From Book to Film

I’m one of those people who gnashes their teeth at historical travesties in movies, or novels for that matter, so I’ve held off seeing The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society until the initial excitement died down. The book raised some heckles in the island as the setting portrayed wasn’t ‘Guernsey’ enough. One handicap was the format of the book as an epistolary novel (told via letters), so struggling to establish a sense of place and missing idioms of local speech patterns as well as the Guernsey French which was still in common use during WW2. Less forgivable was the absence of ‘local’ names, easily researched, and I indeed gained the impression of a Scottish island rather than the one I knew well.

And that is the problem – I’m too close to the subject, as I am if the film features the Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Wars and indeed most other historic epochs I know anything about. I feared something like the Strike! spoof of the Yorkshire miners’ strike, produced by the Comic Strip, in which ‘Al Pacino’ starred as Arthur Scargill, the accents were cheekily American and there was a Hollywood happy ending.

TGL&PPPS looked lovely on film, the acting was spot-on and the script lively (again considering the book has little by way of true dialogue). Period detail in the costumes and the interiors seemed faultless. Empire gave it three stars, which is pretty typical of their reaction to modest period films such as Their Finest, also by Studio Canal.

Juliet arrives in Guernsey (Studio Canal)

The reaction of Guernsey friends to the film has been positive, sometimes surprised that justice has been done. It was a shame that no footage was shot in the island, but the film was produced on a very modest budget and the vast majority of people who watch it will never have been here.

 

Likewise the rest of the world will not know know very much about the German Occupation of 1940-45 as the dozens of books written about it have largely been small-press, self-published or had very limited circulation outside the islands. So the story is ‘new’ to most of the world, and to all intents and purposes Dorset serves well as ‘stunt double’ for the island itself. It was quite fun spotting the parts of Bristol docks where I was just last week doubling for Weymouth harbour. Yes of course the Dorset coast has the wrong geology, the wrong beaches, the wrong kind of cottages and is much more expansive than little Guernsey truly is, but what the Director Mike Newell has created might be termed a ‘Guernsey of the Mind’. There were even a couple of touches of Guernsey French in the background but the local accent was largely forgotten. The poster, incidentally, does feature a shot of Guernsey’s south coast.

I watched The Inn of the Sixth Happiness last week, in which tall blonde Ingrid Bergman with barely disguised Swedish accent played diminutive brunette Londoner Gladys Aylward, and Wales stood in for China. Now I’ve not been to north China so have no idea how much it resembles Wales. Most films take huge liberties with historical truths – Aylward actually founded the ‘Inn of the Eight Happiness’ and claimed never to have been kissed, contra the movie’s love sub-plot.

Most movies are not actually filmed where they are set. Spartacus was filmed in California, and the ‘Spaghetti westerns’ in Italy. The Last Samurai was filmed in New Zealand, Full Metal Jacket‘s Vietnam scenes were shot in London, Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy is mostly  Ireland and Herefordshire and Eastern Europe is now the stand-in of choice for historic England in productions such as The Last Kingdom. Let’s not even talk about The Martian. So in the end, we shouldn’t be too precious. The book has sold 5 million copies, the film touched #2 in the box office charts and Guernsey’s tourism enquiries are spiking. Who’s to complain?

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Anyone for Pie?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is far and away the most successful novel set in Guernsey. Although there are easily two dozen works of fiction using the German Occupation of the islands as their background, this is the stand-out commercial hit. Curiously it was written by an American who had only made a single unplanned visit to Guernsey.

The book is the only novel by American author Mary Ann Shaffer. She made a brief stop in Guernsey in 1976 and became fog-bound at the airport; a familiar hazard to island residents. Browsing the bookshop, she learned about the German Occupation of 1940 to 1945. It was two decades before she finally began her Guernsey novel, and it was accepted for publication in 2006. Her health deteriorated, so the final editing was carried out by her niece Annie Barrows who was already a published children’s author. Mary Ann Shaffer died in 2008 before the book was published.

