The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society is one of the longer titles in film history – and director Mike Newell loves it for precisely this reason. “You decode the title against the story of the film, and you do that as you go along,” he explains. “It amuses me that it is quoted three times in the first two minutes! I find that funny. It’s idiosyncratic and it leads you into an idiosyncratic experience.”
Saying the title in full, often at speed, became a running joke among the cast. “It took me forever to be able to say it,” admits Dutch actor Michiel Huisman who plays Dawsey. “We were all calling it ‘Guernsey’ on set for a while, but then we went back to the full title — and I kind of love it. I asked a few people to say it for me, and suddenly it became like a melody instead of all these words.”
Based on the internationally bestselling novel of the same name, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society tells the story of Juliet Ashton (Lily James), a free-spirited, successful writer living in post-war London.
Despite the success of her recent novel and support from her dear friend and publisher Sidney (Matthew Goode), she struggles to find inspiration for her writing after the harsh experiences of the war. Poised to accept a proposal from Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell), a dashing American GI, she receives an unexpected letter from a Guernsey farmer named Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman).
Juliet impulsively leaves for Guernsey, where she hopes to write about the curiously named book club that Dawsey has written to her about, formed by his fellow islanders under the German occupation in WW2.
Juliet is charmed by the island and inspired by the members shared love of literature. As a lifelong bond forms between this unlikely group of friends, Juliet soon realises that the society are hiding a heartbreaking secret, which they are afraid she may bring to the surface.
As Juliet and Dawsey become close, she begins to unravel what happened during the difficult years under the occupation and starts to understand why they are so afraid to tell her their story.
Her fate now intertwined with the society, Juliet must decide how to help her new friends and follow her heart, knowing that her life may change in ways she had never expected.
The Best-Selling Book
Retaining the title in its full glory also honours the spirit of the best-selling book of the same name on which the film is based.
Published in 2008, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society was co-authored by US writer Mary Ann Shaffer and her niece Annie Barrows, and consists entirely of letters. Shaffer visited Guernsey, one of the string of Channel Islands, not part of the UK but feels very English and is a Crown Dependency.
Shaffer was entranced by the island and intrigued by the islanders’ dramatic experiences during the Second World War.
She became interested in Guernsey while visiting London in 1976. On a whim, she decided to fly to Guernsey but became stranded there as a heavy fog descended and no boats or planes were permitted to leave the island. As she waited for the fog to clear, she came across a book called Jersey Under the Jack-Boot, and so her fascination with the Channel Isles began. Many years later, when goaded by her own literary club to write a book, Mary Ann naturally thought of Guernsey.
“Like most Americans Mary Ann had no idea the Channel Islands had been occupied by the Germans during War,” says Annie Barrows, who is Shaffer’s niece. “She became fascinated by the story of the occupation and the people who had lived through it. She spent the next 20 years of her life researching the subject.”
In 2006, Shaffer’s manuscript was accepted for publication. However she became gravely ill before it was finished. Barrows stepped in.
“Mary Ann called me and said, ‘You’re the other writer in this family. Will you finish this book for me?’” Barrows recalls. “I sat down to read it, and I was thrilled by it. It was like listening to Mary Ann talk and there was nothing more interesting than listening to Mary Ann talk.’’
“There was a lot of work to do on it,” she continues. “I thought it was impossible until I sat down to write. Two hours in, I thought to myself, ‘This is not impossible. This is going to be wonderful.’”
Aunt and niece had always been close. “I saw Mary Ann all my life, pretty much,” Barrows says. “Every other day at least. I knew how she would tell this story. When I began to write, I could hear it. I could hear what the next sentence was going to be even if it wasn’t there.” Barrows remembers Shaffer vividly describing the people she had met in Guernsey.
Shaffer died in February 2008 a few months before the novel was published. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society went on to become the number one-selling paperback on the New York Times’ bestseller list and a firm favourite among US book groups.
The book had come to the attention of US film producer Paula Mazur even before its literary success.
At galley stage it had first caught the eye of Miami-based independent bookseller Mitchell Kaplan, who reads books very early, often before publication, and very much wanted to make movies. He had been looking for a filmmaker with whom to have that conversation. Kaplan’s sister was Marcy Ross, president of Skydance TV, and she introduced him to Mazur.
Mazur’s producing credits included Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Science Of Intelligent Life in The Universe, Jessie Nelson’s Corrina, Corrina and Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. At the time she met Kaplan in 2008, she had just co-written and produced a feature adaptation of Wendy Orr’s children’s book Nim’s Island for Walden Media. Mazur was looking to work on the adaptation of further literary properties and the tip off from Kaplan about a yet unpublished book with incredible cinematic potential came at the right time.
“I thought the characters were unique, well-voiced and specific,” Mazur says of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. “They were funny, and there was a real originality to them.”
She was invigorated by the challenge of taking an epistolary novel, a novel of letters, one that took place in two time periods – 1946, with flashbacks to the war years 1940-45– and making a compelling story from it.
