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P.L Travers, Walt Disney and the "Brand Deposit"
December 18, 2013 4:18 PM   Subscribe


 
The Making of 'Saving Mr. Banks'
posted by Artw at 4:24 PM on December 18, 2013


I have not seen the movie yet, but when I met Richard Sherman last year, he was helping supervise the making of the movie. So whatever changes were made, they were done with the knowledge of people who actually saw Disney and Travers together, a lot.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:27 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because I love Emma Thompson so, I have been hoping that I could go to the movie and just pretend that it takes place in an alternate universe where Disney didn't treat the great Travers horribly. But the more I read about the movie the more I don't think I can do it. I've read extensively about Travers, she was amazing and brilliant, and I don't think I can pay to see something that diminishes her and treats her like a nuisance getting in the way of the REAL creatives.

Sigh.
posted by OolooKitty at 4:31 PM on December 18, 2013 [11 favorites]


Travers sounds like someone I should find out a lot more about.

My favorite remix of Mary Poppins remains Dr. Henry Killinger.
posted by JHarris at 4:32 PM on December 18, 2013 [19 favorites]


I rather liked it in parts, but the biggest "change" is that it has Travers come around to liking the film Mary Poppins, whereas in reality she did everything short of have "I HATE DISNEY" written on her tombstone.

And though I enjoyed Emma Thompson playing Travers as basically-Mary-Poppins I can't imagine someone who lived in Manhattan for the duration of WWII and stayed with Native American tribes and all the rest being quite so stuffy and fussy... That said, they play a bit of tape from one of the script sessions in an Easter egg and she really does quibble Every Fucking Line.

Oh, and the movie treats Mickey Mouse as possibly a comforting presence rather than horrific, and that would never happen.
posted by Artw at 4:34 PM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


My favorite remix of Mary Poppins remains Dr. Henry Killinger.

Magic murder bag.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


My problem is, I haven't read the books. I need to fix this.
posted by JanetLand at 4:40 PM on December 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Was the real Walt capable of charm?
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:41 PM on December 18, 2013


As a fan of the utterly mad, brilliant , strange books of P. L. Travers and knowing how much she hated HATED the Disney version ...., my reaction to this trailer was basically this
posted by The Whelk at 4:43 PM on December 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I guess that's one way to get around the prohibition on making any sequels to Mary Poppins.
posted by ckape at 4:44 PM on December 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Oh, and the movie treats Mickey Mouse as possibly a comforting presence rather than horrific, and that would never happen.

This is the now-infamous Ice Cream Bunny HURR HURR HURR video, voice provided by Bill Corbett. Warning: not safe for sanity.

It seems that the Ice Cream Bunny was a mascot of sorts for a Flordia theme park called Pirates World, which was driven out of business by Disney World.

It is possible to imagine an alternate reality in which Pirates World survived, and Bill Corbett's HURRing had been applied to a mostly-forgotten Mickey Mouse. And it'd be exactly as appropriate, hilarious, and frightening.

My point is: all costumed mascot characters with big frozen heads and faces have an aspect of nightmare about them. All you need is the right imagined vocal track to bring that fact out.
posted by JHarris at 4:45 PM on December 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Seriously, that's the only thing I thought about when I heard this was in development.


Although I quite like Mary's turn in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, set in her right place ( slightly above God) and trying to stop Harry Potter from ending the world. .
posted by The Whelk at 4:46 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The LoEG Mary Poppins is fucking amazing - heavy spoilers for LoEG century, naturally.
posted by Artw at 4:49 PM on December 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


Was the real Walt capable of charm?

Well, presumably. Yeah, the man was above all else a businessman, but he was one taught by the lesson of having his first character taken away from him. I can't condemn him all that much, everyone being a product of their experiences and all.

Although it should not be forgotten that the man named names during the Communist witch hunts, for the most part what travesties Disney personally visited upon the world I would say are accidental, the kinds of things that happen inevitably whenever one thing gets too big, so big that its flaws become magnified and distort the world, big enough that their versions of characters come to displace beloved originals, like Winnie the Pooh, on the popular mindscape, big enough that they employ our own Congress to extend their ownership of their beloved cartoon mouse. Maybe you can draw a direct line from Disney the man to the transgressions of his company, but then, that tends to happen whenever anyone makes that big a pile of moolah.
posted by JHarris at 5:08 PM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Was the real Walt capable of charm?

He seemed to have it on the Wonderful World Of Disney back in the day, and he built Disneyland, so I'd suggest he was, at least in public.
posted by Mezentian at 5:12 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ok, wait a minute. The author went on an endless bender complaining, but whatever the basis of the complaints, she had script approval, was paid $100,000 up front, and 5% of the take. The movie won academy awards and is considered a classic. It made her famous and rich.

So, somewhere in there she should take some responsibility, and if this movie adaptation is false in its facts, perhaps they could have made one where she is outed as a hypocrite instead.

