Mary Poppins Returns or the Movie Is Not the Book!

mary poppins returns 1

What did you do during the Christmas Holidays? I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. I had to, even though I knew, right from the start, that Emily Blunt’s interpretation of the Mary Poppins character was going to be the exact opposite of the original one, and that, despite Blunt’s preliminary immersion in the original material. (And that is of course none of her fault. She had a script to respect).

Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns just as its predecessor, has absolutely nothing to do with the stories from the books. The movie is simply a continuation of the 1964 big screen adaptation, and then some more. A lot of animated characters there, a lot of what Pamela L. Travers disliked in the first movie.

I don’t know if you watched the Facebook livestream of the World Premiere in Los Angeles presented by HSN (This in itself calls for a separate blog post, but I will probably refrain since it will be just me ranting about the mercantile exploitation of a mythical character) but my imagination nerve was stimulated by the fact that it was raining cats and dogs that evening, when it almost never rains in California. Wasn’t that a funny coincidence? I couldn’t help but think that maybe Pamela L. Travers was crying once more, just as she did at the premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964. And now, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns, I still think that my interpretation of the rain as a meaningful synchronicity remains plausible. Not that Mary Poppins Returns is a bad movie, it’s just not Mary Poppins, not the one conjured up by Pamela L. Travers.

When asked what she thought of the first film Pamela L. Travers replied:

 Oh, now you are asking me a very difficult and delicate question. I wept when I saw it. I thought ‘Oh what have I done’ when I saw that name coming up, Mary Poppins I thought ‘What have I done?’ And you must admit it is not very like the books.

Witness- The Woman Who Wrote Mary Poppins – BBC Sounds

I do admit that the movie is nothing like the books. But I also have to admit that the songs in it are just as lively and catchy as those in the first movie. My favorite song from Mary Poppins is A Spoonful of Sugar. It reminds me of my childhood and how my mother used to crush the Aspirin pill between two teaspoons and then put a drop of water and some sugar. Although she was not inspired by that song, we didn’t have Disney’s Mary Poppins during my childhood in Bulgaria. But that is the subject of another post.

A particular song from the new Mary Poppins Returns stuck with me and if you read the slightly modified version below, you’ll understand why 😉

A movie is not the book

So open up the book and take a look

Cause under the cover one discovers

That the King may be in shtook

Chapter titles are like signs

And if you read between the lines

You’ll find that your first impression was mistook

For the movie is nice

But the movie is not the book

The character of Mary Poppins as imagined or rather channeled by Pamela L. Travers (she insisted that she didn’t create Mary Poppins but felt visited by her) remains largely misunderstood. Both movies failed to reconcile the ambiguities in Mary Poppins. All the coldness, emotional distance and anger in the original Mary Poppins are completely erased. It is obvious then that the goal here was not to understand the purpose of the real character nor the deeper meanings of the original stories but to invent new ones for the entertainement of the public, a sort of visual/auditory fantasy feast.

The question then is which is the real Mary Poppins, the one from the books, the musical or the movies?

And for author Brian Sibley who was also a friend of Pamela L. Travers the answer is this:

Well, that’s the point. They all are Mary Poppins, and they are – together Mary Poppins. They are the whole of the Mary Poppins universe. Like many of the myths of antiquity, they are different tellings of the same essential story as understood by unique individuals, so that each telling has its own meaning. And each of us may prefer one version or another, and each of us may have a different experience and expectation of one medium or another, but all the versions to date exist as the entirety of Mary Poppins. 

Anything Can Happen If You Let It, Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell

Maybe that is so, maybe Mary Poppins can be many different characters. She is a master shapeshifter. And maybe once a fictional character leaves the head of its creator it takes on a life of its own. Maybe Mary Poppins got tired of being plain and vain and set apart from others. Maybe she wanted to experience a loving connection with the Banks family.

Mary Poppins Returns 3.JPG

 

But I doubt it! Just as I doubt that she came to solve any particular problem of the Banks family. Most people see in Mary Poppins a godlike figure coming from above to save the family, but that first impression is misleading. It is this obvious interpretation that transports the character into the fantasy world where it does not belong. By the way Pamela L. Travers disliked the word ‘fantasy’ and she made a distinction between ‘fantasy’ and ‘the work of imagination’.

I don’t think Mary Poppins is fantasy you see. It’s not a word I really like. If you look it up in the dictionary you will, and all of you when you go back to school look it up in the dictionary, and you’ll see what fantasy means, something unreal, phantasm or ghost. No, I think Mary Poppins is really very real, she deals with reality. And in order to, I would call it the work of imagination, and really to have anything to do with imagination and let your imagination have wings and soar you have to have your foot solidly on the earth, in reality. So, I don’t like that word fantasy very much though I know it is very popular.

