Hollywood knows the shortest shortcut to a box office success is a trip to the bookshop. Since its earliest days it has mined the pages of successful authors for their celebrity appeal and ready-made audiences. The latest incarnation of this age-old technique has been Disney’s seemingly bottomless interest in Marvel Comics. But the method is not without its dangers.
In 1924 director Erich von Stroheim’s literal adaptation of the acclaimed novel McTeague ran for over nine hours. When the producers finally managed to cut it down to two hours the result was so incoherent that it did more to empty cinemas than fill them. The lesson? If you’re going to successfully move from one medium to another you need to be armed with a wise red pen. Saving Mr. Banks, a favourite for 2013’s Best Film, is dedicated to making that very point.
Saving Mr. Banks is the story of the struggle between Walt Disney and Pamela Traverse to bring her iconic nanny Mary Poppins to the big screen. Tom Hanks provides a folksy Disney for film’s first portrayal of this legendary children’s entertainer. But the story is dominated by the fractious yet sympathetic “Mrs Traverse!” created by Emma Thompson.
The author emerges as a prim and proper curmudgeon who is determined not to let a money-making cartoonist ruin her creation. There’s more at stake than artistic licence. Delving into her Australian upbringing, the audience realises that her book is built on the bones of the author’s own sad childhood and her maxims are the hard-won lessons that emerged. Is it any wonder that, in a film that will move you to tears more times than I care to confess, the biggest laughs come from scriptwriters who can’t understand why Mary Poppins would have a problem with animated penguins?
Another confession – as a scriptwriter I’m very familiar with pains associated with the adaptation. Some of the brightest and darkest moments of my life have revolved around trying to help creatives jump to a different medium. I understood completely when Traverse almost wept that Mary Poppins deserved better treatment. Hanks’ Disney does too. “I’ve fought the battle from her side,” he says, reflecting on early attempts to buy his famous Mickey. “The mouse is family.”
The trouble with translation is that the scriptwriter has to thoroughly understand the key idea the author is trying to communicate. When you do, you can drop 90 percent of the text and still end up with a winner. When you don’t, Aragorn ends up with a girlfriend [LOTR reference, in case you weren’t sure]. In Saving Mr. Banks it’s the main reason Disney and Traverse can’t agree:
Pamela: “I won’t have [Mary Poppins] turned into one of your silly cartoons!”
Walt: “Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children? “
Pamela: “You think Mary has come to save the children? [Stunned silence] Oh, dear! “
The film suggests Poppins was actually a reflection of the saviour Traverse’s own alcoholic dad needed, and the novel’s father character Mr Banks was written for him. It’s no wonder that a ‘spoonful of sugar’ didn’t help the medicine go down.
The same error is sadly often made when the Bible passes through Hollywood. If you don’t understand the author’s intention, you can’t get the translation right. Possibly the most significant criticism of The Passion Of The Christ was that, for all its disturbing accuracy, it made Jesus’ physical pain the sum of his sufferings. But the Bible is clear that it was God’s turning away from His son that cost him the most, and paid for our salvation. It’s no wonder Christians have reacted so strongly to ‘Christian’ films – as though someone were misrepresenting their family. Misunderstanding Mary Poppins is minor by comparison. Get God wrong and you’ll never get His story right.
Release Date:January 9