Saturday, December 06, 2014

Spit Spot

By purest happenstance the Bride and I watched Saving Mister Banks last night.
To get the film itself upfront let me say that we both enjoyed it and Tom Hanks' and Emma Thompson's work as the two central characters Walt Disney and P.L. Travers despite the reality that both portrayals were, shall we say, less than full realizations of the actual people portrayed.

And that the story itself played more than a little loose with the truth. We weren't watching it as a documentary but as an entertainment and as an entertainment it succeeded.

But I'm not here to review the film. For one thing, I certainly couldn't do better on the subject than Lance Mannion already has, so if you're interested in more about the film, the actors, and the Disney-Travers imbroglio itself let me direct you to his two posts on the subject, here, and here.

For another, what I wanted to talk about is what the film made me think about the peculiar relationship between books and films - specifically children's books and children's films - and the relationship between them both and the adults whose children encounter them.

I've talked about my general approach to cinematic adaptations of beloved books when discussing the ongoing Peter Jackson adaptation of The Hobbit. I'm just not a purist about the whole business of "book versus film". Perhaps it has something to do with having tried to write both "literary" stories, plays, and screenplays. They're very different, and the sorts of things that work well on the printed page often fail disastrously on a stage or a screen. Perhaps its just that there are very few books I'm "passionate" about to the point of being seriously arsed if someone changes bits and pieces of them to make a flick out of them.

Whatever the reason I just don't have much trouble with a screenwriter, or director, or playwright, making changes - even big changes - in a book or story to adapt it for the screen or stage.

But I do look at the results this way.

Making those changes make the resulting play, or film, a different work, and sometimes a very different work.

So the film version of The Hobbit isn't "The Hobbit", a story written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It's a film by Peter Jackson that contains many likenesses and ideas from the Tolkien story, but it's not the same story. It's "based" on the story. It may have a few, or many, critical differences. You can be pleased, or disappointed, by characters or scenes or dialogue or storylines added or dropped (get me going some time on the whole Disappearing-Faramir-Eowyn-Romance business from the Jackson Return of the King segment of his Lord of the Rings cycle) and your love or loathing for the film adaptation may well be affected by that pleasure or disappointment.

But it seems foolish to me for the reader or viewer to be incensed by the changes existing. It's a film, it's not the book. It's going to be different. You can like or loathe the sort of changes, but not that there ARE differences. Difference is as certain to follow a film adaptation of a book as the night the day and railing at them is cursing the darkness - and the candle for not being the sun - instead of appreciating the candle for what it is.


That said, I can understand an author being arsed enough to forbid giving permission for her or his work to be adapted for the screen, in that there WILL be those changes. The author has only two choices after selling the rights; to be in charge of overseeing those changes (as, for instance, J.K. Rowling is said to have been with the Harry Potter series), or to be so un-wedded to their work as to be unconcerned how it is changed and how it affects their written work.

Because there's a very great danger that the film version, being louder and brighter and more kinetic than the written version, will become the work itself, the commentary will become the canon, and copy will eclipse the original in the minds and hearts of the viewers.

That happened to my own spawn with the film version of Cressida Cowell's How To Train Your Dragon.

They luuuurvvvved the movie. Loved it, loved it, loved it. They watched the much-lesser television series with drooling enchantment and dragged me off to see the second installment of the film at the movie house; fortunately I enjoyed both films well enough to find them tolerable and in places genuinely enjoyable. But something in me prickled at the thought of leaving the porch-monkeys there.

Being a bookish sort of daddy I thought that we should go to the well, so I picked up a copy of one of Cowell's "Dragon" books (it was the fourth in the series, How To Cheat A Dragon's Curse, if I recall correctly) and announced that this was the next in the "Bedtime Story" series.
[Let me insert here that the Small One loves to be read to at bedtime. She reads well enough one her own and could read the sort of young adult/middle reader/"chapter books" we choose. It's not the stories, it's the act of reading; the selection of the book, the cuddling together on the grownups' bed, the reminder of where we left off the evening before...and then the performance art of reading the story, with Daddy acting out the voices of the characters and Little Missy asking all sorts of pointless questions that Daddy will invariably answer with the caustic reply "Why don't we read the story and find out?" applied over the rim of his reading glasses. It's a sort of performance art, and Missy loves it well beyond the value of the stories themselves, and I have to admit I enjoy it, too.]
The result?

"Ewww! I hate this book!" "Its sooooo boring!" "I hate that Toothless!" (this was The Boy, who never really got past the fact that in the book his beloved film version giant-black-cat-like dragon was a petulent little serpent about the size of a fox terrier)

We never got past page fifty or so; the kiddos just flat-out refused. For them the film version was the "real" story, the canon; the genuine, original story was for them a sort of poor reworking of what they'd seen on the screen.

Whatever Cressida Cowell got from selling the rights to her story, what she didn't get was the affection of my kids for it but the complete opposite; they now consider her work an inferior version of the film.

After seeing Saving Mister Banks the first thing I did was go to the computer and reserve a copy of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Valerie Larson's biography of Travers...and the original Mary Poppins.

Because, you see, I've never read the book.

The only "Mary Poppins" I know is Julie Andrews, singing and dancing cheerfully through the primary-colored Disney version of the story. Mannion has read the Travers book and loathes it, but I'm not sure whether my taste will run with his. But now I'm curious to find out what Travers was protecting.

Because she was protecting it, and not from her fantastic fears or her daddy-issues, but from what it has become since 1964; a piece of incunabula, something more spoken of than read, the lost source of what became the great river of Disney-Poppins merchandising. From the coating of sentimentality that the Magic Kingdom lays over everything like sweet venom. From Julie Andrews sunnily playing the character Travers wrote like this:

"What did I say?" said Mary Poppins in that cold, clear voice that was always a Warning.

That isn't - as Hanks' Disney claims in the film - "letting the story finish itself". That's a whole different person in a whole 'nother story. And I suspect that Travers knew, complex soul that she was, that now that she'd sold her soul for 5% of the gross that she was going to have a very, very difficult time living with that.

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