Library of Congress (Washington DC) Performance. Interview. 1966-11-01, a Visit With P.L. Travers

The adventures in the Mary Poppins books are multilayered metaphors, allegories about our way of perceiving or misperceiving ‘reality’ and about the building blocks of our identities. And precisely because Mary Poppins does not come to help the Banks family with a particular problem that there is no plot in the books.

mary poppins returns 2

If you put aside the entertaining aspect of the movie, what would be the message of Mary Poppins Returns?  Keep the fire of childish hope alive? Maybe that way all your problems will be solved by some magical apparition from above? Or is it to remember that you were once a child? Let me tell you this is not the sort of remembering Pamela L. Travers was writing about. Her remembering was reminiscent of her spiritual beliefs. It had to do with the awakening of one’s consciousness, the awareness of one’s whole self in the present moment. But of course, you couldn’t find that in the movie, even if you looked between the screencaps. 

Mary Poppins Returns after Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks

Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 movie Mary Poppins will be in movie theaters this Christmas, which makes me think that now is the right time to start the discussion about the film adaptations of Pamela L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. In my opinion, the best way to start this discussion is with a review of Disney’s movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013) starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Pamela L. Travers.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013) dramatizes the making of the movie Mary Poppins. The screenplay is based on the tape recordings of the meetings between Walt Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers in 1961, and because we see these tapes and we hear Pamela L. Travers’s voice at the very beginning of the movie, we are led to believe that everything that happens on the screen is factually accurate. However, most of what goes on is fictional. And that, even if Robert Sherman tells us in the official movie interview that everything we see is a replica of what happened in the studio.

What are the fictional elements in this movie and what difference does it make anyway?

Let’s start from the beginning. How did Saving Mr. Banks come to be?

It all began when Australian producer Ian Collie read Valerie Lawson’s biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote. He decided to make a documentary about the life of Pamela L. Travers and, while working on the documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, he realized that there was “a good seed for a feature biopic”. His focus then shifted to the period of Pamela L. Travers’s life during which Walt Disney pursued the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories (which by the way spanned over almost 20 years). The screenplay finally zoomed in on the meeting between Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers which took place in California in 1961. At that time Pamela L. Travers had agreed to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, however her consent was conditional upon her approving the screenplay.

The Shadow of Mary Poppins

When Walt Disney Pictures were approached for the rights to use the tape recordings of these meetings, the negotiations ended up with Walt Disney Pictures purchasing the rights to the screenplay of Saving Mr. Banks and this is how Saving Mr. Banks became a tribute to Walt Disney. Ian Collie concedes that Saving Mr. Banks is not factually correct in all aspects but he believes that there is truth about the essence of Walt Disney and Pamela L. Travers.

It’s about that battle of wills between two polarising, contrasting figures, and that wonderful cultural battle between English literary high art and the king of populism, and her mistrust that he was going to sentimentalise it and make lots of money for his empire.

The cultural clash was real. However, nothing in the movie suggests that Pamela L. Travers’s views had any artistic/literary value. No scene in the movie acquaints the viewers with Pamela L. Travers’s literary background and her connections with literary giants such as George W. Russell, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw just to name a few. The only allusion (although unexplained to the uninformed viewer) to Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, George W. Russell, is in the scene where Pamela L. Travers (Emma Thomson), alone in her hotel room, is talking on the telephone with Mr. Russell. Only at that time Mr. Russell had long been dead. He died in 1935.

Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t explore either Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong love and extensive knowledge of fairy-tales and myths. Moreover, the movie remains silent about her spiritual beliefs, except maybe for the picture of a book on Gurdjieff’s teachings on Pamela L. Travers’s desk at the beginning of the movie, and a little Buddhist statuette that she unpacks in her hotel room in California. However, all these elements are of the utmost importance if one is truly interested in understanding the nature of the conflict between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Sadly, Saving Mr. Banks presents the disagreement between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney in an extremely simplistic way which prompts the viewers to pick a side: Creative Genius Walt Disney versus this delightfully malevolent character loaded with benign kind of vitriol, this nutty old lady who lives down the street, as, to my bitter disappointment, my all-time favorite actor Tom Hanks, described Pamela L. Travers.