It is an ‘epistolary novel’, in that the story is told entirely through letters between the characters. In post-war 1946, English journalist Juliet Ashton strikes up a correspondence with islander Dawsey Adams one and becomes intrigued by the quaintly titled Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. She travels to Guernsey to meet members of the society, and a story of love, tragedy and hope emerges against the background of an island people surviving almost five years of enemy occupation emerges. For the uninitiated, potato peel was used as ersatz pie crust when food began to run short. I have never tried it, but it was apparently rather nasty.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was an immediate hit, especially in the USA. It spent 11 weeks in the New York Times bestseller list and reached the number 1 position on 2nd August 2009.

Reviews were favorable; The Times said “Every now and again, a book comes along that is simple yet effective, readable yet memorable. This is one such delight … It is a uniquely humane vision of inhumanity; one to lift even the most cynical of spirits”

To date it has sold over 5 million copies worldwide in over 30 territories and has proved particularly popular with book clubs. It was planned for me to interview Annie Barrows at the Guernsey Literary Festival, but scheduling clashes mean that it’s not to be.

A film adaption has been on the cards for a few years, with different directors and stars mooted. It finally takes form this spring, directed by Mike Newell, starring Lily James as English author Juliet Ashton and Michiel Huisman as islander Dawsey Adams. The film will be in cinemas from April 20th 2018, with a special Premiere taking place in Guernsey in addition to the World Premiere in London. It remains to be seen whether filmgoers also have the taste for pie.

 

 

Are we the good guys?

This month I visited the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in Saigon, formerly the ‘War Crimes Museum’ (and technically in Ho Chi Mihn City nowadays). The ‘war crimes’ of the USA, French and the South Vietnam regime are graphically illustrated with photographs and relics of torture, imprisonment, indiscriminate bombing, careless killings and trophy-collecting. It of course completely ignores the murders and atrocities committed by the NVA and VietCong. A superb retrospective of photographs by journalists killed in the conflict particularly shows the agony of the US war effort, whilst again the North Vietnamese photography was of cheerful NVA soldiers, sturdy peasants and so forth. Hardly balanced, and casting the USA particularly as the baddies. The Museum of the Revolution in Havanna does much the same, although with hilarious lack of credibility in places.

In my reading around the Vietnam War, one US politician looking at the corrupt and oppressive South Vietnamese regime wondered if the US was actually fighting on the right side. The reality of Cold War proxy wars was generally that the US would back unpleasant right-wing regimes with dismal human rights records, whilst the Russians, Chinese and Cubans would back insurgencies by ‘popular’ leftist groups equally comfortable with violence and murder. To the peasants and teenage soldiers forced to fight or flee it would be hard to tell who the good guys really were.

On holiday I read the classic ‘We Were Soldiers Once and Young’ by Moore and Galloway, concerning the first major bloodbath between US and NVA forces in 1965. Heart-wrenching stories of the NVA executing wounded Americans got no mention in the War Crimes museum, nor did their favored targeting of medics and medivac helicopters. I also watched the indifferent Brad Pitt movie ‘War Machine’ about Afghanistan, which drew its own parallels to the Vietnam War; the people we are fighting are the people we came here to defend.

It has been said that the mistake the West keeps making is to assume we are the good guys.

There are always two sides to a conflict, always two views, even if objective analysis shows one to be in the wrong. ‘Zulu’ is a cracking film of bravery against the odds, but did the Good Guys win? The Good Guys clearly won WW2, albeit with the British carpet-bombing German cities, the Americans nuking Japan and the Russians throwing mercy to the wind as they closed on Berlin. Afterwards, the colonies and liberated territories simply wanted us gone. We view Liberal Capitalist (Christian) Democracy as the gold standard, but a huge chunk of the rest of the world does not agree. Capitalism is widely viewed as a Bad Thing and destructive of the environment, democracy is despised as weak, liberalism as decadent. Newly created democracies easily succumb to corruption, infighting and sham elections, turning the reign of the last dictator into some kind of golden age. Some religious groups even argue that government comes from God, not man, so democracy is fundamentally wrong.

