Toe to Toe: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Let me repeat my favorite mantra: literature changes lives. Pick a few of my reviews at random, and my point will be proven. Mary Ann Shaffer must have also strongly believed that when she started writing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Say what? What about potatoes?

I know I know. It’s a very odd title, but does it grab your attention and reel you in? Of course, and that’s why it’s a great title. That’s what great books deserve, and that’s exactly what Shaffer’s novel is.

I read this novel at the beginning of the pandemic (apologies for the delay!), and it easily earned four flames. It was moving, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and just a great story. It’s also a movie on Netflix that came out in 2018. Many people have recommended this book to me, including my friend Danielle, who I watched this movie with virtually (#coronavirus). After indulging in this adventure yet again — as well as Michiel Huisman who dreamily plays Dawsey Adam — I decided to take the movie and book toe to toe.

Round 1: Structure

I love seeing variety in the way stories are told. Whereas pattern and routine are musts in my own life, they can become boring in art, which is why I love when writers stray from straight chronology and interactions. Give me flashbacks; give me multiple perspectives; give me something different from the norm. Guernsey does just that.

Winner: Book. You hear often that movies can do more visually than books because of their nature. In terms of structure, though, writing offers more variety, comprehension, and intrigue. Guernsey, which could have easily told the story through narration and scenes as they happen, proves that, especially compared with the movie’s limitations.

Shaffer (and later Annie Barrows who finished the book when Shaffer fell ill) took an interesting route by telling the original version exclusively through letters. How extraordinary to view the characters’ thoughts and feelings only through what they write to others. As a reader, you have to inherently read through the lines, which is exactly how the recipients of the letters would have had to perceive them. Few characters in this book explicitly express themselves, and it’s intriguing and fun to guess true intent through their own retelling of scenes and their mild profession of feeling. At many times, for example, I felt like the best friend who snickered and shook my head while reading Juliet’s poor attempt to cover up her attraction toward Dawsey. It amused me, and I took great joy from it.

The movie’s structure, which does include some flashbacks, doesn’t provide the same punch that the book does. In general, it tells the drama through traditional means. I don’t believe this lowers the movie’s worth, but it does highlight the power of written word, which we see in the book as an entity, through its structure of letters, and through its messages. Speaking of which, let’s proceed to round 2 …

Round 2: Message and themes

Structure goes a long way toward delivering a message; doing so through a different way allows it to be heard at a greater volume and to reach more people. And Guernsey has some excellent themes and messages it conveys: the varying impacts of war, sacrifice, being disenfranchised, loneliness, the Holocaust, and the importance of books.

Winner: Book. The cinematic tale was a lovely story and a joy to watch, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was just a story and that the power behind its messages didn’t fully extend through the screen. Don’t get me wrong: I really did like this movie; however, I can only recall one scene, toward the beginning, where I felt the emotion of what it was trying to say.

In the book, though, I continuously felt every message and theme that the authors conveyed. The message of how powerful books can be lasted from the beginning to the final page, and I had a deep connection with the characters because of our shared literary love. (I definitely had some cheesy “THIS IS WHY I LOVE BOOKS” moments.) Furthermore, the impact of war on the characters and, by extension, the influence of their experiences was palpable. I also felt tears brim my eyes while reading the book, which rarely happens. That has to count for something, right?

Round 3: Visuals

While books usually have the upper hand with structure, movies almost always win the visual category. It’s just inherent in how they are consumed. Sometimes, though, movies don’t always do scenery and description justice, which can be a letdown.

Winner: Movie. Fortunately, I did not have that experience this time around. That seemed intentional too. With Guernsey on the silver screen, I felt like there was a greater emphasis on the island’s beauty. It was every much a character as the people were, and the filmmakers really wanted that to come across.

The moment Juliet arrives to Guernsey, Danielle and I exchanged these texts at the same time:

D: This scenery. Heart eye emoji. Heart eye emoji. Heart eye emoji.

B: … This place is beautiful. 

You can’t deny how stunning the scenery really is, though I was saddened to learn the film was not shot on the island itself.

Shaffer’s written version definitely didn’t lose the island’s majestic qualities, but it was less pronounced. She seemed more focused on the messages and feeling of the story, which gives the movie the upper hand in this category.

In addition, I love the vintage look that’s achieved through the cinematic adaptation’s muted color scheme. It reminds me of old documentaries that really capture the spirit and attitudes of the time where experiences really did seem bleak. And let me just mention Juliet’s clothing. Oh how I want that wardrobe!

Overall winner: Book.

This is the fifth toe-to-toe post I’ve written, and now four of the five have the book coming out on top. (Yes, we have a sixth post where cinema wins, but that was written by guest reviewer, Nick Coffman, and not yours truly.) So you must think I have a bias toward books.

I certainly do and will never deny it. The written word just has this magical quality that I will never quite perceive in visual art. Whereas the latter has visuals and voices decided for you, books allow you to use your own imagination, making the experience of this storytelling type more compelling and intriguing — almost as if your own opinions and musings contribute to the overall effect.

That’s usually the case for all novels that are then adapted for the screen. And with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the authors really delivered an emotional story that uses creative techniques and tools to hone in on the message. That’s why the book takes the potato peel pie (*ahem* the cake) in this battle.

You might be wondering where Guernsey is; I certainly did. It’s one of two islands (the other being Jersey) in the English Channel. Yes, it has been added to my list.

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