You feel that? The wind just changed! That means it’s time to talk about the one and only Mary Poppins.
Now, this is another one that’s not a fairy tale. However, it is fairy tale adjacent in a number of places. I also realize that this is a subject that can be a bit loaded when it comes to adaptation, the wishes of the original author and what the limits should be for what an estate can do with a property after the author dies. But we’ll have to save our thoughts on that for the end.
Let’s start with some background. Mary Poppins is the star of a series of books by author P.L. Travers. There are eight books in the series, the first one published in 1934 and the last in 1988. The books revolve around the various exploits of mysterious and magical nanny Mary Poppins as she cares for the four, later five, Banks children. I have read four of the eight books written by Travers (coincidentally, these are the four that were written before Disney made their famous film version). They are, in order: Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door and Mary Poppins in the Park.
|Mary Poppins admiring her reflection.
Mary Poppins as a character might be a little bit different than you’d expect if you only know the Julie Andrews version. She’s a strict, no nonsense nanny who doesn’t much appreciate disobedience, lollygagging or back-talk. She’s described as having shiny black hair and blue eyes and is said to look like “a Dutch doll”. She must have been fond of these doll-like looks, because she is also described as extremely vain. She loves to admire herself in mirrors. So, what’s the big deal about this strict, no-nonsense narcissist? Well, she’s magic. If you saw the Disney movie, you probably expected that. However, it’s not just that she’s magic, it’s that everything around her is as well. Wherever Mary seems to take the Banks children (Jane, Michael, John, Barbara and little Annabel), the children and the reader seem to get a glimpse into a magical world that exists hidden within our own. They might go to a gingerbread shop where the foil stars they decorate the gingerbread with are actual stars. A statue in the park may come to life. Everyone’s shadow may run off to a Halloween dance. The balloon lady in the park may sell you a magic balloon that takes you flying. Or you may find out that the lazy servant that works for your family is actually the Dirty Rascal of nursery rhyme fame (“I’m the king of the castle and you’re the Dirty Rascal”). Whether or not Mary Poppins seems to have any control over these events varies. Sometimes she brings the children right into the path of the magical happenings and other times the magic finds her and she gets rather perturbed by it. However these magical things show up, it always feels like the magic was always there, but somehow no one could see it before. Either way, don’t ask Mary Poppins herself about it because she will deny everything and act like she’s never been so insulted in all her life.
|Mary Poppins with Jane and Michael.
Now, here’s the thing about Mary Poppins’s tight-lipped nature. It kind of gives her an air of mystery. Every magical person she meets seems to know and respect her (well, barring the Dirty Rascal when it comes to respect). Sometimes they even suggest that Mary is somehow special among them. Not like a queen or an official of any kind. Just special by the virtue that she’s Mary Poppins. However, Mary never explains what kind of past she has with these characters. In fact, she never explains anything. So, at least if you’re like me, you find yourself wondering who she is and where she comes from.
|Tea with Mary's uncle, Mr. Albert Wigg
None of the books have an overarching story. Instead, they contain a number of self-contained short stories. However, there is something of a pattern to the books. All the books I read had a story in which they visit one of Mary’s relatives. All of them had one in which Jane and Michael had to sneak out after dark in order to see what Mary Poppins was doing on her night off. All of them had a story in which Mary Poppins tells the children a story that relates to some strange event that just happened. Almost all of them have at least one story that takes place on a holiday, and the books also had stories in which either Jane or Michael were in a bad mood and were acting out on it. There were also Mary Poppins’s rather spectacular entrances and exits, though Travers stopped writing those after the third book because, to paraphrase a quote from her, she cannot be forever coming and going. However, in between the formulaic bits, sometimes there’s something rather sad or beautiful. I’m reminded of a story in the first book in which Jane and Michael go off to a party and the twin babies John and Barbara are left with Mary Poppins. What we find out is that John and Barbara can speak in their way and they can understand the languages of everything else: the starling and the wind and the sunlight and many other things. They also think grown-ups are quite stupid because they can’t. We also find out they understand because they are so young and that everyone can understand those things up until their first birthday. Everyone forgets at that point whether they want too or not. Everyone except Mary Poppins, the Great Exception. Sure enough, a few months later, the starling finds that John and Barbara are no longer able to understand him. The simple idea of being able to understand the language of everything is kind of beautiful, and the inevitability of losing it is rather sad. There are also some choice quotes that have a sort of depth and beauty to them. Another story finds Jane and Michael sneaking out to the zoo at night where they meet a hamadryad (i.e. a cobra) who tells them this: “We are all made of the same stuff, remember, we of the Jungle, you of the City. The same substance composes us- the tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star- we are all one, all moving to the same end. Remember that when you no longer remember me, my child.” It makes some sense, though. Travers was rather fascinated with the symbolism and metaphor that’s often seen in fairy tales and myths. The supposed hidden depths in simple stories. Much of her later work focused on it. It finds its way into Mary Poppins too. In Mary Poppins in the Park there’s a story in which Jane and Michael meet three princes who escape from The Silver Fairy Book (clearly a fictitious Andrew Lang collection). They and their pet unicorn encounter some trouble from various people, the park keeper, the policeman, the zoo keeper and the curator of the museum. However, when the adults finally realize who the princes are their attitude changes. They start talking about how they had once known them when they were little children and had lost track of them. This makes sense, because they would have read that fairy tale a fairly long time ago when they were children. However, there’s another layer to this. The princes’ names are Florimond, Veritain and Amor. Loosely translated, their names mean Beauty, Truth and Love. The adults knew beauty, truth and love as children but lost contact with it as they grew up. That’s kind of a big metaphor right there.
