A reel archivist returns in ‘National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets’

Last week, I dived deep into the archivist’s role in 2004’s National Treasure… so it should come as no surprise that this week, it feels fitting to explore the 2007 sequel, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

Here’s a snippet of the sequel’s plot, from the back of the DVD:

This film “[t]akes you on a globe-trotting quest full of adrenaline-pumping twists and turns — all leading to the final club in a mysterious and highly guarded book containing centuries of secrets. But there’s only one way to find it — Ben Gates must kidnap the President.”

So… in the first film, Ben Gates steals the Declaration of Independence; in the sequel, he “upgrades” to kidnapping the President. Okaaaaaaaaaaay.

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*

Here’s a trailer for National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets:

NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS (2007) – Official Movie Trailer,” uploaded by soundfan, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

What do I like about the film?

That the word “book” is in the movie’s subtitle, that Helen Mirren co-stars in the sequel (she plays an expert on ancient Native American languages), and that the Library of Congress also gets a co-starring role! 😉

What do I NOT like about the film?

Uh, everything else. The talented cast is wasted in this paint-by-numbers, pedestrian action film. And it’s not just me! The film “earned” two Razzie Award nominations:  Worst Actor for Nicolas Cage and Worst Supporting Actor for Jon Voight.

Bookstore scene:

Eight minutes into the film, we get a wide shot of a scene that’s clearly set in a bookstore (not a library!). The sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), has written a book, and it’s clear he’s trying to cash in on the fame. (But the book he’s written will be an important plot point later.)

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

You’re no Indiana Jones, dude.

However, no one’s really interested in the sidekick.

Trouble in (archives) paradise:

We also learn early one that Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger, downgraded from 2nd billing in the first film to 3rd billing in the sequel, boo!) have broken up. But Gates needs to break into her house because of PLOT reasons that have something to do with John Wilkes Booth, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the reputation of the Gates family.

As Gates puts it, “I need to get Abigail’s ID. She has access to the Booth diary page.”

Long story short, they do break in, and Gates pulls open Abigail’s desk drawer to grab her ID badge… which now reads “Library of Congress.”

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Abigail Chase’s Library of Congress ID

There’s no explanation given, but it’s clear that Chase has moved from the National Archives to the Library of Congress within the previous three years. My thoughts for the reason why? Because of PLOT. 😉

And OF COURSE Chase comes home early — she’s been on a date! — and we get to see her all gussied up in a fancy dress and heels. She’s been on a date with the “White House curator” (another reel archivist?), and here’s his reaction to her home:

ConnorWow. You work in a museum, and you live in one.

ChasePretty much.

Caught red-handed breaking into her house, Gates tries to smooth-talk his way out of the situation, but Chase sees right through him. The resulting conversation echoes their first conversation together from the first film.

ChaseHand it over, Ben.

GatesI need to see the Booth diary page.

ChaseYou saw the page yourself. There is no treasure map on it.

GatesNo, it’s a cipher leading to a map. Anyone spectral-image the page?

ChaseNo need to. The ink writing on the page is clearly visible.

GatesIt could have been erased or faded. You’re the director of document conservation. You know all this.

ChaseIt’s not up to me. It’s not my department.

Gates: That department reports to your department. Come on. One look under infrared.

I do enjoy this bit of conversation, even if only to get a clue about her new job and title!

The white glove returns!

The next scene takes place in what I assume is a lab in the Library of Congress, where Chase is using a computer and infrared scan. The iconic white gloves, an essential tool in the archivist’s toolbox, do make an appearance, but it’s interesting to note that Chase only has a white glove on her left hand, and not her right hand while she’s using the computer.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Modern archival equipment!

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

White gloves in hand for the reel archivist

This short scene is also notable for its use of modern archivist technology this time — no lemon juice or hairdryers this time! 😉

They do find a cipher on the back of the page — DA DA DUMMMMMMM! —  and she sends the document to the scanner.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Cipher discovered!

Chase takes off the glove on her left hand and pull outs a copy of the document from the scanner. You can see her white gloves in the background of the closeup.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

A reel archivist’s tools: white gloves, tape, and infrared scanners

Here’s how this scene and its importance to Chase’s identity as a reel archivist is described in the “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists” article by Aldred, Burr, and Park:

“In the sequel National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007), we once again encounter Abigail Chase; she performs one “archival” function: she uses a computer to manipulate a digital image of a page torn from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, all the while either wearing or holding a white glove. This humorous image aside, we learn that she is now working for the Library of Congress and is Director of Document Conservation.” (p. 85)

The book of secrets:

The “book of secrets” is solved midway through the film. Remember Riley’s treasure-hunting book that nobody wanted to read? Turns out, he wrote a chapter about “The President’s Secret Book” and a secret seal. (The trio had discovered this seal on an adventure in London, for reasons of PLOT.)

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

The chapter on the secret book in Riley’s book

It was definitely a moment for “suspension of disbelief” and massive eye-rolling, because the “President’s Secret Book” and secret seal feels like something both Chase and Gates would already know about, right? But at least Riley gets his moment in the spotlight.

Library of Congress connection:

So all of this secret book nonsense leads Gates to, naturally, have to kidnap POTUS in order to confront him about the book and how to find it. As you do. This leads them to the Library of Congress.

PresidentThe book exists.

GatesWhere is it?

PresidentWhere else do you keep a book? In the Library of Congress.

POTUS then gives Gates a code:  XY 234786.

I immediately shouted out at the screen, “It’s a call number!!!!” And of course, it had to be a Library of Congress call number, which start with a combination of letters, followed by numbers. (Dewey Decimal call numbers start with numbers, 000s through 900s.)

And now we know why Dr. Abigail Chase had to switch jobs from the National Archives to the Library of Congress. I had mused it was for reasons of PLOT. And here’s where that plot point pays off…

Library of Congress archivist leading the way:

At 1 hour and 11 mins into the film, Chase leads the way to the Library of Congress. Doesn’t she look totally bad-ass in her black leather jacket? #ArchivistRoleModel

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Library of Congress entry

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Reel archivist in charge and coming through!

RileyWhere do we start?

ChaseXY is the book classification code. Stands for special collections, which means very special books.

Of course the reel librarian/archivist would figure out straight away that it’s a call number!

Note:  The Library of Congress classification system generally follows the alphabet for the first part of its call number combinations, as you can see here, meaning there are potentially 26 major categories of call numbers. However, 5 of the 26 English language letters are not currently used for call number categories, being kept in “reserve” for future use. “X” is one of those letters not currently used for Library of Congress call numbers. (I, O, W, and Y are the other letters not in use.) So it could be possible, theoretically, that the Library of Congress could use the “X” category for secret collections not known to the public.

I loved how, in this screenshot below, you can spot two librarians on duty in the iconic round reference desk in the middle of the Library of Congress Reading Room. This film has both reel archivists AND reel librarians! 😀

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Two reel librarians on duty at the Library of Congress Reading Room reference desk

We also get a shot of another reel librarian, or rather library assistant, opening up a back door and rolling out a library cart.

None of the reel librarians in this scene, however, recognize Chase.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Reel librarian alert, with an iconic prop, the book cart.

Chase leads to the way to the alcove, which is labeled “Deck 7, Q-Z.”

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Library alcove set in the Library of Congress

But the book is not on the shelf, where the call number indicates it would be.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Call number closeup

RileyMaybe someone checked it out.

ChaseWhy would he send us here if there’s no book?

RileyHe probably wanted us to get caught.

Library ladder alert! I will need to add this film to the library ladders round-up post:

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Library ladder alert!

Gates figures out the secret book’s secret hiding place, by use of additional clues POTUS gave him.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

The book of secrets discovered!

Trivia from IMDb.com reveals that:

The area of the Library of Congress, in which Gates finds the Book of Secrets, does not exist as an area of book shelves. These book shelves were constructed as a prop library in a previously empty balcony of the Library’s Main Reading Room, and dismantled after the scenes were shot.

And the director confirms this on the commentary track:

We also had to build this room, in the Library of Congress, true to the style of the Library of Congress. The last thing you want to do is destroy the Library of Congress. If a light falls off her, we’re gonna break a library. So the goal here was just to get this room to look like the Library of Congress.

Although the trio are being hunted down by FBI agents — because of that whole “kidnapping the President” thing — there is still time for humor.

Random FBI AgentSo Gates abducts the president, lets him go, and then heads to the Library of Congress? Why?

FBI Agent SaduskyMaybe he wants to check out a book.

Escape from the Library of Congress:

The trio then try to elude the FBI agents on their tail. Chase leads Riley to the reference desk, where they escape down the secret stairs that lead to the basement of the Library of Congress. And OF COURSE the librarians on duty don’t notice this. Suspension of disbelief, y’all.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Escape through the Reading Room reference desk

The two run past a circular piece of machinery, which you can see in the screenshot below, which the director revealed on the commentary track that he was fascinated by and had to include in the final film:

These are extraordinary places underneath the Library [of Congess]. Go in that door, you down stairs, there’s a whole transport system of books. I mean, look at that. That’s how books get sent around the library on these little elevators that go up and down. All right, I don’t know what that has to do with the library, but we’re shooting it.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Running through the Library of Congress basement

I also loved how when the FBI agents came down the central staircase, a librarian immediately points the way to help them catch the adventurers.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Librarian helper

Don’t mess with librarians! 😉

Reel archivist and librarian roles:

Once again, Diane Kruger’s portrayal of reel archivist Dr. Abigail Chase in this Class I film lands in the Atypical Portrayal category. She is a major character, and we see her both in and out of library and archival space, interacting with modern archival equipment. She is smart, funny, and not afraid to show her flexibility and resourcefulness when needed. She is a reel archivist role model!

The other reel archivist, the White House curator Connor (played by Ty Burrell), serves as both an Information Provider and Comic Relief. And the four other reel librarian cameos glimpsed in the Library of Congress scene all serve as Information Providers.

My personal connection to this movie:

Fun fact! During an American Library Association national conference in Washington D.C. a few years ago and a special tour the Library of Congress provided for librarians only, I actually got to go down those exact stairs and explore the basement of the Library of Congress! It’s amaaaaaaaaaaaaazing! The Library of Congress collection is actually spread out over several buildings, and they are all interconnected by the system of pulleys and conveyer belts you see in the film.

The tour guide was also a librarian who had been at the Library of Congress one of the days they filmed this scene for the film. Cool, huh? 😀

Comments?

Have you seen National Treasure or its sequel, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets? Did you enjoy them and/or the major archivist role in these films? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

Advertisements

Get out your white gloves and lemon juice! Reel archivist in ‘National Treasure’

I have been exploring quite a few reel archivist portrayals lately, inspired by articles I have recently read, as detailed in my “Reel librarians vs. reel archivists” post. In all the articles I read about reel archivists, Diane Kruger’s role as Dr. Abigail Chase in National Treasure (2004) was highlighted, so I thought it would be perfect timing to revisit that film, “arguably one of the best known movies with an archival plot line” (Region of PEEL Archives).

So get out your white gloves and lemon juice — this analysis post is a long one!

*SPOILERS AHEAD THROUGHOUT*

Here’s a trailer for National Treasure:

National Treasure Official Trailer (2004),” uploaded by Jake Smith, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

Below is a quick recap of the film from the “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists” article by Aldred, Burr, and Park:

“Benjamin Franklin Gates is a treasure hunter searching for the Founding Fathers’ hidden treasure. Clues lead him to the conclusion that he must steal the Declaration of Independence , where Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), National Archives and Records Administration employee, gets caught up in the affair, and helps Gates discover the treasure.” (p. 88)

Diane Kruger gets 2nd billing in the cast, and is the top female lead. According to the film’s IMDb.com trivia page, her character’s name, Abigail Chase “is a combination of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, and Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and later an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.”

Here’s how Aldred, Burr, and Park describe the character of Dr. Chase and how she fits into the history of reel archivists who are also main characters:

“Those reel archivists who were main characters were portrayed in an overall positive light, rather than as a stereotype. They were the heroes of the film, solving mysteries, fighting vampires, and trying to help those in need. They were educated individuals with distinct personalities. Abigail Chase of National Treasure (2004) was a curious, intelligent archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration. She was the only reel archivist examined whose level of education was explicit (doctorate), who was the protagonist’s love interest, and was the only female main character in the film. Unfortunately, even though she was positively portrayed, she was never formally identified as an archivist at any time during the film. To the audience, she is nothing more than a knowledgeable treasure hunter.” (p. 84-85)

First archives spotting:

At 23 mins into the film, Gates is trying to alert authorities that Ian Howe (Sean Bean) will try to steal the Declaration of Independence. After getting laughed out of the FBI, Gates and his sidekick assistant, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), set out for the National Archives.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

National Archives building in Washington D.C.

Why the National Archives?

Right before this scene, Gates and Riley discuss who they should contact to help prevent the theft of the document.

GatesWe don’t need anyone crazy. We just need someone short of crazy.

RileyObsessed?

GatesPassionate.

As Buckley states in the “The Truth is in the Red Files” essay: “The next scene shows the two characters waiting for a meeting with the archivist, indicating that the archivist had the requisite ‘passion’ they were seeking” and “Equally telling is the portrayal of the archivist, and the emphasis placed on her passionate dedication to her profession” (p. 121).

