Mary Poppins Returns
by P. L. Travers
Published by Blackstone Audio
Read by Sophie Thompson
Is there anyone these days who has heard of Mary Poppins and not seen the now-classic Disney Movie? I’m actually old enough that when it first came out, my parents took my sister and my over an hour north to Boston so we could see it in the theater. The lines were incredible and I am sure that it was only because we had driven so far that my parents decided to wait with us to see the movie. And we had to go that distance because in the first run there were no showings on any schedules in the theaters of New Bedford. Details are fuzzy, but I am pretty sure we waited in line longer than the movie ran twice and that was with multiple showings. The movie was a phenomenon!
How many out there saw the recent Disney movie, “Saving Mister Banks?” Not enough for a four or five hour line, I am sure, but it was an interesting view into the making of the “Mary Poppins” movie and of the friction between author P. L. Travers and Walt Disney. I’m not sure how much of that all was accurate, but from what I have read quite a few incidents were close to reality. I may get back to that later.
P.L. Travers wrote several very popular books about a British Nanny, her charges, relatives and friends. Mary Poppins is by no means as sweet and charming as Julie Andrews’ portrayal of her, but if you read the original chapters and compare them to scenes in the movie, they are not too far off. Mary Poppins is magical in an understated, stiff upper-lip manner, with more than just a touch of vanity. One gets the notion that magic is not the sort of thing well-brought up persons do, however, and whenever Jane and Michael mention something she has done, such as having tea on the ceiling with her uncle, she predictably sniffs and demands to know, in an offended tone of voice, if they could possibly be implying that someone such as her did such a thing. Sadly the kids never catch on, leading me to wonder how smart they are.
I should mention, by the way that in the first book Jane and Michael have two siblings, boy and girl twins whose names I am forgetting, although they do get a chapter all to themselves. The house they live in is somewhat dilapidated, because Mister Banks could either afford a nicely maintained home or four children, but not both and Mrs. Banks chose to have four children. In the second book she had a fifth child, probably because Mrs. Travers wanted to write another story about children young enough to talk to birds and animals and beams of light, etc. an the twins were already too old.
In fact the second book comes off as a rewrite of the first in many ways. Many of the stories there in have direct parallels to those of the first book as if Mrs. Travers decided she did not like the way they went the first time and used the sequel to get them the way she wanted. Well maybe she did, or maybe she just felt a sequel should follow a pattern set in the first book.
It might not be fair to compare her books to Disney’s movie, but, in my estimation, the movie was fairly accurate to the first book of the series. The book has chapters Disney did not attempt to adapt. In some cases different characters did various things. For example, It was on an outing with Mary Poppins that Jane and Michael fed the birds by buying a two penny bag of bird feed and as Travers wrote the scene this was something they had done before and looked forward to, but Travers was telling a series of short self-contained episodes and Disney was trying to make it a smooth organic story, but all in all, what they did adapt was as close as any movie comes to a book.
One exception is might be the scene in which Burt, Mary and the kids enter a chalk drawing. First of all in the book, the kids were not there. It was Mary’s night out and it was a date with Burt and more happens in the Disney sequence than does in the book. However, in “Saving Mister Banks” the Travers character objects to the use of animation because she hates cartoons. From what I have read elsewhere, that was an objection she stated at the time, but I cannot help but think she was being somewhat disingenuous when she said it. She clearly described what Mary and Burt saw inside the chalk drawing as looking like a chalk drawing. How is that going to be done believably without using animation? Admittedly Disney’s animation style does not look like it is drawn with chalk, but at least the characters have to brush chalk dust off their clothing.
Putting movie adaptations aside, the books of the series are classics of children’s literature and while quite dated today are still charming and fun to read.
Sophie Thompson was a delight to listen to in these recordings. She had a high-pitched and somewhat chirpy cheerful voice that in some situations might annoy me, but here set exactly the perfect tone. Her accent and tone of wonder mix perfectly during narrative passages and her use of voices match the characters wonderfully.
So the Mary Poppins books still stand up as excellent children’s stories and may be even more interesting to adults these days who might be interested on the stories than inspired the movie. And If there is a better narrator for these books than Sophie Thompson, I would be hard pressed to find her (or him).