Robert Gray: Pre-Ordering a New Bookshop Movie Allusion

There seems to be an unwritten rule that any media story focused upon the theme of independent bookstores must, at some point, allude to You've Got Mail (YGM), the 1998 romcom film starring Tom Hanks as Joe, a member of the family that owns mega-bookstore chain Fox Books; and Meg Ryan as Kathleen, who operates a small indie that is being put out of business by the biblio-monolith. AOL co-stars in the role of a non-bookselling online dating service.

The ongoing use of YGM as editorial shorthand for the challenges of independent booksellers is not in itself wrong; it's just tired. Forbes magazine used it as recently as this week in a piece on Amazon's new physical stores, as did Mashable in June. CBS News, the Chicago Tribune and the Huffington Post are other examples, though the list is endless and has also gone international, from Greece to Malaysia ("Straight out of the Hollywood movie You've Got Mail, a privately-owned book store in Sabah has been forced to wind-up after conceding defeat to bigger book store chains in shopping malls there.")

YGM has even shown up in articles on a Canadian hardware store and American bridal boutiques, the latter offering an admittedly pertinent Kathleen quote: "When her friends tried to console her, the shop owner responded, 'People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they're really saying is that something you didn't want to happen at all... has happened.' "

Reality check #1: The bookselling business has undergone a lot of changes since 1998, positive as well as negative. One undisputed fact, however, is that independent booksellers who have, as the media also likes to say, "survived and even thrived" during these two decades of turmoil have retained their passion for books while becoming even more adept local business owners and community leaders.

Last summer, an MTV-produced YouTube video, If Famous Movie Romances Were Feminist, rewrote the ending of YGM:
Joe: Don't cry, Shopgirl.
Kathleen: I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.
J: Really?"
K: F**k no! You ran my business into the ground, and you lied to me for weeks! I'm going to find someone who respects me and my career.
J: Yeah, that's fair.

Reality check #2: Maybe it's time for an official change of allusion, a bookseller film made of sterner stuff. For me, it might turn out to be The Bookshop, an upcoming adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's brilliant short novel about Florence Green, who opens a bookshop during the late 1950s in the fictional English village of Hardborough, Suffolk.  

The story is by turns charming, fierce, funny and heartbreaking, yet always sharply observant. If these also sound like the qualities of many booksellers you know, then my work is done here. Fitzgerald herself was a bookseller for a time in Southwold, so she offers something of an insider's perspective.  

The film, which has not yet been released, is directed by Isabelle Coixet (Paris, je t'aime), and stars Emily Mortimer as Florence, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs. Violet Gamart, Bill Nighy as Mr. Brundish, Honor Kneafsey as Christine and James Lance as Milo North, whose recommendation that Florence stock Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita generates one of my all-time favorite plot twists.

Coixet told Screen Daily: "The Bookshop is the story of a woman whose light, innocence and perseverance pose a threat to the powers that be in a small town plagued with petty schemes and darkness. This is a film about passion, for books and for life."

During a recent Guardian webchat, Fitzgerald's biographer Hermione Lee said, "I am looking forward to the film of The Bookshop mainly because Bill Nighy is playing Mr. Brundish. And I am fascinated to see what they do with it."

In his introduction to the 2015 edition of The Bookshop, novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls wrote: "I have, at times, adapted books into screenplays, and a small but persistent voice often accompanies my first reading of a book, asking 'how might this work on screen?' The Bookshop is an example of what is called 'a hard sell', though an adaptation, starring Anna Massey, was once mooted and another may happen soon. It could make a fine film, but a faithful adaption would have to take on board the author's refusal to provide easy or comforting answers.... Penelope Fitzgerald defies those clichés with glee, and this is precisely what makes her a great novelist. Expectations are constantly denied, explanations withheld."

(Note to self: In the future, always list under indie booksellers' key personality traits: "defies those clichés with glee.")

Nicholls observed that with "typical self-deprecation, Fitzgerald called The Bookshop 'a short novel with a sad ending,' which is true I suppose, but takes no account of Fitzgerald's wit and playfulness."

Can The Bookshop become a viable, 21st-century movie allusion alternative to YGM? We shall see. 

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your suggestions for a YGM replacement (if you think one is needed) and the reasons why.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)
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