Nobody held her at gunpoint to sell the rights, nobody made her approve the script, and nobody said she couldn't completely distance herself from the movie - but in doing so overtly she would lessen her own take of the profits, which makes her look certainly no better than Disney. At some point you have to embrace your decisions and just stop complaining.
posted by Muddler at 5:15 PM on December 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


P. L. Travers visited our house when we lived in Tokyo in the early '60s, and she signed my copy of one of her books. Of course I lost the book long ago, but I retain a memory of how very nice she was (a lot of otherwise nice adults are awful with kids, but as you might expect, that wasn't true of her). I have no interest in the movie despite being a huge Emma Thompson fan.
posted by languagehat at 5:17 PM on December 18, 2013 [22 favorites]


Nobody held her at gunpoint to sell the rights, nobody made her approve the script, and nobody said she couldn't completely distance herself from the movie

Nobody held Stephen King at gunpoint to let Kubrick make The Shining, which like Mary Poppins is a classic, but making a movie pretending that Stephen King LIKED Kubrick's The Shining would still be bloody odd.
posted by Artw at 5:21 PM on December 18, 2013 [35 favorites]


So, somewhere in there she should take some responsibility, and if this movie adaptation is false in its facts, perhaps they could have made one where she is outed as a hypocrite instead.

Oh PLEASE. Lots of people do things they later regret for money; that's because you need money to fucking survive. What the heck are you, making apologies for Mephistopheles?
posted by JHarris at 5:23 PM on December 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I loved what everyone's favorite grumpy grandpa Harlan Ellison had to say on the topic.
posted by JauntyFedora at 5:37 PM on December 18, 2013 [19 favorites]


Wait, she decided to sell her rights after 26 years of Disney asking, right? Was there something about that 26th year that required her to suddenly make money to survive? I must have missed that. Disney was not Mephistopheles. He was a business man who was quite clearly the head of specific company with a specific track record. It's hard to imagine, especially with the script approval, that the author could have done more due diligence as to what she was getting into.

If she didn't like a political message or the artistry of the script, why didn't she just not give approval? Money?

I agree that changing facts to say she liked it if she did not is odd, but perhaps no more unflattering than the facts presented in these accounts. If you take a step back from loving the lore of the author and memories of the book, she just isn't as likeable a person and Disney as evil a person as this thread would like to paint them both.

A lot of artists are protective of their works even after they are sold (and from that is born moral rights). However, when you are a part of the process that in your mind degrades your work, you lose those rights. It's extremely negative to not acknowledge the merits of the derivative Disney work. Why not be happy for what it was while saying you prefer your original? Why crap all over the couple of hundred other artists that brought the movie to the screen, especially when it won at least 19 various awards including 5 academy awards? Seems almost childish.
posted by Muddler at 6:00 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I saw the trailer for this in a theater some months ago, and, much as I love Emma Thompson, I had a baaad feeling about it. DisneyCo's penchant for hagiography and the twinkle in Tom Hanks' twinkly eyes whispered to me that, by the third reel, the personal warmth and goodness of Unca Walt were going to thaw the frigid heart of the unapproachable Englishwoman (actually from Oz) and bring her around not only to give him the rights but also to Learn Something About Herself.
posted by the sobsister at 6:12 PM on December 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Wait, she decided to sell her rights after 26 years of Disney asking, right? Was there something about that 26th year that required her to suddenly make money to survive?

Maybe! But if you think being given petty money somehow disassociates you of all moral claim over something you've made, well then I personally think you can go to hell, where at least I can offer there will be plenty of people like yourself to keep you company.

If she didn't like a political message or the artistry of the script, why didn't she just not give approval? Money?

Often yes. By far, most people have to degrade themselves in some way or other to get by in this constructed world of ours.

However, when you are a part of the process that in your mind degrades your work, you lose those rights.

Oh tosh! She didn't sell her soul to the Disney monolith, and they didn't outright buy her book, just film rights. Maybe she felt, as suggested by the link under throws, above, that she could help to shepherd the work and keep it true to itself. Lots of other people have done that over the years; some have been about as ill-used by the system as was Travers, while some were successful in keeping their vision intact. She is still credited on the movie as "consultant." It is not her fault, perhaps, that the Disney corporation didn't much listen to what she had to say.

Why crap all over the couple of hundred other artists that brought the movie to the screen, especially when it won at least 19 various awards including 5 academy awards? Seems almost childish.

Maybe it would have been a still better movie if it had merely been acknowledged as being inspired by Travers' character, rather than misrepresenting it?
posted by JHarris at 6:20 PM on December 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't know anything about Travers's personal life, but according to the Slate review of the movie, Travers was "advised by her agent to sell the rights to Disney before she runs out of savings and loses her beloved London house." (Now, it might be that she was down to the end of her savings because of unwise spending -- it may be that her London house was extravagant -- but as reasons go, it's a pretty good one.)

