Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Saving Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins first taught me the harm that a movie adaptation can do to a book, and the hollowness and meaninglessness of saying that "the book is still on the shelf."

I was seven when the Disney movie was released. It might be the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I loved it. It was bright, witty, and warm-hearted, and the songs were terrific.

Not too long afterwards, my mother, for whom the first two books, Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Comes Back, had been childhood favorites, gave me copies as a present.

I didn't like them at all, though I didn't tell my mother that. The reason is that they were entirely different from the movie. Yes, yes, London, Banks family, mysterious nanny, magical adventures. But that's just plot. It was the spirit of the story that was different, which gave me an unpleasant feeling of "What is this? This isn't the Mary Poppins I know." Because what I knew was the movie.

The basic difference is that Disney had decided that a spoonful of sugar would make the medicine go down. The movie was sweet where the books are sour. Book-Mary is much stricter and more distant than Movie-Mary; yet, oddly, the children are much more devoted to her. Reading the books after the movie was like taking a swig of what you think is orange juice and getting grapefruit juice instead, and offering them to a kid who liked the movie was like serving meat loaf made from another recipe instead of the one he knows and likes, both unpleasant experiences I'd actually had.

You may be thinking, but movies and books are always different. Well, this is how I learned that. I was seven, remember. What I also learned is that you set your standards by what you know. If you know the movie, your standard will be the movie, and it's the book you have to try to assimilate. Whether you'd have liked the book better or not if that was what you knew first, you'll never know and it doesn't matter.

Here's somebody in spring 2001 trying to explain that about The Lord of the Rings.

In the case of Mary Poppins, it wasn't until some 15 years later, when I was taking a college class in children's literature and revisiting other childhood reads, some of which were favorites I thought I'd outgrown, that I re-read the books and was able better to appreciate them for what they were - because, after so long, the movie's impact had faded from my mind. It no longer stood in the way.

They're still not favorites of mine, though. Would I have liked them better if I'd read them before the movie? I liked the other books of her childhood that my mother gave me, in particular the Pooh books, which, thank the Lord, I read before Disney poured several heaping spoonfuls of sugar all over them.

I don't know, but I might have. I suspect that P.L. Travers was thinking of me, and children like me, when she bristled so at the changes Disney made to her characters and her tale. She knew that it doesn't matter if the book is on the shelf, if the movie is in the head. It doesn't matter how good the movie is - in fact, the better the movie as a movie, the more harm it can do - if it doesn't replicate the spirit of the book.

This is why I was so eager to see the new movie Saving Mr. Banks, which I did on Saturday. I wanted to see what the Disney people would do to that story. In the new movie, Travers gets some of her innings in - much of this was taken from audio tapes of the actual scripting sessions - but, whether she did so in real life or not, in the movie she never gets to explain why this is so important.

Instead, Saving Mr. Banks is a "curmudgeon redeemed" story. The closest parallel I know is Billy Crystal's Mr. Saturday Night. Like it, Saving Mr. Banks is shot through with flashbacks attempting to explain how the curmudgeon got that way. Unfortunately, as P.L. Travers was a real person, and real people are not that simple, the movie never gets the causes and the effects to line up, despite heavily rewriting both from history. The flashbacks become a kind of giant non-sequitur that feels as if it's about somebody else. (And Colin Farrell as her father is playing Wastrel 101.)

Movie-Travers grouses and whines for the sake of setting herself up as a curmudgeon. Eventually, she's wooed under the spell of the Disney version by the songs, as apparently she was in reality - and why not, they're great songs - and Saving Mr. Banks ends with her attending the premiere. She laughs, she cries, she kisses her book goodbye.

That's not what happened in reality. Travers was furious. Disney had outwitted her and made changes where he'd let her think she had control. She realized she'd been right to resist, and swore never to allow it again, and that is why Mary Poppins remained a one-off and never became a Disney franchise.

In Saving Mr. Banks, Disney's final selling point to Travers comes when Tom Hanks looks Emma Thompson straight in the eye and promises that he will make a movie that viewers will love and cherish as much as her books. That's right. That's exactly what he did.

But because he either did not, or would not, understand the spirit of the books he was adapting, he co-opted them, he ruined them, he replaced them with his own spoonful of sugar. And the books lost readers like me.

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