“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Monday, January 13, 2014

"Poor A.A. Milne": In Which Winnie-the-Pooh is Reclaimed from Disney



*Preface: This is not becoming a MommyBlog. My husband's academic advisor for his PhD in theology told him to read The House at Pooh Corner before his first job interview. So there you go.

This Saturday, January 18th, is Winnie-the-Pooh Day. It is the day on which the author of the beloved stories was born. And today is the best day of the year to remember or learn for the first time that Winnie-the-Pooh was originally a perfectly lovely and delicate story quite distinct from the general awareness of the "adventures" as reinterpreted by Disney from the early 1970s to the present day.

I recently saw the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which is about the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), handing over the film rights to her beloved books to the same Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Travers resisted Disney's courting for 20 years before she found herself nearly broke; and at the insistence of her lawyer, she flew from England to California to give him one last chance to win her trust. (The movie is especially fun for anglophiles like myself who will relish all of the very British reactions to some bits of American garishnessfor instance, a giant platter of Jell-O).

When she arrives at her hotel room, she finds it stuffed with plush Disney creatures, mostly the iconic Mickey Mouse in several sizes. Among them she picks up a Pooh Bear, lifts him up to her face and says, frowningly,  

 "Poor A.A. Milne."


I lit up with a loud, "Ha!" at that moment because I found it very clever and it gave me the idea for this post. Disney had gained to rights to Pooh in 1961 (and dropped the hyphens in the name), the same year in which Saving Mr. Banks takes place. And 52 years later when I saw the movie in December, my four-year-old had just discovered the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories complete with Ernest H. Shepard's subtle and beautiful illustrations. I also scored the excellent audio recordings of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner performed by Judi Dench, Stephen Frye, and others. These are just delightful. You can purchase them right now with those links. I don't care if you don't have kids, you will love them. They will transport you to the sunny moments of your own childhood. I can sit for hours with my son listening and laughing without ever growing tired of it. (He now says "Bother!" with a British accent all the time and it's awesome.) Having this world of Pooh fresh in my mind, I knew exactly what P.L. Travers meant with that sorrowful sigh. And it was precisely what she feared would be her own fate as expressed in her shout at Walt Disney, "I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!" What she feared most was that her own vision of Mary Poppins would be overshadowed by Disney's and of course that is what happened. I certainly didn't know that there were books (illustrated by Ernest Shepard's daughter Mary, I discovered behind the Julie Andrews/Dick van Dyke phenomenon. Now, Saving Mr. Banks is going a long way towards changing that, thankfully. But since there may not be a Saving Edward Bear or somesuch on the big screen, I hope to make a similar contribution here.

 I watched a documentary called  The Making of Mary Poppins and a more recent BBC one about P.L. Travers in preparation for this. I also checked out several academic books on Pooh which made the librarian laugh and puzzle over who might want these and why. Some of it was quite good (Recovering Arcadia) and a few turned out to be very amusing satires (The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh). I also spent a rather soul-crushing evening watching YouTube videos of the most recent Disney adaptations of Pooh and friends. Fun fact: if you type "Winnie the Pooh" into a Google Image search (or just click that) your retinas with be scorched by bulbous, glowing, cutesyness. All of that research added up to one sentence from Dick van Dyke in the first documentary: "Walt knew what children would like. He never asked the question of what parents like their children to see."

