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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Guernsey Literary Festival 2018

Another year, another Guernsey Literary Festival. On Thursday 10th May I’ll be introducing Duncan Barrett in the Festival Hub. Duncan is the author of a number of non-fiction books including GI Brides and Sugar Girls both based on first hand interviews. His latest project is Hitler’s British Isles, for which he spent three months in the Channel Islands interviewing survivors of the German Occupation 1940-1945 and their children.

 

 

It is a timely subject, considering that I’m typing this on Liberation Day; May 9th, the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Guernsey.

The book is not yet published, so I’ve not had chance to read or review it, so I’m looking forward to talking to Duncan and hearing about his project in front of an audience of Guernsey Literary enthusiasts.

Duncan Barret at United Agents

Later we will be hearing Philip Eastwood talk about the life and legacy of Desmond Bagley, ahead of an exhibition at the Priaulx Library of books, objects and annotated manuscripts. Philip has been collating an archive of Bagley material, which will be deposited at the Priaulx, complementing the archive already established at the Howard Gotleib Archival Research Centre in Boston.

I’ve been working with Philip over the past few months to set up a blue plaque to Bagley and his wife Joan at their former home in Castel Hill – but that’s a story for another day.

The Bagley Brief

 

The Twitter Campaign

So I’m trying something different, a Twitter Campaign. Mostly it is to test the water, see how effective it is. After all if the Russians can change the result of elections by mass tweeting, there must be some power in social media.

Although it was my sixth novel Glint of Light on Broken Glass was self-published, albeit at high spec by Matador and professionally edited. However it had little of the marketing push I’d expect from a mainstream publisher. It was planned as a slow-seller to local audiences and tourists, but there have been e-book and internet sales through Amazon so the interest is worth stoking.

Also of course we have the #GuernseyMovie released this month, and for a few weeks the G-word becomes more searchable. Other local writers, hotels, gin-makers and others are riding the publicity wave, contributing to a symbiotic promotion of their own products as well as the movie.

So I’m posting or re-posting a range of idiosyncratic images with snippets of text including lines from the book. I’ve taken the photographs myself, often at the appropriate location in Guernsey, then applied a little manipulation and cropping. Alongside this is a professional PR campaign running for a month, nudging people towards my partner website guernseynovel.com. Perhaps you’ve seen it? This is a true test-the-water exercise, as tweeting can be like whispering in a crowded room where everyone else is yelling.

Anyhow, Mr Putin, I’m sure you’d love Glint so if you could get your army of fembots to re-tweet this 20,000 times I’d be most happy.

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.

 

 

I’m Reading…Ashes of Berlin

Luke McCallin’s third novel featuring war-weary German detective Gregor Reinhardt is a corker. Whilst the first two novels in the series saw Reinhardt finding justice amongst the horrors of the Nazi-occupied Balkans, the third find him in postwar Berlin. The city itself is a major character of the book, as indicated by the title. Shattered buildings and rubble-choked bombsites are ever-present. Feral children run among the ruins, widows survive however they can and former Luftwaffe pilots find that for them, the war is not quite over. Berlin’s police force is a thrown-together collection of old school ‘crows’ like Reinhardt, cocky newcomers, and placemen of the Russian, British and American occupiers whose motivations can never be certain. As Reinhardt hunts a vicious killer through the physical and emotional wreckage left by the war, he has few allies, and even fewer he can trust.

The historical detail always feels right, which in turn creates that essential ‘period feel’. This is not just another detective story that could be transplanted to the streets of New York. As with McCallin’s previous books, the author takes no prisoners and does not spoon-feed the reader. We must keep up with the shadowy characters of five nationalities who weave in and out of the story and quickly adapt to the military and political jargon of the era. His hero is not a superman, just an honest policeman looking for the truth whilst others would rather look the other way.

The Ashes of Berlin is published by No Exit Press.

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?

 

Nazis – The Ultimate Villains?

