Books and movies

As I have wanted to do from the moment I saw the preview for it several weeks ago, I went to see “Saving Mr. Banks” in the theater today. I packed my pockets with tissues before I left the house, and wisely so.

Tom Hanks stars as Walt Disney, charmingly but relentlessly attempting to persuade Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) to sign over the movie rights to him. The two have been in fruitless negotiations for said rights for 20 years and, in 1961, Travers (who insists that everyone call her “Mrs. Travers” even though the movie hints that she is not actually married to anyone) flies from London to Los Angeles to hash out the details with Disney’s creative team. Hilarity does not ensue. Travers is one of the most thoroughly ungrateful, ungracious, tactless, heartless people you’ll ever see. She finds fault with every single thing the Disney team does or proposes. It is to their everlasting credit as ladies and gentlemen that not one them ever loses his or her temper on this hateful woman.

The movie is clever in how it weaves together the story of Travers’ somewhat turbulent childhood in rural Australia with a wildly charming but uncontrollably alcoholic father and a stern aunt who comes “to take care of everything” and the story she later wrote about a magical nanny who arrives one day “with the East wind” to care for four English children whose father (Mr. Banks) works hard and isn’t around much. Disney, too, had a difficult childhood working hard for his own father, who didn’t hesitate to enforce discipline with the buckle end of his belt.

After two weeks of acrimonious story conferences following which Travers throws the rights contract on Disney’s desk unsigned and flies back to England in disgust, Disney looks into her family background and finally realizes that the reason Travers won’t collaborate with his team or allow the movie treatment to develop or progress is that she is holding on to her own story of a father who let her down, who didn’t come through for her as he promised he would. Disney gets on the next flight to London after Travers’ and arrives unannounced on her doorstep the next day. He promises her that he will not disappoint her, and that he will make a movie that will redeem her father. “Isn’t it time to let it all go?” he asks her. “Don’t you want to finish the story?” Cue the tissues.

Nobody can move me from the silver screen like Tom Hanks. Watching him deliver a monologue about fathers who love their kids but don’t know how to show it, about offering them forgiveness and honoring what they were rather than condemning them for what they were not, and about remaking the world as we want it to be with the power of the stories we tell, I soaked every one of those damned tissues. I know already that I’m going to buy this movie the minute it is available on Blu-Ray just to watch that one scene until I have it memorized.

Considering how passionately the grownups in the movie praised the book Mary Poppins, and how much they said their kids absolutely adored it, I figured it had to be worth my time to read (I probably saw the original movie as a child and didn’t think much of it, I guess, although the few clips they showed in “Saving Mr. Banks” made it look pretty cute so I might watch it again someday).

The always-charming Julie Andrews in the original "Mary Poppins."

The always-charming Julie Andrews in the original “Mary Poppins.”

I downloaded the book to my Kindle tonight and started right in. After just a few chapters, I tossed it away in disgust. What a stupid story. Mary Poppins is blunt, sarcastic, short-tempered and brusque, just like Travers in the movie, and is maddeningly uncommunicative when her charges ask her even the simplest questions. The stories she tells and the adventures she has read like bad drug trips. It’s not a long book, but I doubt I’ll ever finish it. It’s hard to imagine what Walt Disney ever saw in it that made him pursue Travers for the rights to it for more than two decades. Being Disney, he made a movie that was infinitely better than his source material. It would have to be.

Bottom line: Watch the movie, skip the book.

~~~~~

Another movie I have really enjoyed somewhat recently (because I’m very, very late to the party) is “Les Misérables.” It’s based on the book by Victor Hugo, which I got on the Kindle last summer. I am nothing if not a speedy reader, but it took me more than five months of disciplined application to slog my way through it.

The first 15 chapters of the book are devoted exclusively to the history, character and charitable works of the Bishop of Digne, the cleric who saves Jean Valjean’s life as well as his soul and who appears near the beginning of the movie for all of about five minutes and at the very end for just a moment. There are thousand-page (or so it seems) digressions on, among other things, the Battle of Waterloo with every key player and geographic feature of the battlefield named, the history of architecture in Paris, and the structure of the Parisian sewers in excruciating detail. The back story on the key characters is fleshed out so far I felt as if every one of them was an old friend by the end, and it turns out that they’re all far more closely related to one another than the movie has time to explain. Jean Valjean’s suffering, Fantine’s degradation, Javert’s obsession, the Thénardiers’ viciousness, and Marius and Cosette’s romance are all fully, richly expounded upon to the very last detail. Not a word is spared.

After reading that massive tome (which I’m grateful I did not buy in hard copy because the weight of it would have crushed me every time I fell asleep reading it), I am enormously impressed by how the movie compresses every key piece of this seemingly interminable tale into a mere 158 minutes with only a few key subplots glossed over or ignored entirely. It’s not a happy story, by any means, but it is exceptionally well told. In fact, the movie is a masterpiece of streamlined narration. And the songs are catchy, too.

Bottom line: Watch the movie, skip the book unless you’re prepared to invest about six months of your life in getting to the end of it.

