Last week, the winner of the reader poll of runner-ups (say that phrase 3 times fast!) was the 1973 sci-fi classic, Soylent Green. In the year 2022, food is scarce, and a majority of the world’s population relies on a food product called “Soylent Green.” A detective, played by Charlton Heston, investigates the murder of a Soylent official… and discovers the secret behind Soylent Green.
If you don’t already know what Soylent Green really is, then I won’t spoil it for you. (I just hope you didn’t have any with your Thanksgiving leftovers! 😉 ) “What is the secret of Soylent Green?” is also the hook for the original trailer:
The film stars screen legend Edward G. Robinson, in his final performance. The director’s commentary track on the DVD also revealed that Robinson was almost totally deaf by the time he made this film. He learned his scenes by timing during the rehearsals!
Robinson plays Sol Roth, and we meet him within the first five minutes of the film. He’s described in the trailer as:
Sol Roth, Thorn’s private library. A Living Book in a world without books.
This futuristic world — only 5 years away from our current present day! — has stopped printing books for almost 20 years. The word “Book” now refers to people, to former scholars and librarians who serve as personal researchers for others. Sol is a self-described “Police Book,” assigned to Detective Sergeant Thorn, and there is a “Supreme Exchange” where he goes almost daily for information and to talk to other Books.
Real books are treasures to be hoarded in this overcrowded, dirty, violent nightmare of a future, and Thorn and Sol live together in comparative luxury, in an apartment filled with bookcases.
Even though they look to have a lot of books, we learn that Sol is having trouble finding files for Thorn, looking up information on suspects and cases. This scene also sets up their relationship and how insulting each other is their way of showing their mutual love and respect for one other.
Thorn: What’d you dig up on those cases I gave you? You’ve been telling me that for the last three days.
Sol: Well, I can’t locate the files. I spent hours on it at the Exchange today. Talked to every other Book who was there. […] What the hell kind of miracle do you want of me? I’m just an ordinary Police Book, not the Library of Congress. I don’t know why I bother.
Thorn: Because it’s your job. Besides, you love me.
Thorn then goes to the apartment of Simonson, the Soylent official who has been killed (another screen legend, Joseph Cotten, in a cameo role), and Thorn comes back with multiple treasures. Twenty-two minutes into the film, we are treated to a wondrous site: new books. Thorn brings back two large volumes from the dead man’s apartment, books entitled Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report from 2015 to 2019.
Sol: Where the hell did you get all these?
Thorn: Off his shelves. They were the only reference books he had. You like them?
Sol: I love them. Do you know how many books were published in this country, once upon a time? When there was paper and power and presses that worked.
A little over 10 minutes later, Thorn again asks for more info about Simonson.
Sol’s response: I’ve got a handful of reference work 20 years out of date. You throw out a name, and you expect a miracle?
He then proceeds to read out Simonson’s bio from the last biographical survey that was published, in 2006.
Thorn then asks about the books he brought back from Simonson’s apartment.
Sol: Oh, very technical and highly classified. Unnumbered copies. Officially they don’t exist. […] What else do you want?
Thorn: Everything. Across the board.
Sol: Across the board? That’s impossible.
Thorn: Check the Exchange.
Sol: Check the Exchange? I need you to tell me that? You know, I was a teacher once, a full professor, a respected man.
This short conversation conveys a lot of information — about the books, about Sol and his past, as well as about the Exchange and its importance in their work.
The next scene that features the Exchange, which comes in at a little over an hour into the film, is one of the most important scenes in the entire movie. It anchors the film and sets up the finale. It is a scene in which the Books reveal that they know the secret of Soylent Green… only Thorn, and by extension the audience, remain in the dark.
Sol takes the two large volumes with him to the former public library, now known simply as the “Supreme Exchange.” A sign on the door reveals it’s for “Authorized Books Only,” and as Sol earns admittance, he is therefore visually confirmed as an “Authorized Book.”