But before showcasing her passion, Dr. Chase demonstrates a healthy dose of skepticism.

As Gates and Riley wait, Dr. Chase’s assistant announces that “Dr. Chase can see you now.” This reveals her qualifications immediately but does not reveal her gender. The two men are (annoyingly) surprised that “Dr. Chase” is a woman.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Just a sec, I’m busy

I also love that Chase has a “Rosie the Riveter” poster in her office, which you can spy in the upper right corner in the screenshot below.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Dr. Abigail Chase and Rosie the Riveter — we can do it!

They exchange a bit of small talk. It’s also important to note that Gates has stated his surname is “Brown,” because his family has a less-than-stellar reputation.

ChaseNice to meet you.

GatesYour accent. Pennsylvania Dutch?

ChaseSaxony German.

RileyYou’re not American?

ChaseOh, I am an American. I just wasn’t born here. 

[Note:  I really liked this brief exchange. It not only neatly dispatched the issue of Diane Kruger’s real-life German accent, but also reinforced the idea that there are Americans born abroad who are just as American and as patriotic as those born in the U.S. Full disclosure, I also happen to be an American born abroad!]

In this exchange below, you can also get the sense of how Gates thinks he is being clever in trying to “talk around” Chase, but she’s not having any of it. Her questions are insightful, knowledgeable, and to the point.

ChaseNow, you told my assistant that this was an urgent matter.

GatesYes, ma’am. Well, I’m gonna get straight to the point. Someone’s gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.

Riley: It’s true.

ChaseI think I’d better put you gentlemen in touch with the FBI.

GatesWe’ve been to the FBI.

ChaseAnd?

RileyThey assured us that the Declaration cannot possibly be stolen.

ChaseThey’re right.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Don’t try to play me, dudes. I know what’s up.

GatesMy friend and I are less certain. However, if we were given the privilege of examining the document, we would be able to tell you for certain if it were actually in any danger.

Chase:  [shooting him a knowing look, sits back in her chair] What do you think you’re gonna find?

Gates:  [getting uncomfortable] We believe that there’s an… encryption on the back.

Chase:  An encryption, like a code?

GatesYes, ma’am.

ChaseOf what?

GatesUh… a cartograph.

ChaseA map.

GatesYes, ma’am.

ChaseA map of what?

Gates: The location of… [nervously clears throat, as per the subtitles] hidden items of historic and intrinsic value.

Chase:  [shakes head as though to clear it] A treasure map?

RileyThat’s where we lost the FBI.

ChaseYou’re treasure hunters, aren’t you?

GatesWe’re more like treasure protectors.

ChaseMr. Brown, I have personally seen the back of the Declaration of Independence, and I promise you, the only thing there is a notation that reads, “Original Declaration of Independence, dated… “

Gates:  … “Fourth of July, 1776.” Yes, ma’am.

ChaseBut no map.

GatesIt’s invisible.

ChaseOh, right.

RileyAnd that’s where we lost the Department of Homeland Security.

ChaseWhat led you to assume there’s this invisible map?

GatesWe found an engraving on the stem of a 200-year-old pipe.

RileyOwned by Freemasons.

ChaseMay I see the pipe?

RileyWe don’t have it.

ChaseDid Bigfoot take it? [This line was used in the trailer!]

GatesIt was nice meeting you.

Lasting 3 minutes in total, what is the ultimate point of this introductory scene? It establishes Dr. Chase as smart, credentialed, skeptical, and protective of historical artifacts — plus, she can more than hold her own against men who think they know more than she does. It also establishes a lot of backstory and exposition in a brief amount of time.

This scene is also vital because after this exchange with Dr. Chase, Gates decides he has to steal the document himself, in order to protect it. Riley then tries to convince Gates that stealing the Declaration of Independence cannot be done.

Library of Congress research scene

Cue the obligatory research scene in a library!

At 28 minutes into the film, the camera pans down the iconic Library of Congress Reading Room, to where Riley and Gates are seated at a desk, surrounded by books. And it’s these readily available books that allow them to figure out a way into the National Archives to steal the Declaration of Independence.

Don’t try this at home, y’all. Or in your local public library. 😉

Screenshot collage from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Research in the Library of Congress

RileyI’ve brought you to the Library of Congress. Why? Because it’s the biggest library in the world. Over 20 million books. And they’re all saying the same exact thing: Listen to Riley. What you have here, my friend, is an entire layout of the Archives, short of builder’s blueprints. You’ve got construction orders, phone lines, water and sewage — it’s all here. Now, when the Declaration is on display, ok, it is surrounded by guards and video monitors and a little family from Iowa and little kids on their eighth-grade field trip. And beneath an inch of bulletproof glass is an army of sensors and heat monitors that will go off if someone gets too close with a high fever. Now, when it’s not on display, it is lowered into a four-foot-thick concrete, steel-plated vault that happens to be equipped with an electronic combination lock and biometric access-denial systems.

GatesYou know, Thomas Edison tried and failed nearly 2,000 times to develop the carbonized cotton-thread filament for the incandescent light bulb…. He only had to find 1 way to make it work.

Gates then puts a book on the table.

[Note:  As according to IMDb.com trivia page, “The book that Ben shows Riley in the Library of Congress, that has the information about the Preservation Room, is called ‘The Earth System.’ It is some sort of a textbook, and it is authored by Lee Kump, James F. Kasting, and Robert G. Crane. The ISBN is 0131420593.”]

Gates: The Preservation Room. Enjoy. Go ahead. Do you know what the Preservation Room is for?

RileyDelicious jams and jellies?

GatesNo. That’s where they clean, repair and maintain all the documents and the storage housings when they’re not on display or in the vault. Now, when the case needs work they take it out of the vault, directly across the hall, and into the Preservation Room. The best time for us, or Ian, to steal it would be during the gala this weekend, when the guards are distracted by the VIPs upstairs. But we’ll make our way to the Preservation Rom, where there’s much less security.

RileyHuh…. this might be possible.

They then prepare for the heist… uh, rescue.

Chase in charge:

Riley hacks into a computer system to heat up the glass surrounding the Declaration of Independence, in order to force the document into the Preservation Room. Dr. Chase is immediately alerted to this and sets off, with a male colleague, into the basement to enter the room. It’s clear that Dr. Chase is the one in charge, and we hear her narration as she orders a full diagnostics.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Chase in charge

Of course, Dr. Chase does not realize that she is unwittingly helping Gates and Riley steal the very artifact she is pledged to protect!

