POLLYANNA GETS A bad rap. Even Mary Pickford, the silent movie star who bought the rights to the 1913 bestseller about an uber-optimistic orphan, was said to detest the girl and story. That's according to John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister, whose new book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It (Penguin Press), highlights the million ways our brains--and the media--focus on the bad and discount the good.
And yet Eleanor H. Porter's Pollyanna was such a phenom that Pickford gritted her teeth, cast herself as the 11-year-old heroine (Pickford was 27), and earned herself both a defining role and a gross of over $1 million in 1920. That's a happy ending! When Hayley Mills played Pollyanna in the 1960 Disney remake, she and Walt also laughed all the way to the bank.
Pollyanna movies have been made around the globe, despite the fact that her name long ago became shorthand for gratingly grateful. What I would call the "At least Anne Frank got a book deal!" outlook Pollyanna calls the "Glad Game," a technique she was taught by her missionary dad when she was desperately hoping for a doll and received instead a pair of crutches. But at least she didn't need the crutches, so--hooray!
I recently decided it was time to finally watch (and possibly learn from) Pollyanna. Steeling myself for a sap overload, I was shocked to discover the character was not a cloying goody-goody but actually sly, smart--and manipulative.
The basic plot: Parentless Pollyanna arrives in a small Vermont town to live with her rich and icy Aunt Polly. Pollyanna doesn't mind the attic room--just look at that view!--and soon she's out and about, meeting the locals. She chats with shut-in Mrs. Snow, who's been poring over a casket catalog, and wealthy recluse Mr. Pendleton, who hates kids until Pollyanna pushes her way in and points out the rainbows his chandelier casts on the wall. Pretty soon they're stringing a clothesline of crystals across the living room and rainbows dance everywhere--a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow's stuffy bedroom as well.
By doggedly refusing to treat these grumpy adults as anything other than fun-loving potential friends, they start to become exactly that. But how?
"Pollyanna is nice to the people you don't want to be around and therefore makes them nice," says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated...