Is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry based on a true story?

jim broadbent, the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry
Is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry true?eOne

Paddington actor Jim Broadbent’s latest movie, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, tells the story of how one man deals with his grief by going on a long walk along the length of England.

It shows us how Harold, upon learning that his old friend Queenie is dying of cancer in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, walks out of his Devon home to post a letter to her – but instead of putting it in the nearest post box, he keeps on walking. And walking.

Harold decides that if he walks all the way to Queenie, she’ll stay alive waiting for him, and so he carries on, even though the journey is over 400 miles and he is not prepared for it at all, having embarked on the walk in the clothes (and impractical loafers) he was wearing when he went to post the letter.

And he has left his mobile phone – and his wife, Maureen (Downton Abbey’s Penelope Wilton) – at home, too. "The only time you walk is to get to the car," an astonished Maureen tells Harold when he finally calls her from a phone box.

jim broadbent, penelope wilton, the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry
jim broadbent, penelope wilton, the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry

Harold’s inspirational story certainly sounds like it is based on real events, but in fact it is not a true story.

It’s actually based on the novel of the same name that was written by Rachel Joyce and published in 2012. In an interview with The Guardian in 2014, Joyce revealed that many readers did believe the story was true. “People often do ask questions about Harold as if he were a real person,” she said.

While Harold, Queenie and Maureen may not be real people, Joyce has spoken about how she was inspired to write the book by her own father. “I began writing this as a radio play when my father told me he was dying,” she said (via BookBrowse). “He had spent years battling cancer, and after several brutal operations, surgeons told him there was nothing left to be done. He was very frightened and so was I.”

“I was appalled at the idea of not having my father. I was appalled at the idea of watching him die. But both happened, and while they did I wrote this story about a man who sets off to save someone else. It was my escape.”

jim broadbent, the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry

Of course, many people have walked the length of England just like Harold – though usually for charity, and often taking an even longer route, from John O'Groats in the north to Land's End in the south. That's a distance of more than 870 miles – so hopefully the brave walkers who have attempted this were wearing more suitable shoes than Harold's.

While the story in the movie may not be true, the cast and crew of the screen adaptation did walk past and film at many of the landmarks and towns featured on Harold’s journey, and the movie was also filmed in chronological order so they followed the route in the book – no matter the weather.

“Because we were filming chronologically, if it was raining, we filmed in the rain, which is refreshing,” Jim Broadbent said in an exclusive interview with Digital Spy.

“It’s different, because normally if it rains it is a great crisis and everyone has to stop. But if it was raining on this one, we carried on and filmed in the rain. It was a really nice film to make in that way because the emotional journey was mirrored by the physical journey as well.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is in cinemas now.

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