But what if both opponents had their justifiable reasons? What if their differences were simply irreconcilable?

conflict

One thing is certain, it was not Walt Disney’s understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psychic pain caused by traumatic childhood experiences that solved the conflict. Nothing was known about her childhood at that time and the idea that Mary Poppins comes to save Mr. Banks, and by that meaning that Mary Poppins comes to save Pamela L. Travers’s father, was not Walt Disney’s either. It was the interpretation of Jenny Koralek, a friend of Pamela L. Travers. According to Jenny Koralek, Pamela L. Travers agreed with that interpretation but even if that was so, the reasons for writing the Mary Poppins stories do not explain the reasons for which Pamela L. Travers finally agreed to approve the screenplay of the Mary Poppins movie.  In any event, Pamela L. Travers’s difficult childhood could explain, at least partially, the creation of the Mary Poppins character but it does not explain the inner conflicts that fueled her resistance to allow Walt Disney to translate the Mary Poppins stories to the screen.  

Saving Mr. Banks does not give a fair rendition of Pamela L. Traver’s inner battle. Viewers needed to understand that Disney’s interpretation of her fictional character shook Pamela L. Travers’s core beliefs about fairy tales and myths which were intertwined with her spiritual beliefs. Fairy tales were an important part of Pamela L. Travers’s inner world; she apprehended life through the metaphors and symbols of the myths and fairytales. Unfortunately, her mythical language was totally foreign to most people and that included Walt Disney and his team. Pamela L. Travers valued fairy-tales for their wisdom, and she simply couldn’t conceive of them as vessels for mere entertainment.

Fairy-tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey. (…) The fairy-tales are like water flowers; they lie so lightly on the surface, but their roots go down deep into a dark and ancient past. They are, in fact, a remnant of that Orphic art whose function it was to instruct the generations in the inner meanings of things. (…) Again, like flowers, the same fairy-tales spring up in different countries, always with the lineaments of first cousins and always alongside the parables of truth that make the religions of man. Like village school masters, they instruct the simple, while the high priests deal with the scholars. But essentially both are concerned with the same teaching. How to live and how to die is the subject of the Orphic art, no matter what guises it wears.

The Fairy-Tale as Teacher, Pamela L. Travers, 1950

Walt Disney had a different approach. He used fairy tales as means to escape reality, to just kick back and relax. But his tendency to remove all darkness from the fairy tales irritated Pamela L. Travers profoundly and that long before he approached her for the movie rights to Mary Poppins. She wrote reviews about his cartoon creations in The New English Weekly in the 1930’s and they were not flattering. Patricia Demers summarizes Pamela L. Travers opinion of Disney’s work in her book P.L. Travers: “At the heart of Disney’s ‘enlargement of the animal world’, Travers discovers a corresponding ‘deflation of all human values’ and ‘a profound cynicism at the root’.”

Pamela L. Travers believed, and with reason, that without darkness the fairy tales are unable to ignite in the child’s mind the questions which can only be answered by truth.

It is worth asking, I think, why we grown-ups have become so timid that we bowdlerize, blot out, retell and gut the real stories for fear that truth, with its terrible beauty, should burst upon the children.

I Never Wrote for Children, Pamela L. Travers, 1978

It is relevant here to mention that G.W. Russell, Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, taught her about poverty and the artistic integrity of the poets. She herself wrote poems and was convinced that Mary Poppins came out of the same well that poetry comes out of.

Yes he said that one should take the vow of poverty, especially poets. It didn’t mean that if you were offered a 100,000$ you would refuse it. But it meant that you would not be attached to it. You didn’t even need to give it away but you wouldn’t live by it.

Interview with Brian Sibley, The Womand Behind Mary Poppins

When one understands how important fairy tales and their meanings were for Pamela L. Travers and her artistic vow of integrity towards her art, her inner conflict becomes much more interesting and multisided. Only then can one appreciate the greatness of the gap separating Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.

Why did Pamela L. Travers give up her Mary Poppins? Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Disney’s understanding of her psyche established between them a special connection based on  both their childhood sufferings. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In 1968 British author Brian Sibley, while researching a biography of Walt Disney, reached out to Pamela L. Travers. This is what she wrote back (the quote below is from an essay by Brian Sibley published in A Lively Oracle, a centennial celebration of P.L. Travers Creator of Mary Poppins)

I am afraid there is very little I can say to you about Walt Disney. I did not care very much for the film he made of my books. Generally because, although it was a colorful entertainment, it was not true to their meaning. Nor do I like what he does with Fairy Tales, so I don’t think I am very useful person for your study.

