Will reel librarian Wong return in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’?

I think y’all can guess I was excited that it looks like Wong makes a cameo in the official trailer!

Are y’all excited, too, about the upcoming release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? It’s scheduled to release on Sept. 3rd, which also happens to be the birthday of Simu Liu, who stars in the title role. I’m reallllllly hoping that our local drive-in theater — Rodeo Drive-In is the best! — is going to be showing it so I can watch it when it premieres. (FYI, I’m not comfortable going back to indoor movie theaters yet.)

If you’re a regular reader of Reel Librarians (thank you!), then you know I’m a huge fan of Wong, the monastery librarian who is also a Master of the Mystic Arts, a character played by British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong. So I think y’all can guess I was excited that it looks like Wong makes a cameo in the official trailer, which got dropped at the end of last month. It looks like Wong is battling Abomination in a cage fight, and this scene shows up at 1:51 minutes into the trailer below:

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Trailer” by
Marvel Entertainment
, Standard YouTube License

It certainly looks like Wong, although the character is only shown from the back:

screenshot from the official trailer

And as this Screen Rant article stated, Benedict Wong was “spotted hanging out with Liu in Australia back in September 2020, around the same time that production for the movie was ongoing.”

I watched a couple of reaction videos to this trailer, and there were differing opinions at the time of the trailer’s release about whether or not it was Wong in the trailer:

  • In this Screen Crush video, Ryan Arey from Screen Crush doubts that it is Wong: “A lot of people have speculated that this is Wong, because he was in an Instagram post with Simu Liu, but come on, what would Wong be doing here fighting the Abomination? It makes no sense.”
  • In this New Rockstars video, Erik Voss does think it is Wong and has an idea about a possible reason: [It is interesting] that Wong is fighting in this tournament. It sounds like the stakes of Wenwu’s fighting tournament are so high that every power player on earth needs a champion who’s gonna enter that bracket. So by Wong entering it, it means that the sorcerers need some kind of warrior to compete for it, because kind of like how they were protecting the time stone, these 10 rings falling into the wrong hands could really upset the balance of power between the different dimensions.

Like I said, my first thought was that it was Wong in the trailer, and I’m not the only one who got excited about that!

It turns out… it really IS Wong! This Rotten Tomatoes article shares an exclusive interview with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige:

Rotten Tomatoes sat down with Feige this week for an extended look at Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the full video of which will be available shortly in the lead-up to Black Widow‘s release. When we asked for confirmation that we had indeed seen The Abomination squaring off against Wong in the closing moments of the Shang-Chi trailer, Feige revealed that our eyes were not deceiving us.

“Yes, we just recently released the final trailer for Shang-Chi,” said Feige. “Some fans said, ‘This looks like a character they hadn’t seen in many years named The Abomination, fighting a character that looks like Wong. And I can say that the reason it looks like that is because that is Abomination fighting Wong.”

Joel Meares, “Exclusive: Kevin Feige Confirms That is the Abomination Fighting Wong in the Shang-Chi Trailer,” Rotten Tomatoes, 29 June 2021

And this week in an interview with SyFy Wire, Benedict Wong himself ALSO confirmed his cameo in the movie, and how much it meant for him to be a part of it.

“When Shang-Chi was happening, I was so pleased that it was happening, but I was a little kind of crestfallen I wasn’t a part of it,” Wong shared. “And then the call [from Marvel Studios] came. And I was like, ‘Yes!'”

[…]

“I’m super thrilled,” Wong said. “And then to be sat at a table of Asian excellence, it was amazing. […] it’s been constant surprises, that’s what [the role of Wong] gives me.”

As quoted in “Benedict Wong Says Joining Cast of Marvel’s Shang-Chi is ‘To Be Sat at a Table of Asian Excellence’” by Tara Bennett, SyFy Wire, 19 July 2021

Woo-hoo!!! I was already excited about seeing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and with the prospect of seeing more Wong and reel librarian action on the big screen, I’m even MORE EXCITED! If I’m able to catch the movie at the drive-in, I will definitely follow up with a “first impressions” post.

If you want to explore more analyses of Wong’s reel librarian and sorcerer adventures on this blog, check out these past posts:

Do you also love the character of reel librarian and sorcerer Wong? Do you agree with me that Wong is the one who actually did the work of assembling the Avengers? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Thoughts after reading ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ biography

“In some thirty years of experience I have never seen anything of this nature before”

In last month’s post “Librarians make their mark in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (1987),” I analyzed the reel librarian portrayals in the 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, the movie adaptation of the 1978 biography by John Lahr. Then I realized that the biography was available as an e-book on our local public library’s Hoopla subscription, so I decided to read the source biography in order to extend the conversation this month on playwright Joe Orton (who identified as queer). It also feels fitting because here in Tacoma, we celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride Month in July, so as not to compete with all the Pride Month celebrations and activities in nearby Seattle during June. I like that we do this, because we essentially get to extend Pride Month for an extra month. Win-win! 🙂

The record for the Prick Up Your Ears biography, in e-book format via Hoopla

I had mentioned in my prior post about how the movie begins with Kenneth Halliwell covered in blood after murdering Joe Orton, and it ends with Orton’s funeral, with flashbacks and flash-forwards in-between. This cinematic structure actually does (loosely) follow the structure of the book.

  • Chapter 1 begins with the murder-suicide of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell and then details the last few months of their life, counting down toward “zero hour.”
  • Chapter 2 details Joe’s childhood and entry into RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and ends with his diary entries upon meeting Kenneth Halliwell.
  • Chapter 3 focuses on Joe’s and Kenneth’s early life together and their creative collaborations. This is the main chapter that includes the info about their defacement of library books, thus firmly positing their library books project as part of their creative experimentations.
  • Chapter 4 is about Orton’s early successes, mainly the process of bringing Entertaining Mr. Sloane to the stage.
  • Chapter 5 mainly details the process of Orton’s play Loot and its eventual success.
  • Chapter 6, the final chapter, focuses mostly about Orton’s final play, What the Butler Saw, and ends with details about Orton’s and Halliwell’s funerals.

It’s clear that the screenwriter excised the details about Orton’s most famous plays that comprise the latter half of the biography, which makes sense for a movie adaptation. But after reading the biography, I had so much more of an appreciation for Orton’s creative process and how much he excelled in rewriting his plays and shaping everything “until it sparkled.” You also get much more detail about how much writing and (failed) experimentation Orton did during the first decade he spent with Halliwell, and how all this work paid off for him as it helped him shape his craft and style. If you just watch the movie by itself, you really don’t get a sense of how hard Orton really did work at his writing. And I think that’s ultimately why the Prick Up Your Ears source biography was highlighted in The Guardian as a “book to give you hope.”

Below, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite “golden lines” and information that I learned from each chapter of Orton’s biography.

