When I asked P.L. Travers what she thought of the movie Disney made out of her book Mary Poppins, she replied, “As I walked out of the theater, I was crying.” While she felt Julie Andrews could have made a great version of her nanny if the Disney folks had allowed it, Travers was heartbroken that Walt had taken her novel and turned it into a cloying musical and saccharin fare.
Saving Mr. Banks presents the story of the making of that Disney classic, with Tom Hanks playing Walt and Emma Thompson playing Travers. And in the penultimate scene of this new film, Travers breaks into tears at the premiere of Disney’s Mary Poppins. But here is the difference: We are to understand that she is weeping because she is deeply happy with what the filmmakers have done with her story and because she has finally worked through psychological issues surrounding her late father. This is how history is rewritten.
It’s not like the real cause for Travers’ tears wasn’t widely known. Indeed, in a Disney publication connected to the Broadway version of Mary Poppins, a comment by Travers is reprinted: “Tears ran down my cheek because it was all so distorted. . . . I was so shocked that I felt I would never write–let alone smile–again!” We must conclude, then, that the truth was unimportant to John Lee Hancock, the Director of Saving Mr. Banks, and to his employer. This is, after all, a film tied to the 50th anniversary of Disney’s Mary Poppins. If Travers’ criticism might spoil the party, a happy ending was called for. So, Travers’ sobbing disappointment was converted into a misty-eyed endorsement. The truth be damned.
But does the truth ever matter in a biopic or does that omnibus phrase “based on a real story” give the filmmakers license, poetic or otherwise? Divorced from any need for factual correspondence, seen simply as a movie, Saving Mr. Banks is terrific and Tom Hanks’ genial performance and Emma Thompson’s arching eyebrows deserve separate Academy Awards. Seen in another way, however, this seems like hack work from a studio’s promotions department. This is a film about a film and (that beloved topic) Hollywood on Hollywood. Walt Disney Studios not only released this film, Walt Disney is its subject and its hero. In the end, this is a self-serving and self-congratulating movie, and it comes once more at P.L. Travers’ expense.
I knew Travers and interviewed her for Paris Review (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3099/the-art-of-fiction-no-63-p-l-travers); and when she died in 1996, I wrote an homage in the Los Angeles Times http://articles.latimes.com/1996-06-16/books/bk-15427_1_mary-poppins Since the dead can’t set the record straight, I hope you will excuse me for feeling a duty to honor Travers and her fierce honesty.
The Travers given us in Saving Mr. Banks is a one-trick pony. Emma Thompson does a wonderful job in presenting a character who is peremptory, stiff, unkind, and unfriendly. On a plane trip across the Atlantic, she loudly objects to spending eleven hours in the company of a fussing baby. She complains about California’s endless sunshine. She is rude to Disney’s staff. She demands that tea be prepared properly. She is, in short, the Curmudgeon and over the course of the movie it will be the task of Walt and Co. to loosen up this English harridan with America’s folksy friendliness and, darn it, melt the Curmudgeon’s heart!
Call Emma Thompson’s character anybody else, and I have no problem. But associate her with P.L. Travers–a generous and kind woman, albeit with the no-nonsense manner of a Zen master–and I have to cry foul.
Travers, herself, was the most impressive woman I ever met. In her youth, she was part of the Celtic Twilight and good friends with William Butler Yeats and George Russell, the Irish poet and mystic known as “AE.” She lived with the Navahos during World War II. She was part of Gurdjieff’s inner circle, and she was the second Western woman to go to Japan to study Zen. She was wise and, when I knew her in New York, she was a teacher who took on students interested in the spiritual life.
In a similar way, her book Mary Poppins is profound--though let me tell you from experience, it’s hard to persuade people to sample it because of the Disney movie, even though the two are as different as Jesus Christ Superstar and its source. Travers’ other writings are equally impressive, especially her novel Friend Monkey. A good introduction to her and her mythological way of thinking is What the Bee Knows, a collection of her essays that does Joseph Campbell one better and treats the path of women’s lives as seen in fairy tales, the deep meanings of “Humpty Dumpty,” the sacredness of names in aboriginal cultures, and new ways of understanding the story of the Prodigal Son.