“I think one of the reasons the book did so well was that readers were truly moved by the fact this group could get through the war by leaning on each other, by having a book group and by reading,” Mazur suggests. “This felt like a really inspiring story to make into a movie.”
Together Mazur and Kaplan optioned the film rights and formed their new Los Angeles-based film and TV production outfit, the Mazur/Kaplan Company. Their partnership combines Kaplan’s ability to spot potential screen gems at the manuscript stage with Mazur’s Hollywood smarts.
In addition to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, they have produced an adaptation of Les Standford’s ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’, directed by Bharat Nalluri and starring Dan Stevens and Christopher Plummer, which was released theatrically in late 2017. Further projects in the works include an adaptation of A.S.A Harrison’s ‘The Silent Wife’ and Jennifer Niven’s ‘All The Bright Places’.
From page to screen
Working from a script by acclaimed writer-director Don Roos (Single White Female, The Opposite Of Sex), a US studio initially boarded The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but withdrew just weeks ahead of principal photography.
Mazur entirely reconfigured the project and UK distributor STUDIOCANAL initially boarded the project in 2013. Shortly thereafter Mazur brought in BAFTA-winning producers Graham Broadbent and Pete Czernin of London-based Blueprint Films, whose credits include In Bruges, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. At that point, UK screenwriter Kevin Hood came on to write a preliminary script.
New York based writer-director Thomas Bezucha, whose credits include The Family Stone, worked on a new draft of the script.
BAFTA-winning filmmaker Mike Newell signed on as director.
Newell, it was universally agreed, was the ideal talent to bring this unconventional, complex novel to the screen. With a history of directing a variety of successful films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Enchanted April and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the veteran film-maker had demonstrated his flair for comedy, romance and adventure – all aspects of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.
It also helped that Newell had a personal feel for the period depicted in the film. He was born in 1942, and grew up in St. Albans, 20 miles north of London in the post-war era. Newell instantly responded to Bezucha’s script.
“Thomas had somehow found a way of getting into the private recesses of Juliet’s imagination,” he explains.
Rising UK star Lily James, best known for her lead role in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Darkest Hour and MammaMia! Here We Go Again, plays Juliet, the young writer through whose eyes the story is told.
James herself jumped at the chance to play Juliet Ashton and cried the first time she read the script. “I’m very rarely moved to tears when I read a script. But the characters just get under your skin without your realising it. They were vivid, and there was a strong heart to the story.
“Then I read the book, which I really loved, and I really wanted to work with Mike Newell. He was passionate about the project, which was very infectious.”
James says she was very moved by the scene in which Juliet writes a letter to the Guernsey book club to tell them she’d been searching for a family. “They are a collection of people you wouldn’t necessarily see together,” she says. “The war forced people to club together in ways they wouldn’t have done before. And in this mismatched group there’s such passion and optimism.
“These people became a family to her. And she writes a whole book about them.”
Dutch actor Michiel Huisman, best known for his role as Daario Naharis in HBO’s Game of Thrones, and the film was cast as Dawsey, the Guernsey farmer who writes to Juliet in London after finding her name in a book.
One of the things I love about his relationship with Juliet is its randomness and coincidence,” Huisman reflects. “Dawsey is trying to get hold of more books, but there’s almost none on the island. So he writes a letter to someone in London who left her address on the inside cover of a book he owns. And that’s Juliet Ashton.
“It’s not until they meet each other that something grows between them. At first these two people seem to be complete opposites. She arrives, she’s a writer from London, he’s a farmer from the island who’s never travelled beyond it. But somehow, they grow closer and closer together.
The third major character in the story is Elizabeth McKenna, played by Jessica Brown Findlay. The acclaimed UK actor first came to prominence playing Lady Sybil Branson in the BBC TV series Downton Abbey. Elizabeth is the founding member of the Society and the one who comes up with its strange name. But when the story is discovered by Juliet, Elizabeth has disappeared.
“I was really excited to be part of a story that is about what happens in the wake of storming through people’s lives like that. Some people might find Elizabeth heroic, and she is. But she leaves behind so much, a daughter, and a group of people who are also deeply troubled and who then experienced additional loss because of what she did. But she has to act in the way she believes is right and that kind of frustrating brilliance and fearlessness was really attractive to me.”
Brown Findlay was deeply affected by the story’s depiction of the illicit book club meetings on Guernsey: “A lot of the books they read are about the human condition, what it is to be human, vulnerable, scared, in love, heartbroken, all those things. It’s very close to Elizabeth’s heart. And then Juliet comes in and is able to give life to all that. The members of the book group didn’t necessarily realise their own lives were a brilliant story.”
Visiting the Island That Inspired the Story
Visitors to Guernsey today can learn more about the context of the German Occupation and subsequent Liberation, as well as discover the places that provided the setting for the struggles and the friendships in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Visit the website