How much must an original work be respected in an adaptation for a different medium?
Disney’s newest dramatic offering, Saving Mr. Banks, made a quiet splash over Christmas. But for all it’s unobtrusiveness, the story of how Walt Disney finally convinced the reluctant author of Mary Poppins, Pamela L. Travers, to allow him to make her beloved novel into a movie is one of the best films to come out of the studio in some time. The performances are stellar, there are plenty of decent reviews out there, and this post is not meant to be another, except to say that in spite of all the contested opinions about the key players and how they are represented, the movie stands on its own as a good story. However, the film also deals with two important themes that are either overlooked or only briefly mentioned in the reviews, but which offer two key reasons why you should see it.
One of these themes is the tension between two artists over the concept of an original work of art. P.L. Travers conceived of Mary Poppins and through her own creative gifts brought the plot, setting, and characters to life through the medium of words. It is clear throughout the film that the novel is beloved, and not only by children – adults “can’t put it down.” As the artist, Travers is charged with preserving the integrity of the work and she has a horror – an arguably justified one – of the “art” Disney produces. She rightfully believes his “animated cartoons” have no place in or business with her story and is convinced he will ruin it. Her anxiety is borne out time and again as she discovers daily the “adaptations” he plans for her art, each one taking the original concept farther and farther from the “truth” of the story as she imagined it.
Critics may see Travers’s attitude in all of this as uptight and unappreciative. But the theme and the lesson it begs to teach is a critical one. To understand the weight of it we need look no further than December’s novel-to-film premiere of Peter Jackson’s newest Hobbit film. There is no need to waste time reviewing the film; rather, I only want to point out by way of example that the film had very little to do with Tolkien’s novel. The departure from the original work of art was overt and extensive and, sadly, horrifying. While Tolkien’s novel offered a fairy tale coming-of-virtue saga in the best of the tradition and appropriate for all ages, Jackson’s film dispenses with the theme of virtue pretty much entirely in favor of gratuitous, malicious violence — including decapitations, extended bitter battle scenes and grotesque orcs which do not appear in the novel – and weakly drawn “new” characters who forge relationships which simply do not exist in any of Tolkien’s work, not to mention the egregious abuse the character of Legolas endures in a story Tolkien never intended him to appear in.
The travesty Jackson perpetrates on Tolkien’s art is exactly the type of travesty Travers fears her work will suffer at the hands of Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. It is a disturbing cultural trend that it now acceptable to judge the merits of a vast array of literary arts by the film adaptations made of them. It is so easy to just “see the film” of anything these days, rather than to commit to the mental, emotional, and perhaps spiritual effort involved in engaging over time with a literary text. Sadly it isn’t unusual to hear someone say, as I did recently, when I told a woman she really ought to read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, “Oh, I really didn’t like that movie at all!” Her experience with a mediocre movie soured her on reading the book, which is in essence very different from the film. The ease with which we say, “I’ll just watch the film” version of any book distances us from the truth that an author, somewhere in time, grappled mightily to bring this text to life, a text we see no problem with reducing to mere fragments of sound bites that more often than not have little if anything to do with the original work.
Thus, one of the things Saving Mr. Banks does is remind us of the delicate tension that exists between preserving an artist’s original intention in her work alongside the creative potential of the artist who would reinterpret it through a new medium. The integrity of the original work must be respected. We owe it to authors, and to ourselves, to experience the text in its original form before experiencing it reimagined, regurgitated or remade by someone else. Saving Mr. Banks and the example of Jackson’s non-Hobbit remind us of what is at stake and what can be lost when we fail to respect the integrity and dignity of a work of art.
The other idea Saving Mr. Banks explores well is Tolkien’s principle of eucatastrophe: story, particularly fairy story, can and should be a healing event in the life of the reader by way of the consoling joy of the happy ending – even though it arises from what looks to be darkness itself – and all of the hope and promise contained within it. Writers write, consciously or unconsciously, about what they experience in life; their art grows out of who they are as human beings, of what they know and believe of life, and the ways in which their experience has affected them. In the film, Travers writes to heal and to make what went wrong in her past somehow right. She writes to save lives, her own and her father’s. “These characters are family to me,” Travers says, hinting not only at how closely the artist relates to her work, but to the truth behind the art: that literature arises from experience, in order to make sense of it, to heal from it, to share it. The braided flashbacks of Travers’s life that punctuate the film show the visceral truth of this element of the writer’s life.
For all his faults and scheming, Disney does see that the crux of Travers’s novel isn’t about the children at all, but about what Mary Poppins is able to do to save Mr. Banks. Disney’s ability to express his deep understanding of this to Travers affirms the very core of her as an artist. Though their artistic vision is fundamentally different, he sees the truth of her story and promises her that he can and will make this element stand out in his film adaptation, telling her the job of a storyteller is to reintroduce order, to mend, to heal. This is a beautifully stated reminder of Tolkien’s principle that is sadly lost in much modern storytelling. Whether or not Disney’s film adaptation of Travers’s novel is finally faithful is open to question; in the world of the film, that the principle of fidelity to the goal of the art is even raised is noteworthy and deserving of attention. Ultimately, Travers does experience her own happy ending, a catharsis and healing evidenced by the fact that her mood and attitude is significantly lighter at the end of the film than it was at the beginning. In addition, she takes up writing again and lets the light shine on the darkness of her solitary life. It might be she needed to see her happy ending through some other storyteller’s eyes to gain the benefit of healing. In the end, this is a truth many of us can relate to and appreciate. The film’s depiction of it is touching.
Saving Mr. Banks undoubtedly presents an amazing cast at the top of their game, an excellent script, and technical accomplishment. But Disney’s ultimate success with the film is in pointing to the dignity of the artist, to the integrity of the literary arts as deserving of great respect, and to the core truth of the healing power of any good story in its essence. In doing so, the film raises a gauntlet for those who assume the challenges that come with adapting an original literary work of art to another medium. The irony that this gauntlet is thrown down by Disney is not lost on this writer. And maybe that is another reason the film is worth going to see.