Just over four years ago, I went on a little adventure. Well, it felt like an adventure at the time. It was the furthest I had travelled on my own. The build up to it was exciting, as I felt I’d more than earned the trip to Ty Newydd, having won my place in a local writing contest. (Which involved me reading a short story in front of a theatre full of people. One of the scariest things I had ever done.) Anyway, I jumped on the train at Cardiff, and stepped off hours later – having travelled out of Wales, into England, and back into Wales – in Bangor. There, I was picked up and driven to Ty Newydd Writer’s Centre itself. It was an experience I will never forget, and it cemented in me the idea that I had, without a doubt, picked the right course to do at University the following year.
(As a side note, if you ever get the chance, do go there. It’s a beautiful house, with a beautiful garden, and the writing course itself was brilliant. The two running the one I went to were more than encouraging, and they gave me the sort of push that still keeps me going.)
One of the things I really liked were the books. There were so many there; a small library has books you can read at will, and there’s a bookshelf dedicated to books you can buy. It’s on a stair case, so coming down it one day I spotted a cover that caught my eye. Glancing at the blurb, I decided to give it a shot, and brought it.
I completely fell in love with this book.
It tells the story of a small Welsh farming village, where the women wake up one day to find the men have disappeared. Struggling to come to terms with it, and struggling to keep the farms going, the women band together and push through. That is, until a small band of German soldiers turn up, looking for something. The main plot – focusing on Sarah – runs alongside the story of George, a young man recruited almost as a spy, for those willing to fight against the German invasion of the UK.
Oh, yeah, did I mention that the novel takes place during World War Two, in an alternative reality where the Nazis have invaded the UK? No? Well, now you know. As it turns out, the men have left the women to join a resistance group, dedicated to doing anything possible to make it difficult for the Germans to remain. They blow up bridges and railways, they move into caves stocked with weapons. And this part of the novel is based on real plans in place during WWII, made in case the German army did reach Britain’s shores.
The book brilliantly reflects the setting, the time-period and the emotions the women go through. Everything ties in together, and Owen Sheers has a brilliant skill of really being able to draw you in. In just a few pages, you really care for these characters. You want the men to come back because you want them to be happy. And, as the book goes on, Sarah’s confusion between wanting her husband back, wanting him safe (though it’s not clear if the safest place would be at home or away) and her feelings for one of the German soldiers, seeps in. I remember struggling to decide if I wanted Tom to walk back in or wanted Sarah to run off with the soldier.
And Sheers does something I, personally, have seen few male writers do; he writes brilliant female characters. They remain realistic, and strong. And that’s important. The women learn to cope on their own, remaining stubborn in the face of the soldiers but realising that, actually, neither group can survive without the other. It’s interesting to see how they react to the invaders and, indeed, to see the invader’s reactions to their own situation.
Each character is human, and in a novel dealing with Nazi soldiers in World War Two, that’s an amazing feat. They’re not evil, or cruel. None of the characters involved are. Each person is shown just as someone trying to cope in a difficult situation and, again, Sheers writes it brilliantly.
So, yes, I loved the book. Which meant when they announced it was being filmed (with Michael Sheen and Iwan Rheon) I was pretty excited. Beneath this excitement, there were reservations. It’s hard to see how much of the book could be translated to the big screen, as much of it focuses on the emotions of the characters. There’s little action, and part of me hoped they would actually show some of the scenes that are left out of the book; it would have been interesting if they could fit in some of the work carried out by the men in the resistance, rather than have most of it conveyed by second-hand news as it is in the book.
This does not happen. In fact, a lot of the tension that Sheers conveys so well in the book disappears. Much of the film drags, and a lot of what makes the characters so relatable, so realistic, and so easy to care about, seems to have been stripped away. Sarah’s writing to Tom quickly becomes boring and over-used, and whereas in the book we see the women taking care of the farms, there is little of that in the film. In the book, they struggle, then overcome this, before winter hits and makes things much more complicated. In the book, it’s at this point where the soldiers step in to help. Not because the women can’t handle the farms, but because the winter makes it harder to do the chores single-handedly. The film jumps from struggling to soldiers stepping in, meaning the female characters aren’t shown at their strongest.
This is especially true of Sarah. Andrea Riseborough plays the main character as a moody, moping woman, who does nothing but move from scene to scene and act hard done by. The book’s version is, of course, hard done by, but she rises above it with the knowledge that she and the other women are in the same position. In the film, there’s little interaction between the women, so the community aspect of it is lost.
The relationship between Sarah and Albrecht is built up slowly in the book, and it feels natural. It has all the complications you would expect of a woman in an occupied country and one of the occupying soldiers, but throughout it you can almost feel the same glimmer of hope the characters must be feeling. In the film, this disappears. Instead, it feels like in one scene Sarah is shutting Albrecht out, and in the next she’s wandering through the valley with him, looking mildly happy. It feels almost forced, rushed, and the inner emotions of the character struggling to come to terms with her feelings just isn’t conveyed well to screen.
The one thing I will say for the film is that the scenery is beautiful. It captures the changing landscape of the Welsh valley, even when it fails in doing the same for the characters.
Oh, yeah, and one other point – the best scenes were, by far, those with Iwan Rheon and/or Michael Sheen. They, out of the whole cast, not only had the best characters in the film but some of the best dialogue; Rheon, especially, played George so that, as a viewer, you really felt for him. Sheen’s portryal of Tommy Atkins showed a man willing to do anything for his country, and in both you could see men fighting – in different ways – for what they believed in.
This is a book I would recommend to anyone, well worth a read, but unless you’re a fan of lengthy, boring period-drama films with little happening, stay away from the film adaptation.