Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the 1964 movie Mary Poppins will be in movie theaters this Christmas, which makes me think that now is the right time to start the discussion about the film adaptations of Pamela L. Travers’s Mary Poppins stories. In my opinion, the best way to start this discussion is with a review of Disney’s movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013) starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Pamela L. Travers.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) dramatizes the making of the movie Mary Poppins. The screenplay is based on the tape recordings of the meetings between Walt Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers in 1961, and because we see these tapes and we hear Pamela L. Travers’s voice at the very beginning of the movie, we are led to believe that everything that happens on the screen is factually accurate. However, most of what goes on is fictional. And that, even if Robert Sherman tells us in the official movie interview that everything we see is a replica of what happened in the studio.
What are the fictional elements in this movie and what difference does it make anyway?
Let’s start from the beginning. How did Saving Mr. Banks come to be?
It all began when Australian producer Ian Collie read Valerie Lawson’s biography of Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins She Wrote. He decided to make a documentary about the life of Pamela L. Travers and, while working on the documentary, The Shadow of Mary Poppins, he realized that there was “a good seed for a feature biopic”. His focus then shifted to the period of Pamela L. Travers’s life during which Walt Disney pursued the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories (which by the way spanned over almost 20 years). The screenplay finally zoomed in on the meeting between Disney’s team and Pamela L. Travers which took place in California in 1961. At that time Pamela L. Travers had agreed to sell the rights to Mary Poppins, however her consent was conditional upon her approving the screenplay.
When Walt Disney Pictures were approached for the rights to use the tape recordings of these meetings, the negotiations ended up with Walt Disney Pictures purchasing the rights to the screenplay of Saving Mr. Banks and this is how Saving Mr. Banks became a tribute to Walt Disney. Ian Collie concedes that Saving Mr. Banks is not factually correct in all aspects but he believes that there is truth about the essence of Walt Disney and Pamela L. Travers.
“It’s about that battle of wills between two polarising, contrasting figures, and that wonderful cultural battle between English literary high art and the king of populism, and her mistrust that he was going to sentimentalise it and make lots of money for his empire.”
The cultural clash was real. However, nothing in the movie suggests that Pamela L. Travers’s views had any artistic/literary value. No scene in the movie acquaints the viewers with Pamela L. Travers’s literary background and her connections with literary giants such as George W. Russell, Yeats, T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw just to name a few. The only allusion (although unexplained to the uninformed viewer) to Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, George W. Russell, is in the scene where Pamela L. Travers (Emma Thomson), alone in her hotel room, is talking on the telephone with Mr. Russell. Only at that time Mr. Russell had long been dead. He died in 1935.
Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t explore either Pamela L. Travers’s lifelong love and extensive knowledge of fairy-tales and myths. Moreover, the movie remains silent about her spiritual beliefs, except maybe for the picture of a book on Gurdjieff’s teachings on Pamela L. Travers’s desk at the beginning of the movie, and a little Buddhist statuette that she unpacks in her hotel room in California. However, all these elements are of the utmost importance if one is truly interested in understanding the nature of the conflict between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.
Sadly, Saving Mr. Banks presents the disagreement between Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney in an extremely simplistic way which prompts the viewers to pick a side: Creative Genius Walt Disney versus this delightfully malevolent character loaded with benign kind of vitriol, this nutty old lady who lives down the street, as, to my bitter disappointment, my all-time favorite actor Tom Hanks, described Pamela L. Travers.
But what if both opponents had their justifiable reasons? What if their differences were simply irreconcilable?
One thing is certain, it was not Walt Disney’s understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s psychic pain caused by traumatic childhood experiences that solved the conflict. Nothing was known about her childhood at that time and the idea that Mary Poppins comes to save Mr. Banks, and by that meaning that Mary Poppins comes to save Pamela L. Travers’s father, was not Walt Disney’s either. It was the interpretation of Jenny Koralek, a friend of Pamela L. Travers. According to Jenny Koralek, Pamela L. Travers agreed with that interpretation but even if that was so, the reasons for writing the Mary Poppins stories do not explain the reasons for which Pamela L. Travers finally agreed to approve the screenplay of the Mary Poppins movie. In any event, Pamela L. Travers’s difficult childhood could explain, at least partially, the creation of the Mary Poppins character but it does not explain the inner conflicts that fueled her resistance to allow Walt Disney to translate the Mary Poppins stories to the screen.
