The Bookshop

When I discovered that the film “The Bookshop” was coming to my home theatre last week, I cycled to my local library to check out the book on which it was based. I still had a couple of days before the film was scheduled, and wanted to read it first.

This slim, 123 page book was by Penelope Fitzgerald, a writer I was unfamiliar with, but felt I ought to know, considering that she’d been nominated for three Booker prizes and had won one. But if working in a bookstore myself has taught me anything, it’s that you’re never going to know all the books and all the writers. (So don’t feel bad about it.)

I was surprised that my library had a copy of the book, and that it was available. (Wouldn’t all the other people here want to rush out and borrow the book to read it first?). In fact, my library had four copies of it, all in the stacks. A reference librarian had to retrieve a copy for me.

It was originally published in 1978, another surprise to me, I suppose because they are only making the movie now, 40 years later. There was some comfort in this for me: you never know what kind of impact or inspiration your writing is going to have, even if you don’t live to see it. (Fitzgerald died in 2000).

As I read the book (it took me less than 24 hours, which is remarkable because I’m generally a slow reader), and then watched the movie, I kept thinking about the interplay  between book and movie, between one medium and another, and how one reading impacts the other.

I became aware of the movie because my former employer of the bookshop I used to work at saw the movie, and wrote to tell me that he and his wife had both thought of me when they saw it. He wouldn’t give any more away than that, but it was enough to spark my interest, watch the trailer, and look for the book.

So, it’s because of the movie that I discovered the book, and all this — quite fittingly — because the owner of a bookshop contacted me about it.

Briefly, but without giving it away, the book (and movie) are about Florence Green, a widow who decides to open a bookshop in Hardborough, her sleepy English village. I had seen the trailer before I began reading the book, so I envisioned Emily Mortimer playing the part of Florence, but for scenery, I substituted in Boscastle (Cornwall), which is what the description of the fictional village made me think of. And I substituted the interior of the bookshop with that of the one I used to work in.

It’s curious to me now what drove me to read the book before I saw the movie. It wasn’t a  drive to make a judgment of how “accurate” the book was compared to the movie and to judge the latter accordingly. No, this “purist” kind of reading doesn’t appeal to my mindset. I’d read an article a few years ago that argued that adaptations were just that: adapted versions of a prior text, and were art in and of themselves, influenced by but independent of the other. I’ve adopted that approach, and have never seen films the same way since.

Still, it was easy to note the plot differences between the book (freshly read) and the film. Instead of a unknown narrator (as the book has), the movie is narrated by an adult Christine, who as a child had worked for Florence at her bookstore. A few details are changed, some embellished upon, and a rather significant event introduced into the film which did not occur in the book. But these didn’t really bother me. And there was one recurring detail–that of the presence of a ghost, a “rapper”, in the bookshop, which was in the book, and which I wondered how it would be approached in the movie–which was completely left out. So you see, my reading of the book not only affected my watching of the movie: just anticipating watching the movie changed the way in which I read the book.

I’m not going into details in this post about plot at all, as you can see (I even hesitated bringing in the rapper, but thought that would be a safe move). No one likes a “spoiler” and I’m not going to give you one. This is more an occasion to think about how reading a book influences how we watch a film, and vice versa.

But I’ve been wondering lately what the big deal is about “spoiling” a book / movie by knowing the ending. Perhaps it’s because I write and read so much in creative nonfiction, where the “plot” of the piece isn’t the interesting part, but how that is expressed, how it is configured in another’s mind. And so I wonder: how does a reading of a book “spoil” a movie? Or does it? If the strength of a book or movie is based solely on the suspense of what happens, isn’t there something lacking?

I will admit, that there was a part when I read The Bookshop in which I thought, “Well, now I know what happens. I don’t know if I need to see the movie, after all,” which struck me as strange. If what I was saying earlier is true, that I see a book and a movie as two separate, living pieces of art, then that shouldn’t matter.

I realize I’ve contradicted myself, then, in writing this post, but my aim isn’t to present an argument, so much as it is to consider a reading experience. (And perhaps reading and viewing experiences can be contradictory.)

I enjoyed reading the book (if not, I would not have been able to finish it so fast), but I did find myself wondering: Is it a good book? Strangely, that is the same question which Florence asks about another title within the text. I could not decide – I don’t know why. It was different from what I’ve previously been used to. The prose were concise, the dialogue and narration always taking some quirky, unexpected turn. I wasn’t used to it, and so I think I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

As to what I thought of the movie, I strangely had the same reaction. Is it a good movieI didn’t know. And if I have a difficult time assessing the merit of books, I have an impossibility of doing so with movies.

I was one of about a dozen people in the theatre of that showing, and the youngest by about two generations (I don’t know why this keeps happening to me when I go to events in the community!). The two ladies in the row behind me, who had whispered loud asides throughout the movie, concluded at the end that it had been a “slow movie.” I’m not sure I would have given that label to it myself. If I were to give you its plot, you’d probably say it was a slow movie, too. But that’s not what it was about, at least for me.

As I read, I noted a few passages that stuck out to me, which when I review them now, don’t seem to capture the quirkiness that I kept being surprised over in the prose. But here are some of the quotes I gathered, a mini commonplace book:

“Florence Green, like Mr Keble, might be accounted a lonely figure, but this did not make them exceptional in Hardborough, where many were lonely.”

“. . . it seemed ungrateful to live so close to the sea and never to look at it for weeks on end.”

“She had a kind heart, though that is not much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.”

“She knew perfectly well . . . that loneliness was speaking to loneliness, and that he was appealing to her directly.”

These lines do not translate well to the screen, unless you have a voice-over narrator giving them, which did not happen for these particular words.

In wanting to say little about the film or movie, lest I spoil it for you, I fear that I’ve said nothing at all.

But perhaps it is just enough to pique your interest to go out and watch the movie–perhaps even read the book–too.

Question: What viewing expectations do you embrace / leave behind when you go to see a movie based on a book?