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Read the Book, Watch the Film (1)

Based on the 1952 novel A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) is set in 1949-50 Hong Kong. It tells the story of a married, but separated, American reporter (played by William Holden), who falls in love with a Eurasian doctor originally from China (played by Jennifer Jones), only to encounter prejudice from her family and from Hong Kong society. A good amount of the story devotes to the widowed Han Suyin’s struggle to fall in love with the charmer Mark Elliot. An Eurasian, Doctor Han often often finds “the English side of her debating with the Chinese side of her.” That she has the run of foreign blood doesn’t make her an open-minded person. She is hung up on Elliot’s importuning question: Do you still not see what destiny has in store for us? Honestly, this is no big deal now, but it was outrageous to re-marry in Han’s time, as Chinese woman is to remain loyal (physical and emotional fidelity) to a deceased husband, behaving in a manner so decorous as the forbears. The movie ends rather abruptly, but leaves the impression that Doctor Han would have no regret in giving her love to Mark. What I find interesting is despite the authentic landscape of 1950s Hong Kong, the delineation of Chinese people is a far cry from reality.

84 Charing Cross Road (1987) is an adaptation of the 1970 epistolary memoir of the same name by Helene Hanff, a compilation of letters between herself and Frank Doel dating from 1949 to 1968. In 1949 Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft), in search of obscure classics and British literature titles she has been unable to find in New York City, notices an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature placed by antiquarian booksellers Marks & Co located at the titular address in London. She contacts the shop and—the chief buyer, Doel, as polite and soft-spoken as Hanff is loud and overbearing, fields the request from his book shop in London. A long distance friendship evolves over time, not only between the two but between Hanff and other staff members as well, including birthday gifts, holiday packages, and food parcels to compensate for post-World War II food shortages in England. In these days of e-books, and bland books constructed from franchised ideas and formulas, we are presented Hanff’s memoir, a story about a relationship spawned because of a mutual love of old great books. This growing and deep friendship never had its denoument—For the next two decades they correspond without ever actually sitting down for tea and crumpets. Bancroft brings Helene Hanff alive in all her dimensions, in the process creating one of her most memorable characterizations. Somewhat sad, but uplifting at the same time.

Helen’s enthusiasm and passion for them is infectious, and 84 Charing Cross Road is a rare film that can convey a character’s love of books without having the character come across as pretentious or pedantic. I enjoyed the gradual change in Helen and Frank’s relationship, the way their friendship deepens. The movie dares to rely on simple things—words and friendship. There is no grand drama, no whirlwind romance; Frank is married and committed to his family, while Helen is busy with her writing and books. I could sense that they’re kindred spirits, and under other circumstances might have fallen in romantic love and married, but whether that would ever have happened remains unknown. It’s not even worth much speculation. Their strong mutual understandings and respect for each other that their roles in each others life became inconceivably profound.

7 Responses

  1. This answers the question I posed over the weekend on the choice between a book and its tv/film adaptation. I have heard of the second but not the first.

  2. loved the book 84 Charing Cross Road. How those letters formed part of such a wonderful story is unbelievable.

  3. I love both the book and the film of ’84 Charing Cross Road’. The book catapulted itself straight onto my ‘favourites’ list when I finally read it last year – Hanff’s wit just sparkled from the page and the bookishness of her letters was delicious to read! I bought the film a few weeks later and it’s now firmly anchored on my shelf as a movie I can always re-watch for a bookish boost, any time. Bancroft is superb and it feels so intimate and full of heart. The only bad thing about it is Judi Dench’s dodgy Irish accent!

  4. So glad that you got the chance to watch ’84 Charing Cross Road.’ Wasn’t it delightful!!!???

  5. Two wonderful recommendations and I have seen neither one of them. I do love William Holden though and look forward to seeing him in this role.

  6. I have never read 84 Charing Cross Road, but the movie hit me straight in the heart.

    Finding love is difficult enough, but finding someone who can love books the way I do? Be still, my heart.

  7. […] Read the Book, Watch the Film (1) […]

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