Book-to-Screen on Trials of Bookshop Ownership

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If you have read The Bookshop (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Penelope Fitzgerald, you will want to see the movie to answer some questions: How can a movie portray a book’s delicately described inner states? How can subtle emotions and flitting feelings be shown on the screen?

And if you have seen the movie, you will want to read the book, if only to learn more about what is going on in its characters’ minds.

In fact, this book and movie is just about the perfect pair for book clubs that enjoy reading and viewing before discussing a particular title. Read the book, see the movie, and compare and contrast. Director of the movie, Isabel Coixet (“My Life Without Me”) took some liberties with her screenplay, so there will be ample opportunities to discuss the book-to-screen process.

At not much more than 100 pages, the book is slight, and the plot is simple: A middle-aged woman opens a bookshop in a small seaside English town in the 1950s. Reactions of the townspeople vary. There are insinuations, veiled threats, and opportunistic appropriations, all implied indirectly. Or so it seems.

Luckily, the movie has some incredible actors to embody the nuances. Emily Mortimer (“Hugo,” “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Match Point” and, on HBO, “The Newsroom”) stars as bookshop owner Florence Green. Bill Nighy (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and dozens and dozens of other films) portrays the reclusive and inscrutable Mr. Brundish. Patricia Clarkson (“Six Feet Under,” “The Dead Pool”) is the oh, so privileged Violet Gamart.

In spite of the discouraging words of real estate agents and bankers, Florence Green pursues her dream and purchases an old, historic building in which to open her bookshop. Violet Gamart, at the apex of the town’s social scene, who has friends “from London,” is dismayed with Florence’s choice of location. She had assumed that the old house would become the town’s arts center.

The movie is centered on this conflict, as the camera lingers lovingly over shelves of books, boxes of books, and displays of books. The town’s eccentric personages make their appearances, not the least a 10-year-old girl, Christine, who is hired to help out in the shop. Is she precocious, or pure evil?

The Bookshop, published in 1978, was shortlisted for The Booker Prize, which author Penelope Fitzgerald subsequently won in 1979 for Offshore, her novel about the residents of houseboats on the Thames in southwest London. Both books drew on her own experiences: She once worked in a bookshop, and she once, while very poor, lived in a houseboat on the Thames.

 

The Bookshop is now available to purchase as a book, and is currently screening in theaters as a movie.

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ABOUT THE PENELOPE FITZGERALD:

Penelope Fitzgerald (17 December 1916 – 28 April 2000) was a Booker Prize-winning English novelist, poet, essayist and biographer. In 2008, The Times included her in a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”. In 2012, The Observer named her final novel, The Blue Flower, as one of “the ten best historical novels”.

Joanna Poncavage had a 30-year career as an editor and writer for Rodale’s Organic Gardening magazine and The (Allentown, Pennsylvania) Morning Call newspaper. Author of several gardening books, she’s now a freelance journalist.

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