I'm sure Travers was unreasonable in her quibbling over lines in the script; I'm sure she may have been really hard to work with; but if we're going to pretend it's a historical movie, with historical characters, why paper over the history? It's not about presenting a more flattering portrait of Disney, or a less flattering portrait of Travers; it's just that the truth is more interesting than the way you have to lie to cram the story into a Hollywood-shaped box.
posted by Jeanne at 6:57 PM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


Travers sold the rights because she needed the money. Her books were making less money, and it apparently got very hard to turn down a large infusion of cash. Apparently her only steady income at the time was rental income from her lodgers. And she knew that the percentage of profits she was being offered would get her through her old age.

However, she stipulated that she should have script approval, as well as other rights. Disney ignored this. When she was sent the script, she sent back fourteen pages of notes, which were ignored. One of her stipulations was "no animation." So, clearly, she didn't actually "give approval" and then think better of it later. She made her wishes clear and she was walked over, with Disney even telling her he knew more about Mary Poppins as a character than she did.

She was treated shabbily, her wishes were ignored, and she actually waited quite a long time after the movie's release before she began speaking her mind about it.
posted by OolooKitty at 6:59 PM on December 18, 2013 [30 favorites]


Why is the LoEG Mary Poppins who/what she is? What's the storyworld / real world literature link logic for it?
posted by Bwithh at 7:27 PM on December 18, 2013


Mary Poppins, in the books, is basically God.
posted by The Whelk at 7:56 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


(or like, an insane all-powerful entity from a universe beyond our own with their own sense of right and wrong, trying to help you. Like I think Mary in LoEG serves the same role as The Doctor.)
posted by The Whelk at 8:00 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


(and "..you really are a dreadful little boy." is a fucking baller superhero line to deliver. Not even getting into the metric of Nanny/Mary Poppins/Susan Death/Susan Foreman reference matrix going on.)
posted by The Whelk at 8:04 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


And what's up with Cinderella's Fairy Godmother?
posted by straight at 8:04 PM on December 18, 2013


She was treated shabbily, her wishes were ignored, and she actually waited quite a long time after the movie's release before she began speaking her mind about it.

So she's like every single other author in the world who has encountered Hollywood. As Hemmingway famously supposedly said, "“Drive to the border of California, throw your book over the fence. When they throw the money back over the fence, collect the money and drive home.” Books and scripts are not the same. People who are good at books and possessive of them think they translate beautifully into movies. They don't. i don't think I've even heard of a writer pleased with how things were adapted by others. Also, confession, I get to hang with Richard Sherman once in a while and a nicer, more honest, kind of naive-and-still-excitable-about-music guy you can't imagine. He said she was actually far more of an unreasonable pain than the movie portrays her. But then so was Walt. Oh, wait...it's a movie. Not a documentary.

I just hope to God when I'm older I have something to sell that makes a fortune and then I can spend the proceeds and the rest of my life bitching about how someone stole my idea and only gave me a ton of money for it plus made me more famous and resold a ton of my books that people were all set to forget about in the next generation as I sit in my large home in London. Poor oppressed me. I weep for her suffering.
posted by umberto at 8:06 PM on December 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm sorry, wasn't it common knowledge that Mary Poppins is actually a Timelord? And P.L. Travers is one of her incarnations?
posted by viggorlijah at 8:42 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


she is totally a time lord
posted by The Whelk at 8:47 PM on December 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


she can talk to babies and everything
posted by The Whelk at 8:49 PM on December 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


And dogs too
posted by wheelieman at 8:50 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


If GE produced a movie about what a swell guy the founder of GE was, or if the Obama administration produced a movie about the great things it had done, we would name it for what it was : not just a movie, but advertising. Disney producing a movie about what a swell guy Walt Disney was is advertising, even if it also happens to be a good movie, and to the extent that it is false advertising it's useful to raise awareness of that.

I say that as a person who liked the Mary Poppins movie quite a lot and thinks that Travers probably could have chilled out somewhat.
posted by Jeanne at 8:56 PM on December 18, 2013 [13 favorites]


From the New Yorker link in the post:

The première was the first Travers had seen of the movie—she did not initially receive an invitation, but had embarrassed a Disney executive into extending one—and it was a shock. Afterward, as Richard Sherman recalled, she tracked down Disney at the after-party, which was held in a giant white tent in the parking lot adjoining the Chinese Theatre. “Well,” she said loudly. “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney looked at her coolly. “Pamela,” he replied, “the ship has sailed.” And then he strode past her, toward a throng of well-wishers, and left her alone, an aging woman in a satin gown and evening gloves, who had travelled more than five thousand miles to attend a party where she was not wanted.

They really take the reality of Travers crying because the movie was so bad and turn it into Travers crying because the movie is so good? They really do that? Damn.
posted by mediareport at 9:28 PM on December 18, 2013 [17 favorites]


The real Mary Poppins, a documentary which is actually more about the musical.

