No. The book is not “always better than the movie,” she said on her book blog.
(It is, in fact, possible to love stories without needing to own them and needing them to never, ever be loved by anyone else in a way that isn’t your exact way . . . . hoboy I’m already digressing and we haven’t even gotten started; guess this one’s gonna be a multi-parter.)
In the case of Mary Poppins, I am the captain of #TeamMovie.
There is so much to admire about the 1934- books. P. L. Travers sketched a magnificent character with marvelous details like a flying umbrella, a frank way of speaking, and an air of power in her discernment and confidence. Travers had a real gift for dialogue — much of the best dialogue from the movie comes straight from the books — and knew exactly how to make a description vivid without making it tortuously lengthy.
But it was Andrews who brought the character into her full kind-yet-stern, proper-yet-absurd, pragmatic-but-also-a-little-bit-magic brilliance.
Book-version Mary Poppins has a cruel streak and the keen-eyed perceptiveness Andrews emphasized in her film portrayal is far outweighed by her pettiness in the original text. She threatens to call the police (!) on Jane and Michael when they ask her questions she doesn’t want to answer; chews out a menial worker for not admiring her knitting; and pouts when she sees the meager haul Bert’s cap has brought in from his sidewalk drawings because it means he can’t buy her the tea-cake she wants.
Travers was reportedly furious with Walt Disney and the entire concept of movies when the film was finished; she felt they’d ruined her signature character by softening her vanity and quick temper into something more conventionally maternal.
But Dr. V! You hate ubercapitalists like Disney and you love cranky female protagonists and irreverence about child-rearing!
I know. Normally, I am 100% here for unpleasant women in my literature. And I do find Travers’s theatrical indignance delightful and can’t help retroactively rooting for her, and I have contempt for this old man calling her “difficult” in Variety despite the fact that the only reason he was even being interviewed by Variety in 2013 is because of the character she created.
But for me, it’s just ultimately not that fun to read a book in which a lady is mean to little kids and homeless people. This may be more of a personality quirk on my part than a weakness of the books themselves: I have a visceral reaction to children in peril, even ironically or in fictional universes, that I don’t think is universal or even particularly necessary.
Yet I also don’t really see any reason to read books I don’t enjoy to overcome it and I’m ultimately inclined to praise the nuance of Andrews’s character over the broad absurdity of Travers’s. Andrews-Poppins’s mischief is the kind that disrupts the complacency of a pompous patriarch and his bored children, drawing back the curtain on the underdiscussed elements of respectable people’s relations with one another on the street, in banks, and within middle-class family homes.
Travers-Poppins’s mischief, by contrast, is mostly about itself.
For these reasons, the Dr. V’s Children’s Book List official ruling on Mary Poppins is:
the movie was better.
And, despite Dick Van Dyke’s comically horrendous British(?) accent, there are SO MANY reasons why, from Andrews’s wonderful performance, already praised here, to my cackling delight that controlling anticommunist prig Walt Disney tried to made an homage to the nuclear family but accidentally made a three-hour roast of capitalism instead.
I’ll try to be brief. Stay tuned.