Books Chapter & Verse

'84, Charing Cross Road' – celebrating the best movie ever made about reading

Thirty years ago, '84, Charing Cross Road' was released, achieving the magic of bringing to life the quiet drama of being lost in a book.

In the film version of '84, Charing Cross Road," Anne Bancroft played Helene Hanff, a New York freelance writer and voracious reader whose hunt for cheap vintage volumes in 1949 prompted a long-distance, 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), who helped manage Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookstore at 84, Charing Cross Road in London.
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The arrival of 2017 brings a landmark anniversary for bibliophiles. In 1987 – 30 years ago this year – “84, Charing Cross Road” opened in movie theaters, treating viewers to what could be the best film about reading ever made.

Not that there’s much competition in that category, since the quiet drama of being lost in a book is a hard thing to translate to the screen.

But “84, Charing Cross Road” managed to pull it off, drawing on some great source material, and two stellar co-stars who portrayed real-life characters. Anne Bancroft played Helene Hanff, a New York freelance writer and voracious reader whose hunt for cheap vintage volumes in 1949 prompted a long-distance, 20-year correspondence with Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), who helped manage Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookstore at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. 

Their letters, brightened by the odd-couple chemistry between the passionately opinionated Hanff and the strait-laced Englishman Doel, were eventually published in 1970 as “84, Charing Cross Road,” later adapted as the movie of the same name.

One of the recurring themes of the letters, which is beautifully explored in the film, is Hanff’s inability to visit Marks & Co. in person. On her meager freelancer’s income, she can’t afford the travel fare to England, a predicament that forces her to experience the sceptered isle exclusively through its literature. But that odyssey, guided by everyone from Samuel Pepys to Laurence Sterne to Hilaire Belloc, unfolds as an adventure equal to – or perhaps better than – any physical journey.

Ironically, the publication of “84, Charing Cross Road”  made it possible for Hanff to cross the Atlantic. The book proved popular in England, where Hanff worked to adapt it for the BBC. “Q’s Legacy,” a sequel to “84, Charing Cross Road,” was published in 1985, explaining Hanff’s subsequent adventures inspired by her letters to Doel.

Hanff died in 1997, and much has changed in the book trade since she recruited Doel to fill her shopping list. Thanks to the internet, digital versions of many of the old texts Hanff loved are online for free. What’s more, with the rise of online retailing, the kind of personal back-and-forth between customer and seller exemplified by the Hanff-Doel letters now seems like a thing of the past.

But what remains timeless, even in an age of digital books, is the pleasure Hanff took in traditional volumes. “I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest,” she told Doel. “The day (William) Hazlitt came he opened to ‘I hate to read new books,’ and I hollered ‘Comrade’ to whoever owned it before me.”

After Doel sent her a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s essays, Hanff was downright giddy. “I’m almost afraid to handle such soft vellum and heavy cream-colored pages,” she wrote. “Being used to the dead-white paper and stiff cardboardy covers of American books, I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.”

In her final years, Hanff reflected on what her letters to Doel had brought her. “If I live to be very old,” she wrote, “all my memories of the glory days will grow vague and confused, till I won’t be certain any of it really happened. But the books will be there, on my shelves and in my head – the one enduring reality I can be certain of till the day I die.”

– Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”  

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