Because we believe we are right, we gain the moral justification to act in our interests with all the power at our disposal. This view has probably triggered more conflicts than any other in modern history.

When writing, one can flirt with the opposing viewpoints of each side to avoid being simplistic. MI6 or KGB operatives are simply doing their job for their country, and the moral ambiguity of the spy thriller means that the line between good and evil is blurred. War movies and westerns from the 1960s onwards moved away from the flag-waver to the ‘anti-war’ movie where the enemy is human too. We even see clumsy attempts in terrorist fiction to get into the hearts and minds of the suicide bombers and jihadi killers; but for the meantime, they are the baddies, period.

Back in the dangerous and unstable real world we yearn for the simplicity of a 007 supervillain to fight. Our film fiction grasps at hollow victories snatched from a mess of inconclusive or disastrous interventions. Watching say ‘Black Hawk Down’ or ’13 Hours’ where flag-waving AK-toting gunmen are shot down like Red Indians in a 1950s B movie, we can see articulation of that simplicity; an against-the-odds mission to save your buddies amid a geopolitical clusterfuck. However, looking at those heaps of bodies of fighters at the end of the movie, killed in their own countries by foreign interventionists, we have to ask; are we the good guys?

 

Thou Shalt Not Kill (part 1)

gun 2

‘Artie, could you kill a German?’

‘Course, easy.’

‘No, but really kill him if he was standing just over there?…’

George challenges his brother as Glint of Light on Broken Glass enters the summer of 1917, with the Great War at its height and no sign of it ending. Artie’s reply is off-the-cuff, the stock response of a confident young man facing a dilemma he has only read about in history books.

Artie is wrong; it is not easy to kill. This is a relief to police chiefs but a problem for generals and those who like to play up the dark side of human nature. Although animal violence lurks within us, modern humans are raised to view it as ethically wrong. Killing raises an even higher order of revulsion, a sin in the eyes of all the world’s major religions.

Even before we became ‘civilised’ there was a great deal of self-interest in not killing another human. Watch animals fight over food, mates or territory. One gets the upper hand and the other quickly backs off. Neither can risk being injured, as it would then face the threat of disease, starvation or falling prey to higher predators. Species that battle to the death are therefore rare.

So it must have been with our primitive ancestors. An individual prepared to fight to the death will in due course meet an opponent who is strong enough or lucky enough to strike the fatal blow first. It is not a career path. My fencing instructor used to say that “50/50 is lousy odds when your life is at stake”. Historically we know of tribes fighting ritual wars that end with perhaps the first death, token injury or submission. Simply embarrassing the enemy by striking him could be enough to prove your valour, such as using the Native American ‘coup stick’.

It is ‘civilised’ humanity that invented total war, often directed by rulers who were not in physical danger themselves. The firearm adds further potential for the use of lethal force; it does not demand the all-out commitment of a sword fight, provided you shoot first and shoot well. In the face of lethal force, our primal instinct is to run, hide, take cover, plead or surrender. You’d need to be crazy to do otherwise.

Writers of historical fiction, and especially TV and movie adaptions should note that most conscript soldiers have a natural revulsion towards killing. It has to be trained out of them, just as the use of arms has to be trained into them. Research in WW2 found that less than 10% of US infantry who fought in the D-Day campaign actually fired their weapon, and a small proportion of these shot at anything in particular. Even in the deadly Great War, the fact that roughly 5% of British troops were killed suggests that, all other things being equal, 95% of German troops never killed anyone. This is accentuated further when one considers that most casualties were caused by artillery and machine guns. Most riflemen shoot wildly at distant or imagined targets, if they shoot at all.

Other research shows that military units of all kinds, from infantry platoons to fighter squadrons, contain a small number of effective killers. Everyone else is simply making up the numbers (and providing targets for the enemy’s killers). One reason professional armies such as NATO perform so well against otherwise well-armed and dangerous opposition is that these flaws are trained out of the troops. In the words of Lt Rasczak in Starship Troopers: “Everyone fights, nobody quits”.