Thoughts from Chapter 1

Lahr has a devastating opening paragraph: “Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were friends. For fifteen years, they lived and often wrote together. They wore each other’s clothes. Their wills each named the other as sole beneficiary. They shared everything except success. But on 9 August 1967, murder made them equal again” (p. 8).

These observations also felt on-point and devastatingly poignant, as well:

  • Orton died from his short-sighted and indecisive loyalty to a friend” (p. 11).
  • Through murder Halliwell achieved the public association with Joe Orton’s career he’d been denied in life” (p. 41).

The title “Prick Up Your Ears” came from Halliwell! After Orton finished drafting What the Butler Saw, he shared in his diary that he wanted to start work on a new play, an “historical farce set on the eve of Edward VII’s coronation in 1902 and called (at the moment) Prick Up Your Ears. I hope I can write a play worthy of one of Kenneth Halliwell’s most brilliant titles” (p. 27).

Thoughts from Chapter 2

Orton kept a diary during his youth, and he mentions the local public library in Leicester a few times, including:

  • In February 1949, he had a date with a girl, Penny, who was supposed to meet him “outside the library,” but she stood him up! He “waited like a fool in the howling wind and pouring rain” (p. 68).
  • When Orton started elocution lessons with Madame Rothery, he worried about how he was going to pay for the lessons. So he “wrote a letter to the library about a job this evening” (p. 76). WOW, Orton was willing to work in the local public library! Did Lahr include that to indicate just how desperate Orton was to earn money?! 😉

However, Orton tended not to hold down jobs very long, and I don’t think he would have worked very long at the library, especially if they had found out about how he had been stealing books from libraries from a very young age! His sister, Leonie, shared a memory of her brother, laughing “at the recollected sight of John [Joe’s birth name] with her in tow stealing a copy of Black Beauty from the Bishop’s Street Library where he spent so much of his time” (p. 80).

"Joe Orton - Walk of Fame - Leicester" photo by Ned Trifle, CC BY NC SA 2.0 license
Joe Orton – Walk of Fame – Leicester” photo by Ned Trifle, CC BY NC SA 2.0 license

Thoughts from Chapter 3

Details of the library prank

Like I mentioned earlier, the library books prank and subsequent prison term are covered in-depth in this chapter. And we get a LOT more details about what really happened, including:

  • In addition to stealing 72 library books, they were charged for “damaging a number of books, which included the removal of 1,653 plates from art books. Total damage was estimated at 450 pounds.” (p. 85). These art plates are what they used to decorate the walls of their flat!
  • The article about the crime was reprinted in Reader’s Digest (p. 85)!
  • Halliwell would smuggle library books out in a service gas-mask case (p. 89). Such an odd detail… and this detail will come up again in a later chapter. 🙂
  • Librarians were actively — but quietly! — on the lookout for the book thieves for eighteen months (!!!), even having librarians from other branches come in and pose as members of the public so that Orton and Halliwell wouldn’t recognize them. The librarians wanted to catch them red-handed, but they never succeeded in that (p. 89).
  • Homophobia WAS the reason the librarians suspected Orton and Halliwell in the first place. “In January 1962 a branch librarian became suspicious of the two men who always visited the library together and shared the same address” (p. 89). Just… ugh. 😦

Details about how they were caught and sentenced

I mentioned in last month’s post about the movie version of Prick Up Your Ears that the film shows the librarians as the ones who personally trap Orton and Halliwell, but that in real life, Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council, did the detective work. After reading all the details about Porrett and his methods in this biography, it’s clear that Porrett was very prejudiced against the gay community and had a personal vendetta against Orton and Halliwell. And as bad as the (fictional) Mr. Cunliffe, the senior librarian, is in the movie version, the real-life events are even worse! Here are personal quotes from and about Porrett in describing his (unethical) actions against Orton and Halliwell:

  • I had to catch these two monkeys. … I played them a slightly dirty trick. I thought, ‘Ok, I’ll let my ethics slip a little bit‘. I wanted to get them aggravated. They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake” (p. 90).
  • When Orton complained to Porrett about his methods, Porrett responded, “‘I fetched myself down to your level. I’m quite happy to let you think I’m a fool, but I’m one step ahead of you all the time.’ It was just my psychological attempt to get on top of them. They realized they’d met somebody as cute as them” (p. 91).
  • Porrett’s personal vendetta continued even AFTER Orton and Halliwell served their prison sentence in fall 1962 and scheduled to pay off the remaining fines. “But Porrett wasn’t finished with them. He had, as he says, ‘another trick up his sleeve’ to ensure that he got the remaining 62 pounds in damages. He threatened them a charging order which would give him power of sale over their mortgaged apartment to meet the unsettled debt. ‘I was still that much on top.’ … ‘They paid up like little darlings,’ Porrett smiles. ‘I left them financially pretty rocky'” (p. 95).
  • In a final letter to Porrett in December 1962, Halliwell details the impact of Porrett’s vendetta: “For what was (surely?) a comparatively mild crime, we have thus: a) lost our jobs and been thrown on the barest subsistence level of National Assistance b) done six months prison sentence c) paid practically all our pathetically small bank accounts. Justice has certainly been done. Some people might think, perhaps, even a little bit more than justice” (p. 95).
  • Orton also shared his emotions in a letter to the Cordens, who owned the building their flat was in: “I really feel so angry. Admittedly what I did is not to be defended, but I’m paying for it here. They want me to come out of prison literally penniless” (p. 93-94).

I also agree with Orton when he privately shared that he thought their severe sentence — 6 months in prison and a fine that forced them to go on National Assistance for over a year — was “because we were queers” (p. 91). And it wasn’t just Porrett who displayed homophobia and an overzealous sense of justice:

  • The magistrate stated that “In some thirty years of experience I have never seen anything of this nature before” (p. 88) and described the prank as “sheer malice” (p. 91). Side thought: Leicester must be the MOST BORING PLACE in the world if the defacing of library books inspired this kind of hyperbolic reaction.
  • The magistrate also (accidentally?) acknowledged the creative skill behind the library books prank: “Most perturbing to the court was not the abuse of private property but the care and intelligence with which Orton and Halliwell tampered with the books” (p. 88).

It’s no wonder that the word ‘magistrate’ “would become a term of abuse in Orton’s vocabulary — a word which epitomized everything quietly violent, sterile and inflexible in the English middle class” (p. 91).

A creative act

As I mentioned above, Lahr definitely places the library prank within the context of Orton’s and Halliwell’s creative acts:

  • I found this description of Lahr’s to be very thought-provoking and illuminating: “They turned the library into a little theatre where they watched people reacting to their productions. There was sorrow in their anger, but also hilarity” (p. 88).
  • Lahr continues this metaphor of the library prank as a form of theater: “The book-defacing was brash, simple, and often childishly rude. The library escapade set the stage for the literary impact that was lacking in Orton’s fictions. Begun by Orton in August 1959, the project mushroomed obsessively with repeated literary rejection into a kind of art form by 1961. […] The defaced books infiltrated the public and goaded it to respond. Orton was testing the destructive power of his laughter and watching for signs of shock. […] The library prank was a misguided piece of theatre, but the work was very funny. The book jackets were concise, straightforward, irreverent and vulgar: everything that Orton’s fiction was not [at that time]” (p. 133).
  • Orton began defacing library books about the time his writing became obsessed with laughter as revenge” (p. 126).

