One of John Wick’s earliest and most imaginative kills in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum occurs at, of all places, the New York Public Library. Facing down a city full of assassins out to kill him, Wick heads first to the main branch’s circulation desk, where he inquires about a book: “Russian Folk Tale, Aleksandr Afanasyev, 1864,” he tells the librarian, in typically Reeves-ian, laconic fashion. Once he has withdrawn the title from the stacks and retrieved the tokens hidden inside, he encounters an assailant played by NBA player Boban Marjanovic. At this point, the ever-resourceful hit man uses the book to repeatedly bash Marjanovic in the face (he holds the book in front of the 7-foot-3 man’s head with one hand and then punches the book with the other), break his teeth (he puts the book in the Philadelphia 76ers player’s mouth, then punches it), and, finally, break his neck (he puts the tome upright on a reading table, positions the Serbian giant’s neck over the top of its binding, and then smacks his head downward). He then immediately returns the volume to the shelf, presumably to avoid any late fees.
The scene raises a number of questions, foremost “What is this book?” and “Can I really check it out from the New York Public Library?” I trekked to the library’s flagship location to find out, to substantially less success than Wick, though I did manage to avoid any confrontations with giants. Here is a transcript of my encounter, which has not been edited or condensed for clarity:
Slate: Russian Folk Tale. Aleksandr Afanasyev. 1864.
Librarian: Do you have the call number? Let me see the reference.
Slate: Russian Folk Tale. Aleksan—
Librarian: But let me see, let me see the location.
Slate: I don’t have that.
Librarian: It’s probably in the branches, it’s not here. Show me the call number.
Slate: Um, I don’t have that. I think it’s about—
Librarian: Hang on.
Slate: I think it’s about Baba Yaga?
Librarian: Do you have a library card?
Librarian: What’s the title again?
Slate: Russian Folk Tale.
Librarian: Folk Tale or Tales?
Slate: Tale? Or Tales …
Librarian: Are you looking for a copy you can take home?
Slate: No. It may be in rare books?
Librarian: Well, this one is off site. That’s the author there.
Librarian: It’s 1950. Just a different publication date.
Slate: Where is it off site?
Librarian: That one is Princeton.
Slate: So, if there was one—
Librarian: I’m looking. [Pause] So this is off site, off site. OK. These are here, let me see. So this is the call number. You need to fill out a call slip.
Slate: So that’s not the older version. I guess I’m curious about one that might be in a reading room, or—
Librarian: I mean, if there’s a copy in Rare Books, you’d have to get permission, which, first of all, it’s too late now anyways. You have to apply for admission, explain why you need to see the old copy.
Slate: I see.
Slate: But there isn’t one anyway?
Librarian: I’m checking. No, the earliest we have is 1950. And that’s off site.
It would take two days to get here.
Slate: OK, I’ll fill out a slip. Thanks.
As it turns out, the book, as Wick identifies it, doesn’t seem to exist, or at least not at the New York Public Library. Afanasyev was indeed a folklorist and collector of Slavic folk tales—he is sometimes described as Russia’s one-man Brothers Grimm—and he did publish several volumes of them in the mid-19th century, but the NYPL doesn’t carry any volumes from 1864.
The best fit that the NYPL’s main branch had in house was a 1980 translation from Random House (call number J 398.2 A), although after I was sent from the third floor to the first and then back up again, the team informed me that—in a rather mysterious twist—my copy’s location had been mislabeled in the system. (The work of a certain assassin nicknamed “Baba Yaga”?)
As for the prop copy that appears in the movie: The illustrations in Wick’s lethal volume were, we believe, drawn from artwork by Ivan Bilibin, who illustrated Russian folk tales in the early 20th century and whose pictures have since been used to illustrate modern editions of Afanasyev’s collections. (They’re also the illustrations that show up when you search Baba Yaga on Wikipedia.) We’ve reached out to Lionsgate for details but have yet to hear back.
Finally, it’s worth noting that perhaps none of this is surprising from a franchise that frequently treats the English “boogeyman” and the Russian “Baba Yaga” as interchangeable, when, in Russian folklore, the Baba Yaga is most commonly a female witch who lives in a house that sits on chicken legs.
This post contains additional reporting by Matthew Dessem.