I’ll leave the final thought to our brave lads, shooting into the smoke of the Battle of Cambrai:

Perhaps they killed hundreds ­– perhaps none at all.

Jason Monaghan is speaking at the Alderney Literary Festival on Saturday 25th March

#Alderneylit

I Canna Break the Laws of Physics

It was Scotty’s iconic line from Star Trek, which of course broke the laws of physics every episode. This goes beyond Sci-Fi though and into the world of thrillers and adventure, whether books, TV or films.

The special effects geek in ‘When the Dust Settles’ explains to Maddy that if a film director wants a man thrown backwards by a shot from a puny 0.38, he’s not going to object. As a sometime scientist, the laws of physics as employed in fiction are important in maintaining my suspension of disbelief. All fiction requires this. We need to believe that lone investigator can crack the case that has the police baffled, that heroic archaeologist can find that lost city when everyone else has failed, that secret agent can overpower the evil genius’ goons. Even if we need to believe in magic, dragons, aliens or vampires, that belief comes easier if the non-fantastic elements of the plot match our own experience of universal laws.

Which is where physics come in. Action sequences can be difficult to portray in books. I sometimes think ‘who’s been punched? Whose hand is on whose throat? Where’s the knife now?’ so tend to keep action sequences simple in my Flint series. In ‘Glint..’ the immense Battle of Cambrai is portrayed poetically, with a taut single viewpoint conveying the confusion of battle without my character ducking from each shell and moving from ruin to ruin. Not only the laws of physics but the laws of chance seem to be against the men of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry.

TV and film though thrives on action, and directors delight in breaking Mr Newton’s laws as well as those covering Thermodynamics, basic human physiology and statistical probability. Number one sin is hanging onto a cliff edge by the fingertips, leaping and grabbing ropes or chains or helicopter skids mid air. Just about possible for a stuntman or circus performer with a good deal of practice, not for our average hero. That pact with the scriptwriter is broken and I no longer believe what I’m being shown -even in fantasy such as the Hobbit trilogy. It’s also been done so many times before its just boring (sorry, Hooten & the Lady).

hooten

Falling from heights is in the same category. I was gratified to see the SAS hunk in the latest ‘Our Girl’ hospitalised after a mere 15-foot heroic dive onto a beach whilst grappling a terrorist (and using him to break the fall). Yes people can fall off mountains, out of tall trees, jump from planes into the sea and survive, but generally they will have multiple fractures or have their internal organs re-organised by the experience.

Kick-ass heroines fighting men. Okay if she has some special martial art she can deploybill involving throws and dodges, or can stab with a pointed weapon fast and skilfully, but an average man is so much stronger than even an athletic woman. A fight involving fists, grappling, blows with edged weapons, or grabbing at a knife hand is likely to end just one way. Especially as our heroine is usually young, lithe and wearing impractical attire.

ramboThen there’s ballistics. We’re getting better on the whole of recognising what a mess a bullet can make of the human body. The degree we portray this is largely dictated by the certificate we want our film to have, or whether it will be screened post-watershed. There is still room for the ‘bang you’re dead’ approach to  gunfights, as seen in the Bond movies; we don’t want Saving Private Ryan every night. However there is danger in this fantasy approach to guns – our hero shoots on the move (very little chance of hitting anything), he shoots from the hip (little chance of hitting anything beyond a few feet away), he shoots with both hands (how does he aim?) or he blasts away with a machine gun (when the recoil means that after 4 or 5 shots his bullets will be going up in the air somewhere). This lack of reality may indeed help fuel the bizarre American love affair with firearms.

I won’t even mention car chases…

Peril is not exciting if our hero is not facing a risk of actual death or maiming. Yes we want them to survive and yes we know they are a cut above armchair adventurers such as me, but it is a lazy cheat to allow him/her to bend universal laws when the writer has written his hero into a corner. Much better if s/he can use their intelligence, training, experience and skill to get out of the situation. Rather than shout ‘Never!’ at the screen or throw the book down in disgust, we are instead impressed by the cleverness of the writer.

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