Different reasons for the library prank

Lahr notes that there is never any official explanation in the court records about the library prank — “Orton and Halliwell never admitted their rationale for this prank to the court” (p. 88) — so he explores several theories and reasons expressed about their motivations in defacing the library books.

  • Orton shared in a later interview, “I’m not excusing myself. I’m just unrepentant” (p. 92).
  • Orton also stressed the effect he wanted from the prank: “I used to stand in corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch the people read them. It was very funny, very interesting” (p. 87).
  • Orton gave a very basic explanation to the police when they asked why he had stolen the library books: “I wanted these books but haven’t been able to afford them. That’s why I took them.” (p. 89).
  • The police also asked Halliwell, and he told the police his (very different) opinion of why Orton typed fake blurbs on the inside of library books, framing it in the realm of literary criticism: “I saw Orton typing the covers of books. I read what he typed, and I considered it a criticism of what the books contained” (p. 86).
  • Orton himself often echoed this literary criticism angle in later interviews, and also revealed once how personal it felt for him: “The thing that really put me in a rage about librarians was that I went to quite a big library in Islington and asked for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They told me they hadn’t got a copy of it. They could get it for me, but they hadn’t one on their shelves. This didn’t start it off, but it was symptomatic of the whole thing. I was enraged that there were so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books. … Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves of rubbish and hardly any space for good books” (p. 88).
  • There may be a clue — or just an excuse? — in Orton’s and Halliwell’s 1960 play The Boy Hairdresser, in which the main characters confess that they steal library books: “We’re public benefactors in a way. We steal — the shops order more — the publishers are pleased — and everybody is happy. We finance literature” (p. 89). Personally, as a librarian, I find this argument the least convincing one of them all, and it demonstrates a profound ignorance of how libraries, or bookstores, actually work. First of all, it takes a lot of time and effort to track library books/inventory and compile lists of missing or lost ones, and budgets are ALWAYS tight, so there’s no guarantee that libraries will realize in a timely way when books are missing and/or that they will have the funds to repurchase the titles.

After reading this chapter, I came away with the idea that Orton himself was an unreliable narrator. I think there were probably several reasons for his years-long work on defacing the library books, and he would pull out a reason that sounded right to him in the moment. In some sense, the myriad of reasons were all true, and therefore they were all never quite the whole truth individually.

I also found it intriguing that Lahr explores whether or not the prank was successful and how that also had an impact on Orton’s creative expression: “Orton enjoyed talking about prison and the defaced books. But he always sidestepped the question of the prank’s success. […] Orton waited to see a reaction from the public, but got no satisfaction. ‘He couldn’t understand why the public wasn’t getting stirred up,’ Sidney Porrett remembers. The work did incite the public, but Orton couldn’t gauge the reaction. When he understood the elaborate lengths to which Islington went to catch them, he realized just how disturbing the work had been. This pleased him” (p. 134)

The effects of prison

The movie version of this biography is quite succinct when it comes to the effects that prison had on Orton (“Prison worked wonders for Joe“).

Lahr goes into much more detail and nuance: “Prison was more of a turning points in their life than either Orton or Halliwell at first admitted. Orton found a focus for his anger and a new detachment in his writing. For Halliwell, prison was more humiliating — a symbol of the larger pattern of defeat in his life. … Having once savoured the role of literary renegades, they now had bona fide criminal credentials” (p. 95).

The effects they had on each other

Lahr really has a way of capturing the dynamic between Orton and Halliwell:

  • The greatest impression Orton and Halliwell made at RADA was on each other” (p. 103)
  • Writing, like most things at the beginning of their relationship, was Halliwell’s idea. He was working on a novel when Orton moved in, and before long, Orton was seated at the living room contributing to Halliwell’s effort the only literary skill he possessed: his typing. But as Orton transcribed Halliwell’s novel, he would make suggestions. Halliwell found them useful and incorporated them into his work. By including Orton in his literary ambitions, he was also binding him closer to his life” (p. 108).
Joe Orton 1933-1967 (Islington)” photo by Spudgun67, CC BY SA 4.0 license

Thoughts from Chapter 4

Orton mentions the public library when describing the plot of his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane: “It’s about a young man, eighteen or nineteen, who wants a room and comes into this house. He’s met the woman of the house in a public library. He comes to the house and she shows him around” (p. 157).

Remember the gas-mask case that Halliwell used to smuggle books he stole from the public library in Islington? Orton continued to use it! “Orton carried his papers in the same gas-mask case Halliwell used to smuggle books” (p. 173). WOW! I just love details like that.

We also learn, in great detail via his diary, that Orton was almost denied a passport/visa to travel to the U.S., where his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane was preparing its Broadway debut, due to his crime of defacing library books! And although he described the crime as “a joke” to the American Embassy officials, Orton wrote in the same entry that, “This wasn’t true. The outrages against a middle-brow reaching public were serious enough. They’d occupied my time and energies for close on five years before I was caught. They could never be justified. Or explained” (p. 183).

Orton also paints a rosier picture of the effects of his library book pranks: “Many people borrowed the book from the library on the strength of my blurbs. And returned them with complaints when the published story didn’t live up to mine” (p. 186).

Thoughts from Chapter 5

I had no idea that Loot, Orton’s most famous and successful play, had such a torturous and ill-reviewed path to stage success. Lahr really goes in-depth into how much Orton rewrote and reshaped this play, which eventually earned him the award for best play in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 1966.

Although boasting about his prison stint and library book prank in interviews, Orton revealed that he was still bitter about the experience in private. He would tell friends that he had been “entrapped by police” because he was a homosexual (p. 207).

Thoughts from Chapter 6

I liked how Lahr summed up Orton’s accomplishments while also acknowledging Halliwell’s influence — something that Orton could never do in public: “The plots of old, failed novels (some of them partly Halliwell’s invention) were being recycled by Orton into new commercial products. He was free to be himself, and he had found a way of making that self acceptable to the world” (p. 251).

Thoughts from the Acknowledgements

Bonus thoughts! I mentioned in last month’s post that the movie version of Prick Up Your Ears featured Lahr as a character in the narrative, played by Wallace Shawn, and how the movie highlighted his research into Orton and how he “reads his diaries and pieces together Orton’s and Halliwell’s life together.”

