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The making of Mary Poppins: Not such a jolly holiday

A new film about the contentious making of ‘Mary Poppins’ prompts a defence of the Disney musical

These days, turning children’s books into films is a simple process. Novel sells a million copies; author sells film rights; fans grouse about the casting of the lead characters; film is grindingly faithful to book; film’s box office fails to match the Harry Potter series. But it wasn’t ever thus. In 1934, the first of  P L Travers’s eight Mary Poppins books was published, and the public was introduced to Mr and Mrs Banks’s unflappable, magical nanny. But it was decades before Walt Disney persuaded Travers to let him put Mary Poppins on the big screen, and when he finally did, in 1964, much of the author’s work had been lost in translation.

Walt’s campaign to get his movie made has now been made into a movie of its own, Saving Mr Banks, which closes the London Film Festival next Sunday. Starring Tom Hanks as Walt and Emma Thompson (who else?) as Pamela Travers, it revolves around the protracted disagreements between the Australian actress-turned-writer and the American mogul over what she perceived as the saccharine Disneyfication of her original novel. But Saving Mr Banks is also a Disney film, so it’s doubtful that it’ll reveal just how intensely Travers disliked what Walt did to her creation. At Mary Poppins’s Hollywood premiere, she buttonholed its producer and attempted to list her objections. “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence,” she began. Walt replied: “Pamela, the ship has sailed,” and walked away.

Up until Travers’s death in 1996, she was still listing her objections. “How could dear, demented Mrs Banks, fussy, feminine and loving, become a suffragette,” she demanded in a letter to a friend in the 1980s. “Why was Mary Poppins, already beloved for what she was – plain, vain and incorruptible – transmogrified into a soubrette?” Later, when Cameron Mackintosh convinced her to let him stage a Mary Poppins musical, the author, then aged 93, stuck to her guns: no one connected to the film could have anything to do with it.

Were her grievances justified? If you compare the film and the books now, it’s clear that Travers’s complaints were both completely right and completely wrong. Yes, Disney’s Mary Poppins distorts her vision, but it’s the kind of distortion which most literary adaptations could learn from. Walt understood something which Travers didn’t – and that’s that films and novels are different beasts.

Nearly all of Disney’s Mary Poppins is based on the first novel. Both the book and the film concern a remarkable nanny, the awestruck children she cares for, and the fantastic encounters they have around London. But while the book is essentially a collection of discrete short stories, Walt and his screenwriters string those stories together into a narrative about busy, self-involved parents realising that they should spend more time with their offspring (a theme which wasn’t as tired in 1964 as it is today). Several of the novel’s strangest chapters have been discarded, so we lose the nocturnal zoo visit in which the animals roam free and humans are shuts in cages, and the star which comes down to earth to do its Christmas shopping. Other chapters, meanwhile, are expanded into all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas.

Take that animation sequence, for a start. In Chapter Two, Mary and her pavement-artist pal, Bert, are transported into one of his chalk drawings. After stopping for tea, they notice a merry-go-round. “They leapt upon it,” writes Travers, “Mary Poppins on a black horse and [Bert] on a grey. And when the music started again and they began to move, they rode all the way to Yarmouth and back, because that was the place they both wanted most to see.”

And that’s that. In the film, though, this two-sentence merry-go-round ride is transformed into a bravura, eight-minute setpiece, which puts Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke into a cartoon world (alongside Mary’s two charges, Jane and Michael, who are absent from the novel’s equivalent passage). Still on their fairground horses, they rescue a fox from a hunting party, hop on to a race track, pose for photographers after Mary wins the race, and have a knees-up with some pearly kings and queens, while coining a word absent from the books: “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. You can see why Travers wondered what any of this had to do with her.

Growing up “in sugar-planting country” in Queensland, Australia, Travers (or Helen Goff, as she was before she adopted her pseudonym) had fallen in love with British and Irish myths and legends, and she saw her own writing as belonging to the same folk tradition. She wanted her crisp prose to be mysterious and ambiguous, to enchant its readers by leaving many of its marvels to the imagination. But Walt and his director, Robert Stevenson, were set on doing the imagining for us. In that sense, then, their bright and vivid film is an unconscionable departure from the elliptical, dreamlike fairy tales which inspired Travers. But it’s this very departure which makes it such a treat. Fifty years on, the sheer generosity of the film’s 139 entertainment-stuffed minutes is almost embarrassing.

Speaking as someone who has two young daughters, and who has therefore watched Mary Poppins more times than any human being should ever watch any film, I can say with some authority that the choreography, humour and special effects seem more impressive with each viewing. The how-did-they-do-that marriage of animation and flesh-and-blood actors beats most digitally-assisted efforts (see Jar Jar Binks). The Sherman Brothers’ classic songs - which Travers disliked on the grounds that she would have preferred Edwardian standards - seem too good to have been created specifically for a film, rather than a stage production. Similarly, it’s well-nigh incredible that Andrews’ practically perfect (and Oscar-winning) performance wasn’t honed on Broadway for months beforehand. And, yes, I’d even defend Dick Van Dyke, whose loose-limbed brio wouldn’t have disgraced Fred Astaire – and whose notorious mockney vowels are no worse than those you’ll hear from some English actors (Look up “Charlie Hunnam Green Street” on YouTube, if you don’t believe me).

Besides, for all of its divergences, the film is still rooted deeply in Travers’s imaginings. Every scene, as embellished as it may be, is drawn from the source material, and some scenes are ingenious combinations of two or more chapters. Crucially, Mary is unmistakably the same “vain and incorruptible” disciplinarian as her ink-and-paper counterpart. And if Andrews is far from “plain” ... well, that’s Hollywood for you.

It’s a wonderful adaptation of a wonderful book, and it’s a shame that Travers would never recognise that. If Emma Thompson’s Travers is more forgiving, then maybe that’s for the best.

Bad blood: Five other film adaptations that the authors hated ...

‘The Shining’

Stanley Kubrick’s 1981 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel may be considered a horror classic, but King himself has always hated it. “I felt that it was very cold, very, ‘We’re looking at these people, but they’re like ants in an ant hill, aren’t they doing interesting things, these little insects’,” he said in a recent interview.

‘Myra Breckinridge’

Gore Vidal was never more caustic than when criticising the much-derided, high-camp 1970 version of his renowned satire. Disowning the film before it was even released, he finally dared to watch it decades later and declared it “the second worst movie I’ve ever seen”.

‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’

Roald Dahl was less than sweetened by the 1971 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder (inset): after his own screenplay was rejected, subsequent drafts turned Wonka into the star of the show, detracting attention from Dahl’s moral compass, Charlie, and moving the author to disown the film.

‘A Clockwork Orange’

Another author who had issues with Stanley Kubrick’s interpretative skills was Anthony Burgess. He lamented creating “the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence” and said that the director’s misunderstanding of what the book was about “will pursue me until I die”. 

‘A Farewell to Arms’

Ernest Hemingway notoriously hated film adaptations of his works, including this 1932 take on his First World War novel. He had some (unheeded) words of advice for his fellow writers: “The best way for a writer to deal with Hollywood was to arrange a rendezvous with the movie men at the California state line. You throw your book, they throw you the money, then you jump into your car and drive like hell the way you came”.