Reclaiming Mary Poppins and the Characters We Love

28 Jul

Or, The Opening Ceremony Challenges Copyright Law, Whether it Means to or Not

Mary PoppinsLike millions of others around the world, I spent last night watching the Opening Ceremony.  Unlike millions of others, the part that captivated me wasn’t the parade of nations, but the “Second Star to the Right” theatrical sequence.

In this bit of public theater, director Danny Boyle reclaimed the British people’s ownership of their children’s literature, the rights to which have long since been sold off to various corporate interests.  Depicting Mary Poppins battling Captain Hook, Voldemort, and the Queen of Hearts, Boyle claimed these beloved characters as part of the broader British narrative.  In doing so, he challenged the idea that these characters, or any characters, can belong to someone.

Storytelling Hippies“Second Star to the Right” was traditional storytelling – it was folklore, containing the characters that have been handed down through generations.  In one way, it was no different than a story of Johnny Appleseed meeting Paul Bunyon.  But, in another way, it was different – because, legally, someone owns the characters featured in the piece.  Disney owns Mary Poppins and Warner and Scholastic own Harry Potter.  As explained before the performance, London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital owns Peter Pan.  So, Mary Poppins and all the rest – they’re not just characters – they’re brands worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Historically, the characters in last night’s show would have received copyright protection for only a brief period of time before becoming part of the public domain.  But, thanks largely to the Disney Corporation’s lobbying efforts to extend its exclusive rights to the use of two very special mice, the period of copyright protection has been repeatedly expanded.  Without Disney’s efforts, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland would already have become part of the commons.

“Second Star to the Right” embraced that idea at the center of Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Character in Search of an Author,” namely that characters live beyond the intentions of their creators.  Showing Mary Poppins and her compatriots as characters in the children’s minds, Boyle showed that they live beyond the words and intentions of their original authors or the corporations who now control them.

Six Character in Search of an AuthorHaving Mary Poppins fight away the baddies of British lit, Boyle engaged in his own cross-over fanfiction.  He took the characters outside of their official narratives and story arcs, and brought them into one giant mash-up of a British child’s psyche.  It was a representation of what we all do – how all of our beloved characters live in one giant narrative space in our heads. Where Wendy Moira Angela Darling gets a letter from Hogwarts or Alice falls through the looking-glass for a second time, only to end up in Narnia.  Engaging in this type of storytelling while the world watched, Boyle created a public version of the millions of dubiously legal fanfiction stories that are published online every year.

I doubt Danny Boyle meant to challenge copyright.  I certainly doubt that the International Olympic Committee would have done so, especially considering how draconian they’ve been about enforcing use of their trade marks in the lead up to the games.  Also, J.K. Rowling was part of the performance, and I highly doubt that she would have participated in any unlicensed use of one of her characters.

So, even though I know that it wasn’t meant to be subversive.  I hope that people who watched last night consider the use of the characters.  That they don’t just think it was a cool performance, but think about what it means in a broader sense.

Questions of the day: What did you think of the Opening Ceremony?  What about “Second Star to the Right?”  And, who do you think owns the characters featured in it?  Do the British people have any claim to them?

Formerly MaggieCakes, Maggie (not Margaret) covers technology’s impact on culture, specifically on how we interact or connect with each other. Have a question or an idea you’d like me to write about? Leave a comment, or send me, Maggie O’Toole, an e-mail: moc.teragramtoneiggam@eiggam

9 Responses to “Reclaiming Mary Poppins and the Characters We Love”

  1. Cassie July 28, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    This was my favorite part too. I almost died when JK Rowling started reading Peter Pan. I loved the little girl awake under the covers with her flash light as well. It was just wonderful. You’re blog was also wonderful to read. : )

    • Maggie O'Toole July 29, 2012 at 7:41 am #

      Glad I’m not the only one! I totally remember being that girl curled up under my blankets with my book. And, I still wish J.K. Rowling would read me a bedtime story!

      Thanks you; it’s nice to get some feedback that I’m not just talking to myself here.

      • Cassie July 29, 2012 at 8:53 am #

        Haha oh no, of course not. Sometimes people go through your blog and just don’t comment I’m sure. It’s a strange world this blogging, but your blog was really excellent. : ) I think I still am that girl who is curled up under the covers with a book. I’m sure you are too!

  2. Serena Trowbridge July 29, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    This is a really interesting post, and thought-provoking. You’re quite right, and somehow I had not thought about this at all. Of course, these characters do belong to corporations – but all literature surely also ‘belongs’ to everyone – and especially, to my mind, children’s literature, because the characters do take on another life inside children’s minds (I remember writing my own Paddington stories as a child). So in some ways, Boyle’s appropriation of these characters is a subversive statement, as you suggest, because he is ‘re-claiming’ these characters as archetypal British literary figures. And that, I think, is a Very Good Thing.

    • Maggie O'Toole July 29, 2012 at 7:43 am #

      I agree, it is a Very Good Thing. I worry about the path that our culture is going down, where everything is owned. As copyright extends longer and longer and the commons is deprived of anything that’s been popular in recent memory, it seems to shrink.

  3. George March 23, 2013 at 11:42 am #

    Question, does Disney also own the rights to Mary Poppins books? or just the film? and is it possible to adapt the books into films in other languages without Disney’s interference?

    thank you,

    • Maggie O'Toole March 24, 2013 at 8:45 am #

      Hi George,

      Good question. I’m not sure who owns the rights to the book, but yes, it is possible to do a new adaptation without referencing the film. That’s what Disney just did with Oz the Great and Powerful — they didn’t want to pay Warner for rights to the movie of The Wizard of Oz, so went back to the original source material.



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