Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 23, 2013

Saving Mr. Banks: Stretching, Shrinking, or Sugar-coating Truth

I had quite a jolly time watching SAVING MR. BANKS, though a little way in when my daughter leaned toward me to ask, “Is she still alive?” my whispered “No,” held a big breath of gratitude, certain P.L. Travers would have liked none of this. There’s rarely a happy meeting ground between lovers of the series of MARY POPPINS books first published in 1934 and the 1964 Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, and this movie may only escalate the tension.

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As a writer, I’d like to whole-heartedly take the side of P.L. Travers, who was born named Helen Goff, and her books, charmingly illustrated by Mary Shepard.  But then there’s the heart-tugging “Feed the Birds” and “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” written by the Sherman brothers, the singing of Julie Andrews, the dancing of Dick Van Dyke, and what can I say? I’m smitten. Disney did play freely with the first novel, which was written in chapters with beginnings and ends, good for bedtime, like other British classics of the period, including WINNIE-THE-POOH , PETER PAN, and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. Disney needed to shape the episodes into an arc, and in conjunction with not wanting to perplex Americans in the early 1960s with the concept of nannies, created a reason for Mary Poppins to come and go, though no reason is given in the book, and is part of its point that life is random. A movie needs to rise and fall, and while I’m uneasy favoring a film over a book, my feelings on this one are like that of WIZARD OF OZ, in which the MGM creators pulled forward the theme of “There’s no place like home” and edited out some of the book’s wayward adventures.

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Still, watching SAVING MR. BANKS I was somewhat troubled to see P.L. Travers depicted as a rather nit-picky diva, needing a bit of saving by Walt Disney, who’s shown not just as a creative businessperson but steps in as psychoanalyst.  “Saving Mr. Banks, but Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus” by Jerry Griswold made me nod in many places. It’s good to hear that the author was nice, deep-thinking and well-liked, more so than the woman played by Emma Thompson in the movie, who’s rude and she sniffs, which may not have been primary traits of P.L. Travers, but do distinguish Mary Poppins as we know her in the book. I told Emily I expected P.L. Travers was surely kinder. But as I read about her last night, hoping for confirmation, I could see that Disney might have given P.L. Travers some breaks. When I reported some faults to Emily, she said, “Sorry, Mom.” There were those tapes that P.L. Travers insisted upon being made at the Disney studios, and prickly remarks were recorded. Good and bad manners may depend upon context, and it seems that while sentimental and greedy Americans may have gotten the bulk of her ire, they weren’t alone. Jerry Griswold found her delightful, but then he is an admiring children’s literature professor who crossed the ocean to interview her for THE PARIS REVIEW.  I would have liked to see P.L. Travers shown as slightly more complex, but in SAVING MR. BANKS, she may have been given a fair hand.

Her life was shaped to create a story arc that includes flashbacks to her childhood in the Australia outback, and is based on facts such as her father, whose first name was Travers, had been an alcoholic who had trouble keeping jobs in banks. While Walt Disney gets the insightful lines, he’s masterfully played by Tom Hanks, who shows flashes of tamed temper and the plaster behind some smiles. His secretaries seem to have a heaviness in their smiles and shoulders, too, and their varying stiffness and haste show they deal with a man who respects childhood, but is not all about merry-go-round rides. I loved the roles of the scriptwriter and the Sherman brothers as lyricist and composer, beautifully played by B.J. Novak (Ryan in The Office) and Jason Schwartz. I read that they spoke at some length with Richard Sherman as well as people who knew both brothers to understand the differences between them as well as what made them a great creative team. Caitlin Flanagan’s interesting New Yorker article,  “Becoming Mary Poppins,”  quotes Richard Sherman and makes it clear how much the brothers’ work shaped the narrative arc of the musical.

