Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Selling Your Soul: Thoughts After Watching Saving Mr. Banks

"Of course a movie shouldn't try to follow a novel exactly — they're different arts, very different forms of narrative. There may have to be massive changes. But it is reasonable to expect some fidelity to the characters and general story in a film named for and said to be based on books that have been in print for 40 years." Ursula K LeGuin
 Image source: https://farm6.staticflickr.com/5490/11405431534_c5ff5cafef.jpg

Happy belated Fourth of July, everyone! Hope that no one got burned by fireworks, or rained out. It was quite a wet weekend, and I spent that Friday relaxing. Then I got the most wonderful news via the Alban Lake newsletter; my novella "Carousel" has been accepted! It will be published in the fall, and I will inform you of further details when I receive them.

My birthday happens to be tomorrow, but we celebrated over the weekend, my family and I, by watching a Disney biopic I've been dying to see: Saving Mr. Banks. The reason was twofold: I have a passion for stories about authors getting their books published or turned into film, and because Mary Poppins is the best Disney live-action film, period. The story, which isn't accurate with actual details, is about how Walt Disney cajoles, bargains and eventually convinces Mrs. P.L. Travers to sell the book rights to him, so that he can make a film for his two daughters. Parallel to that, we see Mrs. Travers's childhood told in flashback, about her loving relationship with her alcoholic dad, who can't keep down any banking job he acquires. Because of the reality that inspired the Mary Poppins books, Mrs. Travers doesn't want to sell the rights, and goes to Los Angeles purely to refuse the offer. Disney won't give up, however, and he will do what he can to convince her, while sneaking cartoons into the finished product and having Mary Poppins sing.

If Disney bought me champagne, hired a limo driver and paid for my two week stay at a nice hotel, I'd be much more convinced to give him the rights to me work.
Image source: http://i2.wp.com/screencaps.us/201/3-saving-mr-banks/full/saving-mr-banks-disneyscreencaps.com-1469.jpg

The film portrays two real human beings in somewhat sympathetic light: Walt Disney does business with his animation and is not afraid to lie, while Mrs. Travers doesn't want her creation to be tarnished. Yet we can see that Disney has love for the books, seeing that he fought for twenty years to obtain the rights and allows the author to approve the script, a right that most authors don't have nowadays. And the reason? To keep a promise to his two daughters. He could have chosen another story with a dead author or a more agreeable one, like he did with Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, but he pursued Mary Poppins for twenty years.

My personal preference for the film and bias comes from watching it a dozen times as a child, learning most of the songs by heart. Julie Andrews brings the right balance of sweet nature and stern front to the role, so that Mary Poppins is charming but by no means saccharine, and David Tomlinson provides perfect foil as the stiff Mr. Banks who finds his life turned awry by this strange nanny.You have the most powerful music in the dramatic arrangements of "Feed the Birds" and a story that acknowledges that parents have it harder than their children do, as well as the dramatic side to growing up.

Mrs. Travers didn't like "Feed the Birds," the best song in the movie. Just . . . what

Image source: http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/XHrRxQVUFN4/hqdefault.jpg

I had trouble seeing Mrs. Travers's point of view for several reasons: she is a sour puss about the whole endeavor and disrespects every part of the film process, she takes for granted the red carpet treatment that Disney bestows on her, and Mary Poppins makes a better movie because of the changes from the books.  All these points I believe are important, since the treatment she received is unheard of most days.

These days a writer would have to be J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, or Cressida Cowell to receive such treatment, since the rights are usually negotiated between a publishing company and literary agent. Ursula K. LeGuin has also pointed out that most writers don't get to approve the script; she didn't get such privilege for both adaptations of her Earthsea novels. The only thing you can do is blog about if you liked the movie or not, and in addition, Walt Disney's films at least had quality animation during the time period and original, legendary music. In the twenty-first century, quite a few authors have had Disney mangle their books at times, or create a faithful adaptation that cannot sell the story. Meg Cabot can assert to the former regarding Avalon High, though she remains diplomatic and optimistic about reaching new fans.

This film is a travesty for people who read the books, or for those who appreciate good storytelling
Image Source: http://ia.media-imdb.com/images/M/MV5BMTc2ODk0ODk0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzU1NDA2MDE@._V1_SY500_SX343_AL_.jpg

After thinking about Saving Mr. Banks for a day, however, I wondered what it would be like to have one of my works adapted, and dramatically different from what I envisioned. "Carousel" came to mind, a story that features orchestra and modern classical music prominently; the modern music pays homage to "The Rite of Spring" with its chaotic, dissonant chords while providing conflict for when Renee's orchestra can't play their new piece. If a director and screenwriter came to the project with no knowledge of modern classical music or how an orchestra works, I'd be concerned. If they deliberately changed the novella to be a horror movie knockoff or changed the plot to promtoe a feminist agenda, I'd express disapproval. That would be all I could do, under the circumstances.

But would I, if they gave me the same treatment as they gave P.L. Travers? Would I betray my integrity for Disney dolls, the limo rides, and champagne? Would I allow a lousy story to happen, if I had the script approval rights that she bargained for in Saving Mr. Banks? If the story wasn't lousy, but went in a different direction from the tale, would I like it?

I'd like to think "No" in response to the latter question, because I'm someone who grew up on good movies that were vastly different from their source material, usually for the better, but then again that opportunity is not likely to come my way, unless I am extremely lucky. It's a question that each writer has to ask herself: how much is one's soul worth? There is no one right answer, and we often don't have the liberty to answer it in the modern world.

Would I sell my work for this kind of room? Totally! I call dibs on the Pooh Bear doll
Image source: http://i1.wp.com/screencaps.us/201/3-saving-mr-banks/full/saving-mr-banks-disneyscreencaps.com-1459.jpg

Saving Mr. Banks was a good film. It asked the right questions about personal integrity, kindness contrasting with sincerity, and what it means to have a good movie versus a completely faith adaptation. Also, Mary Poppins sings. No one can convince me otherwise, not even the author herself. Denying her that denies the power that makes her memorable.

If Walt Disney were alive and seduced me with a limo and paid flight to Los Angeles, a day in Disneyland with him and the classic rides, I would give in because I'm a fan. He may have been manipulative and ruthless as a businessman, but he did produce some of the best animation of the time period. If I were a fan of other directors, and I happen to like Henry Selick and Joss Whedon's work, then I would probably enjoy their changes for the sheer fact that I get to be a fangirl, and to work with people I admire. That would be the price of my soul.

No comments: