Monday, December 15, 2014

P. L. Travers Syndrome: When Authors Hate the Films Based on Their Works

There can be little doubt that the adaptation of a work of fiction to film can be a trying time for an author. After all, regardless of what it says in the short story, novella, or novel, for years later many people will base their images of the characters and places upon the way they look in the film. In the novel Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell states that "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful..," but in the film the character is played by the undeniably beautiful Vivien Leigh. Ever since the movie Gone with the Wind came out, then, even many people who have read the book picture Scarlett O'Hara as the drop dead gorgeous Vivien Leigh and not Margaret Mitchell's charming, but ultimately plain Jane. Sometimes film adaptations of works of fiction will even change the plot substantially. Using Gone with the Wind once more as an example, there are entire subplots and characters in the novel that are omitted from the film.

Fortunately most authors realise that cinema and literature are two different media and will readily accept that any films based on their works may be different from what they have written, for better or worse. That having been said, there are those authors who will always resent it when a film adaptation strays from their particular vision, even when the resulting film is lauded by critics, loved by audiences, and eventually considered a classic.  In many instances such authors may even regret that their books were adapted as movies at all.

Perhaps the most famous example of such an author was P. L. Travers, author of the "Mary Poppins" books. For around twenty years Walt Disney sought to get the film rights to the first book, Mary Poppins, only to find his offers rejected by Mrs. Travers who firmly opposed the idea. By 1959, however, the royalties to the various "Mary Poppins" books had begun to decline and P. L. Travers found she could really use the money from selling the film rights to the first book. Ultimately a deal was struck between Walt Disney and P. L. Travers that, among other things, would give her a $100,000 advance and  5% of the producer's gross. As part of the agreement P.L. Travers would be retained as a consultant on the film.

Unfortunately for P. L. Travers, being a consultant would not give her much control over the film based on her creation. Mrs. Travers was not happy that the harsher aspects of Mary Poppins's personality were softened. She did not particularly care for the fact that the movie was going to be a musical. Most of all, P.L. Travers wanted absolutely no animation in the movie. It should then come as no surprise that P.L. Travers thoroughly disliked Disney's film adaptation of Mary Poppins. She actually left the Los Angeles premiere of the film in tears. What is more, she refused to let Walt Disney adapt any of the other "Mary Poppins" books. When approached about adapting Mary Poppins as a stage musical in the Nineties (it wouldn't make it to the stage until 2004), she agreed only so long as no one who had worked on Disney's film adaptation was involved in the project. Despite the fact that the film version of Mary Poppins was well received upon its initial release and regarded as a classic in later years, P. L. Travers still disliked the film for having departed from her particular vision for Mary Poppins.

While P.L. Travers's experience with the adaptation of Mary Poppins may be one of the most famous (if not the most famous) instances of an author disliking the film adaptation of her work, it was by no means an isolated case. Before P.L. Travers, Willa Cather had seen one of her books adapted into a film that she did not like.Willa Cather's 1923 novel A Lost Lady was adapted as a silent film in 1925. Miss Cather apparently had no objection to this adaptation of her novel. That having been said, the 1934 sound version would be an entirely different matter. While Barbara Stanwyck earned very good notices for her performance in the film, over all the critics' reception for A Lost Lady was lacklustre. As to Willa Cather, she disliked the film so much that she never again let one of her novels be adapted as a movie. Adaptations of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, and various other works would have to wait until after Miss Cather's death in 1947.

Of course, perhaps no author is perhaps as notorious about hating films based on his works than comic book writer Alan Moore. Not only has Mr. Moore been highly critical of movies based upon his works, but he even had his name removed from adaptations of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , V for Vendetta, and Watchmen. In the case of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen it is perhaps understandable why Mr. Moore would want his name removed; the film seriously departed from his work and was largely panned by critics. It is less understandable why he wanted his name removed from V for Vendetta (2006), a film which was mostly faithful to the graphic novel (although with some major changes) and received mostly positive reviews, and Watchmen (2009), a film which was largely faithful to the graphic novel and received mixed reviews. Curiously, while he disavowed the film, Alan Moore's name remains on the credits of the adaptation of From Hell (2001).  Of course, here it must be pointed out that as a comic book writer most of Alan Moore's works are owned by others (for instance, Watchmen is owned by DC Comics).