Saving Mr. Banks, then, is off the mark in two major ways. The first is the suggestion that Travers was little else than a difficult person and hard to please, but she finally came around and liked the Disney film. That's just untrue. The film’s other misdirection comes in a series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in the outback of Australia and glimpses of her father Travers Goff (played by Colin Farrell) who drank himself to death. In a bit of penny-ante Freud, the great secret behind Mary Poppins, we’re told, was Travers’ troubled relationship with her father. As Mary Poppins herself might say, “Stuff and nonsense!”
But Saving Mr. Banks also offers a more believable explanation for why Travers finally gave her consent. Naive about the corporate world and hopeful, Travers really thought she could be of use to the Disney folks and (in a way largely unprecedented in Hollywood) be a partner, give advice, and have a say. How did that work out? Representative of the studio’s response is a scene where the Sherman Brothers, Disney’s songwriting duo for the 1964 movie (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), listen politely to some idea from Travers and then turn to the camera and roll their eyes.
The odd thing about Saving Mr. Banks is that in this contest between the creative side and the corporate side, we’re supposed to sympathize with corporate. We’re supposed to join in patronizing the writer. Over all, someone seeing the film would reasonably conclude that Travers was an extraordinarily difficult person and Disney a nice guy. And alas, given their reach, it may be the Disney folks who get the last word.
We can only speculate, then, about how things could have gone differently. Take that moment in the movie when the Sherman Brothers, knowing they are kings of Tin Pan Alley, turn a deaf ear to suggestions of the scold played by Emma Thompson and mug for the camera in a superior and exasperated way. We need to consider: What if the piano-playing duo genuinely missed a chance at that moment because of their superficiality and righteousness? What if Hollywood could have actually listened and learned?
Jerry Griswold was the Director of the National Center for the Study of Children's Literature and is the author of Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.
Thanks, Jerry. This is at once fascinating and sad.ReplyDelete
Wonderful article, Jerry, I had no idea P.L.Travers had such an illustrious background, let alone her sorrow at Disney's transmogrification of her novel.ReplyDelete
I remember watching Disney's Mary Poppins and feeling a bit sad that the film makers had departed so far from the tone and (to me) the "best part" of the Travers books. I read them all, more than once, and loved them. The movie Mary Poppins was a cute, jolly, sweet movie but, in my mind, had little if anything to do with the "real" Mary Poppins and her world.ReplyDelete
So interesting, Jerry. I was really hoping to enjoy this movie. Now I know I'll wince.ReplyDelete
Fascinating. Thank you for this.ReplyDelete
Tom Hanks as Walt Disney felt pretty artificial just from what I know anyway. I'll be saving my time and money on that one, and looking forward to some new reading instead. Thanks!ReplyDelete
odd to see him go from fighting Nazis to playing a not-so-secret oneDelete
Fascinating. I'm going to follow up on the books you suggested. Found Mary Poppins a wonderful character when I was a kid. Came to the movie as an adult, thought it cute but unrelated, as most books to movies are. I've avoided any film based on one of my favorites though, namely Stuart Little. EB White would surely have cried too....ReplyDelete
Thank you for all this interesting information. I'm going to follow up on the works you've mentioned also.ReplyDelete
This is so helpful. Thank you for setting the record straight on behalf of Travers.ReplyDelete
Your post provides needed balance to the perspective presented by the film. I have read most of Travers' work, interviews, and biographies about her -- her thinking was so complex, and she challenged us to peer out from behind the nursery window glass into the magnificent and mysterious universe beyond.ReplyDelete
I can fully sympathize with her reaction to DIsney's treatment of her character. Nevertheless, anytime one person interprets another person's work -- or even when one translates one's own work into a different medium -- that work changes. And anytime one attempts to narratize "real life," the result will be something other than "what really happened." It will be an interpretation of what happened, and "Saving Mr. Banks" should have been more carefully promoted as an interpretation. However, after the liberties taken with other such historical events ("King's Speech," "Finding Neverland," etc.), one would hope viewers would not take this version as gospel.