Saving Mr. Banks does not give a fair rendition of Pamela L. Traver’s inner battle. Viewers needed to understand that Disney’s interpretation of her fictional character shook Pamela L. Travers’s core beliefs about fairy tales and myths which were intertwined with her spiritual beliefs. Fairy tales were an important part of Pamela L. Travers’s inner world; she apprehended life through the metaphors and symbols of the myths and fairytales. Unfortunately, her mythical language was totally foreign to most people and that included Walt Disney and his team. Pamela L. Travers valued fairy-tales for their wisdom, and she simply couldn’t conceive of them as vessels for mere entertainment.
Fairy-tale is at once the pattern of man and then chart for his journey. (…) The fairy-tales are like water flowers; they lie so lightly on the surface, but their roots go down deep into a dark and ancient past. They are, in fact, a remnant of that Orphic art whose function it was to instruct the generations in the inner meanings of things. (…) Again, like flowers, the same fairy-tales spring up in different countries, always with the lineaments of first cousins and always alongside the parables of truth that make the religions of man. Like village school masters, they instruct the simple, while the high priests deal with the scholars. But essentially both are concerned with the same teaching. How to live and how to die is the subject of the Orphic art, no matter what guises it wears.
The Fairy-Tale as Teacher, Pamela L. Travers, 1950
Walt Disney had a different approach. He used fairy tales as means to escape reality, to just kick back and relax. But his tendency to remove all darkness from the fairy tales irritated Pamela L. Travers profoundly and that long before he approached her for the movie rights to Mary Poppins. She wrote reviews about his cartoon creations in The New English Weekly in the 1930’s and they were not flattering. Patricia Demers summarizes Pamela L. Travers opinion of Disney’s work in her book P.L. Travers: “At the heart of Disney’s ‘enlargement of the animal world’, Travers discovers a corresponding ‘deflation of all human values’ and ‘a profound cynicism at the root’.”
Pamela L. Travers believed, and with reason, that without darkness the fairy tales are unable to ignite in the child’s mind the questions which can only be answered by truth.
It is worth asking, I think, why we grown-ups have become so timid that we bowdlerize, blot out, retell and gut the real stories for fear that truth, with its terrible beauty, should burst upon the children.
I Never Wrote for Children, Pamela L. Travers, 1978
It is relevant here to mention that G.W. Russell, Pamela L. Travers’s literary mentor, taught her about poverty and the artistic integrity of the poets. She herself wrote poems and was convinced that Mary Poppins came out of the same well that poetry comes out of.
Yes he said that one should take the vow of poverty, especially poets. It didn’t mean that if you were offered a 100,000$ you would refuse it. But it meant that you would not be attached to it. You didn’t even need to give it away but you wouldn’t live by it.
Interview with Brian Sibley, The Womand Behind Mary Poppins
When one understands how important fairy tales and their meanings were for Pamela L. Travers and her artistic vow of integrity towards her art, her inner conflict becomes much more interesting and multisided. Only then can one appreciate the greatness of the gap separating Pamela L. Travers and Walt Disney.
Why did Pamela L. Travers give up her Mary Poppins? Saving Mr. Banks suggests that Disney’s understanding of her psyche established between them a special connection based on both their childhood sufferings. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In 1968 British author Brian Sibley, while researching a biography of Walt Disney, reached out to Pamela L. Travers. This is what she wrote back (the quote below is from an essay by Brian Sibley published in A Lively Oracle, a centennial celebration of P.L. Travers Creator of Mary Poppins)
I am afraid there is very little I can say to you about Walt Disney. I did not care very much for the film he made of my books. Generally because, although it was a colorful entertainment, it was not true to their meaning. Nor do I like what he does with Fairy Tales, so I don’t think I am very useful person for your study.
Patricia Feltham, a close friend of Pamela L. Travers, said in an interview that what Pamela L. Travers told her during the filming of Mary Poppins was “almost unprintable”. And still, Pamela L. Travers gave up the movie rights to the Mary Poppins stories? Why? Can financial worries be the only reason? Or is there something else? More about this in the next post on this blog.