The musical version of Mary Poppins on Broadway, right on Times Square, was a not a lauded or flashy success but a huge money-maker, well reviewed and super-popular if not a critical darling - of COURSE Disney would want to try to feed off that to make a movie And the restrictions in Travers kinda lent it to this backstage, side-ways corporate propaganda thing.
posted by The Whelk at 9:54 PM on December 18, 2013


I weep for her suffering. I don't know, I don't think I have the right to decide that someone isn't allowed to be upset just because they got paid. She had to fight her way into the premiere of her own movie, only to find that what she'd thought was a first draft of the script was actually the final product, and that her extensive notes -- which Disney was apparently contractually bound to pay attention to - had been completely ignored.

And now Disney the Corporation, which doesn't have the right to make a sequel to MARY POPPINS because Travers made sure they didn't, gets around that by making a "true" MARY POPPINS movie that actually presents Travers as someone who was so grateful and moved by the film that she wept at the premiere. And because this is the Disney version, lots of people are going to see it and believe that this is what really happened. And Travers's version of events is basically erased from history.

Whatever she got paid wasn't enough.
posted by OolooKitty at 10:23 PM on December 18, 2013 [17 favorites]


Disney producing a movie about what a swell guy Walt Disney was is advertising

To be fair, the movie was in production (by BBC films) LONG before WDC got involved. It was only once they realized that they'd simply have to have Disney's blessing/approval to use key songs & elements from the film that they made it a co-production.

The Walt Disney Company certainly saw the potential for "brand deposit" or whatever once they were on board, but it doesn't appear they went out of their way looking to create it here.
posted by ShutterBun at 10:24 PM on December 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


For those wondering about some of Travers' specific grievances over the film Mary Poppins, there's a pretty nice post here at Mouseplanet which details many of them, as well as answers several lingering questions about the film's premiere and attempts to reconcile Travers' public and private reactions to the film.
posted by ShutterBun at 10:47 PM on December 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


The LoEG Mary Poppins is fucking amazing - heavy spoilers for LoEG century, naturally.

Oh for fuck's sake. I can't believe anyone can condemn the Disney Mary Poppins, while at the same time lauding Moore's fucking slashfick.

You know what the difference is between Disney's Mary Poppins and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Disney actually asked permission and paid the goddamn author. Mr. Fan Favorite Moore couldn't be bothered to do that when he took literary works, dropped trou and shat all over them.
posted by happyroach at 10:52 PM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ehh, it's a cool couple of pages and shed been dead since 1996. Now, if he'd added on a coda in which the ghost of P.L. Travers appeared before him and told him what a great job he'd done...
posted by Artw at 11:28 PM on December 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


but I like fanfic
posted by The Whelk at 11:35 PM on December 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


They kept the part where she was a lesbian though right?
posted by jokeefe at 12:00 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


There was a pretty awesome BBC Culture Show episode on this last month: The Secret Life of Mary Poppins. Features interviews with Travers' adopted son and granddaughter and gratuitous shots of Victoria Coren Mitchell travelling via umbrella. Seriously: it's really good. (And Coren Mitchell doesn't think much of the new film either.)
posted by Sonny Jim at 4:41 AM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


To be fair, the movie was in production (by BBC films) LONG before WDC got involved.

I'd love to learn about any script changes that happened after Disney joined the party. Oh, and thanks to Shutterbun for that link about Travers; it shows that she had very different feelings about the film than those she politely wrote to Disney:

In a September 2, 1964, letter to her publisher, she wrote that the film was "Disney through and through, spectacular, colourful, gorgeous but all wrapped around mediocrity of thought, poor glimmerings of understanding."

The stuff about the 1987 sequel plans, with Michael Jackson doing the Dick Van Dyke role, was fun too.
posted by mediareport at 5:48 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The LoEG Mary Poppins is fucking amazing - heavy spoilers for LoEG century, naturally.

Holy crap. I'd fallen out of LXG a long time ago and missed that, but that was awesome.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:13 AM on December 19, 2013


I've long been vaguely interested in Travers as she was a student of Gurdjieff, though the first two Mary Poppins books were written well before they met. I do see an interesting contrast between Gurdjieff's approach to strenuous physical tasks and the psychology surrounding it and the equivalent phenomena in the film, which boils down to "magic does all the hard stuff".

And a narrative in which a character with whom we are supposed to feel sympathy, and who resists the establishment is brought round to the establishment point of view (and us with them)… well, that's essentially propaganda isn't it?

And Alan Moore does a wonderful line in purple prose, doesn't he? Cordon bleu over-egged pudding. Absolutely wonderful.
posted by Grangousier at 6:30 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


> I loved what everyone's favorite grumpy grandpa Harlan Ellison had to say on the topic.

