It’s one of those books that will make you want to hug everybody you know. And the movie is quite pleasant, too
I remember seeing this movie often when I was little; it left such an impression on me. I never forgot about ‘the glad game’ and I remember the first time I realized the irony of the glad game beginning when Pollyanna got crutches when she wanted a doll, and then eventually getting a doll soon before needing crutches. And Hayley Mills played the part so well (apparently even getting an Oscar for it! (kind of)). I think I always carried that version of Pollyanna around with me. And just like “The Last Unicorn,” I was surprised and pleased to find out, much later in life, that it was based on a book – and then surprised that I was surprised – because of course it was a book! Especially since I knew it had been a Disney movie (they never really use there own stuff, do they? They mostly poach the public domain, and then spend millions in court trying to keep all of their own intellectual property out of the public domain — with a lot of significant cultural collateral damage. But I digress…)
When I found out it was a book, I wasted little time getting it from the library. At the beginning, it seemed a lot like Anne of Green Gables – i mean, a delightful 11-year-old orphan getting picked up at a train station to be adopted by folks that aren’t used to kids? They’re even the same age! I was a little reserved about this at first – after all, Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, and Pollyanna was published in 1913. Was Pollyanna Whittier just the American knock-off of Anne Shirley?
It turns out ‘no.’ You don’t have to read far to realize the two girls are quite distinct. Anne was never quite so blindly optimistic. She was vulnerable to mood swings, was way more stubborn, often irrational, and defiant. Pollyanna is just so good. Her willingness to submit and her desire to please everyone would be crippling if not for her boundless optimism and resilience. Indeed, Anne Shirley is a far more realistic character, but I wouldn’t consider that a criticism of Pollyanna, since I had the distinct impression that she was meant to function in the story as an angel — she’s kind of a mix between Mary Poppins and Anne Shirley — because while we see Anne prosper, we see Pollyanna transform the town. We see her save people from their personal hells.
When you think about it, if you were heaven and it was your job to send an angel to save a bunch of people, you wouldn’t be able to just send an angel. People might do what the angel said, but they wouldn’t really change. No, you’d have to send a real person that showed everyone that it could be done by real people. Pollyanna comes from nowhere and brings everyone into their own little heavens, and while you’re reading the book, you can’t help but love her for it. You really can read the whole story through the lens that it’s about an angel that came to a small town to teach the people how to live well and be happy.
Porter does a good job of showing us Pollyanna’s effect, and the reader can’t help but be touched when the people she’d blessed with ehr company were desperate to come to their rescue and give her some of the happiness she’d given them. My eyes were misty for the last 50 pages of the novel, and when I was done I just wanted to walk around hugging people.
But there is something worthy of note, in the difference between the novel and Disney’s 1960 screen adaptation. While i was reading the book, she often spoke of driving. I was more than half through it when the author made reference to reins and horses that I realized that she was not driving in a car, but in a horse-drawn carriage. This was even more interesting when motor cars do make the scene, and they are unabashedly demonized. This is even more interesting since in the (1960) movie the scene with the motor car is omitted, and is thus not demonized. I might not have followed this line except for an interesting podcast I’d heard about the small culture war that was fought over the acceptance of the motor car, and the public relations campaign that eventually overcame negative sentiment towards the automobile. If you’re interested, I would recommend Episode 76 of 99% Invisible, “The Modern Moloch”.
If you wanted to go a little further in the over-analysis train, you could even note that while Pollyanna’s crisis was brought on by the motor car in a 1913 book when people were resisting the automobile (what would the world look like if they’d prevailed?), but in the 1960 Disney ‘we-love-cars’ capitalist American economy, it is a tree that brings about her crisis. That’s right: Eleanor H. Porter hated cars, and Walt Disney hated trees. That’s the take-home message we can draw from the adaptation.
We could also look further into Pollyanna’s salvation. In the novel we see the fate of her crisis hinging on the choice of the one woman she was most certainly sent to save: her Aunt Polly. Her salvation rests on whether her influence over a single summer was enough to have prepared her Aunt to be able to save her, and of course it is clear that Pollyanna’s injury served the purpose of creating even more good in the end; and indeed, the reader is led to believe that nothing short of such a crisis could have completely saved Aunt Polly from the bleak future towards which she was heading.
But in Disney’s version, the injury doesn’t serve nearly as poetic a purpose. Sure, we see the town come together demonstrate how positive her effect had been. But her salvation? In the end Disney pinned it on Pollyanna herself, not the effects of her work. I remember the doctor saying something like, “There isn’t anything wrong with her legs – it’s psychological.” Yes – she just didn’t want to walk badly enough, and it took the whole town to cheer her up enough to do so. Compared to Porter’s ending, Disney’s is lame. I don’t know how I feel about telling someone in a wheelchair that ‘they’re not trying hard enough’ or ‘it’s all in their head’ or ‘they just needs to be more positive’ — especially without taking an x-ray. You might even wonder if this was part of the growing attitude that led to Thatcher and Reagan’s neo-liberalism. Or maybe it was just a little piece of lazy writing at the end of a pretty good movie (but maybe I should watch it again to make sure. I have to say, I loved Gilligan’s Island when I was that age. But when I tried to watch it again a decade later, I found it pretty much unwatchable…)
But why just focus on the Disney version? Apparently there are more than half a dozen other screen adaptations of this wonderful book, going back to 1920, and I have the vague feeling that in not watching them I haven’t really done my homework. On the other hand, perhaps the time would be better spent just reading another book, or reading this one again. It’s always hard to say… I guess one can be glad that there is so much choice out there.