the time Elizabeth’s fate becomes known in the book, so she is able to walk that journey with them. It is understandable that the film would see a need to give Juliet a more active role in this storyline since onscreen, she still has to win their full trust after meeting them.
Despite these differences, the film’s emotional heart and message delighted me just as much as the book’s. Books, friendship, and community amidst trial are at the forefront of both. In the book and the film, books and reading are the launching points for Juliet’s connection to the islanders. The film also rightly emphasizes how both Juliet and the Guernsey residents have found comfort and safety in books and community during the harrowing years of World War II.
In the novel, the mother figure of the book club, Amelia Maugery, writes to Juliet, “our evenings together became bright, lively times – we could almost forget, now and then, the darkness outside.” In the film, another club member, a farmer named Dawsey Adams, writes a similar sentiment to Juliet about how the book club helped them during the war: “Our Friday night book club became a refuge for us, a private freedom to feel the world growing darker all around you but needing only a candle to see new worlds unfold.”
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a delightful novel about friendship, reading, and surviving tragedy. Overall, the film adaptation adheres to these themes beautifully, despite its variations in structure from the book. The movie is carried by a talented cast and gorgeous scenery and cinematography, but the messages about community and love of reading give the film its greatest strength. Audiences will come away from the film with new inspiration to persevere in their friendships, consider how reading has enriched their lives, and perhaps take steps to build new friendships through books as the characters in the film do.