Books on Film: Pollyanna

Pollyanna is a hundred-year-old book, but it's a classic story that left a mark you can still find in pop culture today. As you may know, Pollyanna has become synonymous with any overly-optimistic person who sees only sunshine no matter how much rain there is, a sheer goody-goody who always has something nice to say. But before it was a term to tease your friends with, it was one of the most memorable literary characters ever to grace a page.

The Book

Eleanor H. Porter wrote Pollyanna way back in 1913. It became so popular it launched an entire series of "Glad Books," and if you know the character you understand the title.


The titular character Pollyanna Whittier has been newly orphaned and sent to a small town in Vermont called Beldingsville. She's going to live with her rich Aunt Polly, an old maid who never had children and certainly does not want one in the house. Of course, Aunt Polly hasn't much choice sister her sister is dead and the child has nowhere to go.

If having Pollyanna wasn't bad enough, she incessantly talks about being glad. She plays a game called "the glad game" in which she finds the positive side of everything. It's optimism she learned from her father, and it's boundless. Pollyanna doesn't even see her aunt's cruelty because of her own positive nature. She's shoved into an attic bedroom with little adornment, and revels in having her own room to herself. She gets punished with a meal of bread and milk, but relishes the food and the company she gets to keep in the kitchen.

Aunt Polly is not won over, but slowly the rest of the New Englanders in town are. Pollyanna begins playing her game with some of the town's troubled souls, including the lonely Mrs. Snow and the grouchy Mr. Pendleton.

But it's not all sunshine and roses for Pollyanna, who gets hit by a car accidentally. This results in a traumatic injury that inhibits the use of Pollyanna's legs.

This does manage to dampen her sunny spirit, and Pollyanna ends up lying in bed feeling no gladness at all. The townsfolk begin to show up at the house, however, having heard about the accident.

It's a children's book, so of course it all ends happily. Aunt Polly stops being an old maid and Pollyanna does walk again. You'll want that info, because if you watch the movie (and I beg of you to do so) you're probably going to cry. The movie ends differently, but on the page Pollyanna does walk again.

Eleanor H. Porter only wrote two books about the spunky heroine. Pollyanna Grows Up followed...and then things sort of got out of hand. Four other writers penned Glad Books. So far, there are 13. Littleton, New Hampshire, hometown of the author, built a bronze statue of Pollyanna. They also have an "Official Pollyanna Glad Day" every single summer.

The Movie

Pollyanna is such a popular character, she became a part of pop culture and she's stayed there. The various adaptations of her story have helped to keep her alive for a century. The BBC made a TV serial of her story in 1973, and there was a TV series in 1986. Another TV film was made as recently as 2003.

But when you're talking Pollyanna, there's really only one adaptation that matters: the 1960 film. Critics openly mocked Disney for making the flick, based on a book that was already old even in that bygone era. The best thing Disney did with the film was cast Hayley Mills, who would go on to make 5 more movies for the studio.

Her charm is definitely on display in the film, which also stars Jane Wyman (the former Mrs. Ronald Reagan) as Aunt Polly and Karl Malden as the town preacher.

The setup to the movie is the same as the book. Polly's house is grander, the attic room is stuffier and Pollyanna's clothes are every bit as ugly as described. The town's name is changed to Harrington to reflect Aunt Polly Harrington's influence in the community.

That influence shows up early after a fire at the orphanage brings the entire town together in the Harrington home. Here we meet Aunt Polly's former boyfriend, the handsome Dr. Chilton, newly-returned to town. The townsfolk want to raise their own funds for the orphanage, instead of taking money from Polly as usual, and Chilton earns her wrath when he openly agrees with them. 

They plan a festival in order to raise the money on their own, and Polly is so infuriated she refuses to let Pollyanna participate. It's wasted energy, of course, because Pollyanna is right in the middle of all of it.

The movie features brilliant performances from the main cast and amazing supporting actors, including Agnes Morehead as Mrs. Snow (she's fantastic). Every scene with Malden in it is electric, particularly when he's screaming at the town from his high pulpit. The film is gorgeously put together with bright colors that practically leap off the screen, stunning sets and a perfectly detailed wardrobe. It's one of my all-time favorites, and I suggest that everyone watch it at least once.

The film was not commercially successful for Disney, but the powerhouse performance of Hayley Mills earned her a special Oscar. She won an Academy Juvenile Award in 1960.

What Got Adapted?

Disney took the time to make Pollyanna a long feature-length movie, and spared no expense in the way of set design or costuming. And yet, true to form, Disney changed plenty of stuff unnecessarily from the original story. Leave it to Disney to do that every single time. But before I go off on one of my favorite rants, let's talk about just this book.

Whole personalities are changed for the sake of the film, and characters are added and taken away at will. Housemaid Nancy's boyfriend George was invented wholly for the movie. Dr. Chilton's name and personality are changed, and the same is true for Mr. Pendleton. Polly and Chilton are older in the movie, possibly because Disney wanted Wyman for the role and she was older. In the film, Dr. Chilton has been living away from Harrington but in the book he's been in town for a while.

In the movie, Pollyanna isn't hit by a car. She falls from a tree while sneaking into her room coming home from the festival. This carries with it an implicit moral warning: you shouldn't have snuck out of the house.

Nancy is quite different in the film, where she is polished and clever. Nancy is uneducated and a little silly in the book. Aunt Polly doesn't have such an iron fist in the book, and certainly doesn't control the entire town. There is also no festival. The cook Tillie and the maid Angelica are invented entirely for the movie, as are several other townspeople.

But despite the changes, or maybe because of them, Pollyanna is an exceptional movie. So read the book, watch the movie and compare them for yourself. Don't cry! She'll be okay in the end.

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