A gala, a chase, and Chase:

A gala scene at the National Archives begins at 37 minutes into the film, and we get to see Dr. Chase all dressed up in a classic cocktail dress and kitten heels. Gates hands her champagne for a toast, “Here’s to the men who did what was considered wrong, in order to do what they knew was right. What they knew was right.” Chase’s eyes narrow as she listens. She knows he’s up to something!

Gates then uses Chase’s fingerprints on the glass of champagne to get into the Preservation Room! Gates does successfully steal the document but also encounters the rival team of (evil) treasure hunters, led by Ian Howe (Sean Bean). As Gates tries to escape through the National Archives — buying a dummy copy of the document in the lobby’s gift shop! — Abby spies Gates and, full of suspicion, follows him.

RileyBen, the mean Declaration lady’s behind you.

Totally unafraid — and undeterred by being called the “mean Declaration lady” — Chase then calls out for security, grabs the rolled-up document, and attempts to run back to the National Archives in heels. Unfortunately, that’s when the baddies grab her AND the document. The lead baddie, Howe, tries to scare her into giving up the document, but she doesn’t give in. Gates and Riley then follow her in a van and rescue her, but Kruger did most of her own stunts in this scene, as evidenced by this brief interview:

National Treasure – Diane Kruger Interview,” uploaded by Novidades Cinema – Movie News, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

Turning Chase into a fellow treasure hunter protector:

As they speed away from the baddies, Chase is still not having any of it:

ChaseI’m not all right. Those men have the Declaration of Independence!

Gates shows her the real document, meaning that the baddies got the dummy poster copy.

Chase:  [attempting to grab the document] Give me that! Who were those men?

GatesJust the guys we warned you would steal the Declaration of Independence.

RileyAnd you didn’t believe us.

GatesWe did the only thing we could do to keep it safe.

The truth then comes out about Gates’s true identity.

ChaseI want that document, Mr. Brown!

GatesMy name is Gates.

Chase:  Did you just say Gates? Gates? You’re that family with the conspiracy theory about the Founding Fathers? You know what? I take it back. You’re not liars. You’re insane.

The two men then reveal their plan to run chemical tests on the Declaration of Independence to uncover the “invisible map” they had alluded to in their earlier conversation with Chase.

ChaseYou can’t seriously intend to run chemical tests on the Declaration of Independence in the back of a moving van.

RileyWe have a clean-room environment all set up. EDS suits, a particulate air filtration system, the whole shebang.

ChaseReally?

It is nice to hear that Chase had set up a “clean-room environment” to preserve the archival integrity of the document. And that Dr. Chase is impressed by this.

GatesWe can’t go back there. … We need those letters.

ChaseWhat letters?You have the original Silence Dogood letters? Did you steal those, too?

GatesWe have scans of the originals. Quiet, please.

ChaseHow’d you get scans?

GatesOh, I know the person who has the originals. Now shush.

ChaseWhy do you need them?

GatesShe really can’t shut her mouth, can she? Tell you what, look. I will let you hold on to this [hands her the Declaration of Independence in the case] if you promise to shut up, please. Thank you.

While he’s thinking and talking with Riley, Chase is plotting yet another escape. She’s scrappy, isn’t she?! She tries to run, but she doesn’t get very far. And this next bit is the final turn in the screw, when Chase becomes complicit in the treasure hunter adventure.

ChaseI’m not going. Not without the Declaration.

GatesYou’re not going with the Declaration.

Chase Yes, I am. I’m not letting it out of my sight, so I’m going.

As the Region of Peel Archives put it:

“Gates and his assistant Riley Poole manage to steal the document from the National Archives, and while doing so they unwittingly involve Abigail Chase, one of the nation’s archivists. The three of them then attempt to locate the treasure before a ruthless gang of criminals can. It is interesting that while dragged in against her will initially, Chase comes to embrace the adventure, although she, like any good archivist, remains fiercely protective of the Declaration document.”

I was also super impressed by Diane Kruger’s facial expressions throughout these scenes. Her suspicious glare is excellent, and it deepens as she gets drawn into the plot, as evidenced in the screenshots below. The top screenshot is from her introductory scene, the middle is from the gala, and the bottom is when she holds onto the Declaration of Independence case in the van.

Screenshot collage from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Suspicious minds…

Destroying the Declaration of Independence:

The trio then travel to visit Gates’s father, played by Jon Voight, in order to uncover the code on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of a “clean-room environment,” they have a dining table, a hairdryer, and a bowl of lemons. At least they’re wearing white gloves?! No wonder Dr. Chase is looking so guilty.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Looking guilty

Gates then takes a lemon and is about to squeeze it onto the back of the Declaration of Independence. Not so fast!

Chase:  You can’t do that.

GatesBut it has to be done.

ChaseThen someone who is trained to handle antique document is gonna do it.

GatesOk.

ChaseOk. Now, uh, if there’s a secret message, it’ll probably be marked by a symbol in the upper right-hand corner. [rubs a Q-tip on the lemon] I’m so getting fired for this.

GateWe need more juice.

ChaseWe need more heat. [she grabs a hairdryer!]

Chase then handles the hairdryer. With gloves on. As any self-respecting archivist would do. 😉

Screenshots from 'National Treasure' (2004)

The white gloves make it all okay

Chase, Riley, and Gates are definitely in it together now!

Buckley comments on the juxtaposition of a reel archivist protecting and destroying the archival documents at the same time:

“Although the objections of the archivist [in National Treasure] to the use (abuse?) of archival documents are overruled in favour of the entertainment value of high-speed chases and nail-biting cliffhangers, those objections are strongly voiced, and they are heard. While the audience may enjoy the entertaining machinations involved in retrieving the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives, the authority of this document or of its custodians is never in question. The continued importance placed on archival value is evident in the scenes involving the Declaration, as well as in the preservation and display of the Silence Dogood letters in the Benjamin Franklin Archive.” (p. 121)

They make their way to the next clue in the Silence Dogood letters in the Benjamin Franklin Archive as then on to the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall in Philadelphia. At Independence Hall, at 1 hour and 17 minutes into the film, they unfurl the Declaration of Independence in order to read the next clue, and Gates tries to school Chase on archival etiquette. And bless Dr. Chase’s sassy heart.

ChaseHere, help me.

GatesCareful.

ChaseYou think?

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

The Declaration of Independence returns to Independence Hall!

Calling the shots:

The baddies then show up, and Riley and Chase run off together with the document case, in order to create a diversion from Gates. Lots of ACTION and PLOT and CLUES ensue, but it finally comes down to Chase figuring out how to make a trade with the baddies.

Or as the bald baddy says to Gates, “Ask your girlfriend [referring to Chase]. She’s the one calling all the shots now. She won’t shut up.” Hah! 😀

The final action scene takes place in an underground passageway and vault, where they find the hidden treasure. But what is the most valuable hidden treasure for the reel archivist?