Yes. That is totally it. Walt Disney loved Jell-O and he loved slapstick. He loved sentimentality and he loved silliness. He loved dancing penguin daydreams and so he probably would have loved dancing Heffalump nightmares (he died before The Many Adventures came out in 1977). P.L. Travers said his Mary Poppins, "Like chalk to cheese is the film to the book." And I know for a fact that kids like to eat chalk. Surechalk can be a lot of fun. But if you eat chalk, it won't nourish you. That's basically how I feel about all of this: the original Winnie-the-Pooh truly nourishesemotionally, spiritually, and otherwise. I'm not meaning to hate on Mr. Disney. I have thousands of Disney-themed memories; but most of them have the same feeling as shooting bottle rockets or eating Skittles. Milne & Shepard remind me of discovering a secret crop of cat tails by a pond or drinking chicken noodle soup when I was sick. To put it in the words of Pooh Bear himself, the original is a "Sustaining Book."
There are many ways in which the books and the cartoons differ; but I'll only focus here on what I think is the most important one: the role of Christopher Robin. In A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh, Ann Thwait explains why the little boy is portrayed as perfect (worth quoting at length):
He is seen in relation to Pooh and the other animals. Pooh and Piglet are the children and the boy himself takes on the role of the adult. The listening or reading child identifies with the superior strength and power he sometimes resents in the adults around him, however much he loves his parents. Christopher Robin is always resourceful and competent; he is the child as hero. [...] It is Christopher Robin who reads sustaining books at moments of crisis, who comes to the rescue, who will make sure that no harm comes to the kidnapped Roo and protects the animals from the teeth of fierce things. ('If Christopher Robin is coming, I don't mind anything.') He dries Eeyore's tail after its immersion in the river and does all of the comforting and useful things that parents do. The boy is brave and godlike to the toys, just as the loving parent is to a small child.
Just occasionally, as any adult does too, Christopher Robin reveals his frailty, his feet of clay, and this surely adds to his appeal. He has forgotten what the North Pole looks like. ('I did know once...') It is Pooh who is childlike [I would use childish], egotistical, hungry, alternately boastful and self-deprecating, occasionally managing to be brave and unselfish, accepting things without really understanding them, as children so often have to accept ununderstandable explanations. The listening or reading child recognizes himself in Pooh and recognizes himself as he longs to be, as he thinks he will be, in Christopher Robin. He recognizes and enjoys the wit and tenderness of the books.
 I think this juxtaposition of Christopher Robin and Pooh is very important modeling for the child who encounters these stories. And it makes them all the more interesting to the parents, as well. Unfortunately, Disney changes this dynamic by turning Christopher Robin into one more child in the Hundred Acre Wood. A good example can be found in Milne's very first chapter, "In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin". In search of honey, Pooh attempts to outsmart the bees with some help from Christopher Robin. The only indication that the bees are really bothering Pooh is that he says "ow!" a few times. But in the Disney version, the bees form an angry army and attack both the bear and the boy.  In Recovering Arcadia, Professor Paula T. Connolly points out that the serious problem here is that:
The child who seems to offer protection in Milne's Forest has his facade of power utterly shattered here as he, too, must flee the bees and hide in a mud pond to escape their sting. This is not a world in which he seems to reign, but rather one from which he, too, must guard himself.
Losing the Godlike figure in the Disney adaptation of these stories is a sad misfortune; and I feel it cheats the child out of a fuller, richer tale of childhood innocence and wonder which can be found in the books. I hope that you'll treat yourself and/or your family to the original boy, bear, and his friends this Winnie-the-Pooh Day. And join me in wishing A.A. Milne, in the words of pedantic yet loveable Owl,

HIPY  PAPY  BTHUTHDTH  THUTHDA
BTHUTHDY.
***
Next topic: Theology of the Body in the movie Groundhog Day. Click here for the post.

24 comments:

  1. Elise here! Childhood's books are so important, but what I think you've articulated so powerfully here, Katy, is that representations of childhood and its accompanying figures are also important. Your reading makes it possible for adults to see the potential in the books--the models they provide and a restored glimpse into childhood's innocence and dependence. This is all the more important because we do know, unfortunately, that many books about and ostensibly for children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were not innocent in their production and did some lasting harm to those children most intimately related to their stories (I'm thinking particularly of Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie here).

    However, the imagination can conceive of beauty and truth more than it truly can of ugliness and distortions, which is why reading, especially to and with children, is so important for everyone, not just the kids. Children's stories are--as I know you can appreciate--such a treasure trove of delight and goodness.

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    1. Elise, that was perfect. Thank you so much!

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  2. Well, this inspired me to finally bust out the Winnie-the-Pooh books which have been sitting on the bookshelf, untouched, since before I had kids. I've never read them myself, but had picked them up at a thrift store for my son. He's three-and-a-half and enjoying them so far!

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    1. Wonderful! I hope his parents like them just as much! ;)

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  3. I love love love the original Pooh stories. The subtle Britishy humor is so very charming, as are the illustrations. I agree that they lost some of that charm in their adaptations. But I can't say that I feel that way about all Disney adaptations of that era. The cartoon versions of The Wind in the Willows and Sleepy Hollow, for instance, seem to me to distill those classic but very, very oh-so-very wordy stories very well. Disney found their heart and charm and put them on the screen. Disney's Mary Poppins is more of a reach, but only because she and all of the other characters are so very unlikeable in the book. I guess Burt is okay, and HE seems to like Mary, but I can't see why, and the children are quite unpleasant. I honestly found the Disney version of beauty, charm, and nonsensical no-nonsense-ness (if you know what I mean) to make for a much more enjoyable character.

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    1. I've never seen those two movies that you mentioned but I'd like to. According to Travers, Burt should have absolutely NO romantic interested in Mary. But I agree that Disney hinted at it anyway. I haven't read the Poppins books myself--I only learned about them from Saving Mr. Banks.

      There's plenty to enjoy in Disney's world; I just think that in the case of Pooh, the original is more enjoyable on a deeper level.

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  4. My children love the original Winnie-The-Pooh stories! I used a classical Catholic homsechooling curriculum with my kids for three years. Now my two oldest kids go to a classical school, and I am homeschooling my four-year-old. Winnie-The-Pooh is one of our preschool books, and even my six-year-old and nine-year-old want me to wait until they get home from school to read it to my four-year-old so they can hear the stories again. As with most classics, this is hardly just a book for preschoolers. These are stories for all ages. I even find myself tearing up at the end, as I get to see Christopher Robin grow up from a mom's perspective...and I think of my own sweet, innocent kids growing too. So bittersweet.

    I now want to check out your recommended audio version! I have no doubt that it is much better than my own voice.