Disney's/Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins also is a memorable character in her own right. And let us at least give "Saving Mr. Banks" credit for helping people realize that Disney did not create Mary Poppins -- I have found that many people have no clue the film was based on a book -- and, perhaps, spurring them to delve further into the wonder-filled world of P.L. Travers.
an important and fascinating piece-- thank you!ReplyDelete
I grew up with the Disney version of Mary Poppins, and it wasn't until this year that I read all of P.L. Travers' Mary Poppins books (which are fantastic). Boy, was I shocked to see how unrelated the movie truly was to the books! Now, I still enjoy the film, but I absolutely understand why Travers was so disappointed in the film. It's really sad to know how Disney once again is warping Travers' story and personality to fit their own agenda.ReplyDelete
I was very pumped to see the movie , now I will read Travers books instead. Thank you Jerry Griswold for bringing me to the light.- Julie B.ReplyDelete
Far be it for me to argue on a subject I know little about, but I really don't think the film's final scenes show her "happy" with the film and resolved her issues. Yes, it's not definitively clear how it's represented, but as someone who knows nothing about the real woman, when I saw that scene (where she cries in the cinema) what I took from it was that it had upset her because it made her think about her father. Not because she was now over it. Plus when Walt Disney tries to comfort her, she says (sorry I can't remember the exact quote) "I really can't stand cartoons", thus at least implying she wasn't wholly a fan of what she saw.ReplyDelete
And that's it! That's the final line (as far as I rememeber) - I feel it's clearly left with you questioning her happiness about the film.
As for the characterisation of her throughout the rest of the film, I can't argue with that as I really don't know what the real woman was like. The audio clip in the credits of her meeting, certainly does show the "stern" and somewhat abrupt side, that yes the film uses in her overall portrayal.
On another note, there's definitely hints that Disney himself wasn't Mr Nice at all times....
I was similarly displeased with the inauthentic depiction of P.L. Travers. She was a fascinating, mult-faceted woman, and this movie does her no justice.ReplyDelete
I, however, feel SAVING MR. BANKS doesn't do Disney any favors, either. (The company, or the man.)
I think the Mary Poppins film is one of the finest and most significant cinematic adaptations of all time, and the depiction of the development process was ... insulting to those involved.
Nobody came out of this one clean, and I suppose I should just be thankful it's gotten people talking about Mary Poppins again.
Love this woman. Quick correction, though. PL Travers was Australian--although she spent her entire life pretending not to be.ReplyDelete
I don't care. i still want to see the movie, even if it has a Disney spin to it. Through Commentary of Mary Poppins from the last anniversary release and articles on the movie, I knew that PL Travers hated what Disney did.ReplyDelete
The whole movie is just a promo for the Disney Mary Poppins. I went to see it because I loved the books, was curious about PL Travers -- I had been told by someone who knew her that she was a difficult but fascinating person.ReplyDelete
In the movie, PL Travers is presented as tiresome, nothing more. Heroes of the movie are the songwriters making Mary Poppins into Julie Andrews. It's maddening!
Hey everybody, can you watch, reshare, and pass this along. Its an educational video I made for work on P. L. Travers and the new Disney movie Saving Mr. Banks. Its my first video so please be kindReplyDelete
I"m so glad I checked--I had a feeling you'd defend the PLT you knew, so different from the cartoonish "battle-axe" of this awful Disney promotion. What a wonderful response! But how sad that the makers of this "biopic" couldn't be bothered to read enough of PLT's work to know that she would never be gratuitously rude, or deny the child within (“Maybe in you, Mr Disney, but not in me.”) Anyone who knows her writings must know nothing could be further from the truth! Alas, from the reactions I've heard, people seem to think that this movie gives the real "backstory"--so, as you suggest, Disney strikes again. . . first by removing all the "stuffing" from the Mary Poppins stories, and now by reducing PLT's wonderful books to a defense against her (sensationalized) "tragic" childhood. I wish everyone would read your piece before seeing this shamelss piece of Disney self-promotion!