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

The pen is mightier than the sword… a reel archivist admiring scrolls from the lost Library of Alexandria

I loved that Chase was not wooed or awed by the gold and the jewels but rather by the scrolls from Alexandria!

As the Region of Peel Archives states:

The team is ultimately successful, locating the treasure deep underground in Manhattan. Ever the faithful archivist, Chase is not drawn to the gold jewelry, statues, or other artifacts found in the huge underground cavern, but rather to what she identifies as scrolls from the lost Library of Alexandria.

Abigail Chase also made an impression on Ben Gates, as the first things Gates asks the FBI is that “Dr. Chase gets off clean, without a mark on her record.” I really appreciated that Gates (a) put her professional needs first, and (b) referred to Chase by her title and credentials.

Getting the last line:

In the final scene, Chase and Gates and Riley are all talking together in a garden setting. It’s clear Chase and Gates are together, as they are holding hands. Ever the professional, Chase has a book in her hand.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Final scene from ‘National Treasure’ (2004)

Riley then takes off in his new sports car, and Chase has one last surprise for Gates:

ChaseI made something for you.

GatesYou did?

ChaseA map.

GatesWhere does it lead to?

ChaseYou’ll figure it out.

I love that the reel archivist gets the last line in the movie!

Alternate ending in the National Archives:

But Gates did not get the last line in the movie in the original ending, which was changed after the original didn’t test well with audiences.

The original ending was set back in the National Archives, with the Declaration of Independence back in its case. Gates is looking over the Constitution, also in a glass case. Chase has her arm through Gates’s arm, so it’s still clear that they are together.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure' (2004)

Alternate original ending from ‘National Treasure’ (2004)

ChaseWhat are you thinking about?

GatesNothing.

ChaseThere’s nothing on the back of the Constitution.

GatesI wasn’t thinking that. Are you sure?

ChaseI already checked it out. [They laugh together]

This original exchange is funny — and reinforces Chase’s ambition and initiative! — but Riley gets the last line:  “Guys, do you think we could keep some of the treasure this time?

I like that they changed the ending so that the reel archivists gets the last laugh!

The importance of the reel archivist role:

Ultimately, I agree with Buckley, who sums up Dr. Abigail Chase’s role and this popcorn action film this way:

“Buried beneath the stereotypical images are elements of the truth:  that records matter, that protection of the record matters, and that the protectors of the records are dedicated to their profession.” (p. 120-121)

Although the film is full of plot holes and historical errors — see here for a video run-down of all the historical inaccuracies in 13 minutes or less — I enjoyed rewatching and analyzing Dr. Chase’s character, and how refreshingly original and non-stereotypical her character turns out to be. I think a lot of this comes down to how Diane Kruger played the character, with an innate sense of feistiness, as a woman who is used to dealing with men who underestimate her. She does NOT underestimate herself, and I agree that Dr. Abigail Chase is ultimately a positive portrayal of a reel archivist. I would also argue, although she is not technically a reel librarian (I do, however, choose to include both reel archivists and reel librarians in my research), that she does fit into the category of Atypical Portrayals, and her importance to the film lands it in the Class I category.

Continuing the conversation:

Have you seen the National Treasure film, or it sequel? What do you think of the Dr. Abigail Chase character and her role as a reel archivist? Do you find her portrayal stereotypical, or not? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

Christmas with a reel librarian in ‘My Side of the Mountain’

I have mentioned the reel librarian from My Side of the Mountain (1969) before, most recently in my library ladders round-up post. I had forgotten, however, that there was a Christmas scene in that film, so it’s perfect timing to spend some quality holiday time with a reel librarian.

Shall we?

The movie plot and the book it’s based on

My Side of the Mountain (1969) is based on the Newbery Honor Award-winning book of the same title by Jean Craighead George, published a decade earlier in 1959. The librarian, Miss Turner, is a character in both the book and the movie adaptation. I haven’t yet read the book, although I have read other titles by that same author. I had watched this film years ago, but I recently rewatched the film for purposes of this post, borrowing the sole copy available throughout our various regional library systems.

Here’s a copy of the DVD cover, and I was happy to see the librarian is included on the back cover!

Reel Librarians | DVD front and back covers of 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

DVD front and back covers of ‘My Side of the Mountain’ (1969)

The basic plot? An independent-minded boy, Sam, leaves home to spend a year in nature, like his hero, Henry David Thoreau. It’s a coming-of-age story, one in which Sam learns about himself while he learns how to survive in the wild.

Reel Librarian | Title screen for 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Title screen for ‘My Side of the Mountain’ (1969)

Where does the librarian fit into this plot? Sam travels to the public library in one scene, where librarian Miss Turner (Tudi Wiggins) helps him find information about peregrine falcons. Using the information he learned at the library, Sam then captures and trains a peregrine falcon to hunt for him. Wiggins receives third billing in the cast list, and she shows up at crucial times throughout the rest of the film.

Public library scene

Almost a half hour into the film, Sam announces to his pet raccoon, Gus, that he’s “got to go into town… to read up on falcons.” The nearest town is Knowlton, which is a village around Lake Brome in Quebec, Canada (and also the inspiration for Louise Penny’s “Three Pines” mystery series!). The movie was shot on location in and around Knowlton, and the public library scene lasts about five minutes.

Here is a look at the interior of the public library, which is encased in wood panelling and lined with bookshelves. The librarian is seated at a large wooden desk, which has piles of books stacked on it, and she appears to be filing cards.

Reel Librarians | Public library interior in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Public library interior

Sam walks in and goes straight to the librarian and does not waste any time asking for what he needs. Here’s how their reference interview goes:

SamDo you have any books on falcons?

Miss TurnerFalcons?

SamEspecially the peregrine falcon.

Miss TurnerPeregrine falcons. Peregrine falcons were famous in England, I do believe [leading him into the stacks]. As a matter of fact, they were known as hunters for kings [reaches up on a library ladder to a top row]. If my memory serves me right, and it usually does. [hands him a book]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot of a librarian on a ladder in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Librarian on a ladder alert!

Miss TurnerHere’s another one that might be of help [hands him another book]. The only trouble is, you can’t take these books out. They’re just for reference.

SamOh, that’s ok. I can sit here and use them.

Miss TurnerWell, have fun.

SamDo you think I could borrow a pencil?

Miss Turner Of course. My name’s Miss Turner [sits down and takes off her glasses]. If you want anything, just call out. [hands him a pencil]

SamThank you.

Miss TurnerWhat’s your name?

SamSam. [says reluctantly]

Miss TurnerSam.