Sol slowly walks past row after row of crumbling books and papers, on his way to talk to the others. The books and the Books are all that is left of civilization, of knowledge, of humanity.
As the director states on the commentary track, Sol is “reporting on this committee on what he’s learned through his research,” and he brings the two volumes to the Exchange Leader. The other Books greet him by name, so they are obviously familiar with and comfortable around him.
The rest of this scene — a pivotal scene lasting only a minute and a half total! — features all of the Books: Celia Lovsky as Exchange Leader, Morgan Farley as Book #1, John Barclay as Book #2, Belle Mitchell as Book #3, and Cyril Delevanti as Book #4.
However, only two of the Books exchange words during this scene, Sol and the Exchange Leader. Here’s their entire conversation:
Sol: It’s horrible.
Exchange Leader: You must accept it.
Sol: I see the words, but I can’t believe them.
Exchange Leader: Believe. The evidence is overwhelming. Simonson was a member of the board. He learned these facts, and they shook his sanity. The corporation knew he was not reliable anymore. They felt he might talk, and so he was eliminated.
Sol: Then why are they doing this?
Exchange Leader: Because it’s easier. I think expedient is the word. What we need is to prove what they are doing, before we bring it to the Council of Nations.
Sol: Good God.
Exchange Leader: What God, Mr. Roth? Where will we find Him?
Sol: Perhaps at Home. Yes. At Home.
The director’s commentary during this scene is illuminating and thoughtful:
This sequence is an interesting comment on the state of humanity in this period. When this hidden-away little niche in this enormous library. That’s all there is. There are really no big libraries, and communication is very difficult. People have to actually get together and talk to each other, but they have nothing technical to help them. They have to read the books, and analyze them themselves. Which is not a bad idea, but under these circumstances, it’s terrible when you think there are no books being printed, everything is stopped. No paper, no ink. Just these wonderful people, like this actress, Celia Lovsky, who carries the scene. She’s wonderful, brings the whole feeling in her face of what is really wrong with that civilization.
Can you imagine? These are the only people left who can analyze information, who even know how to read reference books — or any books! And they are all old. The director rests the camera on their faces and wrinkles, and he does not flinch away. When they are gone, there will be no one left to remember. Librarians are holding down the fort for civilization in this film; they are gatekeepers in a very literal sense.
Although the rest of the Books are silent, their expressions speak volumes.
It’s honestly hard to watch this movie today, as parts of it feel TOO real, thinking how close we really might be to the edge of this dystopian future. Corruption is a fact of life in Soylent Green, and people are categorized into functions: Furniture, Books, and so on. And the Books, although they hold the key to knowledge in this future, are arguably no more effective than Thorn himself is as a policeman. But they all carry themselves with dignity, particularly Sol and the way he holds himself upright in his threadbare blazer and beret. All of the Books, including Sol, serve as reel librarians in the role of Information Providers.
Sol does go Home, and his final words to Thorn are, “You’ve got to prove it, Thorn. Prove it. The Exchange…”
Sol’s words spur Thorn to finally uncover the terrible secret behind Soylent Green. As he walks home to his apartment, he passes by the old public library building and current home of the Supreme Exchange. Before, when Sol entered the building, it was quiet and deserted. Now it is the scene of violence. Foreshadowing of the future, perhaps?
The final words of the film also focus on the former library, as Thorn’s supervisor states, “I promise. I’ll tell the Exchange.”
I originally had placed this film in the Category III and listed only the four Books and the Exchange Leader as reel librarians. Upon rewatching the film, I realized that I had overlooked Sol Roth as another reel librarian. We learn he was a former teacher, yes, but as an “Authorized Book,” he also serves the same role as the other Books. I have therefore reclassified this film as a Class I film, as Sol’s job is indeed integral to the plot.
I will leave you with a riddle from Michael, a longtime reader of Reel Librarians:
All librarians may be books, but are all books librarians?
What say you, dear readers?