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’ . . .
Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.
If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.