Jesus Christ. I never cared much for Ellison, and as the years go by I like him less and less, but the level of self-regarding bullshit in that clip is just too much for me. He takes almost five minutes to say word one about the movie because he's too busy going on and on about all the famous people he was with, famous people like him, who treated him so well because they're lovely people, and the great chefs they got for him and the wonderful way they treated him and they were all so nice and rich and famous and lovely and wonderful... I bailed out before the six-minute mark, so if he said something brilliant after that I missed it. Once more, for the record: fuck you, Harlan, you self-loving ass (to use my aged mother-in-law's favorite insult).

Also, only an asshole thinks you have no right to complain about anything you've taken money for or anyone you've taken money from.
posted by languagehat at 7:14 AM on December 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


Mary Poppins, in the books, is basically God.

Well, perhaps an Olympian God, but certainly not a Judeo Christian God. She has no particular moral interests, no desire to punish the guilty and reward the innocent. She's actually a rather terrifying figure. For those of us who love the books that is the oddest thing about the Disney movie. He turns her into a Good Fairy, but she's really more like an alien being who, by sheer good luck, happens not to see any advantage in our deaths.

On the other hand, I never quite see why people care so much about a film adaptation that's not "true" to the book. The books are still there, still wondeful. It's as if the most any book could aspire to is to becoming a movie. No movie can ever be "true" to a book. Books and movies are radically different forms of artistic expression. If Disney's version of the story doesn't appeal to you, just don't watch it. Go reread the books.
posted by yoink at 7:41 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jesus Christ. I never cared much for Ellison, and as the years go by I like him less and less, but the level of self-regarding bullshit in that clip is just too much for me.

I'm hoping he complains about how James Cameron ruined his stories by changing everything...
posted by Artw at 7:42 AM on December 19, 2013


Jesus Christ. I never cared much for Ellison, and as the years go by I like him less and less, but the level of self-regarding bullshit in that clip is just too much for me. He takes almost five minutes to say word one about the movie because he's too busy going on and on about all the famous people he was with, famous people like him, who treated him so well because they're lovely people, and the great chefs they got for him and the wonderful way they treated him and they were all so nice and rich and famous and lovely and wonderful... I bailed out before the six-minute mark, so if he said something brilliant after that I missed it. Once more, for the record: fuck you, Harlan, you self-loving ass (to use my aged mother-in-law's favorite insult).

I think he was just covering his ass so that he wouldn't look like an ungrateful bastard after having been heavily feted.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 8:10 AM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Grumpy Grandpa" is the *perfect* context to keep in mind when viewing that Ellison clip. Yeah, he's all over the place, but the corruption of Travers' on-the-record-belief of Disney's production is a salient point.

And watching "Angry Grandpa" get worked up about it literally ground my day to a halt with its goodness.
posted by mikelieman at 9:16 AM on December 19, 2013


I knew nothing about the behind the scenes making of the Mary Poppins movie, never read any of the books, and can't really remember watching the film as a kid. I saw this movie and Travers came off as stuffy and a bit unreasonable but Walt Disney came off as manipulative and forceful. He's clearly appears to believe his intentions are good, but man does he screw that lady over.

And I didn't see the scene of Travers crying at the premiere being at all about whether she liked the film or not. I thought she was crying because she still felt like garbage for losing/giving up her story.

Really wish movie posts could be held off until more people have actually had a chance to see the movie in question, but oh well.
posted by dogwalker at 10:47 AM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'd like to think that Travers will have her eventual victory in true classic Mary Poppins outliving anything that union busting self-plagiarist Walt ever created... but I fear The Mouse is eternal.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:44 PM on December 19, 2013


He turns her into a Good Fairy, but she's really more like an alien being who, by sheer good luck, happens not to see any advantage in our deaths.

I actually like the movie Mary Poppins, or I did as a kid anyway where I saw it nearly every time it popped up in rotation on the Disney Channel, which was often. I just think it's a shame to have to associate it with P.L. Travers. There is just one reason that Walt Disney had to call his movie Mary Poppins, and that is to trade off of the promotional value of the name of the pre-existing, best-selling work to improve the profitability of his movie. Walt Disney used the literary reputation of P.L. Travers to make his own movie that's vaguely themed like her book, much like he made theme park rides themed off of Alice and Wonderland, under the guise of adaptation. Travers agreed to adaptation, but was bait-and-switched.

On the other hand, I never quite see why people care so much about a film adaptation that's not "true" to the book. The books are still there, still wondeful.

I've love to live in a world where this was perfectly true, but it's not. I am a native English speaker who lives in a heavily pro-English part of the United States, but effectively, I'm already perilously close to speaking a different language from nearly everyone I encounter on a daily basis.

People these days tend to use pop culture as a means of connection, even communication, but for me often the same symbols have different meanings, and it takes an effort, sometimes, to put myself into a mindset where I understand what people mean. When someone says "Winnie the Pooh," they tend to mean a jolly little bear with a taste for honey and a red shirt. When I hear it, what first comes to mind is Disney's exploitation of the character at the cost of A.A. Milne's literary legacy. It is the price of knowledge.

