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The Literary Tradition behind the Adaptation

By Olga A. Limnios

      The Sound of Music, an American classic, is perhaps one of the most beloved stories of immigrant experiences. It is a musical, it is a film, and it is an adaptation of the real-life of the von Trapp family. Maria Augusta Kutschera (aka Maria von Trapp) wrote au autobiographical account in 1949 calling it The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The Mary Martin musical (1959) and the Julie Andrews film (1965) are both based on Maria’s recollections. They are not the only adaptations, however. In fact, the American rights to Maria’s memoir were purchased from the Germans, to whom she sold the right to her book. Two German films Die Trapp-Familie (1956), and Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958) were popular European adaptations. When the story was re-made for the American audiences, Maria was content with her own character. Her only objection was that “Mary Martin and Julie Andrews ‘were too gentle—like girls out of Bryn Mawr’” (Joan Gearin, “Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the Von Trapp Family,” Prologue Magazine, Winter 2005, Vol. 37, No. 4. archives.gov).

      At this point, instead of examining the discrepancies between the biography and the adaptations one by one, it might be more interesting to consider why the discrepancies were necessary and what implications they entailed. The fact that Maria became a governess and Captain von Trapp the cold, brooding widower were not accidental choices. They positioned The Sound of Music squarely into a popular literary tradition known for its success. The character of a governess in European literary tradition has been a favorite for a long time. From Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, these women have been capturing attention by virtue of their intellect, resourcefulness, and patience, but mostly by their nearly fantastical turn of fate—going from being a lonely, humble “genteel prisoner of her respectable position,” as Mimi Matthews puts it, to a respected wife of a wealthy aristocrat (“The Literary Governess: Depictions in Austen, Brontë, Thackeray, and Heyer,” June 15, 2015, mimimatthews.com).

      Maria Kutschera’s story already had many of the features necessary for her to assume the likeness of Jane Austen’s Miss Taylor (Emma) or Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (Agnes Grey). Maria was an orphan raised by an “abusive relative” (Gearin)—the literary governess often endures hardships in childhood. Maria received college education—just as her literary counterparts are learned according to the time’s standards for women. She then is appointed to the von Trapp family as a tutor for the daughter, also named Maria—being placed within an aristocratic household usually sets up the action. 

      Here is where real the Maria’s story had to be altered to continue with the successful transformation into a character. Unlike her literary predecessors, Maria Kutschera did not encounter a brooding, self-destructive love interest in Captain von Trapp. He was neither “detached” nor “cold-blooded” (Gearin). Georg von Trapp never “disapproved of music, as portrayed in the first half of The Sound of Music, [he] was actually a gentle, warmhearted parent who enjoyed musical activities with his family” (Gearin). Most undesirably for a good story, Maria Kutschera did not fall in love with her widowed employer. As Joan Gearin explains, “she fell in love with the children at first sight, not their father.” In fact, when Georg proposed, he asked Maria to “become a second mother to his children,” and that wording ultimately swayed her to accept (Gearin). Later, Maria recalls in an autobiography Maria, “God must have made him word it that way because if he had only asked me to marry him I might not have said yes” (cited in Gearin).

      Maria’s temper had to be adjusted as well. The second Mrs. von Trapp was far from the demure governess of the novels. No-one would have suggested that Maria Kutschera possessed a “mildness of . . . temper” that “had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint”—as Jane Austen describes Ms. Taylor in Emma (chapter 1, guterberg.org). Her pupil, Maria, later described the stepmother’s temper as “terrible . . . And from one moment to the next, you didn’t know what hit her. We were not used to this. But we took it like a thunderstorm that would pass, because the next minute she could be very nice” (cited in Gearin). 

      All of that had to be changed to turn Maria Kutschera into a fictionally appropriate “nanny”—as Julie Andrews described her role—and Georg von Trapp into the likes of Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre (“Foreword” in Laurence Maslon, The Sound of Music Companion, Universe, 2015: 9). Thus Maria transformed into one more character in a row of literary governesses: she became a sweet, loving stereotype who deserved and received a happily-ever-after with a prince. Julie Andrews claims that the 1959 musical “had a reputation for being somewhat saccharine” (9). No doubt the adaptations made to Maria and Georg’s tempers contributed to the effect. However, these features of their personalities persisted into the film, which in Andrews’s words “transcended the original production” (9). She attributes the effect to the scenery (the film was shot in Salzburg), the talent of the people involved, and the beauty of the music (9). Her fast judgement of the stylized characters, however, does not take into account the long literary tradition of the governess/widower trope. It is, undeniably, a contributing factor to the success of the story, one that places it beyond Broadway or the screen and into the European literary tradition.

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