After reading the source biography, I am personally convinced that the screenwriter decided to add Lahr into the screenplay after reading the Acknowledgements, because of how Lahr details his own research process: “The biography became a mosaic, pieced painstakingly together with his own words and the observations of those whose path he crossed” (p. 321).

Continuing the conversation

Overall, I found the Prick Up Your Ears biography quite engrossing (and I’m not usually one for reading biographies or non-fiction in general). I feel like I came away with a much greater understanding of Orton’s and Halliwell’s dynamic and a greater appreciation for Orton’s writing and creative genius. Highly recommended!

I am really glad I decided to continue the conversation into Joe Orton’s works and life in John Lahr’s 1978 biography. Now it’s your turn! Have you read the biography, or watched the movie version? Please leave a comment and share your own thoughts!

Sources used

Librarians make their mark in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (1987)

“I can’t see how we’re ever going to make our mark… defacing library books.”

During the month of June, LGBTQ+ Pride Month celebrations take place in the United States and worldwide, commemorating the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York, a turning point in gay rights and liberation movements. As the U.S. Proclamation on LGBTQ+ Pride Month 2021 states:

Pride is a time to recall the trials the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) community has endured and to rejoice in the triumphs of trailblazing individuals who have bravely fought — and continue to fight — for full equality.  Pride is both a jubilant communal celebration of visibility and a personal celebration of self-worth and dignity.

A Proclamation on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, 2021,” The White House, 1 June 2021

It can be a tricky thing to recognize the dangerous and often-deadly discrimination that the LGBTQ+ community has endured — and continue to endure — at the same time that you are celebrating the wide-ranging contributions and impact of the LGBTQ+ community. This means holding space for two extremes together at the same time, and hopefully, this is a time of deep reflection and grace for us all, including allies. I feel that the movie Prick Up Your Ears (1987), which is based on the real-life events of British playwright Joe Orton (born John Orton, 1933-1967), exemplifies this dynamic quite well.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) Trailer | Stephen Frears” video uploaded by Ryan Saunders, Standard YouTube License

Directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen), Prick Up Your Ears stars Gary Oldman as Orton; Alfred Molina as Orton’s mentor, collaborator, and lover Kenneth Halliwell; and Vanessa Redgrave as Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsay. The movie, written by Alan Bennett, was adapted from the 1978 biography of the same title by John Lahr, and Wallace Shawn plays Lahr in this film adaptation.

Joe Orton’s plays (most notably, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot) and writing style continue to be highly influential (e.g. the term “Ortonesque” is used to describe the witty and dark comedic style he specialized in), even though his public career lasted only a few short years, from 1964 to 1967. Orton’s and Halliwell’s 15-year relationship came to a violent end in August 1967, when Halliwell murdered Orton and then killed himself. It could be easy to dismiss the film as focusing too much on the sensational aspects of this true tale. The film trailer, embedded above, focuses primarily on the murder/suicide, and the film itself begins with Halliwell covered in blood after murdering Orton and ends with Orton’s funeral. But in-between, we follow along with the flashbacks and flash-forwards as Lahr researches Orton and reads his diaries and pieces together Orton’s and Halliwell’s life together. (You really cannot separate the two men, in life or in death.) We viewers identify with Lahr in his research quest, as we want to know more about Orton’s art and about Halliwell’s motivations, and how and why their relationship and collaborations soured and turned deadly. It’s not a straightforward film, but Frears does an excellent job of highlighting recurring themes and lines that call back to earlier scenes or other characters.

A few years ago, The Guardian highlighted Lahr’s biography of Orton as a “book to give you hope.”

“John Lahr’s 1978 biography of the playwright Joe Orton may seem an unlikely choice for a book to give you hope. After all, Orton’s success was not only a long time coming (a decade of abject failure was crowned by a six-month spell in prison for defacing library books), but when it did finally arrive in 1964 (with the West End production of Entertaining Mr Sloane) it lasted only until 9 August 1967. It was brought to a bloody and premature end by his long-term lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer before taking his own life. Orton was only 34 years old. Yet, it is these early years of struggle and anonymity that make Orton’s life story such a fascinating and, yes, inspirational read.

… [T]he ending is desperately sad. But what remains is the work. And ultimately, Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of Orton’s work and a brilliantly illuminating account of the writing life. And even when that life is cut horribly short, it still remains a testament to the enduring power of hope, and of triumph over adversity.”

W.B. Gooderham, “Books to Give You Hope: Prick Up Your Ears by John Lahr,” The Guardian, 22 Aug. 2016

For me, this review captures the juxtaposition of recognizing the sadness of Orton’s shortened life as well as celebrating the hope and creativity of his artistry. And this dichotomy is reflected in Frears’s cinematic adaptation.

The library scenes and why they matter

So where does the library come into it? Although the main library scene and scenes with the librarians last less than 5 minutes total, this scene in the movie — and in real life — changed the course of Orton’s and Halliwell’s lives. It seems appropriate then that the library scenes occurs almost exactly halfway through the movie.

Here’s the general background: Around 1959, while collaborating on novels and getting rejected from publishers, Orton and Halliwell started defacing covers of library books and typing naughty passages into them. In the movie, two librarians at the Islington public library finally set a trap for them and turned them into the police. In 1962, the two men were sentenced to 6 months in prison and were sent to different facilities. While in prison, Orton started writing his own work and flourished, while Halliwell became depressed and attempted suicide.

The library book scenes are foreshadowed a bit earlier in the film, when at 44 minutes, Halliwell and Orton are collaborating on a book. While Kenneth types on the typewriter, Joe is cutting up a library book.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Kenneth: That’s a library book. You should respect books.

Joe: I respect them more than you. You just take them for granted.

This short scene accomplishes a lot with a little. They are supposedly collaborating, but Joe seems a bit bored and stifled with his side of the collaboration. This foreshadows his breaking free and writing his own works later. Their dialog also reinforces their class differences, with working-class Joe calling out Kenneth and his upper-class upbringing and privilege. It also, as my writer husband pointed out, places the act of defacing the library books in the context of writing and as a creative act and form of expression. They are writing and creating in different ways in this scene, and again, it foreshadows how they will collaborate on the library books.

Next, at 45 1/2 minutes into the film, Halliwell and Orton are talking about that collaborative novel, titled Boy Hairdresser, to a publisher. When it’s clear that the publisher has no intention of publishing their work, Orton roams around the office and steals a book from the publisher’s shelves, The Art of Culture. Although it isn’t explicitly shown in the movie, Orton revealed in later interviews that he used to steal library books in order to deface them and then smuggle them back into the library to shock patrons who came across the altered works.

So all these short, seemingly throwaway scenes do provide clues; nothing is wasted in this movie.

At almost 53 minutes into the film, Kenneth is working on the collage on the walls, while Joe is reading on the bed. Then, as Kenneth prepares lunch, Joe roams around their bedroom and places library books along the back of their desk.

