“Saving Mr. Banks” But Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus
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; and when she died in 1996, I wrote an homage in the Los Angeles Times. 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 that is how the movie suggests Walt finally got Travers to sign over the rights to her book, which she had been withholding all this time. He flew to London and had a heart-to-heart with her where he confided that he knew the stand-offish Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins was really a figure for Travers’ own late father, and Walt knew this because he had gone through something similar with his own hardhearted father Elias. If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, here is a movie moment that would make a diabetic wince. Knocking a tear from her eye, Travers caves and signs the contract, signing over Mary to Disney.
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 in the film 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?
While originally commissioned by an online magazine, this essay finally appeared on San Diego State University’s Children’s Literature blog where (I am told) it garnered 25,000 “hits” in its first week: http://sdsuchildlit.blogspot.com/2013/12/saving-mr-banks-but-throwing-pl-travers.html. My Nation review of Travers’ “About the Sleeping Beauty” can be found here. My Paris Review interview can be found here. My tribute to Travers–in the Los Angeles Times and after her death–can be found here. And my Parents’ Choice essay on the Broadway version of “Mary Poppins” can be found here.