A brazen theft of museum quality books in broad daylight. A librarian tied up and incapacitated by a stun gun. The loot destined for the New York art world. It might sound like the plot of a movie — and now it is one.
The feature-length film, based on a 2004 book heist in Lexington at the Transylvania University library, was among the films that had their debut over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival.
“American Animals,” which was directed by Bart Layton, is based on the story of Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk and Charles Allen II, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to robbing a Transylvania University library of multiple rare and valuable books. The four men even appear in the movie, intermittently breaking in to push the narrative along, according to a Variety review of the film.
The robbers were Lexington locals who admitted to hatching a plan to steal a first edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and sketches by John James Audubon, among others. In the midst of the heist, they used a stun gun on a librarian. The story made national headlines.
The group then tried to sell the stolen books at Christie’s auction house in New York City, but the plan fell apart when Christie’s became suspicious. The four were arrested the following February, and each was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The four, “now older and at least a little wiser,” are occasional commenters on the depicted action in “American Animals,” according to the Variety review by Guy Lodge.
The Sundance Film Festival began Thursday and is scheduled to continue through Sunday.
About 200 feature-length and short films are selected each year to debut at Sundance out of thousands of submissions from more than 140 countries, according to the Sundance Institute. In 2017, about 71,600 people attended the festival.
The festival is held in Utah, with events in Park City, Salt Lake City and at the Sundance Mountain Resort. Each site is within a 30- to 75-minute drive from the others.
The movie doesn’t yet have an announced theater release date.
This is the second time the story of the Transylvania book heist has been told in long form. A book called “Mr. Pink” was written and released in 2010 by Allen, who wrote under the name Chas Allen.