In our media saturated world, in conversation symbols tend to take their most common representations, and in the case of most books with movie adaptations, and much more in the case of books with Disney movie adaptations, the movie comes to displace the book in the cultural mindset, and thus usurps the symbol that people tend to talk about when they mention $PROPERTY. The book still exists, but something is lost when a movie supplants it: commonality of thought. The idea, when talking with people in general, that Achilles is a flawed hero instead of Brad Pitt. Sometimes, of course, the movie or TV show is better than the book, a more worthy work -- M*A*S*H lasted seven seasons after all. But this process is arbitrary, random, and a great work is brought down more often than a bad one is turned into something great.

No movie can ever be "true" to a book. Books and movies are radically different forms of artistic expression.

No, they aren't, and I hate it when people spread this tiresome idea. They're both linear narrative forms based ultimately on storytelling. They are different, but they have more in common with each other than with, say, painting, or sculpture. Otherwise we wouldn't be talking about movie versions of books at all. You can still adapt them with better or worse fidelity to the source material, and that's specifically what we're faulting here.

You can't exactly reproduce a book in movie form, but this statement tells us exactly nothing, because you can definitely do a better job (Exhibit A is in theaters right now, shoehorned-in orc battles and all) and Walt Disney could have done a much better job adapting Travers' book.
posted by JHarris at 2:12 PM on December 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


One more thing, sorry I'll shut up after this--

I think the key here is, Disney aimed (as his company continues to aim to this day) to give the people exactly what they want, was (is) frighteningly good at that, and in the process of doing it made more money than Scrooge McDuck. P.L. Travers, like most great authors, didn't, and wrote a challenging work with unconventional ideas. That is the job of great authors; when you make something merely to massage the pleasure centers of the reader's brain, the word for what you have made is potboiler, something to keep your gas on.

Challenging works are often less marketable than they could be. When one becomes very popular it is thus something of a miracle. (The way I usually phrase it, actually, is people don't know what they really want.) Disney wasn't interested in miracles, he was interested in money, and he probably saw himself as fixing the originals. What he made isn't bad at all for what it is, but carries the Mary Poppins "brand" in name only.

Of course Travers profited, in the monetary sense, immensely from Disney's business sense, and was able to use that money to disassociate herself from some of the thousand petty concerns our world burdens us with. That doesn't change the fact that, if you pick a random sampling of people and ask them who Mary Poppins is, the answer is going to have a lot more to do with Disney than Travers. And making a new movie that celebrates that fact feels a bit like they're standing on a street corner shouting HOORAY FOR ENTROPY.
posted by JHarris at 2:27 PM on December 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


No movie can ever be "true" to a book. Books and movies are radically different forms of artistic expression.

No, they aren't, and I hate it when people spread this tiresome idea.


Hate away. Tiresome notions can be true just the same. A book like "House of Leaves" or "Dune" or even "Catch-22" --though they tried-- is as different from a movie as a sculpture is. Those are exceptional books, yes. True, books that are written like movies have an easier time of it, but even that isn't certain, eh, John Carter of Mars? Books contain a large number of layers perceptible to the reader that movies cannot convey: interiority, for instance. And intent. Movies have to work around many of these things and it often deconstructs the original. Books are MRIs about experiences and movies are photos. You cannot use them the same way.
posted by umberto at 3:05 PM on December 19, 2013


Maybe it's because I know the movie and don't know the books, but:

"How could dear, demented Mrs. Banks, fussy, feminine and loving, become a suffragette?" Travers questioned.

and

Even though she herself had dropped subtle hints in her stories that Mary Poppins and Bert were a little more than just friends, she was explicit that there be no suggestion of any love connection between the two. At best, he could only appreciate her at a distance with no hope his affection would ever be reciprocated. She felt that the animated Jolly Holiday sequence showed them as much too cozy together.

and

Mary Poppins should never be impolite or impertinent to anyone, in particular, Mr. and Mrs. Banks, nor undermine their authority... She was shocked when Mary kicked up her Edwardian dress when she was dancing and showed her bloomers.... She felt Disney was portraying Mary as a "hoyden," a carefree, boisterous tomboy.

and

Mr. Banks was only "un-tender" to his wife in the way of "any husband" who might be temporarily distracted Travers insisted. He was not unhappy, merely "out of sorts." He was just an over anxious bank clerk, not some sort of vague management figure.

and

As previously mentioned, she saw no need for the original Sherman brothers songs at all. She emphasized that it would be preferable to use the old Edwardian songs like Lily of Laguna or at least the same rhythms to suggest those songs....She did not like the idea of Mr. Dawes, Sr., the chairman of the bank dying. She suggested that he retire and then spend the rest of his life laughing.

