Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread, and literary people should take part reluctantly in battles that true film critics have already waged. Still, having seen much battle done, differences aired, and even bodies dragged from the battlefield over a couple of recent movies, I did think to put in a word of praise for the books—you know, hard on the outside, soft on the inside, you can flip the edges like a deck of cards—that reside behind them. In lieu of the ten-best-books list that I never got to write last year—too much writerly Jack Daniel’s, I suppose—I offer a two-best list of books eclipsed by the films they inspired.
One involves Dave Van Ronk, the ostensible inspiration for the Coen brothers’ critically favored (and blessedly un-Oscarized) “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Van Ronk’s autobiography, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” written with the iconoclastic pop-music scholar Elijah Wald, is the film’s remote template. I am second to no one in Coenmania—when I arrive at last at the grindhouse at the end of the world, I am hoping that it will be playing a permanent double bill of “The Big Lebowski” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”—and I was glad to subject my own more-than-ugly name to their mockery in “A Serious Man.” And, of course, they were under no more obligation to make an “accurate” film about Dave Van Ronk than Welles was to make an “accurate” one about Randolph Hearst, or Jackie Gleason was to produce an “accurate ” series about a Brooklyn bus driver. “Llewyn Davis,” as Richard Brody explains, is as purely a Coen invention as can be.
Still, enough of Van Ronk’s peculiar practices—his elegant ragtime guitar style, his career as a merchant seaman, his place as a figure of American music just before the Bob-ation began, even that the album “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a mockup of the 1963 release “Inside Dave Van Ronk”—are present in the film that it would be understandable if some youth who had never heard of Van Ronk in the first place now thought that this was, more or less, the man. A shame, because “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” is one of the dozen best books ever written about a New York life and time: dense with wisdom, humor, judgment, and an amazingly vivid recreation of the rites and rituals and characters of a whole lost world and scene. Where the Coens’s protagonist is prematurely bitter and a little defeated, the real Van Ronk has, on the page, a Falstaffian avidity. Cold-water winters come to life, absurd figures sing badly and play worse, and great stories about the discovery of black folk music by white non-folk musicians abound. (My favorite tells of Van Ronk mastering a high-speed finger-picking piece, playing until his fingers are actually bleeding, only to have the song’s black originator patiently explain to him, later, that he had achieved the effect in the first place by speeding up the recording.)
And there is a deeper, sadder story in the book, too. Van Ronk almost had it all: talent, exuberance, voice, appetite, wisdom—everything but genius. Then Bob Dylan showed up from Minnesota—telling various tales about places he had never actually been, with his naff, made-up name—having nothing but genius. This is the story of a Salieri and a Mozart, in which the Salieri is (as the real Salieri doubtless was, too) bemused and bewildered and touched by the strange workings of God’s hands in providing genius, and denying it, so arbitrarily. Van Ronk’s Dylan is—apart from his significant devotion to Woody Guthrie—selfish, vain, driven, and blind even to the mockery that his strange singing inspires. He sticks to his weirdness, sleeps on Van Ronk’s sofa, borrows a book of Rimbaud lyrics, and then, a year or so later, there he is, inventing the taste by which he must be judged. Van Ronk’s grace in accepting this, and all that came after, is amazing. (There is no more painful, or movie-worthy, moment in the book than when, many years later, he meets Jackson Browne on the street, and Browne, trying to help him, patronizingly says that he has covered Van Ronk’s near-hit “Cocaine Blues,” leaving Van Ronk to explain to him that it is, actually, a Reverend Gary Davis song.) “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a fine movie. But an adaptation of “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” which I suspect we’ll never see now, might have been a great one.
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On another front, I have never enjoyed a film that I disapproved of so much as “Saving Mr. Banks.” It is, so to speak, the “Birth of a Nation” of family movies: it presents so skewed and fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand that you are all the more astounded by how well it’s done. The story, if you have missed it, concerns the “Mary Poppins” author, Pamela Lyndon Travers, coming to Hollywood to resist allowing Walt Disney to adapt her books (though, at last, she is persuaded). Emma Thompson is so good as the author, and Tom Hanks is so good as Disney, that it seems surly and ungrateful to point out that the tale the movie tells is a lie, and an ugly one. (Hanks, as Disney, gives the most subtle performance of his career, making the cartoon-meister one of those handsome, dark-souled, mid-century middle-Americans who built amazing empires but were never truly at ease, even in worlds they had wholly made for their own pleasure, while dominating their employees with coercive, first-name intimacy.)
The moral of the movie’s story is not that a poet’s art got betrayed by American schlock—as, actually, it did—but, instead, that a frigid Englishwoman got “humanized” by American schmalz. My sister Alison, who is not given to emotion or excess in her opinions, writes that “Travers realized that the movie was going to be, as it is, an utter and obscene travesty, turning all the points of the books upside-down, and the idea that she was a cranky woman made to realize the value of friendship etc. by Disney is a bit like saying that Bulgakov would have realized that all his problems were due to his father if only he’d talked to Stalin a little more.” There are a couple of nice songs (minor-key waltzes, appropriately) in the movie—but the rest is schlock that betrays Travers’s intention with every frame. The movie is saying, basically, that Disney did P. L. Travers a favor by traducing her books. They didn’t. He didn’t.
With that calm verdict in mind, it is at least possible to return again to the original “Mary Poppins” books, which reward grown up re-reading as much as they please kids. They are, outside of the work of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, and T. H. White, the most distinguished poetic literature ever written for children. (The first book, “Mary Poppins,” is terrific, but “Mary Poppins Comes Back” and “Mary Poppins in the Park” are even better.) The real Mary Poppins is a disciplinarian—a stern and unsmiling order giver—and she is also a mystic and a guide, who brings vital disorder, and it is the combination of the two veins that gives the books their magic. The stories are like the imaginations of the children they appeal to—as my same sister, who is a child psychologist, points out—“intensely conservative and wildly radical.” (“Children need a perfectly reliable, unchanging, stable, unquestioned framework from their caregivers, and then it’s that framework that gives them the utter freedom to explore in all the poetic, numinous ‘make it new’ Wordsworthian ways they need,” she adds.) She points out, too, the slightly hidden class dimension of the books, which are utterly erased from the movie: Mary is a guide from beyond the stars, but she is also a working-class nanny, and the enchanted, ceiling-sitting people she introduces her charges to are all her relatives—at once working-class Londoners and magical figures, cosmic Cockneys.
Even now, movies—with the advertising attendant on their cost, and their slightly nudged, but still more central, place in our imagination—have a sad way of putting paid to good books when they take them on. This is owing partly to the power of publicity and partly to the pure power of the image: things seen lodge in the mind as events, while things read linger in the soul only as echoes. However much they haunt us, we need to go back to the original to get the first clear call again. I fear that Tolkien will never entirely recover from Peter Jackson’s violent, spectacular wolves and C.G.I. Orcs, his too-cute Hobbits and too-tall dwarves. (Tolkien’s own son Christopher speaks of how “the chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me.”) The moral, if we need one, is that behind every good movie there might lurk a great book, and books, as they say about the dogs in the pound—guilt-trippingly, but truly—need your love, and your attention, to live on.