    Kendra -- I agree with you on Sleepy Hollow and The Wind in the Willows. Sleepy Hollow holds a particularly special place in my heart, because my dad would narrate that as a bedtime story for us. It scared us silly, and I don't think my mom was too happy about it. My sisters and I have a special place in our hearts for Sleepy Hollow as a result. I haven't read the original Mary Poppins, but now I am curious.

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  5. Love this! I do love Stephen Fry's reading of Brittish lit, because the humor comes across soooo well. I have to add, the audio version of House at Pooh Corner, by Harper Children's audio, with Jim Broadbent reading, is actually approved by Christopher Robin Milne. This one is held by our local library, and I have checked it out so many times. Recommended!

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  6. I appreciate the way you distinguish between your pleasant, Disney-themed memories and your memories of more nourishing activities. Disney isn't necessarily evil, but it isn't beautiful, either. This helped me clarify some of my thoughts on the issue.

    This post makes me think of the upcoming movie based on The Fault in Our Stars (a definitely non-Christian but delicate, well-written YA novel about young people who are dying of cancer). My mother-in-law comments that the French might make a good movie about such a book, but American filmmakers won't. We don't seem to be very good at "delicate" in our mass entertainment.

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    1. Yes, delicacy is what's usually missing. Thanks for providing the perfect word.

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  7. Absolutely! I remember the difference between the two Christopher Robins, but I never would have put my finger on it. With the book, it's precisely the dynamic you described - I remember worshiping Christopher Robin and aspiring to be like him, but identifying with the toys, yet being frustrated with them too.
    It's the dynamic that makes you want to grow.

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  8. Great blog. It gives me good reason to suggest Winnie the Pooh to my brothers and sisters to read these books to their children (the originals).

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  9. Ah yes, because a book left unread is so much more spiritually nourishing than a movie that is actually seen. Doe that validate your pomposity enough?

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    1. Dear Howard, My point was that the book ought *not* to be left unread; and my worry is that, when the movie replaces the book, the book is even more easily left unread!

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  10. I have loathed the whole Disney takeover of children's stories, etc. since I returned to teaching in my 40's. There were no more real Fairy-tale books or similar children's stories available; only the Disney versions, and many cartoonish illustrations. Yes, I believe it would be better for a book to be left unread than watching a Disney-brand version on the screen. Decades ago a prominent priest advised parents to throw away the television and home-school their children, if they wanted them to go to heaven. Sage advice that still applies.

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  11. You need to read it in the original latin.

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    1. Ha! Yes, I heard that was a New York Times bestseller.

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  12. My husband and I are not huge Disney fans and have always made a point of making sure our children knew the "real" stories behind many of the movies. We've read all of Milne's Pooh stories and poetry and most of the Mary Poppins books and my kids prefer the books over the movies. Pinochio is another book that lost so much in the Disney version. I weep a little when I realize that these doe eyed, sugar coated animations are the only versions that some children are familiar with.

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  13. Kathryn, we began Mary Poppins in Oxford this summer and the girls have continued to listen to it since we've been back. They love it, even if Mary Poppins is super strict. The tea party with her uncle is hilarious for both children and adults. We've also enjoyed the "Christipher Robin approved" recordings of the Pooh books. My six-year-old even memorized one of the poems in Once We Were Very Young just from casual listening. I agree with Kelly M. that it's best to give the kids the meaty original before they encounter the candy-coated Disney version. My girls occasionally startle other kids (i.e. acquaintances at the library) by saying "Oh, but that's the Disney version not the real version." Makes me a little embarrassed and a little proud. Thanks for your lovely insights, as usual.

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  14. I can't recommend enough that you read Milne's collection of children's poetry, "Now We are Six", it's incredibly fun, beautiful, and full of truth. I love it even more as I grow older.

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    1. Ah! Thank you for the recommendation. I have been planning to unveil that when my son turns six in a couple of years. I expect I'll be wanting a Milne reunion right about then.

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  15. Hi Kathryn,
    I am writing from UK, where my 91 year old mother has just died. When she was little she knew Christopher Robin Milne, and she has had a love of all things Pooh related ever since (including both volumes of poems which she knew by heart). In the last weeks before she died, the one thing which cheered her up was to have the Pooh stories read to her, as she read them to us, and we have read them to our children...

    At her funeral on Wednesday morning, part of the Heffalump story will be read by her eldest grandchild, and I will be giving a reflection based partly on that story, and partly on the reading from St John's Gospel - 'I am the Bread of Life', and will be comparing the fear of the unknown which afflicted Pooh and Piglet, and their plan to try to control/trap it with the story of Christian Faith, which (for those who hold that faith) reveals the nature of God and so addresses those fears. My mum was fearful of the process of death. but not of 'the end'. In so many of the stories, Christopher Robin does, as you rightly say, provide that calmness and maturity of response to human(oid) fears which gives him an almost God-like characteristic....

    But the stories are also just wonderfully funny, earthed an accurate about the human condition! So thanks for your blog!!!

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