A humble, hardworking British author – a woman no less, struggling for acceptance in a quite distinctly patriarchal business – is sought after to approve a movie based on one of her books; one to which she is very personally attached. So she flies to America to try and protect her creation from being manhandled by the Hollywood studio boss in question, whom she regards (not without reason) as a notorious purveyor of crass consumerist junkfood culture who famously turns everything he touches into stuffed animals and theme park rides. They famously clash, but the fight is over before it’s begun by virtue of her needing the money more desperately than he needed her book-rights. And though the final product indeed makes her wealthy and famous, she must live out her days being chiefly recognized for a version of her character that she personally despised.
For a few decades now, that’s been the reigning counter-culture narrative of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers and Walt Disney – surely the most overly-vilified not-great man of Golden Age Hollywood. He was, to be fair, a caricature of his own making: Walt turned himself into a secular saint for public consumption, a symbolic amalgam of “good old fashioned Americana” to better convince a willing public that his cartoons, theme parks and merchandise wasn’t so much being churned out by assembly-line but rather willed into existence by a jolly wizard in a tailored suit.
So when subsequent generations opted to turn against (however briefly or disingenuously) the “plastic” consumer sentimentalism he so embodied; it was only natural that the he’d be re-remade into something of a straw-Satan – a handy metaphor for everything “phony” and secretly sick about the ideals he packaged and sold. Despite what you may have heard, he wasn’t a Nazi sympathizer, or even notably more racist or sexist than any other average white man of his era. Even accusations of anti-Semitism tend to be over-sold (though by no means excusable) by virtue of his opting to do business in the ONE American industry where a casual suspicion of Jewish persons wasn’t considered commonplace.
By all reliable accounts, the truth is more mundane than shocking or edifying: He was a typical Hollywood mogul, simply one whose common flaws and failings were amplified by their proximity to his whimsical mythic self – an ugly utterance from any other unctuous tycoon is expected, but from Uncle Walt it’s scandalous… or useful, if you’re looking for an icon to prop up as a symbol of everything wrong with middlebrow American entertainment. And so Walt Disney: Complicated Individual becomes Walt Disney: King Jerkface, and the not terribly unusual situation whereby the author of a book that becomes a classic movie doesn’t care for said movie becomes the Legendary Saga of how a True Artist got stomped on by The Hollywood Machine – a tale told by cultural snobs to other cultural snobs for decades whenever Mary Poppins comes up.
So now that Walt Disney (the studio – Walt Disney himself passed away two years after Poppins was completed and was not, despite what you may have heard, cryogenically frozen) has produced a movie dramatizing the contentious collaborative sessions during which author P.L. Travers and the studio’s in-house script and songwriting team worked to hammer out the screenplay (over which she’d been given final approval); it’s become a gut-reaction among some to assume that it’s a kind of reactionary historical-revisionism: A way to finally, once and for all, claim the story for Disney (in the personage of Tom “America” Hanks, no less!) and relegate Travers to a bit role in her own life.
To be sure, the film bears little resemblance to what’s known of the events. It’s a work of historical fiction (the screenplay was not commissioned by Disney itself, but rather written independently and picked up by the studio when it made a splash on the famous Black List Survey) that uses this especially well-known example of creative-disagreement to tell a more general story about the nature of adaptations and artistic collaboration. Walt Disney and Pamela Travers are here not as much themselves as they are avatars for The Producer and The Writer. The most obvious liberty taken: Travers and Disney didn’t actually spend very much time with one another – he was busy on other projects at the time, and largely left mollifying “The Writer” in the hands of his underlings. By contrast, in the film he’s omnipresent, his famous charm being the weapon of the last resort in breaking through her tough skin.
And yet, to write the film off as a “whitewashing” of Walt isn’t precisely accurate – tempting though it may be. The fact is, there’s very little to wash: The complicated and difficult Walter Elias Disney who built an empire out of Mickey Mouse and cold, ruthless business savvy was a distant memory by this point in the man’s life; when to hear some tell it he’d become a puckish grandpa figure who might have begun to believe his own legend. If anyone is being lionized here, it’s the audience with fond memories for the now-classic movie. The film treats Disney’s version of Mary Poppins as a predestined thing of greatness, something that the not-terribly-introspective Walt and the imperious Travers both had to give up some ego to bring to fruition. That, more than anything, is the balm is selling: “Here’s a version of the making of a movie you love that takes some of the edge off that nasty business you heard about how much it’s original author hated it.” It even goes so far as to cast the project of a particular obsession of Disney’s, when in reality he pursued a lot of projects just as tenaciously if not more.