Sam then takes the books and goes into another room, a reading room lined with more bookcases and a table in the center.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of reading from 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Reading room and reference book closeup

Sam then goes back into the main room of the library, back to the librarian, to return his books. He continues their conversation.

Sam:  I guess I got everything I’ll need. Those birds sure are interesting. If I could only catch me one.

Miss Turner:  [quoting Proverbs 1:17] ‘Surely in vain the net is spread in the sight of any bird.’

Sam:  Yeah, I guess so. Those birds are darn smart.

Miss TurnerYes, they are, Sam. I often go up on McCracken’s Hill and watch them soaring over the mountains. I’m an old birdwatcher from way back.

Sam:  I guess that’s how you knew about peregrine falcons right off. Well, goodbye.

Miss TurnerSam… you’ll need a leather glove.

My reaction to this reference interview? The exchange sounded pretty spot-on to me, and it is one of the better reference interviews I’ve witnessed onscreen. In a brief amount of screen time, Miss Turner manages to:

  • listen to Sam and anticipates his needs (the “leather glove” comment at the end)
  • share relevant and information about herself to make a personal connection with a patron (her name and her interest in birdwatching)
  • quickly establish trust and interest in the patron’s needs (her knowledge about the history of peregrine falcons)
  • establish trust with the viewer by establishing trust with Sam
  • get across the idea that she is intelligent — quoting the Bible and knowing about peregrine falcons — in a way that is not condescending or off-putting
  • efficiently explain how reference books are different from other books in the library

Throughout the scene, she is warm and friendly.

Plus, we know that she has a life outside the library, because we learn that she loves the outdoors and birdwatching! This scene plants a seed that will pay off later in the film.

Reel Librarians | The reel librarian, with and without her glasses, in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Miss Turner, with and without her glasses

I thought it interesting to note that we first meet Miss Turner when she has her glasses on — to visually establish the fact that she’s a librarian? However, she takes them back off again as soon as she’s done finding the books, and we never see her wear her glasses again.

Library lady

Soon after Sam captures and trains a peregrine falcon, who he christens “Frightful,” a traveling folk singer, Bando (played by Theodore Bikel), stops by his campsite. Bando sticks around for a number of weeks and teaches Sam more survival skills.

Bando is a collector of folk songs and also is no stranger to spouting quotations, either. He even quotes from Shakespeare at one point.

A little over an hour into the film, when Bando is packing up to leave before winter sets in, Sam asks him to post a letter he’s written to his family. Bando then quotes from Proverbs 25:25: “As cool water to the thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.”

Sam is instantly reminded of the librarian!

SamYou know, sometimes when you get like that, when you start quoting something that you read in a book, you remind me of someone else.

BandoOh? Who’s that?

SamOh, it’s this library lady down in the village. She’s that way.

BandoMy, oh, my. I didn’t think you’d ever communicate with any human animal. Apart from myself, of course.

SamWell, I only went down there once, to read up on falcons. She knew quite a lot about them, too. She belongs to some kind of bird-watcher’s club and all. She’s a great lady. You’d like her, Bando. I did. I even trusted her. And I almost told her my plan and all.

Miss Turner definitely made an impression! “Library lady” and a “great lady” all in one… 😉

Birdwatching

About 10 minutes later after Bando sets off, Sam walks to the edge of the woods and announces to Frightful that he’s going into town. “Even Thoreau left his retreat at Walden Pond to go into Concord sometimes.

As Sam ties Frightful up to a tree stump, he spies Miss Turner walking along a path, birdwatching. (She’s dressed in an outfit — a cardigan and skirt — that seems more suitable for working in the library than for birdwatching… perhaps she stopped by the trail after work?)

Miss TurnerI was just on the trail of a beautiful speckled grouse, and I think it got away from me somehow.

SamYou remember me?

Miss TurnerYes, I think I do. Aren’t you the Peregrine falcon boy? You do look different. Your hair’s so long now. Did you manage to observe those falcons at close range? I was only wondering because I found another very good book on them. I mean, if you’re interested.

SamOh yes. You see, I caught one. Oh, I take the best care of it. I’ve even got it out here with me now. Say, would you like to see it?

Miss TurnerOf course I would.

Sam is so excited he grabs her hand to show her to Frightful.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of the librarian meeting Sam's falcon in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Librarian and falcon meet cute

Miss TurnerShe’s a beautiful bird, Sam.

SamWait til you see her in the sky. [Frightful takes off and swoops back down to Sam.]

Miss TurnerShe’s glorious. She loves you, too… Come on down, take a look at the new book I found.

SamWell, I don’t get into town much, and I like to be alone.

Miss TurnerIn any case, if you ever want to, come and see me. Please. As Cicero said, ‘We are never less alone than when completely alone.’

Later, in his journal, Sam writes:

I walked down the mountain today, when who did I meet on the outskirts, but Miss Turner, out on a hike. I showed her Frightful. It was good talking to her.

I couldn’t help but include the (hilarious!) facial expression on Miss Turner’s face at the moment Frightful swoops back down onto Sam’s leather glove. Frightful lives up to its name! 😉

Reel Librarians | Screenshot of the reel librarian's facial expression in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Miss Turner’s startled facial expression!

Once again, Miss Turner demonstrates her warmth and kindness in this brief exchange. She shows that she remembers Sam — and his reference question! — and that she is observant, through her remark about his hair. And although off duty and outside the library, she is still a librarian! She has still been thinking about his reference question about peregrine falcons and set aside a book if he needs more information.

Up to this point, the librarian’s role has basically been that of an Information Provider. She has literally provided information to Sam about peregrine falcons, which he has made good use out of.

But this reel librarian is already something extra by this point — Miss Turner’s warm, friendly, caring personality goes beyond that of an Information Provider. She is not there to just find a book and provide a pencil. Rather, she is also there to provide a human connection with Sam — to remind Sam that he is not all alone in this world and that he has resources outside the forest. Like Bando, she is a vital link to the outside world, where there are people who care about him.

Librarian to the rescue

Fifteen minutes from the end of this 100-minute-long film, Sam gets snowed in inside the tree he has made into his home. Just as oxygen is running out as Sam tries to dig through the snow, guess who comes to the rescue? Bando and the librarian, of course! (The film does do a nice job of setting up this exact scenario.) Miss Turner is outfitted more appropriately this time for the outdoors, wrapped up in a long hooded coat, ski wear, gloves, and snow shoes.

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of the librarian and snow from 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Librarian to the rescue!

Christmas with a reel librarian

Best of all, Miss Turner comes stocked with a picnic basket filled with a Christmas feast. Librarians are *always* prepared, y’all. RESPECT.

And in a scene that has to be unique amongst all reel librarian cinema, the librarian has Christmas dinner in a tree! “That was the best Christmas dinner I ever had.

Bando also plays Christmas carols, and Miss Turner even joins in the singing!

Reel Librarians | Christmas with the reel librarian in 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Christmas with a reel librarian

Miss Turner also reveals that she kept thinking about Sam:

Miss TurnerI couldn’t get you out of my mind, Sam. I kept trying to think, how to get up to see you after the big storm.

BandoAnd then I showed up. See, I remembered about the library lady.

Miss TurnerI invited myself along.

SamI’m glad you did, Miss Turner.

Bando then reveals that quite a few people are worried about him, as he takes out newspaper clippings from his pocket. Sam then decides that it is time for him to go home, and that he’s learned a lot about himself. They then set off back down the side of the mountain.

The significance of the reel librarian character

Although Miss Turner may start off as what seems to be a typical Information Provider character type, she ends up, in my opinion, as an Atypical Portrayal of a reel librarian. She goes above and beyond her role as a librarian to provide research help. We learn of her interest in the outdoors in her introductory scene, and we then see her outside the library, birdwatching and hiking. She demonstrates that she really cares about her patrons, by remembering them and continuing to anticipate and think about how to meet their needs even after they have left the library. A true librarian at heart, and a truly positive portrayal of a reel librarian.

I had previously added Miss Turner to my “Hall of Fame” list, and here’s my write-up on that page:

An admittedly odd film (a 12-year-old boy leaves home and spends a year alone in nature—but that’s okay because he left a note to his parents and told them not to worry?!), but it does contain one of the most caring and thoughtful of all reel librarians. A public librarian helps a young boy find information about peregrine falcons and goes out of her way to find him more resources. She also gets a few scenes outside the library, where we see that she is an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast.

I have ultimately classified this film in the Class I category, in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, and the librarian’s occupation serves as catalyst or is otherwise integral to the plot. Miss Turner definitely fits that description. The information she provides is vital to Sam’s survival in the woods, of course, but the librarian’s personal connection with Sam also proves vital to Sam’s survival.

The reel librarian ends up a savior and a hero.

The reel/real library

I wanted to end this post with a brief spotlight on the real library in Knowlton, Quebec. Below are screenshots of the exterior of the library, as seen in the film, as well as a close-up of the library’s sign (which you’ll notice, is in both English and French, as befitting a Canadian locale).

Reel Librarians | Screenshots of the public library from 'My Side of the Mountain' (1969)

Screenshots of the public library and sign

It’s obvious that the exterior of the library served as the library location in the film, as the brick exterior seen in the film exactly matches the drawing of the library highlighted on the library’s website:

Info about the real-life public library in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

Website info and drawing of the public library in Knowlton, Quebec, Canada

I have to wonder if the library sign in the movie is one they created especially for the movie, however, since the real public library in Knowlton is known by the name of “Pettes Memorial Library,” as you can see above. And the library has always gone by this name, as according to the library website, it was “built and bequeathed to the people of Knowlton and the Township of Brome by Narcissa Farrand Pettes in memory of her late husband, Nathaniel Pettes.” According to this booklet, “The History of the Pettes Memorial Library,” available online, Narcissa Pettes’s donation specified the name of the library, “a building known as the Pettes Memorial, which forever hereafter is destined for a free public library.” The Legislature in Quebec also passed an act in 1894 “incorporating the Trustees under ‘An Act to Incorporate the Pettes Memorial.'”

I also found it interesting that this library, founded in March 1894, was the first free rural library in the province of Quebec. You can read more about the history of the library’s founding here on the History section of the library’s website.

Sources used:

History.” Pettes Memorial Library, 2017.

My Side of the Mountain. Dir. James B. Clark. Perf. Ted Eccles, Theodore Bikel, Tudi Wiggins. Paramount, 1969.

My Side of the Mountain,” Wikimedia Foundation, is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0.

Rotherham, G. A. “The History of the Pettes Memorial Library,” 1983.

The reel librarian in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s classic and award-winning book, The Handmaid’s Tale, has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1985. It struck a chord then, and it continues to strike a chord today, recently returning to bestseller lists. A new 10-part series starring Elisabeth Moss will premiere next week, on April 26, on Hulu.

The Handmaid’s Tale Trailer (Official) • The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu” uploaded by Hulu is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

This series, which looks like it will be pretty faithful to the source material, is not the first cinematic adaptation of Atwood’s book. That distinction belongs to the 1990 version of the film, starring the late Natasha Richardson in the title role. The film was directed by German director Volker Schlöndorff and the screenplay written by English writer Harold Pinter.

This dystopian tale is set in a world under a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship, called the “Republic of Gilead,” in which fertility has become rare, and fertile young women, trained as Handmaids, are treated as slaves in the households they are assigned to.

The 1990 version

The 1990 film was received with a lukewarm reception, both by critics and at the box office. I agree with Washington Post movie critic Rita Kempley, who wrote that the film “is also a touch dated, though it remains an intriguing quilt of what-ifs.”

Here’s a trailer from the 1990 film version:

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) – Official Trailer” uploaded by Shout Factory is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Having watched the 1990 film multiple times and read the book (I need to reread it!), I also agree that the impact of the storyline is weakened in the 1990 film version, including the ending and even the costuming (the handmaids wear sheer red scarves over their hair instead of the white “winged” headgear described in the book).

But the sheer power of the story and its all-too-familiar dystopian possibilities continue to linger in one’s mind, which makes the 1990 version still a worthwhile experience to watch.

Differences between the book and the film

In the book, the narrator — known as “Offred,” literally “Of Fred” — never reveals her “real” name, although it is implied that her name is June. She also never reveals many details of her occupation before the Age of Gilead, simply that she worked in an office. Very little is revealed in the book about the narrator’s appearance, except for this brief passage:

I am thirty-three years old. I have brown hair. I stand five seven without shoes. I have trouble remembering what I used to look like. I have viable ovaries. I have one more chance.

In the film, however, we learn early on Offred’s real name, which is Kate. We also learn about her former occupation, that she was a librarian. And of course with film being a visual medium, we immediately see what she looks like.

Getting to know the narrator

So let’s get into how the film reveals the reel librarian part of the narrator’s character.

At the beginning of the movie, right after the credits, Kate/Offred and her husband (Luke) are driving. Kate was the one driving, as we see her get out of the driver’s side. She wears glasses — a detail that we never see again in the film.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The narrator, first seen wearing glasses, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Kate, along with her husband and daughter, attempt to cross the border and escape. This attempt fails. Kate is separated from her daughter and sent to a camp to be trained and conditioned in her new role as Handmaid.