Joe: I can’t see how we’re ever going to make our mark… defacing library books. 

Making his mark in defacing library books

Next stop? The public library!

The two men check out books at the front library counter, and a woman librarian in grey suit stamps their books. We can also spy a younger White woman walk past behind the desk, and she appears to be filing cards. In the background, we can see a “Fiction” label along the back bookshelves, and the library seems filled with patrons. Halliwell and Orton leave the library, and the words on the exit door — “Way Out” in big letters printed on both sides of the glass door — feature prominently in this scene. That doesn’t feel like an accident. (In fact, the phrase “coming out” was in use during the mid-20th century to describe gay identity and sense of community, but the phrase was undergoing a change in usage during this time period, explained here.)

Two librarians — the middle-aged White woman who stamped their books, Miss Battersby (Selina Cadell), and a White middle-aged man, Mr. Cunliffe (Charles McKeown) — follow them out and watch them leave.

Their brief conversation reveals their discrimination and homophobia toward the pair and the gay community at large, and Mr. Cunliffe rattles off several homophobic slurs without batting an eye.

Mr. Cunliffe: You didn’t tell me one of them was a nancy.

Miss Battersby: I’m sorry, Mr. Cunliffe?

Mr. Cunliffe: The bald one, Miss Battersby. A homosexual. A shirt lifter.

Miss Battersby: In Islington?

Mr. Cunliffe: Haven’t you noticed? Large areas of the borough are being restored and painted Thames green. [He grabs their library card from Miss Battersby] Noel Road. This calls for a little detective work, Miss Battersby.

And their detective work involves props! Miss Battersby smokes a cigarette, and Mr. Cunliffe brandishes a magnifying glass.

The librarians then set up a trap for Halliwell and Orton. Mr. Cunliffe finds an abandoned car on the road, writes down the license plate, and then dictates a letter to Miss Battersby. They appear to be in a back office in the library, as the walls are lined with bookshelves and filled with books and magazines, and the desk includes a pile of library stamps, and a rolling cart is visible beside the desk.

Librarians type up a letter

Mr. Cunliffe: Registration: K-Y-R-4-5-0. The above-mentioned vehicle appears to be derelict and abandoned in Noel Road, and I have been given to understand you are the owner thereof. 

We then see Kenneth reading aloud the rest of the letter, and he then dictates a response to Joe, although their letter is a more collaborative process than the librarians’ letter.

Kenneth: “But before enforcing remedies, I give you the opportunity to remove the vehicle from the highway.” The little prick. [pauses] Unzip our trusty Remington, John. We will piss on this person from a great height. “Dear sir, thank you for your dreary little letter.

Joe: ‘Dismal’ is better.

Kenneth: Dismal, then. I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information. 

Joe: ‘Furnished’ is better than ‘provided.’ It’s more municipal in tone. 

Cue more librarian detective work!

Mr. Cunliffe: You will note the typing, Miss Battersby, is the same. Our book jacket… their letter. Got you, my beauties.

We then cut to the courtroom, where we see a magistrate being handed a mystery novel, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers. We see a stack of books on the table, which are recognizable as some of the ones we saw earlier on Joe’s desk. This scene is devastatingly efficient, as the camera pans over the courtroom, where we spy the librarians, who have come to see the results of their detective work!

Magistrate: This is the novel Clouds of Witness by the noted authoress Dorothy L. Sayers. Could you read what the accused have written on the flap of the jacket?

Policeman: “… This is one of the most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers. Read it behind closed doors and have a good shit while you’re reading it.”

Magistrate: The probation officer has suggested that you are both frustrated authors. Well, if you’re so clever at making fun of what more talented people have written, you should have a shot at writing books yourselves. You won’t find that such a pushover. Sheer malice and destruction, the pair of you. I sentence you both to six months. 

Joe [to Kenneth]: Fucking A. 

Kenneth [to Joe]: It was your idea. 

The librarians vs. the lovers

As I mentioned before, this entire scene in the library and with the librarians lasts less than 5 minutes, but it is crucial to the rest of the narrative. I also found it interesting to note how many times the director chose to mirror the pair of librarians with the pair of lovers, Orton and Halliwell.

Here is a compare-and-contrast of how Orton and Halliwell exit the library and the librarians re-enter the library. The librarians serve as gatekeepers — literally as well as visually — in this scene.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

Here we can compare-and-contrast the profiles of the librarians as they watch in judgment as Orton and Halliwell leave the library, and the profiles of Joe and Kenneth as they receive the magistrate’s prison judgment.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

The librarians sit in court in front of a policeman, while Orton and Halliwell sit in court in front of a member of the public. Again, no detail is wasted in this film. The librarians side with order (more visual gatekeeping), while the creative lovers side with the public.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

And below we can compare the mirroring of dictating the library letter and its response. Both of the sets are filled with books, but one is a public library while the other is a private library. Also, notice how the librarians are always dressed in the same clothing, the same buttoned-up grey suits? Kenneth and Joe are also dressed in neutrals, grey and tan, but are dressed much more casually and less buttoned-down.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

The library scene ends at 58 minutes into the film, and we hear Vanessa Redgrave’s voiceover as she efficiently sums up the effect of their prison sentence: “Prison worked wonders for Joe.”

Librarian roles

As I’ve mentioned, the two main librarians we see — Mr. Cunliffe and Miss Battersby — are visually seen as gatekeepers throughout their scenes. Their grey suits come off as much of a uniform as the uniforms that the police officers wear. The librarians even attend court to witness the prison sentencing! Above and beyond their librarian duties, surely. 😦 Needless to say, these reel librarians are NOT role models; rather, they demonstrate the destructive effects of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ actions.

In that way, Miss Battersby serves the role of an Information Provider, as she is providing information to the audience and reflecting society’s limited views and judgment of the LGBTQ+ community. (See also my post about the law librarian failure in Philadelphia). The third librarian, the younger White woman, also serves as an Information Provider, but only in the sense of establishing the library setting.

I have categorized the role of Mr. Cunliffe, who appears to be the senior librarian in their scenes, as an Anti-Social Librarian. He wears conservative clothing, hoards knowledge, dislikes the public (particularly the LGBTQ+ members of the public), and exhibits elitism in his view of the library and society in general. He goes beyond his librarian duties and engages in detective work — outside the library and off hours, I’m sure — in order to personally trap library patrons. He also relishes in his handiwork (“Got you, my beauties!“). Honestly, it comes off as the librarian’s personal vendetta.

And these two reel librarians made my Hall of Shame list! On that page, I wrote that:

This Class III film made me sit up and yell at the screen! It includes the completely unethical behavior of two librarians, who set a trap — using information from circulation records, no less! — to turn two frustrated writers into the police. Yes, the writers had typed obscene passages onto book covers, but that does not justify a mean-spirited librarian’s actions.

