A few weeks ago a transatlantic flight finally caused me to watch Saving Mr. Banks the story of how Walt Disney won P.L Travers’ trust and warmed her cold, cold heart just enough to get her to gift the ages with a Disney version of her book Mary Poppins.
Decent movie, that Saving Mr. Banks. If nothing else it offers compelling proof that history is a tale told by the winners. The winners being movie makers in this case. It turns out that when you leave it to a movie studio to tell the story of what movies do to books—really nice books–you get a very nice tale indeed, in which the books get really-nicer. Don’t you see? A movie is just an act of love for a book. A movie only wants honor a book and bring it to life- make it live forever, and maybe add a little music. Is that so wrong?
No, the movie tells us. No it is not wrong at all. It is right! In the end even the curmudgeon-ish author is shown to see it.
But If P.L Travers told the story of the movie-fi-cation of Poppins it might sound different. After all she did cry at the official release of Mary Poppins but it wasn’t tears of appreciative joy. In real life, she cried to see what they had done to her baby.
And in a lot of ways she was right to cry. The movie is fine. Not much wrong with it except Dick Van Dyke’s unconscionable effort at an accent. And the fact that it ain’t the book. That’s the big one. I read the book with my kids a few years back and was stunned, so incredibly stunned, to find it nuanced and complex and rich and fascinating. It was beautiful: anything but schlock-y, light years better than the movie, even if I read it in a horrible garble of Van-Dyke Cockney. But I only found out by accident that the book is a jewel. Having a song-and-Dick-Van-Dyke version of the movie out there made me assume for years that I should not read the book. I mean with a hokie movie like that, who would??
And even after I realize the book was a shining jewel, the movie kept trying to shape and crowd-out my vision of it. I kept having to choke back visions of Dick Van Dyke in a candy stripe suit doing a song and dance. What i loved most was that in book Mary was just so richly complex- snarky and a bit proud; brilliant but quick to bristle. i had to fight myself to see that. My first inclination was to look for Julie Andrews on newsprint. Only luck–perhaps reading it slowly alound to my kids?–kept the movie from killing the book.
I’ve been reflecting on all of this because now the Giver, my favorite all time work of youth fiction, is a movie and I have very mixed emotions. Is it likely to make thousands more kids read it? Hundreds more teachers assign it. Maybe.
Is it likely to crowd out the book they see and interpret and envision with something tinged and steered by a movie they’ve seen first? Is the movie’s interpretation likely to come and stand in for the book’s? Maybe. Will kids who are assigned it read it less deeply because they “know” the story? Probably. Will they imagine Lily older than she is, a teenager with romantic hair? Probably.
So when my pal Robert Pondiscio asked in a blog post recently what OTHER classroom classics we wanted to see made into movies my first thought was NONE. I want the books to remain. I want P.L Travers to say no to Disney. I want my kids’ experience of them to remain free from a shadow narrative that shapes what they see… and makes what the see more consistent- aligned around the keel of interpretation offered by the movie.
I may not be quite as grouchy as this makes me sound but in the end I don’t know whether P.L Travers and Lois Lowry were right to allow their books to be made into movies. I feel a sadness when a great book goes movie. There are exceptions of course and maybe the Giver will be one. But I think I won’t risk it. I’m not going to see it.