I want to preface this ‘review’ by saying that I have seen a lot of poor reviews online for the film in the last couple of days. However, many of these reviews say that this film is really just for fans of the book. My advice then, is become a fan of the book. It will only take one reading. It will have you hooked from page one and then you can go and enjoy the film like I, and many others, have.
In January of 1946, Juliet Ashton is finding her feet as a writer post-World War II. She found success and a fair amount of money writing her own column during the war but now she needs a topic to keep her captivated as well as all her new readers. It’s in the same month that she begins getting letters from a Mr. Dawsey Adams on the island of Guernsey after he finds himself in possession of one of Juliet’s old books. He tells her about the German occupation of the island and of a literary society that he and some of the other islanders formed during the occupation. Over the course of 5 months, Juliet receives letters from many of the members of the society. As she gets to know them more and more, she decides to visit the island and that’s where she finds her next idea for a book – and a whole lot more.
It is no secret that I have been looking forward to the film adaption of this book for a very long time – finally, today, I saw it. I haven’t felt this much excitement to see a film since the last Harry Potter films came out and that comparison alone showed me how much I love this book. In my eyes, it is a near perfect story, finding the balance between romance, tragedy, comedy and sheer perfection.
There are, of course, limitations to adapting a book like this. The biggest limitation of all is that the story is entirely told letters or other written pieces. For those of you who have been around here long enough, you’ll know that epistolary novels are my absolute favourite – tell me a book is written through letters and you’ve already sold me. Unfortunately, letters do not translate well to screen – especially when there’s a lot of them. This is one thing that this film did well.
Most of the physical letters were taken out of the story for the film – in fact, we don’t hear from any of the other society members until Juliet reaches Guernsey, we only hear from Dawsey. The content of the letters, however, is all there in the form of flashbacks. They could have so easily been tacky but the flashbacks are well done.
There is also the time limit of a film. This has a solid two hour run time but it just isn’t enough to fit it all in and I don’t harbour any hard feelings against anyone for leaving the bits out that they did – the novel is dense after all (in the best way). There are a few storylines and characters that are left out that I would have loved to have seen (I will keep them vague so as not to spoil the story for anyone who is yet to be acquainted with it) – the book tour (the tea throwing!!), the Oscar Wilde plotline, Sophie, John Booker and much of Sidney’s storyline are missing as well as the visitation and memories of Remy. This last point I was incredibly disappointed not to see – I think it would have really strengthened Elizabeth’s presence in the story – but they were as tactful as they could be in their handling of leaving it out.
However, in their place there were a few additions and surprises. The character of Isola Pribby was wonderfully handled by Katherine Parkinson (who we all know and love from The IT Crowd) and I particularly loved the way they honed in on the friendship between herself and Juliet. Eben Ramsay was another character who I had liked well enough in the book but grew to love even more in the film.
So, I guess that just leaves Juliet (Lily James) and Dawsey (Michiel Huisman). Huisman’s Dawsey was adequate – he was a little more outspoken in the film than he is in the book but it wasn’t too much or so offbeat that it was jarring. Juliet is quite possibly my favourite female character of all time alongside some Austen heroines. I love Lily James, too, so I was pleased to hear that she would be playing Juliet and while I think she did very well, I think there were some missteps in the writing of the film leaving Juliet to not be quite the leading lady I love so much in the book. Despite that, you can’t help but love Juliet or Lily James and getting Juliet right would be no small task, so I was pretty happy with the result.
I was disappointed to find out that much of the film wasn’t shot on Guernsey but there was still plenty of scenery to enjoy. I also felt that there could have been more emphasis on the meetings of the literary society – Juliet only goes once while she is on the island. I did love the audio as the credits rolled of the society members defending their books – it was a good nod to the origins of the society.
Overall, I think this film did a good job of adapting a novel that has fierce fans. I will absolutely watch it again even though I do not think that it has the staying power of the book. I could read the book over and over again back to back, easily. The film somehow doesn’t quite capture that but then again, maybe that’s because it’s a story about the power of books, not about the power of film.
I would recommend reading the book before you go. If you’re worried about it taking a while to read, don’t be – you’ll be flicking the pages so quickly you won’t know what’s come over you.