WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW ABOUT “TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE” AND “THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Yes, I’m still alive. No, I haven’t been trapped under an armoire, nor have I moved to Peru. And no, this article is not about “Outlander.”
Like all parents, I’ve been drowning in the holy hellscape of need that is children in summer. And now that my little ones are blissfully back in school, I can get back to really important things… like bing-watching Netflix movies.
As this blog is dedicated to adaptation, I will skip the guilty pleasures–something called “The Kissing Booth,” which, by all measures, is not a good movie, but which does feature a human being who looks like this:
Sweet mother of pearl, I know I’m twice this kid’s age, but he’s 18 and I’m allowed to stare…
Anyway, we’re not talking about that, nor or we talking about the truly unwatchable Netflix fare (I’m looking at you, “Insatiable.”)
No, I am pleased to report that this week the streaming app that has eaten all other modes of entertainment actually churned out two delightful adaptations.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”
Based on the book by Jenny Han, which I reviewed LAST SUMMER, this book is a bit of an Asian “Sense and Sensibility,” with a little “Can’t Buy Me Love” thrown in. It’s a fairly simple plot: 17-year-old Lara Jean has written five love letters in her life to five different boys she was at some point in love with. The letters were never meant to be sent, of course—just tucked away in a hat box in the closet.
But then, somehow, they get mailed. What’s a girl to do?
Well, obviously become the “fake” girlfriend of one of the boys (teenage heartthrob Peter), so that the boy she’s still in love with, Josh—who happens to be her older sister’s now-ex-boyfriend—won’t know she’s still in love with him. Make sense? Don’t worry about it. The plot, as Kurt Vonnegut famously said, is just a bribe to get them to keep reading.
The movie version is really well done—charming, brisk, and anchored by a lovely (and often hysterical) performance by Lana Condor as Lara Jean.
Now does it measure up to the book? Well, sure. I mean, listen, movies are only 90 minutes long these days. So if your favorite part of a book is the B story, or the C story, or really anything that isn’t the A story, you’re going to find the film wanting.
Short-changed in this adaptation are everything involving Lara Jean’s dad and the backstory with her deceased mom; all things Korean (the descriptions of the food and pastries alone take up half the book, mostly missing here); and, perhaps most egregiously, the development of the relationship with the next-door neighbor (and sister dater) Josh, who is relegated to sad-eyed puppy status here.
I was also a little thrown by the fact that the actors playing Josh and Peter look exactly the same to me. Anyone else?
But all of that can be forgiven thanks to the instant chemistry between Miss Condor and Noah Centineo as Peter, who comes across as a bit more dorky (and for that reason, adorable) then I had read him in the book.
This is definitely one I’ll watch again.
Adaptation score: 8 out of 10
And next we have:
“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”
The other adaptation on Netflix this week is of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.” The backstory on this book is interesting. Despite its awfully twee name (and I hate all things twee), the novel is engaging, soulful, and oddly funny considering it deals with the Nazi occupation of the isle of Guernsey, part of the Channel Islands between England and France.
The book was written over many years by Miss Shaffer, and when the publisher requested significant rewrites and Miss Shaffer was too infirm to do it herself, her niece Miss Barrows finished the project. Now, I don’t know for sure what rewrites the publisher wanted, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it was the love story subplot.
And why do I say that? Well, it’s not that I don’t like the love story. I LOVE love stories. It’s just that the book is trying to do many things at once: be a detective novel, a memoir, a historical treatise, and, most importantly, make us fall in love with the eclectic group of islanders who forged their way through the worst possible occurrence with an abundance of humor, wit, and comradery (as well as some good books).
The love story can, in the book anyway, feel a bit forced into the mix.
The plot of the book revolves around Juliet Ashton, an English writer in the 1940s who’s just published a hit compilation of witty and smart wartime articles she wrote under the pseudonym of Izzy Bickerstaff. While Juliet is happy for the success, she fears she might become nothing more than a comic writer, when all along the comedy was meant only to patch over the extraordinary pain of the war.
After receiving a letter from a man named Dawsey Adams from the isle of Guernsey (played in the movie by Netflix’s catch-all “hot dude” Michiel Huisman), she decides to visit Guernsey to see if there’s an article to be found in their tale of surviving the German occupation by creating a fake literary society. When she gets there, she becomes enthralled by the group’s missing leader, a young woman named Elizabeth McKenna, who was arrested by the Nazis, leaving a young daughter behind (now being raised by Dawsey and the rest of the literary society).
The book is told as a series of letters written by the protagonist, Juliet, to and from several other people, and sometimes between those other people.
The problem with this format is that it can’t help but be quite passive. Information is revealed instantly in letter form, as letters by definition merely relay information about something that’s already happened. So while the book is charming and the characters feel three-dimensional, it sometimes lacks the element of surprise.
It works well for a while, but towards the end of the book, as the love story is coming to a head, you can almost feel the author (I’m assuming Miss Barrows by this point), trying desperately to make letter-writing active and surprising.
The movie has attempted to fix this situation by chopping up the order of revelations a bit, while upping the stakes for Juliet. In the book, for example, Juliet is considering a proposal by her American boyfriend; in the movie, they’re engaged. In the book, Juliet receives a couple menacing letters from the island’s resident busybody Charlotte Stimple; in the movie, she boards at Charlotte’s house once reaching the island, thus being lorded over by Charlotte’s disapproving rapprochements.
This significant shift in Juliet’s temporary address allows the reveal of Elizabeth McKenna’s house, which had been Juliet’s residence in the novel, to be pushed to midway through the film, giving it more weight.
The biggest change, however, has to do with the literary society itself, and their relationship with Juliet. In the book, the matter of whether or not they will give Juliet permission to write about them is settled early on, but in the movie, their refusal, and, in particular, the reluctance of leader Amelia (played to perfection by the amazing actress Penelope Wilton, not given nearly enough screen time here), hangs over the whole film.
While this change may have seemed like a great way to add some tension to the situation, it makes for a bit of a dilemma: if Juliet isn’t allowed to write about the society, then what the hell is she doing there?
The movie makes a few other significant changes, revealing the parentage of Elizabeth’s daughter much later (thus allowing Juliet to assume Dawsey is the father), and omitting the unnecessary character of French waif Remy.
Honestly, it was still a lovely movie, and one I enjoyed despite (or perhaps because of) the changes. But the part I really couldn’t help but miss was the tone of the book. Despite its heady theme, the book is light and usually quite fun, with Juliet coming across as a smart, biting His Girl Friday with a soft side.
Juliet in the movie, as played by Lily James, is lovely and charming… but somehow not the same woman. Of course, that’s why they call it adaptation, right? The movie is not the book, but more of a distant cousin, living on a faraway island somewhere, telling a story of its own.
Adaptation score: 7 out of 10
Till next time,
Don’t miss Chris’s recaps of “The Handmaid’s Tale” here.
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*Photos courtesy of Netflix