Friday, December 20, 2013

Mary Poppins Delights, on the Page and on the Screen

As enormous fans of Mary Poppins (the character, the book, and the movie), we can hardly wait to see the new Disney film Saving Mr. Banks. We’re eager to learn more about the transition from book to movie, which makes a number of changes to P.L Travers’s original work. Such adjustments are common enough in movie adaptations. But the differences between the Mary Poppins penned by P.L. Travers and the one filmed by Walt Disney go beyond simply condensing the plot to fit the time constraints of films. Saving Mr. Banks promises to tell some of the story.

Like many authors, Travers was loath to see her book change at all in preparation for the big screen, but Disney’s screenwriters had their reasons to tweak her masterpiece. Beyond standard concerns about time constraints, one major worry was the fear that the concept of a nanny would be too foreign to families in the 1960's to grasp. So Mrs. Banks’s character, as justification for needing assistance, was transformed from the meek, rather silly figure she cuts in the book into a devoted suffragette too busy to tend to her children – a role script writers must have hoped would strike a chord in audiences at that time.

Another major difference is the tone at the end. In the movie, Mary Poppins flies off under the power of her parrot-handled umbrella, her absence scarcely noticed by the blissful, kite-flying family below her. The Banks adults have learned to be the kind of parents their children need, and Mary’s work is done. This kind of emphasis on the importance of family is a hallmark of Disney and would have resonated with American families at the time of the movie’s release. Those who haven’t read the book may be surprised, however, to learn that it ends quite differently. Travers’s pages reveal a distraught Michael being comforted by a very slightly less so Jane when they discover that Mary, true to her word, has flown the coop when the wind changed. Jane, it is suggested, is starting to grow up and may not need a nanny any more, but Michael and his infant twin siblings (who were cut from the movie) surely will. The children have had a lot of wonderful adventures under Mary’s supervision, but she has wrought no lasting changes in the family’s dynamic by the end of the book.

Beyond plot differences, Travers’s Mary herself was far removed from the version dreamed up in Disney’s studios. Julie Andrews portrays hints of the original Mary’s sharpness, but she’s warm and wonderful beneath it all. We certainly loved the first Mary – it seemed clear to us that she was deeply caring beneath her strict demeanor – but less discerning kids may miss this subtlety that Andrews makes so apparent in the movie. Mary in the book is vain, forever admiring her own appearance, and is often very short with the children. She threatens to send Jane home from a shopping trip when Jane tentatively points out that they are going to the wrong shop for gingerbread. (The one to which Mary brings them is full of magic and wonder for the children, though Mary brushes off their amazement somewhat haughtily.) She is offended when Jane and Michael, the day after the elevated tea party portrayed in the movie, ask if her uncle is frequently so filled with laughing gas that he levitates; she snaps that her uncle is a sober, responsible man and that she’ll thank them not to make up silly stories about him. Still, these mood swings seem part of Mary’s mystery, and the children in the book are no less delighted by the magic she brings to their lives than the actors in the movie accompanied by the more genial Andrews.

Characters who get only small bits of screentime in the movie are delightfully fleshed out in the book, another major difference. For example, we love the story of Andrew, the coddled dog from next door who longs to be a common dog; his rebellious speech to his overbearing owner is translated by Mary, who, of course, can understand his barking. Fanny and Annie, mentioned in a single line of a song in the movie, are major characters in one of the book’s chapters, initially selling gingerbread to the children and then helping their mother to hang stars in the sky in the middle of the night. And many episodes from the book simply didn’t make the screenwriters’ cut, such as Mary’s late-night birthday party with the animals at the zoo, or the ten-minute trip she takes around the world with the children in tow. Kids who missed the book will be delighted to follow Mary and her charges on these additional, fanciful adventures.

We encourage families to revisit both the Mary Poppins movie and book. The passage of time has not tarnished the charm of either, different as they are. The book is on a sixth grade reading level, so parents of younger kids may wish to read it aloud. It would be great fun to watch the movie afterward and discuss both with youngsters. Ask them what differences they noticed, why they think the movie changed the book’s characters and events, and which they prefer. And unlike the movie, the original book is the first in a series, so kids can continue to enjoy the magic of Mary Poppins after they’ve turned the last page of the original.

Some of the information above came from a fascinating New Yorker article by Caitlin Flanagan.

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