The great irony, though, is that there is some serious revisionism and whitewashing going on to make one of the characters more agreeable… it’s just not Walt Disney. It’s P.L. Travers.
As played (quite well) by Emma Thompson, the film’s Travers is as much a caricature of mannered English stoicism as Hanks’ Disney is of Midwestern geniality. Vacillating back and forth from iron-willed to porcelain-delicate as fast as her tight-necked head can pivot on unmoving shoulders, she spits out the real Travers’ well-documented issues with the production: She hated cartoons, rolled her eyes at musicals, loathed the notion of fantasy-escapism as a coping mechanism for children, and detested Dick Van Dyke. It gives voice to the most common critiques of Walt and his fairy-dust empire, making it eminently clear that she runs in too many prestigious literary and academic circles to be wowed by Mickey and Donald.
To be clear: Saving Mr. Banks is about Travers – Hanks’ Disney is the colorful co-star, but the story is hers and the significant interactions are between her, the screenwriter and the songwriting Sherman Brothers. And while the plot indeed hinges on a late-period heart-to-heart between her and Walt, her emotional arc is conveyed through interactions with Paul Giamatti as a Los Angeles chauffer whom she chastises for his fixation on the West Coast’s sunny weather (she feels he gives insufficient credit to the necessity of rain) only to later learn that he’s weather-conscious because sunny days are the ones when his wheelchair-bound daughter can enjoy the outdoors. (Yeah… it’s a good movie, but it’s that kind of good movie.)
In reality, the bulk of Travers’ (documented) issues with the film as planned by Disney could be chalked up to the age-old issue of a protective writer not quite grasping the different rules and expectations of filmmaking; but Banks imagines a bigger overhanging issue that serves to not only add drama but humanize the author in a way she’d likely have objected to more strongly than anything The Sherman Brothers tapped out: Her most strenuous story objections are in regard to new backstories and personalities being imposed on the Banks Family (Disney’s writers felt U.S. audiences wouldn’t understand the British institution of a middle-class family having a live-in Nanny without contriving a reason for the parents to be otherwise occupied), which are generally understood to have been a fictionalized version of her own parents. After a particularly bitter argument, she (briefly) calls it quits and disembarks for London – which leads Walt to briefly take up the role of detective-therapist, digging into her well-buried childhood in Australia (playful but alcoholic dad, suicidally-depressed mom) to figure out what unsorted trauma makes her so protective of The Bankses and what he can do to allay her worry about their Hollywoodization.
The thing is, not only would the real Travers have objected to all this sentimentality over youthful psychic wounds and talking-cure healing… there isn’t much evidence to suggest that she even was wounded enough for it to have been such an easy explanation for her later-life unpleasantness (her youth, like Disney’s, was more interesting: A gleefully scandalous social climber and ambitious poet who paid her bills writing erotica and enjoyed proving she could out-party her male literary colleagues). In the film she hero-worships her hard-drinking father, blind to the chemical source of his “fun” behavior, and rides to the rescue (literally – as in on a horse) to thwart her mother’s suicide. In reality, the suicide attempt simply failed and Travers purportedly came away (understandably) anti-affectionate toward both of them; preferring the influence of a hard-nosed aunt that many (including Banks) see as the original inspiration for Mary Poppins.
The film also omits reference to Travers’ female partner and adopted (by then grown) son, likely to increase the sense of self-isolation inherent to this version of the character. But in doing so, it also sands even more “edge” off of reality: She didn’t make or keep friends easily, and her relationship with her son was famously difficult – he had been born a twin, but Travers elected to adopt only one of the two boys and deceive him of his origins because a psychic medium told her to, leading to furious arguments when the unspoken-of abandoned brother turned up on their doorstep as an adult. One imagines there aren’t enough plush Mickeys for Thompson’s Travers to reluctantly cuddle during nighttime anxiety attacks (no, really) to make audiences sympathize with that sort of baggage.
Oddly enough, along with polishing the sharp edges off Travers as a character – framing her as endearingly stubborn rather than biting and egocentric – Saving Mr. Banks gives her a gift even Walt Disney didn’t dare: The last word. The film’s end credits play over actual voice recordings (preserved at her insistence) of Travers picking through screenplay issues with the Disney folks.
All movies about “history” – especially the minor events therein – are fiction to some degree. They have to be, or they’d be either ungainly or boring. But history itself can come in multiple forms, to, and those who are quick to call “propaganda” would do well to check and see who really gets the better deal from the rewrite.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Aside from his work at The Escapist, he wrote a book and does a videogame criticism show.