Watching The Bookshop, adapted from the late Penelope Fitzgerald’s 1978 novel by the Catalan director Isabel Coixet, admirers of the English novelist have the chance to test their memories. Which parts of the dialogue and the third-person voice-over narration (delivered by Julie Christie) come directly from the book? Which are newly invented? And which have been sourced from elsewhere?
The hunt for the answers leads down some unexpected paths. ‘When we read a story, we inhabit it.’ This sounds too sententious to be authentic Fitzgerald: it turns out to be a quote from Coixet’s late friend John Berger, to whom the film is dedicated. ‘A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.’ This comes originally from a passage in Milton’s Areopagitica, adopted as a motto by Everyman’s Library; Fitzgerald cites it with quiet irony, whereas Coixet treats the sentiment as straightforwardly inspirational. But when the film’s narrator declares that human beings are divided into ‘exterminators and exterminatees’, there can be no doubt who first expressed the thought. This is the sort of offhand but chilling remark we trip over from time to time in Fitzgerald’s work, and one which no reader of The Bookshop is likely to have forgotten.
Fitzgerald’s novel is about the exterminators and the exterminatees – and many other subjects, including the gap between life and literature. Told in little more than a hundred pages, the story is a simple one. The heroine is the middle-aged widow Florence Green (played in the film by Emily Mortimer), who decides to open a bookshop in a crumbling old house in the significantly named East Anglian town of Hardborough, where she has been living for ten years (the period is the late 1950s). Not all the locals approve, especially not the well-connected Violet Gamet (Patricia Clarkson) who is bent on establishing an ‘arts centre’ in the same spot. But she finds allies, too, among them her ten-year-old helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) and the reclusive Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy), the subject of many local legends.