Desperately Seeking Bibliophiles: 84 Charing Cross Road

Businessman on plane: Your first trip to London?
Helene Hanff: Yes.
Businessman on plane: You want a word of advice? Don’t trust the cab drivers; they’ll take you five miles to go three blocks… and, uh, don’t waste your time looking at a street map. Nobody can find their way around London – not even Londoners.
Helene Hanff: Maybe I should go to Baltimore instead.
Businessman on plane: No; you’ll enjoy it. London’s a great place. What kind of trip is it – business or pleasure?
Helene Hanff: Unfinished business.

– opening lines to 84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

The 1970s memoirs of New York writer Helen Hanff84 Charing Cross Road (and partly, The Douchess of Bloomsbury Street in 1973) — became the basis for the 1987 film directed by David Hugh Jones. Mel Brooks, husband of late actress Anne Bancroft, who has the starring role of Hanff, purchased the rights to the book as birthday gift to Bancroft.

Hanff is at heart, a bibliophile, and it is her literary voraciousness that serves as the impetus of this story. Unable to find obscure classics and forgotten British literature in New York City (“Doesn’t anyone read in New York anymore?” she rhetorically asks surprised customers of a bookstore upon leaving), she sees an advertisement for Marks & Co., a bookstore in England that specializes in used, rare titles. And what begins in the 1940s as an overseas customer desperately searching for out-of-print books evolves into more than a thirty-year friendship between Hanff and the staff of the bookstore (especially Chief Buyer, Frank Doel who is played by the (later) uncharacteristically charismatic Anthony Hopkins).

Hanff’s short memoirs are a collection of the letters primarily exchanged between she and Doel, all used verbatim in the film. And on the one hand, the film reveals distinctions between pre- and post-war United States and Great Britain, though its focus is more of the cultural rather than political affairs of each, differences which are particularly learned through correspondence in the days long before instant access to seemingly trivial information. Hanff orders a gift basket of food for the bookstore employees at Christmas–relatively simple things like canned ham and fruit preserves. One of the gracious employees writes to thank Hanff, explaining that most of the items received were either things that could only be located on the black market, or, like meats, limited by ration stamps.

The interaction between the characters in the two countries is almost entirely through correspondence, which, if remade today, would probably lose that novelty. But, because most of the interaction is through characters, the filmmakers in time abandon the cumbersome display of one character writing or reading the letters while its author or recipient reads what is written. This is a film, after all, that is translated from a series of letters and demands creativity as such. Once the relationship of Hanff and the employees of the Marks & Co. bookstore becomes more than mere transactions between a store and its customer, the characters–especially Hanff and Doel–began to speak the words of their letters directly to the camera, cutting back and forth with each other’s responses. But there is certain discomfort in a friendship existing entirely through letters, and thus, the major question becomes–will Hanff ever meet her British friends and especially the cordial Frank Doel?

It is a very simple, pleasant film and one who’s cinematography suggests a British public television quality to it, which may not be of any surprise, considering prior adaptations as BBC teleplays and radio plays, in addition to stage performances. Screenwriter Hugh Whitemore, who adapted the BBC teleplay in 1975 as part of the Play for Today series, holds the screenwriter credits for this 1987 film adaptation of Hanff’s memoirs, expanding the characters to “include Hanff’s Manhattan friends [which includes actress Mercedes Rhuel], the bookshop staff, and Doel’s wife Nora, played by Judi Dench. Bancroft won a BAFTA Award as Best Actress; Whitemore and Dench were [respectively] nominated for direction and supporting performance.” 1

It has been suggested that Hanff’s memoirs are not entirely based on actual events. “Although claimed to be a true story, at least one source implies that there was a bit of artistic license. Leo Marks, later a screenwriter, was the son of the bookstore’s owner, and the head of codes and communication for Britain’s special operatives and the underground during WWII, despite being barely old enough for college. In his book “Between Silk and Cyanide” he says of his father: ‘He never read the gentle little myth by Helene Hanff; Long before it was published he’d become one himself.'” But others still seem content to maintain a sense of that history–especially of the Marks & Co. bookstore while the film at least maintains that wonderful romanticism.


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