Good things do occasionally happen on Facebook. I posted about how much I loved the movie “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” (on Netflix), and Santa Monica civic leader Shawn Landres asked whether I knew that the film’s producer Paula Mazur is a local. I didn’t, but he connected us and I’m delighted that he did.
I’m not someone who watches anything twice but I did, both before and after reading the novel, and was impressed to see how the adaptation differed from, yet carried the heart and soul of, the novel.
A BOOK OF LETTERS
What does it take to adapt a best-selling epistolary novel (comprised entirely of letters) into a narrative feature film? Well, says Paula, “It’s a project that started ten years ago and we went through seven leading ladies, four directors, and I lost count, but at least 20 versions of the script!” What they arrived at, in my opinion, is perfect casting and a wonderfully pared down version of the plot and characters.
Lily James (Downton Abbey, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again) and Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones, Nashville) have such great chemistry as the two leads, but there’s also the classic British actress, Penelope Wilton (also from Downton) as Amelia, Matthew Goode as Sidney (another Downton alum, also The Good Wife) and the utterly delightful Katherine Parkinson as Isola, an early hippie. They were guided by the very sure hand of director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).
The first thing you should know is that the book was written by a librarian/editor, Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, a children’s book author. Sadly, before completing the book, Shaffer died. Annie, the only other writer in the family, finished the project. It became a huge bestseller.
Set just after World War II in England with flashbacks to the war years on the island of Guernsey (occupied by the Germans), the story revolves around a successful London-based author Juliet Ashton (James), who receives a letter from a Guernsey pig farmer, Dawsey Adams (Huisman). He’s found her address (her home, since destroyed in the blitz) inside a book by Charles Lamb and asks if she might get him more of Lamb’s work since Guernsey’s still recovering and has limited resources. The letters lead to a wonderful meeting of book-loving minds, and the story of how the oddly-named book club, “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” came to be.
Juliet has been restless in London and goes to Guernsey to meet the book club members, uncover their story and find out how they made it through the occupation, rediscovering her passion for writing and finding another kind of passion with Dawsey.
ADAPTING FROM ONE MEDIUM TO ANOTHER
Paula Mazur, who’s lived in Santa Monica for 20 years and whose company primarily adapts books and plays to screen, says that she met a renowned independent bookseller who told her, “I read books that I think might make good movies but I have no one to talk to about it. So I said, OK, then send me one. And he sent Guernsey. I realized immediately this was right up my alley. That began the process 10 years ago.”
She continued, “When I’m reading something to see if it could be a movie, I read very slowly and imagine it as I’m reading it.” While that might seem to be some kind of alchemical wizardry, she says, “It’s just training, the same way you learn how to cook a good steak, you learn how to do it with practice over time.”
In the process of making the movie, Paula says, “You always condense, combine characters, create some conflict, and of course, you’re always biting your nails, knowing that people will miss this character or that. But you try to hold the intention of the book and do the best you can.
“We’re always willing to let writers be as involved as they want, but in Annie Barrows’ case, she told us to let her know when it’s in theatres. She came to visit us on set at Ealing Studios in London and said she’d never read the script. So I gave it to her and didn’t sleep that night. The next day she called and said she loved it. There are some changes, slight tonal differences, the kind of thing you encounter when you take things from one artistic medium to the other, but she was incredibly supportive and loves the film.”
Paula Mazur is also grateful to Studio Canal and to Netflix for strong support; Studio Canal released the film theatrically in multiple overseas markets and Netflix bought the film for the US market.
The London red carpet premiere was beautiful, and they opened the Barcelona Film Festival. But, says Paula, it was the Guernsey screening that was extraordinary. “They invited us there and decided it was to be a black-tie premiere for 450 people. We flew everybody in who was able to come, and we were there with people whose family members were alive then. It was very personal and they were so appreciative to see their story on screen. It’s the highlight of why you do this, you’ve told a story and someone says, you got it right.”
You’ll find “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” streaming on Netflix.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.