Fifteen minutes into the film, Offred meets the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy (played by Faye Dunaway), in her first placement interview. Serena Joy states bluntly to Offred:

Here’s how it works… If I get trouble, I give trouble back. Is that clear?

I’ve read your file. I know you’re not stupid.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Offred and Serena Joy meet for the first time in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

This detail — that others know that Offred is not stupid — is a thread the Commander (played by Robert Duvall) later picks up. It is obvious to all, including the audience, that Offred is educated and intelligent.

Scrabble and revelations

Forty minutes into the film, the Commander invites Offred into his private office for the first time, because he wants to “get to know [her] a little.” The narrator is understandably wary, but the Commander surprises her by wanting to play Scrabble! He asks her if she has ever played Scrabble before, and she responds that she had played when she was young.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The Commander and Offred play Scrabble for the first time, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

As they wrap up their first game of Scrabble, their conversation continues, and this is when we first hear of the narrator’s former occupation.

Offred:  I can use my last three letters in one go. I’ve won.

Commander:  You certainly have won. Congratulations. I think you play this game a lot better than I do. I know you do. But I knew you would.

Offred: Why?

Commander:  Because you’re a librarian.

Offred:  Was.

Below is Natasha Richardson’s facial expression right after she says that last line, “Was.” It is an expression that is simultaneously wistful, proud, and defiant.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

A closeup of the narrator’s face in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Ten minutes after this scene, the Commander gives Offred a surprise gift for winning another game. This time, he brings out old copies of Vogue and Cosmopolitan, magazines he usually keeps locked up in a cabinet. The only books in the house are also in his private study.

Commander:  Now, what do you like? There’s Vogue, Cosmopolitan.

Offred:  I thought all this stuff was supposed to have been burned.

Commander:  It was. It was bad for people’s minds. It confused them. It was ok for me because I’m mature.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

The Commander shows Offred his secret stash of women’s fashion magazines, in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

The significance of knowing how to read

The importance of these two scenes between Offred and the Commander is not really explored in the movie, but in the book this is significant because one of the ways the women are kept submissive is that they are no longer allowed to read. This comes out in the movie by the signs and grocery tokens that are in the forms of pictures, not words. The fact that they play Scrabble — in secret, of course — means she has to know words and letters, that she knows how to read. This adds an extra layer of subversiveness to these scenes.

Ten minutes after the scene with the magazines — another scene in the Commander’s private study — he tries tries to explain why “they” had to cleanse the nation, after Offred asks about what he does and why he works with “them.”

Commander:  Why? Country was in a mess, that’s why. A total mess. All the garbage had risen to the top… So we had to clean it up. We took a big hose and washed the place clean.

Offred:  I had a family and a job I was good at. I didn’t need cleaning up.

Commander:  I don’t mean you.

Below is Natasha Richardson’s facial expression after she says the line about having “a job [she] was good at.” She still clearly identifies with her former life, as a mother and as a librarian. Her facial expression, while still wistful, now seems to have a shade of hardened anger in it. This will prove important later in the film.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Another closeup of the narrator in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

Naughty Librarian fantasy?

At one hour and 18 minutes into the film, the Commander takes Offred on a secret outing to a building full of party-goers, businessmen, and prostitutes. He has forced her to dress up — for his fantasy of a “Naughty Librarian,” perhaps?

As they enter the illicit party scene, the Commander seems to take pride in knowing several of the women and referring to them by their former occupations, saying one was a sociologist while another was a lawyer. It’s almost as if he were collecting them, that in the future, he looks forward to boasting, “I knew a librarian.”

Below is a look at how Offred dresses up for the Commander — old Hollywood movie-star style, with a long black dress, gloves, and a feather boa — and reconnecting with her friend Moira, who tried to escape but has ended up instead a “Jezebel,” a prostitute.

Reel Librarians | A screenshot from 'The Handmaid's Tale' (1990)

Offred dresses up for a night in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1990)

I won’t go into details of the film’s ending, only to say that it feels rushed and vague and doesn’t include the epilogue from the book.

What reel librarian role does Kate/Offred play in the movie?

This is a more difficult question to answer. Her character, as written for the film, is kind of the opposite of the Liberated Librarian character. She is forced to become LESS feminine in the film — except for the party scene — and it’s unclear by the end if she truly becomes liberated. On the other hand, her story arc (and her escape from the horrific reality of living as a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead) drives the film forward.

When I wrote my thesis years ago, I added Kate/Offred in the chapter on Atypical Portrayals. Atypical Portrayals of reel librarians, as I’ve defined them, include major characters whose portrayals go beyond stereotypical constraints. They are intelligent, well-rounded characters with lives outside the library.

Here’s what I wrote then:

She is independent, quietly rebellious when she needs to be but also openly rebellious when the time comes. Desirable to men, Kate also demonstrates a maternal instinct toward her lost child and to the men around her. Her job as a librarian is revealed only once, when Robert Duvall mentions it—the audience doesn’t need to hear that she was a librarian, but it does not detract from her strength as a character, either.

What do I think now? I would still put the narrator’s character, as written in this film, in the Atypical Portrayal category — mainly because she defies categorization. It’s clear that Kate did have a full life outside the library in her former life, but she is forced into a stereotypical box as Offred. But she continues to quietly rebel, in her own way and in her own mind, against these stereotypical constraints.

Why a librarian?

Like I mentioned before, there are many differences regarding the narrator’s character between the book and the 1990 film, one of which is that her former occupation as a librarian is clearly stated in this film adaptation. So why did screenwriter Harold Pinter give her both a real name and a defined former occupation in the movie adaptation? To give her more of an identity, as a shortcut to gain audience’s sympathy/empathy with the main character? Perhaps it was simply a way to provide a shortcut to the narrator’s intelligence that is referred to by several characters throughout the film. That as a former librarian, she’s not just intelligent but also that she knows how to read. That fact then makes her internally dangerous, however docile she appears on the outside.

As (real-life) librarians often say, “Once a librarian, always a librarian.” 😉

Ultimately, this detail of being a librarian in her former life lands The Handmaid’s Tale in the Class II category, in which “the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.” Like I wrote in my thesis, it isn’t necessary to the story to hear that she was a librarian — just as it wasn’t necessary to know details about her occupation in the book — but it does not detract from her strength as a character in the film, either.

I don’t now when I will be able to watch the upcoming mini-series, as I don’t currently subscribe to Hulu, but I will definitely put it on my list to keep an eye out for. If the new mini-series is going to be more faithful to its book source material, then I suspect the narrator’s character and former occupation will no longer be a librarian. But I will watch it, just in case!

And if you’ve seen the 1990 film and/or are looking forward to watching the new series, please leave a comment and share.