Sunday, August 21, 2005

84 Charing Cross Road

It's one of my favorite books, and now I've finally managed to see the movie last night. I've been dying to see how they managed to turn a bunch of bookish letters between a British bookseller and a New York writer into a film.
They did manage it, with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft no less, it's got that nice serene Merchant-Ivory feel to it. But it is, essentially, two hours of people sitting in front of typewriters, with voice-overs. If you haven't read the book (and why haven't you???), it might not be all that interesting. I liked it though; Anne Bancroft's Noo Yawk accent is just what I imagined, and Hopkins's Frank Doel is charmingly unassuming. I don't know why they wasted Judy Dench as his wife Nora, she has all of three lines, though she does deliver them in a killer Irish brogue that reminds me of the nuns at my old grade school (hi Sister Eileen, Sister Laurentia, I'm glad you're not reading this thing). Like every good literary adaptation, the fun is watching the words realized on the screen, seeing Hanff constantly bawling out poor Frank ("SLOTH: i could ROT over here before you'd send me anything to read....what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don't you try selling a book to somebody?"). I loved seeing Helene read Donne aloud, or make the Yorkshire pudding, and Bill Humphries' 75-year-old great-aunt exclaiming over the meat Helene sends them.
I'm kind of puzzled by the adaptation though. They invent a few things to keep the plot going, understandable, like Helene getting accidently arrested at a student sit-in at Columbia University (I can see that happening to her, and for all I know it really did). But they cut out some of the best lines, which is inexcusable considering the whole thing's just shy of 100 pages. Where's the bit where Frank snaps that his last name certainly is not Welsh, he's a Norman, thankyouverymuch? The part where Ginny and Ed get mobbed by the folks at Charing Cross when they're discovered to be Helene's friends? The part where Helene "goes out of her mind" over Pride and Prejudice after going on about how much she hates novels? Or when she decries the edition of Catullus that's been turned into "Victorian hearts-and-flowers" ("i mean it PASSETH understanding"). Why did they not include the letter of August 15, 1959, which is so good I shall reproduce it in full:
i write to say i have got work.
i won it. i won a $5,000 Grant-in-Aid off CBS, it's supposed to support me for a year while I write American History dramatizations. I am starting with a script about New York under seven years of British Occupation and i MARVEL at how i rise above it to address you in friendly and forgiving fashion, your behavior over here from 1776 to 1783 was simply FILTHY.
Is there such a thing as a modern-English version of the Canterbury Tales? I have these guilts about never having read Chaucer but I was talkd out of learning Early Anglo-Saxon/Middle English by a friend who had to take it for her Ph.D. They told her to write an essay in Early Anglo-Saxon on any-subject-of-her-own-choosing. "Which is all very well, " she said bitterly, "but the only essay subject you can find enough Early Anglo-Saxon words for is 'How to Slaughter a Thousand Men in a Mead Hall.' "
She also filled me in on Beowulf and his illegitimate son Sidwith--or is it Widsith? she says it's not worth reading so that killed my interset in the entire subject, just send me a modern Chaucer.

love to nora


Which is a heckuvalot of griping for a movie I honestly enjoyed, but I can't help feeling a bit like Helene did when she got that bowlderized Pepys Diary ("i could just spit. where is jan. 12, 1668, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?").
Ah well. I'll still buy it on DVD, Someday When I'm Independantly Wealthy. When I grow up I'll be some version of Helene Hanff and Miss Marple, shuffling around in wool slacks and moth-eaten sweaters, solving murder mysteries as I knit away.
Oh, and it's Wiglaf who's probably Beowulf's bastard son, I've read the thing twice and it is too worth reading. Blood and guts and dragons and shit, what's not to like?


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