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Sunday 26 January 2014

Is Mary Poppins’ creator P. L. Travers worthy of the mantle of classic Australian author?

I read last week's excellent blog entry on the importance of leading kids from movies back to books just as I was planning a night at the movies and considering viewing the film Saving Mr Banks, which purports to reveal the background to the making of the 1964 Disney musical version of the 1934 children's novel Mary Poppins. I then wondered if many children ever bothered turning back to the book after viewing the Disney musical. 

Without the movie, the songs, and Julie Andrews, would the book even still be in print? 

I thought that before I passed judgement I should read it, so I downloaded a copy. No, there was no well thumbed childhood copy sitting on my bookshelf, in fact I confess I didn't even know the movie was based on a novel, let alone the first of a series of eight written by an Australian, until I studied children's literature in 1979! However I did really enjoy the musical, particularly as it was a favourite of my young daughter in the early 1980s and my grandson in the mid 2000s. So the movie might have ongoing appeal, but how does the novel stack up in 2014? Is it still worth the effort, if it ever was? 

Well, surprisingly, I enjoyed it! In the book I found a very different Mary from the musical - a Mary Poppins who is often severe, sarcastic, vain and egotistical, who doesn't sing and who never says supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, yet is still endearing, generous, well loved by the children in her care, and delightfully enables them see and experience magic in their lives. The magical fantasy elements of the story are reminiscent of Enid Blyton's Wishing Tree series; the characters are simple, engaging but also occasionally a bit weird and creepy. However, I think the jury is out on whether the novel deserves its classic status. 

So will I now see the new movie? I don't think so, having read that the script lacks historical accuracy. And having researched a little of P. L. Travers’ life, I think now that hers is the really fascinating story. It seems she lived a complex, dark, and, in part at least, sadly damaged life of subterfuge, so I think that an honest movie based on her real life would be much more compelling than the Disney version! 

Jessie Mahjouri

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