Mary Poppins: When the Movie is Much Better than the Book

Mary Poppins, the movie, was always a favorite of mine growing up, and it continues to be a movie that resonates well with me today. The music, the story, the characters, the whimsy. It all comes together in a fantastic combination. There’s a reason it was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five (including Best Actress).

So of course I’ve been drawn to other Mary Poppins-related works. I watched Saving Mr. Banks and thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I loved the concept expressed in the film that Mary Poppins hadn’t come to save the children, but rather to save the father. And that line stayed with me after I watched the movie, kicking around in my head until at last I wondered why in the world I hadn’t ever read the original book by PL Travers?

When I saw the book on sale on Kindle, it was an easy purchase.

Having now read the book, I believe I will trot it out often as a prime example of a time where the movie adaptation is much, much better than the book. People love to say that all the time: “The book was better than the movie.” And having studied adaptation for my English masters thesis, there’s a ton I could say on the subject. Often, it’s just a matter of a person expressing their preference of literature over film. Often, they’re right. Books can be much more nuanced than films.

But it’s not always true.

In PL Travers’ version, there is no real plot. Mary Poppins arrives because the last nanny left. Not because the children were necessarily horrible (though you could infer that in places), but just because she decided to leave. There’s no grand line of nannies out front. None of them get blown away. More importantly, Mr. Banks has almost no role to play whatsoever. He’s a background character. Bert makes a single appearance in one chapter. The family isn’t “broken”. Mary Poppins isn’t there to save anyone. She’s there to have a series of whimsical adventures and then get whisked off by the wind when it changes direction again.

(The original also had serious problems with racist depictions of characters, to the point that a chapter was revised twice in an effort to solve them. Whoops.)

So what’s actually in the book that made it into the movie? There’s a talking penguin at one point. The scene where they all go floating in the air for tea is there (minus Bert). Bert and Mary go into a picture (sans children). And Mary leaves at the end. (Spoilers!) Other than that, the only thing left is the sense of whimsy of the book. Even Mary’s character is quite different. She’s fairly self-obsessed in the book, and not very nice throughout the story, despite how much people seem to adore her.

I love the whimsy, but the lack of a plot and any character development was a huge disappointment. True, perhaps my expectations here higher because of how it had been depicted in Saving Mr. Banks, but even without that, the book is a let down. The things that made the movie so remarkable are absent in the book.

I’m not sure how well the novel sold. Clearly well enough to inspire four sequels before the movie came out, and then three more after that. But I would definitely contend that the character Mary Poppins would have long ago disappeared from pop culture had it not been for the remarkable film.

Is the book worth reading? Sure it is. It takes all of an hour or two to get through it. But I just gave it a 6.5/10. It’s fine, but nothing to write home about. And yet I’ll recommend it to anyone the next time they insist books are superior to movie adaptations. There’s no hard, fast rule to adaptation. In this case, Disney took the character, the basic premise, and then altered accordingly, leaving really only the whimsy of the original intact. So is it “faithful”? Not to the plot or characters, certainly. I can see why Travers was upset by the changes. It wasn’t her book anymore.

But if anyone ever adapts one of my books and brings the sort of quality and shine Disney brought to this one? I would sing their praises.

Just sayin’ . . .


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2 thoughts on “Mary Poppins: When the Movie is Much Better than the Book”

  1. I haven’t read the book, but I doubt it can be as bad as the movie, which I hate with a passion. Mary Poppins is somebody who I despise, she makes it seem like Jane and Michael need to improve while claiming to be perfect. From the moment when she describes herself as “practically perfect in every way”, she is the kind of person I wouldn’t want to be around. Well, even before then, when she bullies other nannies out of the way, and orders Michael around the moment she meets him. I’m not sure why she says “we are not a codfish”, when she is only talking about Michael himself. She then gaslights Jane and Michael by showing them magic then denying it, for all this movie seems distant with them and forces the mouth of a bird shut. It is hard to imagine how she would make the Banks family that happy when she hardly seems to be happy herself. Mr Banks’s constant gloom makes me feel miserable, in fact a lot of this movie does, like Mr Banks tearing up a letter Jane and Michael wrote and Michael’s money grabbed at a bank. In the end it is suggested that Mr Banks killed somebody by telling a joke. Also Dick Van Dyke tries and fails to do an English accent in this film. This film is generally boring and corny, a lot of the songs in it feel bland and this movie is too long. It is a very Ageist message to give that children need a babysitter who treats them horribly and there is no clear explanation as to what makes Mr Banks suddenly happy at the end of this movie. This film also does not give a good message about gender equality, because Mrs Banks sings “though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid”. She also lets Mr Banks be in charge of her.

  2. Interesting article. I am studying adaptation in an English course at Open Universiites Australia and particularly always think of the awful adaptation of the book into film as my example of a travesty.The book was mysterious and dark – a favourite with my children. The movie is fairy floss in comparison and very Americanized. A lot of the British?Australian subtlety and intrigue eclipsed completely.P.L Travers wrote the book after moving to England after living in a town near where I live and there are several statues of her there ( Bowral, NSW Australia). She, her widowed mother and sisters lived there during a dark period in her life. She told her younger sisters stories to entertain them. Her mother tried to drown herself in a creek nearby one night. This bleakness is evident in her books, as is her interest in the occult fashionable in the early 20th century. She inhabits so vividly the mystery that adults pose to a child- the inexplicable yet fascination children feel about mysterious adults.
    Mary in the book is cold, never explains herself and is harsh and judgmental but ultimately caring – a very complex character. Travers ( ie Helen Goff) cried all the way through watching the Disney version. Later in life she admitted it was a good movie- only not her story.

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