Sunday, August 19, 2007

Mary Poppins

I was intrigued when Veronica, over at Toddled Dredge, put forth the Before There was Disney Reading Challenge. The idea was to read books that had been made into children's movies - to find the book behind the audio/visual sensation. I am a bit intimidated by writing this, as I am rather out of practice of writing papers about books.

I chose to "read" the book of one of my favorite movies, Mary Poppins, by P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers. I put "read" in quotes because I ended up listening to the book on tape. Even unabridged, a book on tape is not quite the same thing as reading it yourself, because not only do the author's words create pictures in your head, but the reader's voice conjures pictures and adds a certain tone. That being said, I really enjoyed the reader, British actress Sophie Thompson.

It has been a while since I have watched the whole Mary Poppins movie. MQ watches it now and then, and I will watch a little with her, but usually I use that time to get things done around the house. Very few of the adventures in the book actually make it into the movie, and, of course, they have changed a bit in the translation.

The Bert character, played in the movie by the fabulous Dick Van Dyke, is a small character in the book. However, he very notably appears in the only adventure we see Mary Poppins undertake without the children. When Mary comes to take Bert to their weekly date for tea, Bert finds he has no money. Both Bert and Mary seem quite surprised when they step into a chalk painting, and enjoy a lovely tea and carousel ride (no dancing penguins here, sorry).

The thing that struck me most about the book was how cross Mary is so often, and how many things she said to the children that were just appalling - things that parenting books rail against, such as telling Michael that "the sight of him was more than any self-respecting person could be expected to stand."

There were times when I wondered why Jane and Michael liked her at all, apart from the adventures they went on with her. This bothered me, because I liked to think of Mary Poppins as firm but loving, but she could be rather mean. I wonder if perhaps I had read the book, rather than listening to it in the car (which often means stopping in the midst of a chapter, etc) I would have made more of a connection between the adventures and lessons the children were learning from them. Also, when reading a book I may go back and read a piece again to make a connection, and don't do that when listening.

The adventures in the book are both lovely and terrifying. There is the star that greats the children while Christmas shopping and receives all her gifts for free (lovely). Then there is the woman in the bakery who breaks off her fingers and feeds them lovingly to Jane, Michael, and their twin siblings, yet yells and demeans her own children, and later has Mary Poppins steal the paper stars that come on the gingerbread loaves from the boxes where the children hide them, so they can be glued onto the sky (terrifying AND lovely, in turns).

And in the end, the wind changes, and Mary Poppins leaves, just as she said she would. The children are changed, I suppose, by their adventures, but there is not the change in the parents that we see in the movie. The movie sort of lovingly pokes fun at the parents in their distracted and workaholic oblivion to their children, and they are taught by Mary Poppins to see and appreciate the wonder of it all. The book seemed a bit kinder to the parents, who chose to have more children rather than the prettiest house on Cherry Tree Lane, until the very end, where the mother is so distraught over Mary's leaving only because she has left her high and dry with no one with watch the children, and they must be left with another one of the servants while Mrs. Banks keeps her appointment.

I enjoyed listening to the story, and hearing new adventures. Some of the phrases and pictures that P.L. Travers creates are fantastic. And yet... at the end I felt sad, because I wanted to love Mary Poppins even more, and I found her instead to be a crank... a crank who enjoyed some fun adventures, true, but who nonetheless seemed dissattisfied with the world. Perhaps I was to feel that she was dissatisfied because those around her didn't see the joy and the adventure all around, sad because people lost the ability to talk to the animals just as the twins do before they turn 1, frustrated by the commonplace when there is adventure to be had. Instead, I just felt like Michael and Jane needed someone who would hug them.


Veronica Mitchell said...

I had similar feelings about the Travers book. Like you said, Mary Poppins was a crank. I'm not sure how that appealed to children enough for the book to become popular.

bubandpie said...

It sounds a bit like The Nanny Diaries - another book that was supposed to be lighthearted and fun but just made me sad.

I'm curious to read this book now - I can't remember if I read it as a child or not, but I think not.

nomotherearth said...

You know, I didn't know that this was a book first? Funny. I find that these characters are all much "nicer" in the movies than in the books. I tend to like the books better even so.

Blog Antagonist said...

How very interesting! I had no idea. I feel both compelled to go read the book, and avoid it at all costs.

I think a lot of older literature strikes us as disagreeable because our sensibilities have evolved so much in how we view, and thus, treat, fellow human beings.

I actually know someone, or used to, who collects politically incorrect children's books. There is plenty of fodder for her collection.

I agree with B&P. Nanny Diaries was awful. So was Little Children.

painted maypole said...

I hated The Nanny Diaries as well. A friend of mine begged me not to read it, and I really should have listened to her. Mary Poppins actually did remind me of it, because in the end I was worried about the children being left with such neglectful parents. I did, however, like Little Children. It was not the most pleasant book, and none of the characters were particularly likeable, but I don't think they were meant to be, and it made me think about a lot of things. Perhaps in Mary Poppins I wanted too much to like Mary, and then found that I couldn't quite get over her flaws.

Jennifer said...

I'm with you (and Bub and Pie) on The Nanny Diaries. It made me sad. It sounds like Mary Poppins might do the same... so I guess I won't put it on my to read" list. :) Interesting that the movie softened things up so much, though and has created a very beloved Mary Poppins in the general culture. The power of Disney! (A bit scary!)

