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P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books are full of dark delight
Before Walt Disney added a spoonful of sugar to her, Mary Poppins was a much more complicated character in P.L. Travers’ books.
Seattle Times movie critic
‘Saving Mr. Banks’
Opens Friday at several theaters. Rated PG-13.
She has shiny black hair (“ ‘rather like a wooden Dutch doll,’ whispered Jane”), wears a shapeless and practical raincoat, and is thin, with large hands and feet and “small, rather peering blue eyes.” She is Mary Poppins, born three decades before the famous 1964 Disney film in the first of a series of books by Australian-born journalist-turned-novelist P.L. Travers. Mary Poppins has the habit of punctuating her sentences with a very superior sniff, she carries a magical carpetbag (which holds, among other things, seven flannel nightgowns and four cotton ones), and she “kept her thoughts to herself and never told anybody anything.”
Like pretty much every kid from the past half-century, I saw “Mary Poppins” the movie as a very small child, and grew up singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” (For the record, I suspect I still know every word.) But I also remember, at perhaps age 10 or so, finding the original P.L. Travers Mary Poppins books at the library, their well-thumbed pages soft from wear. This Mary was different from the movie; she was more brittle and less pretty, and her adventures with the Banks children were sometimes genuinely scary. Journeying into this world felt less safe than the Disney version; I loved the books (there were four then, though Travers, who died in 1996, later published several more), both because and in spite of their darkness.
The new movie “Saving Mr. Banks,” which opens in Seattle-area theaters Friday, depicts the rocky path of “Mary Poppins” the movie, with Travers (played, with nary a twinkle, by Emma Thompson) at odds with the sweeter version of her story that Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) wanted to make. And definitely the Disney version has many changes from the book: Two of the Banks children (twins John and Barbara) have disappeared; Mrs. Banks (who has no first name in the books) has become a suffragette; Bert, called the Match-Man in the book, has been elevated from minor character to leading man; and seven of the book’s chapters — each depicting a different adventure with Mary Poppins — have vanished.
None of this matters a whit; the movie’s a delight and a classic — though Travers in later life dismissed it as “all fantasy and no magic,” many who’ve watched it would disagree. But the books provide plenty of magic on their own. Mary Poppins, on a dark night, climbs an impossibly tall ladder and glues stars to the sky; Mary Poppins rescues Jane from a nightmare in which she’s pulled into the world depicted on a painted bowl; Mary Poppins takes the children on a fantasy afternoon in which they, and every resident of Cherry Tree Lane, float through the air guided by personalized balloons. And I remember being touched, even as a child, by a chapter introducing a new baby to the Banks family, in which little Annabel first remembers the mystical world that she came from, and all too quickly forgets it.
The Mary Poppins books always began with the magical nanny’s unexpected arrival, and ended with her abrupt departure, leaving Jane and Michael sad but always a little wiser. Will she return, wonders Michael, at the end of “Mary Poppins Comes Back.” Perhaps, says his older sister, “if we want her enough.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.