Patricia Feltham, a close friend of Pamela L. Travers, said in an interview that what Pamela L. Travers told her during the filming of Mary Poppins was “almost unprintable”. And still, Pamela L. Travers gave up the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories? Why? Can financial worries be the only reason? Or is there something else? More about this in the next post on this blog. 

The Miraculous According to Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins Miraculous

As children, we readily believe in magic without any need for explanations. Then, as we grow older, we begin to question the world around us, and no matter how vast and mysterious this world may be, most of us fall into the trap of labeling, categorising, defining, and shrinking the infinite to our human and limited capacity of understanding. In a way, we can’t help it. The fact is that the day comes, for all of us, when we realize that wishful thinking does not solve our problems. Some of us lose the connection to the miraculous gradually, walking down the stairs of life’s small disappointments. For others, the loss is sudden and traumatic. 

Then, there are the few, who even after losing their childish understanding of magic, and despite all the surrounding madness, remain connected by some invisible thread to an inner belief; a particular combination of knowing and feeling all at once, that despite all the chaos of our outer world there still remains the possibility of encountering  the “miraculous.” Somehow, they can embrace the elusive, unpredictable and unexplainable phenomena that links us to a larger reality, to an expansive consciousness, which if we could connect to it, has the capacity to enhance our experience of life and maybe give it meaning. The question then becomes, what is this unknown reality and how can one find the miraculous in everyday life?  In which direction should one go? What path should one take? Or perhaps any road can lead to the miraculous? P.D. Ouspensky offered a beautiful definition of the miraculous:

The ‘miraculous’ is very difficult to define. But for me this word had a quite definite meaning. I had come to the conclusion a long time ago that there was no escape from the labyrinth of contradictions in which we live except by an entirely new road, unlike anything hitherto known or used by us. But where this new or forgotten road began I was unable to say. I already knew then as an undoubted fact that beyond the thin film of false reality there existed another reality from which, for some reason, something separated us. The ‘miraculous’ was a penetration into this unknown reality. (1)

However, beautiful as this definition may be, it remains a subjective attempt to define the indefinable. How can one define the unknown and inexplicable? Yet, if experienced, it needs to be shared with the rest of humanity.

Our ancestors realized the imperfections and the limitations of our ordinary language to convey inner insights. So, they demised a way in which to use language for the purposes of transmitting experientially acquired inner knowledge. Essentially, they found the language of the heart. They began to tell stories. They gave us myths and fairy tales.

Pamela L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, although she did not like being called her creator nor assuming that role, (she felt, very much as C. S. Lewis, that she was merely mixing the elements she was given by the one true creator from which we all emanate (2) )  walked on the road of myths and fairy tales. She lived and breathed myth. As Staffan Bergsten, who knew her personally and studied her work said, she experienced reality as a mixture of everyday realism and a form of mythical stylisation where the everyday occurrences blend with mythical allusions (3).   And this is probably why Pamela L. Travers succeeded in conjuring for us Mary Poppins, a fictional character who embodies the essence of the “miraculous,” and of its manifestation in our ordinary life. At the same time, the Mary Poppins stories illustrate our innate capacity as children to both rejoice in and accept the miraculous without the need for any logical explanations. 

Mary Poppins arrives unexpectedly into the Banks family at the exact moment when she is most needed. No one knows where she comes from although it is clear that she existed before the beginning of the adventures in the books. Her ways of being in the world defy all known natural laws: she slides up banisters, speaks with animals, dances with the Sun, glues stars with a brush on the night sky, is able to shrink her size at will and go into plasticine parks and pictures drawn with chalk, just to name a few of her magical abilities.

The strength of her magic resides precisely in the mysteriousness of these faculties. Truth is, if Mary Poppins explained, all magic would have disappeared. Once explained, the miraculous becomes mundane and mechanical. Its power to expand our consciousness consists in its mysterious nature and in its hints of infinite possibilities. Let’s hope that there is no other way, no end to expansion, no end to growth, no end to the mystery. One uncovered secret shows us the infinite vastness of what remains to be explored; it gives us breath and spaciousness.

When Walt Disney decided to make the Mary Poppins books into a movie, he entrusted the project into the hands of the Sherman Brothers (Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman) who were confronted with the contemplative, dreamlike states of the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. They saw the books as “an incredible treasure trove of delightful characters and wonderful incidents” (4) that somehow needed to be weaved into a story line, which of course from a movie making perspective makes sense, but by doing so the power and meaning of these stories were reduced to mere entertainment. Mary Poppins was scaled down to fit the American pop-culture understanding of magic: entertainment and a temporary escape from mundane realities.