Luisa Perkins said...

Interesting. I always felt that the crankiness of Travers's MP was just for show, and that she really did harbor great affection for the children. Maybe it's because my own mother is more than a bit of a crank. ;)

painted maypole said...

I do agree, Luisa, that MP did harbor great affection for the children, as I think is shown in her leaving them gifts - magical ones, at that. But it didn't always feel like the crankiness was all for show - that's what I expected, and found that at times it just felt downright mean.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

So funnily enough I have never "watched" Mary Poppins. I have however read the whole series of books(yes, there is more then 1. I always thought that Mary Poppins was a bit like traditional Grimms tales, full of warning and woe but with an air of intrigue about them. As a kid I never thought MP was mean but she did lack hugs, but it seemed that she offer the children structure where as the parents offered the love but no rules.

Anonymous said...

I have not read "Mary Poppins."

Just last night I watched "Nanny McPhee." I liked it (as a children's movie), and it made me curious about the Nurse Matilda books.

Christine said...

i've never read this book, but am in love, love, love with the movie. i am intrigued now, though and a little afraid, too. thanks for the review!

slouching mom said...

The Nanny Diaries was incredibly sad. I will never forget the scene during which the little boy is eating dinner, or a snack?, in the bathtub, because his mother doesn't want him to make a mess.

As for Mary Poppins, that is a disappointment.

Julie Pippert said...


Patience and I just read both original Mary Poppins books and LOVED them!

Yes, LOVED them.

We thought it was hilarious that Mary was so short. We'd giggle like naughty kids together over Jane and Michael being so perplexed and Mary being so firm in her denials.

I thought it was very "of the times" and full of meaning and morals, also "of the times."

She devoted herself to fostering sides of the children the times repressed, gave them magic and imagination, but verbally was firm, like the times required.

I guess I remembered it as this, so maybe my expectations were something else.

Anyway, we enjoyed it.

I also felt good about how sometimes I do sound just like Mary Poppins LMAO! ;)

We thought her vanity was funny too.

How interesting we had such different takes on it.

Ravin' Picture Maven

painted maypole said...

Julie - thanks for a different perspective. Reading it with a child may make a huge difference, and it seems to me you found in it the things I felt should be there, and didn't find, so perhaps listening to it on tape was too distracting for me. And sometimes people just have different opinions, which is great. Loved hearing your side. Thanks.

PunditMom said...

That's a great challenge. We're going to try it!

Joy, of course said...

You know I recently commented on another blog on how I sometimes don't like to watch movies made out of books I love, for fear of them tarnishing the book in some way. It never occured to me that it might happen the other way around which seems to be the case here.

This is a wonderful challenge. I wonder if we are up for it.

stacy michelle said...

this is slightly off topic, but not really...

my favorite "story behind the disney movie" is the little mermaid, possibly because my dad read it to me when i was a little girl, before the movie was made. (it's actually the only thing, besides picture books when i was very small, that my dad ever read to me. but i digress.)

it's been a long time since i read the original hans christian andersen story, but i remember that it was beautiful and horrifying at the same time (every time the mermaid turned maiden took a step, it felt to her like she was walking on knife blades). and the end isn't happily ever after with rainbows and sunshine, it's sad and haunting...heartbreaking, but with hope.

if you can't tell, i will always prefer the original story to the disney movie (although i have the disney movie completely memorized!). if you haven't read it, i recommend finding it. it's not very long, and you'll be surprised!

(wow, i really rambled on...)

ewe are here said...

I never read the book, but I alwaysenjoyed the movie when I was a child.

I think I was rather shocked to learn, as a young adult, that Dick Van Dyke was usually completely smashed when he filmed this movie. Although, looking back on it... maybe not so surprised.

painted maypole said...

Dick Van Dyke??? Smashed????? NO!!!! I refuse to believe it!!! (oh, OK, it kind of makes sense, but he's so bloody brilliant, don't you think?)

Jennifer, Snapshot said...

My daughter and I read the book together earlier this year (I linked that that review in my post today for the Before There Was Disney Challenge). We liked it. I agree that she was a little cross, but the book was quite inventive and magical and I liked the enhanced mystery which surrounded MP.

If you ever get the chance, you should see the Broadway show. It's a GREAT combination of the movie and the book (and improves upon both, I think), although like you, my husband couldn't get past the fact that Bert was NOT Dick Van Dyke.

painted maypole said...

Stacy - I did read The Little Mermaid when I was in high school, and felt the same way you did. I liked the complexity of it.

And Jennifer, I would love to see the Broadway version of MP. I would have seen it in London, but my cousin (and theatre going buddy)wasn't interested.

creative-type dad said...

That's interesting.

I think I'll pick the book up...

niobe said...

Fascinating post. I read the Mary Poppins books (Yes, books. As I vaguely recall, there were at least three of them) when I was a child. I liked them well enough until I got old enough to realize that the stories followed a pattern and I could anticipate the endings.

Of course, since, after all, it is all about me, the thing I disliked about the books most (well, besides the idea that babies could talk to birds, but forgot how later) was that the little boy was named Michael, my brother's name, but, unaccountably, the little girl was named Jane, and not Niobe.