Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not Spit-Spot, But Ingeniously Imperfect

In an earlier post I mentioned that I picked up Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, having never read it before. I love the Disney movie, so I decided to rectify my oversight and compare the two.

For everyone who enjoys the Disney version but has not read the book, fear not. You can go on loving the movie. No, it’s not a one-for-one adaptation. But then, movies rarely are. However, Disney certainly captured the tone, flavor and feeling of Travers’s work.

I’ll note the major differences briefly. As I mentioned in the last post, Mary Poppins does not arrive by gently floating down on an umbrella. However, she does leave via umbrella. (And it does have a parrot handle, though it does not talk.) The Banks have four children, the other two being John and Barbara. They’re babies, so it’s understandable that they’d be removed. Bert exists in this first book, but only as the chalk drawing artist. The entering into the sidewalk picture occurs, but the children are not present. It’s just Mary’s outing. (And there is but one waiter, who is not a penguin.) The parents are barely in the book and there is no “father and mother must be taught to reconnect with their children” aspect. Not in the least. Disney’s Mary says she is never cross, when in fact: All day long Mary Poppins had been in a hurry, and when she was in a hurry she was always cross. She’s cross a great deal. But to Disney’s credit, her crossness in the book is akin to her “sternness” in the movie. Mary Poppins is in fact much more vain than she appears in the film. To the annoyance of the kids, she can never not admire herself and clothes in shop windows. And she is certainly not as sentimental about the children.

The adventures from the movie that are in the book: the magic bag (but it’s more fun to actually see it), Uncle Albert’s laughing and floating tea party (though Bert is not there and the circumstances are different), Admiral Boom (though no blasting cannons and their “routine” handling of it), the Bird Woman at the Cathedral (though Mary Poppins is there with them and she did not “predict” it) and the appearance of Andrew the dog (yes, Mary can really talk to him). Otherwise, Disney concocted the rest. It’s possible that they ransacked P.L. Travers’s other Mary Poppins books to make up the rest of the scenes in the movie. I have not read them, so I cannot be sure. I looked into it a bit, but nothing I found sounded specifically like the Disney additions.

But it really doesn’t matter. Here’s why: Mary Poppins is non-linear, crazy, episodic book. Think Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or Dahl's Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. It’s a series of vignettes, with no cohesive plot or arc. In the case of Mary Poppins, the only “story” is that she arrives and says she’ll stay until the wind changes. (In the movie this seemed to mean the state of the family…in the book it’s literally the wind changing in Spring.) It would seem to make very little difference which order you placed their outings.* And anything outlandish that Disney put in it (such as the torn papers rising up the chimney, the room cleaning itself or climbing a smoke staircase) fits right into the world of P.L. Travers. Don’t believe me? Conisder: Mary Poppins’s birthday occurring on a full moon warrants a night party at the zoo where talking animals lavish over her and people are in cages (including Admiral Boom…a penguin does plays a role here), Mrs. Corry - a very old (as in before Time!) woman candy store shopkeeper breaking off her fingers which turn to Barley-Sugar and her fingers growing back (we’re told they will be a different confection next time), Mary Poppins along with Mrs. Corry and her daughters pasting the paper stars (from atop gingerbread squares) to the sky from extremely long ladders to become real stars, a magical compass that zips you to the ends of the earth in an instant.
* In fact, some of the later Mary Poppins books have adventures which occurred during the first few books. Travers realized her constantly "popping in & out" to be ridiculous, so she placed some other escapades within the other books. Which is a flat out confirmation that the order is of no real consequence.

I am not knocking these “random adventure” books, they’re obviously great fun. But as with the 1971 movie of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder, the film of Mary Poppins is better than the original book in my opinion. It brings more focus and overall action toward a gradual conclusion.

One last thing - she never says, "Practically Perfect" in the first book, but does say "Spit-Spot."

So go fly a kite (not in the first book) for Mary Poppins and her special brand of orderly disorder.

One day I’ll tell you which part of Mary Poppins is especially Barriesque. [Update: This post can be found here.]

Here’s a gem. It’s a re-cut trailer of the movie which makes it appear like a horror film. It’s not as good the one which makes The Shining look like the feel-good movie of the Summer, but it’s still a treat.