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Aug 5, 2021

'Poppins,' Thomas More & Peck: Best Adapted Screenplays of the '60s

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., loves to watch movies, and he loves to read. He's been working his way through the decades, looking at the best screenplays adapted from another medium. This time, he tackles the 1960s.

Best Family Film
Mary Poppins (1964), based on P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins book series

As fantastical as musicals can go, the plot was very simple. Two children need reconnecting with their business-focused father, who neglects attending to them. Enter magical nanny Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) to save the day. Through song and dance, Poppins facilitates the family’s coming together again.

It’s no coincidence (I think) that the story’s title, when separated out, reads as “Mary pops in,” simulating the unique way Mother Mary has interfaced with her spiritual children through various apparitions throughout history.

By the way, in 2013, the Disney film Saving Mr. Banks -- which starred Emma Thompson as Mary Poppins creator Travers, and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney -- chronicled Disney's efforts to get the rights to make the movie. Saving Mr. Banks draws parallels between Travers' Australian childhood, her father, and her work, but the film, while a hit, was criticized for not being entirely true to history.

 

Best Adaptation
A Man for All Seasons (1966), based on the play by Robert Bolt

Of all the adaptations of the 20th Century, Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of the Bolt play is one of the best. The magic of the film is that it relies on a well-executed play (click here for that), something worth reading annually on the feast day of Catholic martyr-saint Thomas More.

What works well in the play works equally well in almost any medium, and the filmmakers had a sense of that. There wasn’t much to adjust, save putting characters in cinematic motion, something not always conducive to stage performances.

For example, in the film, Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) plops into the muddy shore of More’s manor after his servants rowed a silky smooth path down a river.

One note about the dialogue. It seems there are fewer and fewer quotable movies made in recent decades. The film contains memorable lines, exemplified by the economical closing one, which puts into perspective the balance between civic and religious duties.

Sentenced to death for refusing to accept Catholic Henry's divorce and remarriage, and especially the rebellious king declaring himself head of the church in England, St. Thomas More (Paul Scofield) utters: “I die His Majesty’s good servant … but God’s first.”

 

Best Source Material
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee (made into a 1962 movie of the same name, starring Catholic Gregory Peck)

About a decade ago, I remember the mayor of Chicago recommending Chicagoans and those in the surrounding suburbs to read Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He didn’t give a reason, but the suggestion caught fire.

Readers probably discovered the balance between the scales of justice and mercy. Attorney Atticus Finch fights for the innocence of a black man wrongly accused of a crime. His daughter Scout also encourages Atticus to become a vehicle of mercy, highlighted by a line that’s also the title of the book.

 

Best of the rest by year: 1960: Inherit the Wind/play by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee; 1961: The Guns of Navarone/novel by Alistair MacLean; 1962: Lawrence of Arabia/writings of T.E. Lawrence; 1963: Lilies of the Field/novel by William Edmund Barrett; 1964: Becket/play by Jean Anouith; 1965: Ship of Fools/novel by Katherine Anne Porter; 1966: The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming/novel Off-Islanders by Nathaniel Benchley; 1967: In the Heat of the Night/novel by John Ball; 1968: Oliver!/musical by Lionel Bart; *1969: Anne of the Thousand Days/play by Maxwell Anderson

*A period film based on the same historical events as A Man for All Seasons, but this 1969 version was told through the point of view of Henry's ill-fated second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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