It’s stuff like this that didn’t make it into Mary Poppins’s more famous cinematic adaptation. The metaphorical aspects are lost. The idea of the magic always being there just beyond the surface layer is lost. The idea that babies know the secrets of the universe but they can’t tell you is lost (as are the characters of John and Barbara entirely). However, it kind of makes sense when you consider the fact that in being translated from book to movie, it was also translated from being a piece of European fantasy to a piece of American fantasy. Now, nothing against American fantasy. American fantasy stories have their own strengths. For example, American fantasy stories tend to be a lot more free from the constraints of social class which seeps into a lot of European fantasy stories. We’ll put the metaphor issue aside for now, because a lot of that comes down to individual perception. However, the other issue still stands. European and particularly English fantasy stories have more a sense of “deep magic” to them. The feeling that the magic is there, in the hills and the stones and the trees and you could see it if you just had the means. Their ancestors could access it, so why can’t they? American fantasy, maybe because it’s a newish country and maybe because it’s a colonized country, generally doesn’t have that.
I should mention that not everything in these books is so great by modern standards. There’s some casual racism thrown around. Mary Poppins sometimes tells Michael that he shouldn’t “act like a red Indian” when he’s misbehaving. In fact, one of the stories in the first book had suck overt racism that it had to be changed (I’ve read an earlier edition too). A story that consisted of Mary and the children traveling around the world with a magic compass and meeting an Eskimo (now more appropriately called an Inuit, but Travers’s words, not mine), an African tribesman, a Mandarin and a "red Indian" (again, not my words) got turned into a trip to meet a polar bear, a macaw, a panda and a dolphin instead.
|Mary Poppins descends on a kite string
However, back to the issue of the Disney movie. I think maybe it’s time to address that particular elephant in the room. Mary Poppins Returns comes out this week and the question comes up: should this movie have been made? It’s not a secret that P.L. Travers hated the original Mary Poppins movie. Absolutely hated it. She hated it so much that she put a stipulation in her will that Mary Poppins should never be made into a movie again. However, years after her death, Disney goes to the Travers estate and despite that stipulation makes a deal to create a sequel. On one hand, Travers made it very explicit that she didn’t want her character used in another movie. On the other hand, the Travers estate was essentially sitting on an intellectual property that has a lot of potential. Sure, the books might still sell okay. However, licensing is currently the biggest way to make money from an IP, especially children’s characters. There’s also the fact that the damage has already been done. The original movie is already more famous than the books. Looking back at the original attempt by Disney and Travers, it’s hard to tell who was being more unfair. Sure, Disney changed a lot of things that Travers didn’t want changed. That’s nothing new. Hollywood does that all the time and it sucks. But Travers didn’t come out smelling like a rose either. She was a notoriously touchy, anxious woman who had a lot of baggage in her past. She would hand out seemingly arbitrary rules to the filmmakers like “Mary Poppins should never wear red”. One wonders if maybe she were trying to find a way to keep the movie from being made while simultaneously accepting Disney’s money (she was in financial straits at the time). And to some extent, Travers’s stipulation just feels like a stall anyway. In the long run (a very, VERY long run thanks to Disney, but that’s another story) the character and her stories will enter the public domain eventually and Poppins is well-known and beloved enough that people will make movies about her. Some will draw on the Disney interpretation. Others will try hard to stick to “the author’s original vision” and use it as a selling point. But barring major law changes or some kind of cataclysm, it’s likely to happen.
Mary Poppins Returns comes out and though part of me thinks I shouldn’t see it because of Travers’s wishes, my curiosity is piqued and won’t leave me alone. I want to see what parts of these four books make it into the movie. I’m even more curious after seeing the trailers, which show that Emily Blunt has more of a handle on the literary Mary Poppins’s attitude and personality than Andrews did (you have to love that “damn, I look good” look Blunt gives to the mirror in that one part). I’m also not expecting Travers’s wishes to stop anyone else from seeing Mary Poppins Returns, but if you’re going to see the movie you should also check out the books. I’m not going to say they’re “practically perfect in every way”, but they’re pretty good and deserve a read.