From Book to Movie: 84, Charing Cross Road

Blackbird

It is in the late 1940s, and Helene Hanff simply cannot find any decent and affordable editions of the obscure British literature she wants to read in New York City. So she contacts Marks & Co., a London antiquarian bookstore, to see if they are able to provide her with what she is looking for. Her inquiry starts a 20-year-long correspondence with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for Marks & Co. 84, Charing Cross Road is based on the letters the two exchanged, and it is a most charming book.

While Helene is a snarky New Yorker, drinking and smoking while writing scripts for TV dramas, Frank is a reserved, married gentleman who sometimes comes across as a little stodgy. What they have in common is a love of books, and that easily overcomes the geographic and cultural distances between them. When Helene starts to send food parcels to the bookstore during England’s post-war rationing, she also starts to meet the other employees of the bookstore. Through everyone’s letters, the reader gets to know all of these people as well. The often short letters are a wonderful reminder of how much a few sentences can mean to and also tell about a person. Reading this little book was a wonderful and sentimental journey. I think my favorite moment was when Helene confides to Frank that some of her successful scripts are based on characters and events she has read about in the books he has sent her.

84, Charing Cross Road became the basis for a play and teleplay. In 1987, it was made into a movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. I watched it last week and loved it as much as the book. I thought the movie did a great job staying true to the book and the sentiments behind it. It added just enough visuals and events to round out the characters and make them come to life for someone who has not first read the book. Often, the way I imagine characters and scenes in a book don’t mesh with how the movie presents them, but in this case, they complimented each other perfectly. My favorite scene of the movie is when Frank is sitting on a park bench in the mid-Sixties, watching several young women walking past in very short skirts. It is not sexual in any way; he simply sits there reflecting how much things have changed over the past 10 or 20 years—skirt length included. In his letter to Helene, he says in a wonderfully understated way:

“We had a very pleasant summer with more than the usual number of tourists, including hordes of young people making the pilgrimage to Carnaby Street. We watch it all from a safe distance, though I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”

My verdict: Both book and movie are highly recommended.

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24 comments

  1. Wow it’s been a long time since I saw the movie. I need to watch it again. That’s a younger looking Anthony Hopkins! pre Hannibal Lecter.

  2. I don’t think I’ve hear of this book before, but you’ve completely charmed me with the story and I think I’ll try to read the book and watch the movie too. I’m curious to know how you liked Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins as the main characters.

    • I hope you will! I’d be curious to hear what you think. The book is a real quick read, too. I thought Bancroft and Hopkins were perfectly cast, although I watch so few movies that I wouldn’t know any better. But when I see Hopkins, my first association is always Silence of the Lambs, so I was relieved that I completely bought his portrayal of a quiet, perfectly normal gentleman. 🙂

  3. I was enchanted by this book when I read it many years ago; and I still remember renting the movie and watching it with my husband while we ate takeout Chinese food. Thanks for these memories and thoughts of/on a book I’m very fond of.

  4. This book has been on my list for a long time, and I’ve been keeping an eye out for a used copy whenever I visit the second-hand bookstores. After all these years of looking, I still haven’t found one. But I will.
    I didn’t know there was a movie. It’s good to know that it’s well done, for when I’m ready!

  5. One of my favourite books of all time. If you can still find it (I think much of her backlist is out of print) then try and read ‘Q’s legacy’ which details her self-taught love of reading, the effect the book had on her ,and her experiences of it being on stage and then filmed. It’s equally charming.

      • I’ve read all of hers. Duchess is good, not sad but perhaps poignant. Some have criticised it for being self indulgent but I forgive this because I like people who are passionate about their subject. In a parallel universe I’d go gin drinking with Helene H.

  6. I’m so glad you enjoyed this novel. It’s been on my wishlist for such a long time. In fact, I was all set to buy a copy just before Christmas but neither of my favourite bookshops had it in stock at the time. I shall have to try again! Delighted to hear that the film lived up to your expectations as well. It’s always a risk, isn’t it, watching a film adaptation when you’ve connected with the book?

    • I often have problems with film adaptions, if they do things differently than I imagine them based on a book, especially if I really like it. But here, the two worked perfectly together, in my opinion. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you will find a copy of the book. I think you would really enjoy reading it.

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