~~~~~

Books I liked as well as the movie include Atonement, Into the Wild and Anna Karenina. All are excellent in either medium.

Movies I liked better than their books include “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Phantom of the Opera.” The first book was far too long, the other rather too short, but the movies were both terrific.

Books I liked better than their movies include Julie & Julia, Eat Pray Love, The Hunger Games series and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. The movies left out too much that made the books so entertaining.

Anyway, that’s my short list. Anyone have any suggestions for great books I should read or great movies I should see?

 

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4 thoughts on “Books and movies

  1. I’m not current on movies or books. My favorites change daily with my mood. I haven’t read/seen Hunger Games or the Girl series – neither hold any interest for me. I just finished reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series again – I tend to re-read certain books over and over. The same goes for re-reading The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. LOTR movies were wonderful – they kept to the spirit of the book – but I was disappointed in Part 1 of the Hobbit, which was way too action-oriented, so haven’t watched Part 2. I own the extended movie versions of LOTR, if that tells you anything.

    • Ah yes, thank you for the reminder about LOTR! I absolutely loved all the movies, but cannot force myself to read the books. As for the Hobbit, I have to pass on both the book and the movies.

      On the other hand, I could reread the Hunger Games and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books every year but don’t care if I never see any of the movies again. To each her own. 🙂

  2. I’m still trying to decide whether or not to see “Saving Mr. Banks.” On the one hand: Emma Thompson. I would probably pay to watch her read the phone book. But on the other hand: everything else. Based on the trailers, clips and reviews, it appears that this film is a reputation-whitewash for Walt Disney, at the expense of Pamela Travers.

    Travers was a fascinating and complex person, yet most of her complexity was left out of the film. She was bisexual, and lived with a girlfriend for many years. She adopted a baby boy and raised him to adulthood. She was a poet who ran in exalted company, including Yeats, and her poetry led her to a study of mysticism and folklore. This in turn led her to live for two years among the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo Indians during WWII, studying their stories. She was the Writer-in-Residence at both Smith and Radcliffe Colleges, and from there went to Japan to study Zen Buddhism. None of this is in the film, which by all accounts portrays her as provincial, narrow-minded, and unlovable.

    However, I’m curious to find out if the film shows the premiere of the movie version of Mary Poppins, and whether it gives the impression that Travers was a) invited, and b) liked it. In truth she was not invited (and was forced to ask Disney for permission to attend), and she hated it so much that she wept at the end. Disney had done everything she tried to prevent, and diluted her Mary Poppins into something Americanized, sweet, and unrecognizable. Disney’s PR team, seeing her weeping and sensing a PR disaster, promptly told the press that she was crying for joy. And that is what people believed. It’s hard to imagine how she must have felt, reading the newspapers the next day.

    For me, the irascibility of Mary Poppins in the original novels (they were a series, not just one book) was part of her attraction. I loved that character! She was mysterious and had fascinating experiences, just like the real adults in my life. And she didn’t explain herself to my satisfaction, also like the real adults in my life. The difference between the literary Mary Poppins, beloved by the Brits, and the movie adaptation version, beloved by Americans, is probably the best encapsulation you’ll ever find of the cultural difference between those two nations.

    • The movie does show Disney making what he called “a very hard decision” not to invite Travers to the American premiere (he thought the British premiere would be more “convenient” for her to attend) because he was afraid her negativity would detract from the movie’s success (I guess he knew she wouldn’t like it). She just shows up in his office on the day of the event and claims her invitation was lost in the mail. He swallows hard and promises to have a duplicate sent to her hotel right away.

      She does cry most of the way through the premiere, her face and even her neck awash with tears, and we are given to believe that these are tears of appreciation, perhaps, but something else, too. I cried along with her!

      The movie soft-pedals how Disney did mostly what he wanted rather than what Travers wanted, and it puts the sweetest face on him that Tom Hanks can possibly provide (which, I must say, is pretty darn sweet).

      Ultimately, this movie is a fiction, yes–Americanized, sweet and unrecognizable from actual history. Focusing on the outstanding performances and the structure of the story it tells allows for more enjoyment than rigorously comparing it to real life and real people. The movie is so well done in so many ways that it’s really worth seeing, I think. For me, the part about fathers and daughters is what put it high on my list of favorites.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, OEx. I am delighted to see you here at last. 🙂

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