Oh please. If Travers had been thrown under the bus in this movie, screenwriters Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith would not have taken the time to reveal her relationship with her father in the script. Nor would producer Alison Owen would have attached herself to the project before the Disney studio did.ReplyDelete
Thanks for the breath of fresh air here. I might still see it but if I do I'll know it's pure fantasy. The real P. L. Travers sounds much more interesting. I'm going to check out "What The Bee Knows" and her novel, "Friend Monkey." Maybe more readers will be picking up her books as a result of the movie and your article. That's one good outcome at least.ReplyDelete
Interesting. I loved the books as a child and don't really remember the movie (which, of course, was old at the time) being so different. But I was just a child and, unlike today's kids, couldn't watch the movie over and over on DVD, so we saw the film once, then had the books forever. Same with silly Disney fairy tales (Now, kids think the Disney movie is the "real" version because they've seen it 20 times and NEVER read Grimm or Anderson!). In any case, I have no desire to see this movie. It sounded trite from the start.ReplyDelete
This is a classic case of authors wanting to control the interpretation of their work. They can not. Wimsatt and Beardsley compare it to Frankenstein's Monster. Once you create it, it goes out in the world and exists only because others read it. How PL Travers felt about one interpretation of her work is irrelevant.ReplyDelete
I knew (and was in genuine awe of) the real P.L.T), wrote for her Parabola Magazine, visited her when she was writer in residence at Smith. Her goddaughter (daughter of her agent) was a dear friend of mine at one time. I do not recognize her in the Emma Thompson portrayal, nor the story of the making of the movie, which she rightly hated.--Jane YolenReplyDelete
I both saw and read _Mary Poppins_ as a kid, and I knew that in real life, P. L. Travers hated the film version of her book. Still, watching _Saving Mr. Banks_, I wondered if any of it was based in fact. Did the Disney writers really add in Mr. Banks's redemption due to Travers' complaints about his characterization? That was the heart of _Mary Poppins_ the movie.ReplyDelete
(Off-topic, but to the previous commenter: Are you the author Jane Yolen? If so, I still remember where I could find your YA novels in my hometown library. Thank you for many hours of good reading.)
I did not view Tavers' tears as tears of joy in the screening scene of the movie whatsoever! You could feel the pain as she watched...thought Emma Thompson's acting was quite moving.ReplyDelete
Child of the 1970's who naively assumed that the movie was solidly based on the books; now I want to read the books!! Yet are we really surprised at the Disney machine slapping a happy ending onto a story which could have been more nuanced or subtle?? I mean, it's what they do. It's pretty much ALL they do.ReplyDelete
Thank you for this article. Will look beyond film and to the original book for more of the truth.ReplyDelete
Here's something I wrote to accompany a link I posted on my Facebook page to this excellent essay:ReplyDelete
Disney was a tyrant, a red baiter, a glory hound, and could generally be an unpleasant person to work with. He was brilliant in his way, and part of that brilliance was in hiring the right people and getting the best work out of them. But there's nothing faithful about any Disney adaptation, then or now, and the Mr Banks movie (which I haven't seen) seems further reflective of that.
As much as I love Disney's Pinocchio, it has made it very difficult for there ever to be a truly faithful adaptation of Collodi's book to film or animation. And that's where we are with Mary Poppins as well. The shadow of Disney falls long. Poppins is inextricably identified with Disney, who had a mercenary streak that continues to permeate Disney corporate to this day.
The real story of Travers would have made a better movie, her relationship with Disney only a footnote in a long and amazing life. But Disney the fiction continues to represent Disney the brand, and so instead of the real story, Travers becomes a 2 dimensional footnote in his story instead. So there's Travers real life. And then there's the Disney Version.
Thank you for these insights, memories and references, Jerry, and Jane Yolen for your comments above. Emma Thompson is on NPR's Fresh Air today and she says the actor's/filmmakers' intention was not to give the impression that Travers liked the film, but was emotional about her father when seeing the film. Obviously interpretations of the film vary and I haven't seen it yet. I read the books as a child and know a little of Travers' criticism, and this article makes me want to read everything again or anew.ReplyDelete
I enjoyed the film but couldn't imagine being painted in such manner if a movie is made about the writer. Truth is far dissociated from stories and stories are written to give us hope and redemption. Much as I could not imagine if I would have enjoyed the movie if it wasn't produced by Disney and depicted the actual circumstances, I could not imagined if the general public would have accepted Mary Poppin if she had stayed true to P.L. Travers intended version. It might have been a flop and Disney, Marry Poppin and even the writer herself might have sequestered into oblivion.ReplyDelete
Thanks for sharing the information. That’s a awesome article you posted. I found the post very useful as well as interesting. I will come back to read some more.ReplyDelete
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