A movie is not a book and it’s certainly not a life. Is SAVING MR. BANKS a trusty reflection of a British author in Hollywood? A lot is left out, of course. Some things are stretched, some shrunken, and there’s sugar where it might not be expected. Maybe it’s best not to compare the movie to a life, but to just enjoy and be touched, as I was. What it shows is that art and life are complex. Childhood, in all its sweetness and darkness, stays with us. Creative people find creative ways to move on, while circling back to days when we learned about love.

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Responses

  1. This one is on my shortlist for the holidays, but when I suggested it to the resident teens, they declined (“it’s about OLD PEOPLE”). I am reminded again and again about how my love of Little House was redefined by the tv show.. and it’s the tv show that actually sticks with me more than the books! The power of the visual… fun to think of you and Emily enjoying a movie together! xo

    • Well, the teens are right: it IS about old people, and the children inside them; can’t say we saw any teens in the packed theater. Luckily Em is old enough to be able to look back and ahead. We both did enjoy Catching Fire!

  2. Jeannine, I have the same ambivalence you do—I loved the books as a child, and I still love them. I loved the movie, and I still love it. I understand that they are completely different, and that P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins and Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins are two completely different people. I’ve always felt slightly disloyal for liking the movie. Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone in this. (And have a Merry Christmas.)

  3. I think we’re not alone in this, though I missed the books as a child, reading the first as an adult, and only saw the movie. I guess P.L. Travers might have been grateful that they didn’t put Julie Andrews’s face on the novels — though maybe I would then have picked them up? But likely have been disappointed. I still can’t say I see all the depth and zen that’s supposed to be there.I agree they’re two different entities, as is a life and movie portrayal.

    So lovely to hear from you, Sally. I hope you have a happy Christmas, too!

  4. Interesting history, Jeannine– thanks for filling me in. I have been looking forward to seeing this movie.

    • I hope you enjoy it, as I did. There’s a lot to ponder about creativity, and the different ways to come to magic.

  5. Thanks for this, Jeannine. Hubs and I saw the movie a couple of days ago and I was deeply moved, but also curious about how much was Hollywood and how much was real. I’ve actually never read one of the books, but loved the Disney version as a child. I think Dick Van Dyke was my favorite. In this new telling, I loved the relationship that developed between Mrs. and the chauffeur. Any insight of how much of this was real?

    • Most of my students who loved the movie are rather dismayed by the book. The nanny does not have a lot of charm, though there are charming moments in the book. I also liked that relationship with the chauffeur, but my guess is that is fiction, and the desire to show another side of her, which I expect she did have, but needed someone not involved in the film to show it to. But really there aren’t many stories of her compassion; the harsh childhood is true, and I expect it scarred her pretty severely. .. I’m looking forward to seeing this again with my husband!

  6. Perhaps it’s my age, but I remember that more than a few of my fourth, fifth and sixth grade classmates and I were entirely comfortable with Mary Poppins as a person. To us she wasn’t any more peculiar or less lovable than any other adult, because to us all adults were strange. You never knew how they were going to react to anything you did or said. The best thing to do was to be still and watchful when you were near them. And the thing that was reassuring about Mary Poppins was that she was safe. She would always be strict and demanding and unfathomable, but if you followed her rules you didn’t have to worry about unpredictable bursts of temper or outrage. She didn’t think Jane and Michael were “cute,” and she never laughed at anything they said or did. They always knew where they stood with her. And the reward for doing things her way was to have all sorts of wonderful experiences that grownups wouldn’t be able to believe in. So when I say I loved Mary Poppins, I guess I’m saying I loved her, and I loved the books because I could always find her in their pages–whenever I needed her.

  7. My two loves together on one screen: Walt Disney and children’s books. After reading this, I’m even more excited to see it.

    • Walt Disney did some great and some not-so-great things to fairy tales, but he kept them alive for this century, when there are few children he didn’t touch or even shape. Shopping with my daughter for toy trucks and books for the four-year-old son of her cousin, she looked over Lion King, and said, “I’ve got to get him into Disney.” Let the plotting begin!

      Loretta, this movie will bring out the child already so alive in you. But I would recommend a tissue or two!


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