A few weeks ago, I posted a follow-up to my call for reader questions and ideas, and I am following up with this question posed by my spouse, Sam:
As a writer, I’m interested in portrayals of writers in film (and since writers write the films, we get a lot of those). But there seems an obvious relationship between writers and librarians, and I’m curious how many Reel Librarians are themselves writers. I know you’ve touched briefly on literary librarians in posts about Before Night Falls, for example, but I wonder how common or rare this is.
My initial response was that I thought it was a very interesting idea, and one I hadn’t thought about before holistically, the relationship between writers and librarians or “literary librarians” and how often that is portrayed onscreen. It also made me smile that my husband wrote that “there seems to be an obvious relationship between writers and librarians” — and we ourselves are evidence of that, as a writer and librarian who are a couple! The obvious connection, of course, is research — and yes, I basically serve as my husband’s private librarian whenever he has research needs for his writing! 🙂
And of course librarians promote literacy — but what about librarians who are also themselves literary? Let’s investigate!
Reel librarians as writers, scribes, and translators
Before Night Falls (2000)
The Oscar-nominated biopic Before Night Falls (2000) explores the life of Cuban writer and poet Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem), who struggles against the Cuban revolution and government censorship of his writings. As a young man, he enters a young writers and storytelling contest sponsored by the National Library — and the prize is a job at the Library! Although there are only a couple of brief glimpses of the library in the film, this job at the library came at a critical point in his literary career.
In an interview in The New Yorker, Arenas revealed that this job in the National Library was “a job that allowed him time to write.” In a Publishers Weekly review of the source memoir, the reviewer writes that “The young Arenas, in the early days of Fidel Castro’s revolution, gained his literary education working at the National Library; he then joined a fervent literary circle.”
In this action film, the title character Blade (Wesley Snipes) is a half-vampire on a mission to destroy vampires, while vampire Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff) is on a mission to destroy the human race. In a brief-but-pivotal scene, Blade tortures Pearl, the Record Keeper (Eric Edwards), who confesses he helped Deacon by translating the Vampire Bible’s prophecy.
Ever After (1998)
In this Cinderella-inspired story, which I analyzed here in this post, Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) is trying to impress Danielle/Nicole (Drew Barrymore). Knowing the lady’s fondness for reading, he invites her to the Franciscan monastery library.
They walk down the stairs of the monastery library and look over a railing at the monks in the library. It is clear, even in these few seconds, that these monks are not only reading their books and scrolls, they are also creating them (you can spot two of the monks seated at tables, complete with book and quill). They were the scribes and writers of their day.
The Name of the Rose (1986)
Speaking of monks and scribes… here is an addition to this original post, as I had forgotten to add the monk librarians in this historical mystery thriller! In this medieval mystery set in a Benedictine Abbey, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) investigates a series of deaths. Several scenes involve a restricted book, the abbey’s “forbidden library,” and its strange librarians hold the key to the mystery.
This Beautiful Fantastic (2016)
The weekend after I wrote and posted this round-up of literary librarians, we happened to watch this 2016 quirky comedy starring Jessica Brown Findlay as an obsessive-compulsive young woman who eventually discovers the joy of a garden. She also turns out to be a literary librarian! When asked what she does for a living, she states:
I work in the library. Filing, mostly, but really, I’m a writer.
Introducing others to literature
Borstal Boy (2000)
This biopic film, which I analyzed more in-depth here, is based on the autobiography of (in)famous Irish writer and activist Brendan Behan. The film focuses on his time in a borstal (a kind of youth prison/labor camp in the UK) during World War II. A prison librarian, played by Arthur Riordan, has scenes throughout the film, and it is he who introduces the future writer Behan to the works of Oscar Wilde, a “fellow Irishman, a fellow jailbird and rebel.”
Interacting with writers
In several films I’ve watched and analyzed, reel librarians — while not being writers themselves — frequently interact with writers. Sometimes in admiration, sometimes in aid, and sometimes in abetting. 😉
Wonder Man (1945)
In this musical comedy, Danny Kaye plays a dual role as nightclub singer Buster Dingle, who gets killed by a mob boss, and whose spirit then enters the body of his identical twin brother, Edwin. A a bookworm writing a history book, Edwin then gets involved with a young and attractive librarian (Virginia Mayo).
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
In this classic romantic drama, free spirit Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) finds love with writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard). There are a couple of scenes set in the New York Public Library; in one of those scenes, Varjak autographs the copy of his book that’s in the library collection. Instead of being appreciative of this “personal touch,” the librarian freaks out and exclaims that he is “defacing public property!”
Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954)
In this comedy, the 7th in a series of 10 “Ma and Pa Kettle” films, the eldest Kettle son writes an essay about the family farm for a college scholarship, and the whole family then scrambles to get the farm ready for the big city contest judges. We first see the “maiden lady librarian,” played by veteran character actress Mary Wickes, when she drops off a book about successful fruit growing. She then gets to be a total fan-girl when she meets one of the judges, Alphonsus Mannering (Alan Mowbray). It is through the librarian that we learn of the judge’s literary credentials:
I’m just simply thrilled to meet a literary figure of your stature. I’m a devoted fan of yours. I read your beautiful column every month.
I analyzed the film more in-depth here in this post.
In this literary drama, two literary researchers and writers (Gwyneth Paltrow & Aaron Eckhart) track down the correspondence and relationship between two Victorian poets (Jeremy Northam & Jennifer Ehle). In an early scene, Eckhart checks out a book at the British Museum library and answers questions from a nosy male librarian (Hugh Simon).
Related occupations or education
Fast and Loose (1939)
This comedic mystery revolves around a stolen manuscript and the rare books business. Joel Sloane (Robert Montgomery), a rare books dealer, takes a commission to buy a Shakespeare manuscript from a personal collection and private library. Joel meets up with his protégé, Phil Seargent (Anthony Allan), who is currently working as private librarian and secretary. The plot quickly spirals into murder. As Joel says early on, “something funny is going on at that library.”
The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (TV, 2004)
Does “perpetual student” Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) have an English literature degree among his 22 advanced degrees? This TV movie doesn’t specify, but Flynn does consider books as real friends, revealing early on that “they speak to me.” I’m also assuming that Flynn has written more than his fair share of graduate theses and dissertations, so I’m going ahead and including him in this round-up. You can read my analysis post of the TV movie here in this post.
Rome Adventure (1962)
In this romantic drama, librarian Prudence Bell (Suzanne Pleshette) quits her job at Briarcroft College for Women after the board reprimands her for recommending a “too adult” book to a student. She goes to Italy in search of adventure and love — and ends up working in a bookshop! You can read my analysis post of the film here in this post.
The film trailer below includes scenes from both the college and the bookshop:
Booksellers misidentified as reel librarians
Speaking of bookshops… there have been several instances of booksellers misidentified as reel librarians. These films end up in my Class V category of films with no identifiable librarians, including films that have been mistakenly listed on other sites or lists of reel librarians.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
In this highly stylized film, a crime boss’s wife (Helen Mirren) carries on an affair with another man (Alan Howard) at her husband’s restaurant. Howard plays a bookseller — not a librarian — and in one scene, he takes Mirren to his book warehouse.
The Final Cut (2004)
In this science-fiction thriller, Robin Williams plays Alan Hakman, a Cutter who edits together footage of a person’s memories for “Rememory” services after they die. One resource lists his on-and-off lady friend, Delila (Mira Sorvino) as a “rare-book librarian.” However, in the film, she appears to be a bookstore owner — or possibly, a restorer of rare books as part of the book shop business.
Night at the Museum (2006)
There is no librarian in this adventure comedy, but the bookstore in this film has been mistaken for a library. In this post, I go into how you can spot the differences between a bookstore and a library onscreen.
Red Dragon (2002)
In this thriller, ex-FBI agent Will Graham (Edward Norton) needs to look up a quotation he gets from Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). He gets help from a bookseller — not a librarian — who looks like a 1980s Madonna wannabe. I go into more detail here in this post.
Sitting Pretty (1948)
In this Oscar-nominated comedy, eccentric Lynn Belvedere (Clifton Webb) answers a family’s ad for a live-in babysitter and shakes up the family and the neighborhood with his manner and methods. A few scenes showcase the Book Shoppe Proprietress (Mary Field); she is not a librarian as listed on some other sites.
So after going through the films I’ve watched and added to my Reel Substance section of the site, there aren’t that many actual “literary librarians” onscreen — at least that I’ve come across so far. The gold standard remains Before Night Falls (2000), a film about Reinaldo Arenas, a writer and poet who started out working at Cuba’s National Library. But if you expand that “literary librarian” definition to include reel librarians in related occupations — like librarian-turned-bookseller Prudence Bell in Rome Adventure (1962), or reel librarians who help writers, like the librarians in Wonder Man (1945) and Possession (2002) — then the pool deepens.
And if you’re interested more in real-life writers who were also librarians, you’re in luck! I explored that in a previous post, “Unreflected glory: Librarian authors and their mediocre movie adaptations” as well as this post, “The Quotable Librarian | Inspirational quotes from famous librarians,” in which I seek out inspirational quotes about libraries and librarians from real-life librarians themselves, including writers who were librarians.
More questions? No problem!
Thank you, Sam, for your question about “literary librarians” and for inspiring this follow-up post!
And if you have any reel librarian-related questions or specific films you’d particularly like me to analyze, please send them my way! You can email me through the “Ask the Real Librarian” link and form above.