Silence and the school library in 'Children of a Lesser God' (1986)

This film flips the script on libraries as quiet spaces.

It is almost Valentine’s Day, so I went back over my updated post of Best Picture nominees featuring reel librarians — in particular the section for Best Picture nominees (with potential reel librarians) to watch/rewatch — and looked for any romances in the mix. And bingo, my eyes lit up when I reread my description of 1986’s Children of a Lesser God:

This Best Picture-nominated film boasts the Oscar-winning performance of lead actress Marlee Matlin, who works at a school for the deaf. I have not yet seen this film, which is on my Master List, so I need to watch it for any signs of a school library, or librarian, at this school.

I am not sure why I had never gotten around to watching this Oscar-winning film, but never late than never, right? I was blown away by Marlee Matlin’s emotional performance, especially considering this was her feature film debut! She totally held her own as Sarah — and then some! — against William Hurt, who plays James, a new speech teacher.

The film was also nominated for Oscars in the categories of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Notably, the film was not nominated for Best Director; the film was directed by Randa Haines, and she was nominated for a Director’s Guild of America Award that year for this film.

A few contemporary reviews pointed out that the film was told from a hearing perspective and for a hearing audience; for example, they did not provide captions for any sign language, and James translated most of Sarah’s signing through his own voice.

Here’s a trailer for the film, if you are either not familiar with it or it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it:

“Children of a Lesser God (1986) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers” by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License

*Mild Spoilers Ahead*

School library scene without a school librarian

A little over 40 minutes into the 2-hour film, James is trying to connect with Sarah, and she becomes angry when she learns that he has visited her mother (played by Piper Laurie). Sarah goes into the school library, where James follows her. There’s a “Library” sign on the wall beside the door, and a “Drop Box” below the sign.

Sarah enters the school library in Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Notice the library sign, the book drop, and the bulletin board of “Deaf Resources” — all tell-tale signs of a school library!

It’s clearly a very small library — just one small room — but as the two circle each other around the room, we can spot a section for print magazines and newspapers, a “Book Nook” corner of bookcases, and a counter with a bell. (The bell prop on the counter gives us a clue that the school librarian is not deaf, because they would need to be able to hear the bell for it to successfully get their attention. FYI, the large amber light on the wall is one used to signal class periods for students.) We also see signs by the counter for “How to Find Books,” and these posters feature the Dewey Decimal call number classification system, which is the most common call number system for school library collections.

School library counter with a bell and multiple "How to Find a Book" signs with Dewey Decimal call number info. Library scene in Children of a Lesser God (1986).
Notice the bell and the multiple (!) “How to Find a Book” signs with Dewey Decimal call number info?
Periodicals corner of the school library, with print magazines and newspapers, in the school library scene from Children of a Lesser God (1986)
The periodicals corner of the school library includes print magazines and newspapers

We can also spot hand-lettered signs for different collections crammed together on the bookcases, including sections for Fiction, Reference and Encyclopedias, History, and Children’s Books.

Hand-lettered signs for different collections in the school library, including Fiction, Reference and Encyclopedias, Children's Books, History, etc. From the school library scene in Children of a Lesser God (1986).
I kind of love the randomness of these hand-lettered signs — including two different signs for Fiction!
"Book Nook" sign along the back wall of the school library in Children of a Lesser God (1986)
Do you notice the “Book Nook” sign along the back?

Behind Sarah, you can also spot call numbers on books. However, there do not seem to be call numbers on every book — including books with wide spines that should theoretically have room for call number labels — so I’m a little suspicious that the propmaster just crammed a bunch of random books — some from libraries and some not — into the room and called it a day.

Closeup of call numbers on library books in this school library scene from Children of a Lesser God (1986)
School library books — some with call numbers, some without — behind Sarah in this school library scene

Side note: The movie was filmed at the Rothesay Netherwood School in New Brunswick, Canada, and here is a look at their well-stocked library in real life. This is not AT ALL the kind of school library depicted in the film, so I think my suspicions about the movie library and book props are true. I cannot be 100% certain, of course, as this school might well have built a better library in the 30+ years since this movie was filmed there.

We also are never gifted with the presence of a school librarian, so this film remains in the Class V category, films that include library scenes but no reel librarian characters. This also means that I get to update my Best Picture nominees that feature reel librarians, 2020 update post, and move Children of a Lesser God into the “Best Picture nominees with library scenes (but no reel librarians)” section.

The role of silence

The role of silence is, understandably, a major theme in this film. Libraries are known for being quiet places — or at least, that’s a common misconception, and “shushing librarians” are a common stereotype. (Libraries DO usually have “silent study” spaces for those who really need quiet, but there’s usually a medium-level of expected noise and conversation in most modern libraries nowadays. Libraries are community spaces, and people often need to be able to make a little noise!)

Therefore, Sarah tries to escape into the library to get away from James — a safe space where she may expect others to be as silent as she normally is. But the library instead becomes a private place to have an argument, where Sarah exposes a major secret of her past to James. The library is no longer safe for Sarah; she cannot escape, even from herself or her own painful memories. The library is also no longer a silent space for Sarah, as James breaks the silence with his translation of Sarah’s signing, even shouting in frustration multiple times across the room at her.

I found it very interesting that this film flips the script, so to speak, on libraries as quiet spaces. This library scene, in effect, breaks the silence between Sarah and James. After this scene, they become lovers, which lays the foundation for the rest of the film’s plot and romantic drama.

Continuing the conversation

Have you seen this Oscar-winning film? Were you blown away by Marlee Matlin’s feature film debut? Did you remember this scene in the school library? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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