Book and Film Review 84, Charing Cross Road

The Book

84, Charing Cross Road is a collection of letters, the real life correspondence (1949-1969) between Helene Hanff, a scriptwriter living in New York City, and Frank Doel and his staff at Marks & Co, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Read the 90-something pages to learn how a love for books can create remarkable friendships. This book is worth the investment if you have little time to read. It can be read in 1.5-2 hours. I read it over lunch on Tuesday.

Helene’s antiquarian tastes for essays, poetry, speeches, sermons, and philosophy led her to discover Marks & Co.

Gentlemen:
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian booksellers” scares me somewhat, as I equate “antique” with expensive. I am a poor writer with antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes & Noble’s grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.
I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
Helene Hanff
(Miss) Helene Hanff

Her first letter to the bookseller gives you some idea about the types of books she preferred, but by her third letter you know more about her personality. She was brash, intelligent, and funny. At the half-way point, you also understand that she was compassionate and warm. Her sensitivity to the needs of others is what led her to send parcels of hard to acquire foodstuffs to Frank Doel and his staff. Shortages of eggs, meat, fruit, and vegetables existed for several years after the war (WWII). It was her provision of such items that induced Frank’s associates to begin their own exchange of letters with Helene.

Frank Doel was an honest, earnest, and proper man who thoroughly enjoyed the lively exchange with Helene. He looked forward to finding the books she requested, and he was always eager to meet the woman behind the letters.

*Her reading choices were influenced by what she gleaned from the documented lectures of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge. His On the Art of Writing inspired her to read John Donne, Plato, Chaucer, etc.

The Film

The movie was a complete and pleasant surprise. Rarely do I like the transition of book to movie. This movie – 84, Charing Cross Road – exceptional! Anne Bancroft was Helene Hanff herself! Also perfect were Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Judi Dench as Mrs. Doel. This film couldn’t have been cast better. Get this! Mel Brooks was the executive producer. This makes me wonder if perhaps Bancroft and Brooks (married to each other until Bancroft’s relatively recent death) knew Helene.

I have to give a high five to the scriptwriter. Turning letters into conversation and action required some clever thinking and writing. The set designer also gets a high five. At the time the movie was made the bookshop was a record store; therefore, the bookshop had to be rebuilt at Shepperton Studios. I don’t think Frank Doel would have noticed a difference. It seemed to capture the true essence of the original.

After you read the book, add the movie to your Netflix list. Enjoy both!