We all hate Nazis, agreed? (If not, stop reading here). When I was a small boy, the ‘Germans’ were the baddies in our games, on TV shows and those stalwart WW2 films. Only when I began to study history properly did I understand the difference between the Germans as a people and Fascism as a creed. You could indeed have ‘Good Germans’, even in a WW2 context. In films such as Cross of Iron and Stalingrad, and the TV series ‘Das Boot’ and ‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’ we see the war from the German side. We empathise with characters doomed to fight a losing war they no longer believe in, but we never empathise with the Nazis. Even when we are rooting for the German squad or submarine crew we see the shadow of the ‘hardened Nazi’, the Gestapo and the SS falling over the characters’ lives. The ‘Good Germans’ become victims too. There is plenty of room for ambiguity – are we really hoping that Oberst Steiner will kill Churchill in Jack Higgins The Eagle Has Landed?

A panel at the entertaining ‘Morecambe and Vice’ festival last weekend chaired by Guy Fraser-Sampson comprised Howard Linskey, Chris Petit and Luke McCallin. All have set novels in the context of Nazi Germany. The question was posed as how a detective story can be written against a background of escalating horror and atrocity that marked the Second World War. When millions are being systematically murdered, when people can be arrested, tortured and killed without recourse to legal process, who cares about a single body in the library or the theft of some countess’ emeralds? It is the job of the author to make us care.

The Nazis were intensely bureaucratic and whilst their leadership behaved like gangsters, pillaging Europe’s riches for their own enrichment, the lower tiers busied themselves with solving humdrum traffic offences, fraud, theft and ‘ordinary’ murder. The Germans had tiers of police and security services – not just civilian police, but also the Abwehr, Kripo,  Gestapo, the SD, Sipo and so on making ripe territory for intrigue and setting tripwires in the path of any investigation.

Contrary to popular belief the Germans did not have a well-oiled efficient war machine. Nazis of all levels were spurred on by personal ambition, jealousy and fear as much as doctrine. Hitler encouraged jockeying for position between his officers. Inter-service and inter-departmental rivalry was poisonous, and putting a foot wrong could ultimately be fatal. McCallin’s Abwehr officer Reinhardt has to negotiate this political minefield to solve the murder of a high-profile woman in occupied Sarajevo. He remains the ‘Good German’ whilst others around him participate in war crimes with enthusiasm or at least allow themselves to be dragged along by the tide of history. ‘Only following orders’ many tens of thousands adopted a ‘grey morality’ simply to survive.

‘Great’ historical personalities such as Caesar, Alexander and Napoleon committed brutal acts that today we would call war crimes but the distance of time has dimmed the shock. All the world’s major nations’ histories hold atrocities to be ashamed of and there are a fair few men such as Ghengis Khan with the blood of millions on their hands, yet the Nazis hold a special place as the villains par excellence. Perhaps it is because their atrocities were so recent, perhaps because they were more visible than those of Stalin, or closer to home than those of Pol Pot. My Channel Island home fell under their darkness, and the rest of Britain so nearly fell too. The ‘what if’ of Len Deighton’s SS-GB came close to being a reality. The Czechs faced this horror at the hands of Heydrich, the subject of Linskey’s Hunting the Hangman; he shows up the contradiction in many Nazis, as when home from being a ruthless liquidator of undesirables Heydrich apparently loved his family.

The Nazis have become the poster boys for evil chic; smart grey uniforms, skull badges, black leather coats, sinister swastikas and screaming eagles. Unnervingly this still lends them glamour, shown by the auction value of SS-daggers and the like. Their uniforms contrast with the dull greens and browns of the Allies, their ‘wonder weapons’ contested against utilitarian Allied machines. History porn TV documentaries and books endlessly probe into their mystique. Their influence extends routinely into Science Fiction, especially the barely disguised ‘First Order’ of Star Wars Episode VII with its Stormtroopers and gleefully ruthless commanders. ‘Neo Nazi’ groups still strut around, forgetting how decisively the fascist creed was crushed.

Nazis become the enemy of choice in movies as diverse as the Indiana Jones series, ‘Captain America’ comics, to The Blues Brothers. It is so easy to cast Nazis as the bad guys that we writers must not become lazy. Yes, we know they are bad, we get it. Yes, the iconography oozes evil. Now make us care about the characters opposing them, or oppressed by them, or forced to co-exist with them; we know how Nazism ultimately fell, but the characters don’t.

 

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