Reel life vs. real life

As I mentioned above, the film shows the librarians — and particularly Mr. Cunliffe — as the ones who personally trap Orton and Halliwell. I’m sure the screenwriter did this to condense characters and tell the story more efficiently — and of course, isn’t it shocking what an overzealous librarian would do?! Most unexpected. And it is unexpected, because the real-life librarians did not actually go as far as their onscreen counterparts did. But not for lack of trying!

The Joe Orton Online site states that Orton and Halliwell “had been suspected for some time and extra [library] staff had been drafted to catch the culprits, but with no success. They were eventually caught by the careful detective work of Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council. A letter was sent to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. Their typed reply matched typeface irregularities in the defaced books and the men were caught.” And an article in The Guardian reveals more details, that “When the library authorities cottoned on to what was happening, they brought in undercover staff from other libraries to try to catch whomever was doing it, and when that failed, Porrett had the idea of writing to his number one suspects, Halliwell and Orton.”

The Movie Locations site reveals that the library scenes were not filmed in the Islington public library. Instead, the library scenes were filmed at Chelsea Library in Chelsea Old Town Hall, located about 6 miles southwest of Islington Central Library.

It does appear the the library books highlighted in the film were among the ones that Orton and Halliwell defaced in real life. The British Library site even highlights “The Joe Orton Collection” of book covers on their site, stating that, “Since 2003, the book covers have been preserved by the Islington Local History Centre where they form the Joe Orton Collection. After the trial, the surviving covers were kept within Islington Public Library Service by the special collections librarian. Today, this totals 41 examples. An additional 31 doctored books are believed to be lost, stolen or destroyed.

You can also view a more extensive gallery of the book covers on the Joe Orton Online site. And in 2011, the Islington Local History Centre displayed their collection of book covers because of “international interest” and that the book covers “shined a light on two fascinating lives and characters” (Brown).

Why library books?

The movie doesn’t really delve deep into the reasons Orton and Halliwell defaced the library books — beyond the line that Joe says about “mak[ing] our mark” — but Orton did address this in an April 1967 television interview with Eamon Andrews:

“Joe Orton Television Interview 1967” video, uploaded by THEORTONCOLLECTIVE, Standard YouTube License

Orton does not mention Halliwell at all during this interview and states that his motive was “just a joke.” But then he reveals a little more about his personal feelings about the library and its collections:

Orton: Also, I didn’t like libraries anyway. I mean, I thought they spent far too much public money on rubbish. I mean, I didn’t like the books. I don’t think people need books on etiquette anyway.

Andrews: So this was a kind of protest of the kinds of books in the library?

Orton: Oh, yes, it really was.

Andrews: Do you have any regrets now for having done this?

Orton: No regrets at all. No, I had a marvelous time in prison. It just meant that instead of annoying a few old ladies, you see, that opened the book, I now annoy hundreds of old ladies by writing plays.

The Joe Orton Online site muses that “these acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.”

In a 30th anniversary retrospective interview about the film, Alfred Molina (who portrayed Halliwell) reflected that, “Living in that small room, living in a sense completely isolated from the world, writing and defacing those books, and decorating their home, it was probably like a little cocoon where they felt safe. With Joe’s success, the world broke into that room and that shattered everything.”

I also appreciated blogger and historian John Levin’s thoughts about how these book covers should be viewed today:

“It is worth considering these works without hindsight and in their own moment. Had Orton not been successful, what would have been made of these works? Would they have been less interesting, less intelligent, the work of a vandal rather than a critic?

I think not. Even if Orton hadn’t been successful – and such a way of framing it underplays the equal contribution of the unrecognized Halliwell – these collages would still embody a contempt for boredom, a queer ‘in your face’ aesthetic, and a provocation outside the art gallery, executed with quite some skill. And as at the time, they were a couple of unknown, pre-1967 gays, constrained by and pushing against the mores and the policing of the time, it is in that light they should be appreciated.”

John Levin, “Gorilla in the Roses: The Collages of Halliwell and Orton,” Anterotesis, 21 Feb. 2012

And on a final note, Orton also included cheeky references to libraries and librarians in his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which I highlighted in my analysis of the 1970 film adaptation of his play.

What are your thoughts on Prick Up Your Ears? Have you seen the 1987 movie, or read Lahr’s biography? Have you read any of Orton’s plays? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

What we talk about when we talk about reel librarians

Being part of the scholarly conversation about librarians in movies

Continuing the research thread about reel librarians from last month’s research round-up about Wong’s reel librarian character in the MCU… over the years that I’ve been analyzing and writing about librarian portrayals in movies, my work on this Reel Librarians blog has been referenced in several different articles and books — which I always get unapologetically excited about! This is because (a) it is proof that someone other than my mom and my spouse read this blog, (b) there is a scholarly conversation about this topic, and (c) my work contributes to that scholarly conversation. As a librarian, I teach students information literacy skills, and those skills include understanding the information cycle and understanding that they, too, are part of the scholarly conversation.

Research chalkboard image by Nick Youngson, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Alpha Stock Images
Research chalkboard image by Nick YoungsonCC BY-SA 3.0 via Alpha Stock Images

I have also guest lectured in a few English composition classes about different types of blogs and how blogs can contribute to research and the scholarly conversation. When I presented about reel librarians on my campus a few years ago (which you can view and read about here in this post), I also talked about this:

“This research that I do kind of exists in-between what we think of as popular and scholarly. […] What I do, when I analyze films, is based in scholarship. This work requires deep analysis and research, but I choose to present it in a popular format, that of the blog.”

Jennifer Snoek-Brown, “Shush-ers, Spinsters, and Sirens: Exploring Librarians in Film” presentation, May 2018

I am certainly not the first — nor the last! — to be interested, in a deeper way, about the portrayal of librarians in movies. You can tell that just by browsing the Resources page on this blog. And I just added two articles published within the past year to that Resources page — both of which cite me and my Reel Librarians blog!

These two articles by Jaeger and Kettnich (note that they traded places in the bylines for each article) were published in Library Quarterly last year. I came across them because I had gotten a Google alert about the Part 2 article (Yes, I have set up Google alerts for my name as well as for the “reel librarians” phrase. #KeepingItReal #NoShame). Realizing that this was a two-parter, I tracked down both articles. Note: These two articles are only fully available to read online for subscribers. I first checked to see if these articles were available via my college’s library database subscriptions. They were not available full-text, so I requested copies of the full-text articles via my library’s InterLibrary Loan (ILL) service. Almost every library provides ILL services, just in case you wanted to request these articles for yourself, too!

