I’m a big fan of children’s books, but I’m not so familiar with some of the classics. After watching (and loving) Saving Mr. Banks a couple of years ago, I decided it was about time I familiarised myself with the real Mary Poppins. I knew the books were meant to be rather darker and very different than the film (which is why this is not a Book Vs. Film review), but I didn’t expect them to differ to such an extent.
For a start, the character of Mary Poppins has been vastly altered for Disney’s film version. I wasn’t expecting the book character to be as sugary sweet as Julie Andrews, but in actual fact she turned out to be a complete and utter bitch! I’m completely baffled as to why the Banks children (four in total, Jane and Michael plus baby twins John and Barbara) were so fond of her. She doesn’t once say a kind word to them in the book. She’s always scowling and snapping and taking everything the wrong way, so that the poor children haven’t a hope of talking to her without causing offence. On top of that, she’s a bare faced liar. The children witness her doing things like having a tea party on the ceiling, but she’ll flatly (and very angrily) deny it ever happened, even though there’s always a clue to be seen confirming the event did take place (like her snake skin belt after a night-time sojourn to the zoo). Her punishments are downright sinister, but she seems to enjoy terrifying the children into learning a lesson. Plus, of course, she’s exceedingly vain. I knew she wouldn’t have the same temperament as Julie Andrews, but to be honest I’m struggling to think of a single redeeming character feature.
The story itself (if you can call it a story) is completely all over the place. There are a few recognisable features from the film, like the tea party on the ceiling and a trip through Bert’s street painting, but there is no semblance of an overarching plot or storyline. In fact the book is more a series of disjointed episodes or vignettes which bear little or no relation to each other. The features of these vignettes are often fantastical, but to varying degrees of success. The episode I liked least concerned a very sinister woman from a sweet shop, who had edible fingers and was a terrible bully. In this episode Mary Poppins actually steals from Jane and Michael, taking their stars and climbing a ladder to put them back in the sky. She is also terribly cruel when she and the children travel by compass, threatening to throw a frightened herring into the sea for the dolphins to race after and eat. Increasingly bizarre vignettes included a red cow who couldn’t stop dancing until she jumped over the moon, and a night time trip to the zoo on Mary Poppins’ birthday, where humans were held in cages and the animals were the spectators. I think the only episode which I really enjoyed was when a star came down from the sky to do her Christmas shopping for her sisters, and Mary Poppins gave the star her new fur gloves so that she wouldn’t be left without a present of her own. This was the only time in the whole book where Mary Poppins didn’t seem completely abhorrent as a character (even though the gloves were far too big for the star to wear anyway, but the thought was there). Unfortunately, it was nowhere near enough to redeem her horrible behaviour throughout the rest of the book.
To be perfectly honest, I’m completely amazed that Walt Disney managed to come up with the film at all based on what he had to work with. I’m assuming that some features of the film may be based on events in later Mary Poppins books, but I don’t know how he managed to pad out such bitty material into such an enjoyable and well-loved film. What puzzles me still further is why he even bothered to fight for the rights for twenty years to begin with. The finished film is so very different from P.L. Travers’ story (which can only be a blessing in my eyes), but I don’t understand how he even saw the potential there. I probably will read the rest of the books because I have a complete collection bind-up copy, and I hate to leave a series half-finished, but I’m not holding out much hope that the stories will improve. I’d like to think that I’ve greatly misunderstood and under-estimated the depth of Mary Poppins’ character, but I’ve already started the second book so I know this isn’t the case. It’s disappointing, but I shall persevere. If you ask me though, there’s no shame in forgetting the books completely in favour of the film. Mary Poppins is a formidable character (as was P.L. Travers from the sound of things), but I’m certainly not sure she’s a character I’d have enjoyed reading about as a child.