The fact is that there are many other instances of authors who have hated film adaptations of their work than P.L. Travers, Willa Cather, and Alan Moore. In fact,  the phenomenon of authors disliking film adaptations of their work is so common that it can perhaps be given a name. As P.L. Travers's dislike of Disney's adaptation of her work numbers among the most famous examples, I think it could perhaps be called "P.L. Travers Syndrome". 

While many people might think authors are being overly persnickety when they dislike and even disavow film adaptations of their work (many fans have said as much of Alan Moore), I can understand where such authors are coming from. While I have never published any fiction, I have written it as a hobby and I have considered how I would want my characters and stories treated on screen. If I did publish one of my works of fiction and it was being adapted to a film, I must confess I would not only want final approval on the casting and screenplay of the film, but even the music that would played in it. I would want actors who actually looked and sounded like my characters, and not simply big names to bring in money at the box office. My reason for feeling this way is that, like most writers, I have a vision for my work. And like most writers, I want any adaptations to other media to conform largely to that vision.

The fact is that writing can be very personal, and I think this is even more the case when it comes to writing fiction. One's characters feel very much like one's children, as does the milieu in which they exist, for that matter. When filmmakers make changes to the characters or plot in an adaptation, then, it must often seem to a writer like an attack on his or her "children". Of course, there is no doubt concern on the part of writers as well that people might think the film reflects the short story, novella, or book upon which it was based. If the writer does not consider a film adaptation of his or her work to be faithful, or if he or she thinks the film adaptation is of low quality, then quite naturally he or she will quite naturally dislike the movie.

Of course, an author's dislike of a film is probably going to be greater if it departs very substantially from his or her original work. This is why P.L. Travers disliked Disney's adaptation of Mary Poppins so much. Anyone who has read the books knows that the movie departs a great deal from them. While the movie was critically acclaimed and is now considered a classic, it is then understandable why P.L. Travers detested it so. Quite simply, Disney took her characters and the milieu she created and turned it into something almost entirely different. Given Mrs. Travers's personality and her attachment to her work, it would have been surprising if she had reacted any other way.

While I must confess to being sympathetic to writers with regards to those times when they are disappointed with film adaptations of their works, I must also admit that I have some sympathy for the filmmakers as well. Writers may have a particular vision for their work, but then readers have their own vision as well.  An example of this is how I as a reader differ from Ian Fleming as an author on the casting of James Bond. Ian Fleming wanted David Niven to play James Bond. I have to confess that even if I had never seen a James Bond movie or recognised any of the actors who have played him over the years, I have never pictured David Niven as 007 when reading the books! Anyhow, my point is that while authors might have a particular vision of a short story, novella, or novel, a filmmaker might have an entirely different vision of the same work, and they may have no problem changing it for that reason. This is perhaps a good thing, as we would not have Disney's Mary Poppins otherwise. As much as I love P.L. Travers's work, I would hate to think of a world where the 1964 film version of Mary Poppins did not exist. Indeed, it was one of my favourite movies of all time.

Ultimately, short of giving an author total control over a film adaptation of his or her work (and perhaps even not then), I don't think there is any "cure" for P.L. Travers Syndrome. Indeed, for many writers even minor changes to their work might elicit a reaction to a film adaptation that is less than kind. And in the end I am not sure that a cure for P.L. Travers Syndrome is necessarily desirable. After all, it serves as a warning to filmmakers that they are ultimately working with something created by someone else and they should treat it with the utmost care. It seems possible that if it was not for P.L. Travers Syndrome, filmmakers might take even more liberties when adapting works of literature, as hard as that might be to imagine.

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