Getting referenced in “Libraries and Librarians Onscreen and in Library Quarterly Decade by Decade, Part I” article

The first article, “Libraries and Librarians Onscreen and in Library Quarterly Decade by Decade, Part I, Or, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and in LQ” was inspired by the debut of sound films in the late 1920s and the debut of the Library Quarterly publication in 1930. In that article, the authors generally follow a chronological timeline of major librarian characters in film and compare themes in those films to themes of librarianship written about in Library Quarterly during those time periods, in “an attempt to compare these representations with what were actually contemporaneous concerns in librarianship at the time” (p. 251). The authors also correctly point out that “Library Quarterly has provided a forum for many of the small number of scholarly articles about librarians in film” (p. 250). Side note: I currently cite 6 articles from Library Quarterly on my Resources page… and I will probably add a few more after going back through this article!

For their research starting point, Jaeger and Kettnich primarily used the The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 book by Ray and Brenda Tevis (you can also read my review of this book here). And this Reel Librarians blog gets a shout-out on p. 250, as an additional resource:

Excerpt from article ; to view a larger image, right-click to open image in a new tab

It’s a really interesting idea to compare-and-contrast librarian representation onscreen with librarian representation in library scholarship. The authors conclude that “the perceptions of filmmakers are often at odds with the perceptions of the members of the library profession through the first 45 years of the journal’s existence. For the most part, alignment, correspondence, and exchange did not emerge until later decades” (p. 260-261).

Getting referenced in Libraries and Librarians Onscreen and in Library Quarterly, Part 2, Or, The Greatest Hits of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and Today! article

In order to more deeply explore this alignment of librarians on- and off-screen, the authors delve into the more recent decades of film in their “Part 2” article. Interestingly, the films they focused on come from three primary genres: drama, science fiction, and action-adventure.

My work on Reel Librarians gets cited in a few places in this article, including in the first two footnotes, on p. 390:

Excerpt from article ; to view a larger image, right-click to open image in a new tab

Although Kettnich and Jaeger focused on genre films in this article (drama, science fiction, and action-adventure), they consciously chose NOT to analyze films in the horror genre. They suggest that watching horror films is personally hard to do with a critical eye. I get that, as I have watched and analyzed a number of horror films with reel librarians. I think it is generally easier to critically analyze films — even horror films that can be emotionally draining to watch — when you go into it with that critical intent. That’s why I can get a little annoyed when I’m watching a film for fun, and a librarian pops up unexpectedly, because I have to switch my brain over to view the movie through a more critical lens. #BloggerProblems 😉 (Note: If you like horror films, check out the Fright Club podcast and my guest appearance discussing library scenes in horror films!)

My post about “Reel librarians and archivists in 16 sci-fi films” gets cited on p. 393 of the article when the authors transition into sci-fi films:

Excerpt from article ; to view a larger image, right-click to open image in a new tab

And my “Spring training and special collections in ‘Major League’ (1989)” post gets cited on p. 400, when the authors discuss Rene Russo’s portrayal of a librarian and former athlete:

Excerpt from article ; to view a larger image, right-click to open image in a new tab

I was super excited when my colleague Dale Coleman also got cited in this article! Coleman contributed a guest post review of the 2017 film Columbus back in Jan. 2018, and Kettnich and Jaeger cite his review on p. 393, when they write about how the theme of privilege shows up in Columbus and that it is “library work that may be inaccessible.”

Excerpt from article ; to view a larger image, right-click to open image in a new tab

Additional references for Reel Librarians

If you are interested in seeing what other researchers have cited my work published here on the Reel Librarians blog, check out my prior posts about La imagen de la biblioteca en el cine (1928-2015), a book by María Rosario Andrío Esteban that was published by a university press in Spain; as well as when my work got referenced as an inspiration for a film project. I didn’t write blog posts about the following resources, but you can also see my Reel Librarians work referenced in:

Continuing the conversation

This post has kind of meandered, but hopefully, the main takeaway is that there is, indeed, a scholarly conversation about librarians in film, and I’m proud — and extremely humbled — to be part of that conversation.

And you can be a part of that conversation, too! Has reading this blog made you think more deeply about how librarians are portrayed in film? Are you more aware now when a librarian pops up onscreen in a movie that you’re watching? Please share your thoughts and comments!

Sources used

Perspectives about Wong’s reel librarian character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

It’s no secret that Wong has become one of my very favorite reel librarian characters… what do others think?

In my reel librarians of color 2021 update post, only the character of Wong, the monastery librarian and Master of the Mystic Arts who first appeared in 2016’s Doctor Strange, is listed as a major character in the Asian + South Asian category of reel librarians. In my write-up for Avengers: Infinity War (2018), I highlight how Wong saves Tony Stark and sets up the stakes — and the plot of the entire movie — to members of the Avengers, and in my post about Avengers: Endgame (2019), I assemble clues to prove how Wong is the one who actually assembled the Avengers! (Even though Captain America, the White guy superhero, gets to say the line and take credit, which is SO typical, eh? 😦 ) Benedict Wong’s IMDb page reveals that he is on the cast list for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, so I will add another first impressions post for Wong for that movie when it comes out.

Wong is played by British-Chinese actor Benedict Wong, who elevates every scene he is in. Here is a 2017 interview with Wong about his role:

“Benedict Wong – Marvel’s Doctor Strange Exclusive Interview” video, 2017, uploaded by Flickering Myth, Standard YouTube License

I think it’s no secret to readers of this blog that Wong has become one of my very favorite reel librarian characters. In my analysis post about Doctor Strange (2016), I also pointed out how the character of Wong was reworked from the comics and added to the script only after the controversial casting of Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One:

I do, however, feel obligated to point out the controversy created by the film’s script and casting, particularly the casting of Tilda Swinton, a non-Asian actress, who was cast as the Ancient One, a significant Asian character in the comics. The character gets reframed as a Celt in the film … I have to admit discomfort in knowing that a major Asian role was recast with a white woman, and that Wong’s character was written, at least in part, after-the-fact in order to offset that controversial casting; Derrickson [the director and co-screenwriter] felt obligated to include Wong’s character in the film after rewriting the character of the Ancient One. (But you don’t have to have just one Asian role! If you wanted to put a more feminine, or androgynous, spin on the Ancient One, why not cast an Asian actress?!)

Jennifer Snoek-Brown, “Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’,” Reel Librarians, 25 April 2018.

But my perspectives and observations as a White woman are limited, and I also admit that I have biases because I am a librarian. What do others think? Is the character of Wong considered a positive or negative Asian portrayal by members of the API community? How does actor Benedict Wong feel about his role? Are scholars and researchers writing about Wong? So I did some research to help answer these questions and to explore how others feel about Wong’s reel librarian character and significance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The changes to Wong’s role

Others have also spotlighted how the character of Wong was changed in its transition from the original comics to the big screen.

This interview with Benedict Wong before the Doctor Strange movie was released includes a summary of how Wong’s character in the comics began as “a racist cliche of the Asian manservant,” but the “movie version of Wong is, in addition to being a drill sergeant, a librarian, and protector of dangerous relics.

Benedict Wong also shared in this interview his view about Wong’s character in the comics:

Well, I kind of think things like “manservant” and “sidekick,” we’re just gonna leave back in the past now, I think …. let’s turn a whole new page.