Are some of the most memorable scenes in the movie. Taking them out seems like it would remove most of the movie's sources of conflict, and leave something that wouldn't appeal as much to adults.
posted by subdee at 3:41 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tiresome notions can be true just the same. A book like "House of Leaves" or "Dune" or even "Catch-22" --though they tried-- is as different from a movie as a sculpture is. Those are exceptional books, yes. True, books that are written like movies have an easier time of it, but even that isn't certain, eh, John Carter of Mars?

Your problem is that you're confusing the big Hollywood movie with movies overall. A movie doesn't have to be a blockbuster.
posted by JHarris at 5:15 PM on December 19, 2013


No, they aren't, and I hate it when people spread this tiresome idea. They're both linear narrative forms based ultimately on storytelling.

Er, some movies and some books are "linear narrative forms"--you're starting from a bad place when you've already falsely defined anything we might call the "essence" of either medium.

But even if we limit ourselves to "linear narrative forms" that's hardly the end of the story (ha!) is it? Short stories, ballads, novels, Homer's epics, certain books of the Bible, many works of history, many works of journalism etc. etc. etc. are "linear narrative forms." That doesn't mean there aren't radical qualitative differences between them.

I'm not saying you can't make a good movie from a good book and I'm not saying that there aren't books that don't lend themselves to being adapted into movies quite well. There are even books that give us certain kinds of strictly "narrative" rewards that can be the basis of movies that give us very similar kinds of reward. There are, however, books that give us rewards that simply cannot be conveyed in the form of a movie. They might prompt someone to make a movie that does give us all kinds of wonderful rewards, but they will not be the same as those we found in the book. A book, for example, that offers minute examination of the interior psychological states of its characters is simply untranslatable into film--or, at least, anything like the "linear narrative film" you're talking about. Similarly, films can give us rewards that are simply inaccessible in a book. The reward, for example, of a stunningly great performance: all those myriad specific and fleeting details of tone of voice, expression, silent reactions etc. etc. etc. can only be sketched comparatively crudely in a novel. A film also offers an entire visual and aural language which is obviously outside the purview of the novel etc. etc. etc. No one reads Mary Poppins for the song and dance numbers--to offer an obvious point.

So, yes, "books and movies are radically different forms of artistic expression." I'm actually rather astonished that anyone could even briefly entertain the belief that they're not. Think how often we say that a novel can't even be translated successfully from one language to another. But somehow taking a work that requires, say, 10 hours to read and translating it into a work that can be viewed in 1 hour and 30 minutes--taking it from a work which requires you to imagine the way that everything looks, and sounds and translating it into a work where all of those things have a concrete, specific form--taking it from a work in which the author can inform you about anything anyone is thinking, about their motivations, about their second thoughts directly and explicitly and translating it to a work where actors can only convey these things implicitly and situationally etc. etc. etc. etc. does absolutely nothing to change the essence of the art form?
posted by yoink at 6:13 PM on December 19, 2013


Er, some movies and some books are "linear narrative forms"--you're starting from a bad place when you've already falsely defined anything we might call the "essence" of either medium.

I did not define, and certainly didn't say "essence" -- I described them both similarly, and used the fact that they could be considered the same way to imply commonality between them. If I may offer, I think the best way to overturn that idea is to present ways they're unlike each other.

Your examples are interesting (in that they made me think a bit in a pleasant way) but prove nothing, really, because those books that serve purposes than being linear stories are not things that get adapted into movies (we present The Dictionary: The Motion Picture!), and those movies that present radical exampes of that art form are not the kinds of things that come from books. You can call any collection of written words a "book," but that's not really what we're talking about here, which are novels. Similarly any sequence of images can technically be a "movie."

You can fast-forward through a movie, but it is not typically the way one is thought to experience one -- and you can skim a book to get past something you don't like, or turn to a random page. You can chapter skip to a good part -- or even just watch supplemental material on a DVD. Or your could watch a compilation film, made up of smaller short subjects, like a collection of short stories. Similarly, you can read things in the middle of a book, or skip to a good part of a novel, or use a table of contents or index to get to just something you want to find. In that way at least, they are closely similar.

Many things you can do in a movie have analogues in literature. This is because they both have (generally) the same objective: to depict events as if they were happening in life, which we can track back to oral storytelling. Even many non-narrative uses for text can be put in those terms: writing out a song or poem can be considered to be the writing out of a performance, which is replayed in the reader's mind as he reads.

So, yes, "books and movies are radically different forms of artistic expression." I'm actually rather astonished that anyone could even briefly entertain the belief that they're not.

Yeah, well, I do seem to have that belief. Gawk away. It's probably just a matter of scale though: we both know they're different, but have some similarities, it's just the degree of similarity really, which is hard to put into words.