The movie industry is dabbling now more than ever in the making of modern myths, exploring a mixture of science and magic, and using today’s technologies for visual feasts.  Sadly, our modern myths are one dimensional. Maybe that is because few of us today are interested in symbols, paradoxes, and multiple layers of meaning. Who has time for contemplation? Serious matters need to be attended to, but what are these matters that we chose to label as “serious?”

Endnotes:

  1. P.D. Ouspensky. In Search of the Miraculous. Harcourt Inc., 2001, p.3
  2. Brian Sibley, P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins, a recoding of P.L. Travers in conversation with Brian Sibley.
  3. Staffan Bergsten. Mary Poppins and Myth. Almqvist & Wiksell International Stockholm – Sweden, 1978, p.32.
  4. Brian Sibley and Michael Lassell, Mary Poppins: Anything Can Happen If You Let It. Disney Editions, New York, 2007, First Edition, p.33

 

Pamela L. Travers and The Avant-Garde Hamlet

Hamlet 2

During her stay in Moscow in 1932, Pamela L. Travers met a Director (identity and details about that Director are omitted in her book) who gave her a card to a theatrical presentation of Hamlet. Leaving the ranks of her fellow tourists and the prescribed by the tourist guide route, Pamela L. Travers ventured out alone into the streets of Moscow in search of Hamlet. After going into the wrong theater, she managed to get into the right one by the end of act one. And the Hamlet (or Gamlet) she met that night left a strong impression on her, so much, that it could be said that her evening out in the theater became the highlight of her visit to Russia.

Hamlet 3

I learned from Olga Maëots’s comments (in the Russian edition of Moscow Excursion) that the play in question was directed by the experimental theater director Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov and was played at the Vakhtangov Theater. At that time in Russia there was an unofficial prohibition (but known by all) of Shakespeare, and the play needed to be adapted to Soviet Principles because Stalin was suspicious of Shakespeare’s plays. He considered Hamlet to be a reactionary and mystical character, unsuitable for presentation to the workers and peasants audiences. Back then, caricatures of this theatrical production appeared in satirical magazines in Moscow and according to Olga Maëots’s comments this “scandalous production” is to this day a nightmare for Shakespeareans.

Hamlet 4

So how can a grotesque and bilious Hamlet leave such a positive impression on Pamela L. Travers?  She loved Shakespeare and she was well versed in drama having been herself an actress for a brief time.

Pamela L. Travers first found Shakespeare’s writings in her father’s library and she read them as a child simply because they were books to be read, and books were few and difficult to find in the Australian countryside. Later, while writing as a drama critic for The New English Weekly, Pamela L. Travers wrote essays on seventeen Shakespearean plays, five out of which were on Hamlet. So, I assumed that she would have been a fervent admirer of the original plays. Well, my assumption was wrong. (And her essays in The New English Weekly were actually written after her trip to Russia.) Anyway, it is a fact that young Pamela L. Travers loved the Russian adaptation of Hamlet, and that even though it had been distorted beyond recognition:

Well, they’ve turned their backs on Hamlet as we know him, but he shone forth more brightly than I’ve ever seen him. Every possible rule was broken, the text was murderously cut about and great wads of Erasmus and anonymous buffoonery interpolated. The characters too were altered.”

Not Hamlet, perhaps, but Hamlet enough for me, and I can’t help feeling that Shakespeare would have preferred it to highbrow productions that can get a new kick out of Hamlet only by putting him into plus-fours and to those other horrors where Hamlet is only a peg to hang scenery on – a Mr. Cochran’s Young Gentleman, perhaps.”

Pamela L. Travers, Moscow Excursion

 I can’t help but notice a paradox here!

When talking about a largely distorted adaptation of another writer’s creation Pamela L. Travers considered it to be a refreshing avant-garde art. Then, some thirty years later, when the same fate fell upon her Mary Poppins she did not see it as avant-garde art. And yet, it could be argued that Disney’s Mary Poppins was, for its time, avant-gardist cinematography combining human actors and animated characters, and stretching the boundaries of what was known to be possible in the sphere of special effects.

Of course, changing perspectives in the course of one’ s life is not that surprising. We all have all sorts of opinions about all sorts of things, but when thrown into a situation where we are emotionally invested all previous thought-based opinions and judgements go up in smoke.

And I wonder, would it have been easier for Pamela L. Travers to accept the Disney’s adaptation of her Mary Poppins if someone reminded her of her opinion about the Russian Hamlet?  

Maybe, or maybe she would have dismissed this paradox at once…she was a paradoxical character herself. Unfortunately, we will never know what Pamela L. Travers’s reaction would have been.

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