Benedict Wong, “Doctor Strange: How One Wong Makes a Right,” MCU Exchange, 27 Sept. 2016

This article summed up Wong’s character changes in the movie in a positive light:

Compared to his stereotypical manservant role in Marvel’s comics, the movie version is a huge upgrade.

Thomas Maluck, “How does the Library in Doctor Strange Work?,” Book Riot, 9 Nov. 2016

Casting controversy

I am definitely not the only one who cannot help bringing up the casting of Swinton as the Ancient One with the casting of Benedict Wong as Wong.

In a site that features student projects from Portland State University’s University Studies 254 course about Examining Popular Culture, Asian student Transtev includes Wong in his examination of Asian Actors and Actresses: An Identity Unfit for Western Hollywood Film Culture. This student criticizes the casting of an Asian actor, Benedict Wong, for a character who is “subordinate” to other major (White) characters in the film.

“Other than Swinton’s controversial casting, Benedict Wong is the only ‘major’ Asian character in the movie. He becomes a sorcerer to Dr. Strange, but in the comics, he is simply subordinate to Dr. Strange. Even though Marvel Studios casted an Asian in a somewhat important role, one could question why the productions didn’t cast an Asian for the Ancient One? Marvel Studios didn’t hold any sort of casting audition for the Ancient One, but the productions simply invited Swinton to take the role. Without showing any large efforts for a diverse cast including Asians, Marvel Studios’ actions show how the Asian identity is continually shadowed by white lens.”

Transtev, “Asian Actors and Actresses: An Identity Unfit for Western Hollywood Film Culture,” Looking in the Popular Culture Mirror, 13 March 2017

In this undergraduate honors thesis, a student also points out the casting of White actors in more central roles, and describes Wong as a “hero support figure.”

In 2016, Marvel Studios was one of the most profitable studios in Hollywood; the financial risk of casting an Asian person in a movie already filled with white actors would arguably have been minimal. Yet the studio proceeded to cast white British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, white Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen as the villain, white Canadian actress Rachel McAdams as the love interest, white British actress Tilda Swinton as the “not Asian” mentor, British Chinese actor Benedict Wong as the hero support figure, and Black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as the sidekick-turned villain. The presence of actors of color in Doctor Strange, though welcome, continues the trend of relegating people of color to sidekick and/or villainous roles while white people remain at the center of the narrative.

Ashley S. Richardson, “Fandom, Racism, and the Myth of Diversity in the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” Undergraduate honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 2017.

In a master’s thesis, “Discussions on Cultural Racism: Analysis of American Reviews of Controversial Hollywood Movies,” graduate student Ilaria Marini spotlights Doctor Strange in the Casting section of controversies. Marini also cites a review that points out that the “Kathmandu lair has only one speaking Asian character, Wong (Benedict Wong), whose main characteristic is that he refuses to laugh” (Stewart, as cited in Marini, 2017, p. 74.)

UPDATE: After I published this post, I then became aware that Marvel producer Kevin Feige had recently admitted in an interview that they had made a mistake recasting the Asian role of the Ancient One with a non-Asian actor:

Marvel initially claimed it had chosen Swinton to prevent the character from fulfilling an Asian stereotype. Fans called bullshit. Five years later, Marvel head Kevin Feige doesn’t argue. “We thought we were being so smart and so cutting-edge,” he told me in a Zoom interview. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

Ebenezer Samuel, “Simu Liu Wants You to See Yourself as a Superhero,” Men’s Health, 19 May 2021

Wong’s lack of a central narrative

Others have also emphasized the lack of a central narrative, or a lack of depth, for Wong’s character. For example, in this essay in the Library Quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal, the authors celebrate Wong as a librarian hero but lament the lack of his own narrative.

In this last decade, parallel with the rise of prestige, long-form television, the box offices have seen total domination by franchise action films featuring multifilm story arcs tracking ensemble casts of superheroes, rebels, and Jedis. The most dominant overlord of them all, the Marvel Universe, does include a librarian in its ever-growing lineup of heroes—Wong (Benedict Wong), keeper and protector of an ancient archive in Doctor Strange (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019), though his narrative is largely crowded out of the action.

Karen Kettnich & Paul T. Jaeger, “Libraries and Librarians Onscreen and in Library Quarterly, Part 2, Or, The Greatest Hits of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and Today!” Library Quarterly, 90.4 (2020), p. 399

Does this lack of depth for an Asian role in the high-profile Marvel Cinematic Universe reflect a lack of depth for Asian roles in general? In this article analyzing British-Chinese actors and roles, the author includes Wong in a select list of a “limited number of more high-profile British Chinese actors” but argues that “it is evident that lasting, high-profile roles have been scarce for British Chinese actors.”

At the very end of this MCU Exchange interview with Benedict Wong, the writer notes that “In the comics [Wong] has always been defined by his relationship with Doctor Strange.” Thinking back over the three MCU movies Wong has been in thus far, that line rings true to me. I think Benedict Wong’s skill as an actor elevates his role and does a lot more to engage audiences onscreen than what is actually written for his role on the page. Will Wong have more of an independent identity and narrative in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness movie?

Positive role model and librarian

Others focused on positive aspects about Wong’s reel librarian character.

In this blog post and interview with Benedict Wong, Brenda Cisneros highlights how the character of Wong is the “Martial arts expert [and] the guardian librarian of the Sanctum Sanctorum who fights alongside Doctor Strange and Mordo.”

In that interview, Benedict Wong also shared how he ultimately views his role in the story as a positive one:

As an actor I am always looking for what I can do to promote a positive role in my characters and felt this kind of stoic force, the fact that Wong remains aware about the severity of what can really happen with those forces that we don’t know.

Benedict Wong, “Wong is the Asian Superhero in Doctor Strange,” Mejorando mi hogar, Nov. 2016.

In this Book Riot article, Thomas Maluck (who is also a librarian!) positively views the reel librarian character of Wong — and bases his viewpoint on the qualities that make Wong a good librarian!

Wong is a man of abiding authority, mutual respect, and benevolent guidance, traits that make him an ideal librarian.

Thomas Maluck, “How does the Library in Doctor Strange Work?,” Book Riot, 9 Nov. 2016

Also in that article, the Maluck takes clues from the Doctor Strange movie and Wong’s actions and dialog to create a (tongue-in-cheek) list of likely policies of the Kamar-Taj library, ranging from “Removal of library items from the premises will be punishable by death at librarian’s discretion” to “All knowledge is available for learning within the library, but not all practices.” 🙂

Continuing the conversation

Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in my goal of sharing a broad range of perspectives from a broad range of publications about Wong’s reel librarian character and significance — or lack thereof — in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What are your thoughts about Wong, and how he is portrayed onscreen by Benedict Wong? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used