But somehow taking a work that requires, say, 10 hours to read and translating it into a work that can be viewed in 1 hour and 30 minutes

But you don't have to do that. You're talking about movies as have come to be seen as commercially viable, which is a subtly different thing from, just, movies. And even then, Peter Jackson took a short novel and stretched it out into three movies and seems poised to make a mint doing so, so what the hell do any of us, you or I included, know.

taking it from a work in which the author can inform you about anything anyone is thinking, about their motivations, about their second thoughts directly and explicitly and translating it to a work where actors can only convey these things implicitly and situationally etc. etc. etc. etc. does absolutely nothing to change the essence of the art form?

But it's still the same information that you're trying to communicate, or leave up in the air, that of the inner world of the mind. Whether you write it out precisely or leave it up to interpretation, those are still things of interest to audiences. They are of interest in most forms of art, yes, but generally either being of a snapshot of a moment, rather than their changing over time (paintings, photography, sculpture), or bringing in inescapable nuance and interpretation from performers to muddle up authorial intent (screenwriting, music).
posted by JHarris at 7:13 PM on December 19, 2013


Note:
- My realization that novels and movies are similar is something I've fairly recently considered, and I'm kind of arguing it through in this thread. Please don't take my disagreement or argumentativeness too personally, I think I'm in the process of working it through to see if I actually believe this. Beliefs only really become solidified if they can survive testing, and I'm testing this one here. Maybe I am wrong.
- Two things are similar only in terms of comparing them to other things that are different. Sincce I think a lot about video games, I might be comparing them both to the potential of interactive art, which is pushing them closer together in my mind.
posted by JHarris at 7:23 PM on December 19, 2013


Saving Mr. Banks Q&A with writer Kelly Marcel (audio)
posted by Artw at 10:39 PM on December 24, 2013


I don't think I've even heard of a writer pleased with how things were adapted by others.

Tony Hillerman. When the screenwriter approached him about adapting one of his Chee/Leaphorn books and all the changes he wanted to make, he was pretty nervous about it. But Hillerman told him that in order for the movie to be made, the book had to be killed first.

Seeing this film (I just came back from seeing it, in fact), and never mind its historical truth or falsity, has reconciled me to the existence of the Mary Poppins film. The whole beginning of Saving Mr. Banks is quite literally a comedy of manners: Oz/Brit Travers is all about negative politeness (it's all in what you don't do), whereas the Americans are all about positive politeness (it's all in what you do do). Similarly, in the book Mary Poppins primarily injects order into a household with too much chaos, whereas in the film, M.P. injects a controlled amount of chaos into a household with too much order. In both cases, the family moves back towards the healthy balance point by the end of the book. But in order to preserve the theme of healing and balance (which is the nature of all comedy in essence), while making the story acceptable not to a small British audience but to a mass American audience, it was necessary to kill the book, and Disney & Co. killed it good.
posted by johnwcowan at 7:40 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]


"Killed the book" is an apt turn of phrase, I think, assuming I'm colorectal in likening it to a cow being killed to create a steak.

Certainly a cow is a wonderous thing to behold, full of hopes and dreams (such as a cow can have) and abilities. And there's something so fleeting and superficial about a mere steak. But when it's done just right...

Many would agree it was worth it, except of course the cow and its mother.

I finally got to see the film in question (on the Disney studio lot where much of it was filmed, no less) and on its own merits (which any film at least deserves to be judged by) it was splendid.

The whole, unvarnished truth? Of course not. But it told its story very well, and no, Travers was most definitely NOT depicted as "weeping tears of joy" at seeing the final film, and plenty of egg was allowed to remain on Disney employees' faces.

At the end of the film were audio recordings, photos and drawings which more or less corroborated several moments depicted in the film, which gave a bit of "we've got nothing to hide" feeling.
posted by ShutterBun at 3:54 AM on January 15


...and no, Travers was most definitely NOT depicted as "weeping tears of joy" at seeing the final film, and plenty of egg was allowed to remain on Disney employees' faces.

Shutterbun,
I agree there is some wiggle room for exactly how the audience interprets the tears wept by Travers when she is watching the film for the first time - but not much.

The audience is very, very strongly pushed in the direction of believing the starchy old writer is dissolving into a sobbing moment of positive catharsis (she is even shown mouthing along in silent wet-faced ecstasy to the words of Let's Go Fly A Kite...a scene that would surely have the real Travers rigid with disbelief).

I agree the film was splendidly made (I finally saw it yesterday) but a lot of it seemed utter Dr. Phil-style tosh too - with only twinkly alpha male Walt Disney capable of giving repressed Pam the manly understanding she needed to get over her daddy issues....

By describing the film in the way I just have I've done nothing more than the film makers themselves: I've taken one aspect of a complicated story & spun it very, very hard in one entirely simplistic direction.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 4:45 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Many would agree it was worth it, except of course the cow and its mother.

And the people who would drink its milk.
posted by JHarris at 7:25 AM on January 15


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