Second Opinion: Saving Mr. Banks
There’s something very ugly and unpleasant going on in Saving Mr. Banks, an otherwise cheerful and upbeat Disney film of high production quality. The problems are evident right on the poster. On many of them, the tagline reads, “Where her book ended, the real story began.” The condescension only gets worse when you watch the actual film.
Audiences all over the world love Mary Poppins, the movie. They love it so much that the film’s popularity seems to have greatly dwarfed the original, magical novel – a whole series of novels, mind you – on which it is based. Those books were the work of a woman named P.L. Travers, and like many artists whose work has been usurped and commoditized by big corporations – at one point in Saving Mr. Banks, Travers looks at a Winnie the Pooh doll and goes “Poor A.A. Milne…” – she didn’t want to sell her creations off. It took Walt Disney 20 years to get P.L. Travers to agree to let him adapt Mary Poppins into Mary Poppins, and only then after she hit dire financial straits.
So, as Saving Mr. Banks shows, Travers (Emma Thompson) was difficult during the creative process. Extremely difficult. Notoriously difficult. The film concludes with the credits rolling over some real life audio recordings of P.L. Travers’ tut-tutting over the script to Disney’s musical, as if to say, “See folks? She really was that bad. She didn’t want you to have Mary Poppins.” As if to say that Walt Disney’s movie was the culmination of Travers’ own creative journey and, to hear Saving Mr. Banks tell it, also her actual life story. Saving Mr. Banks postulates that Travers’ life’s work was but a well meaning yet futile prelude to a supposedly superior version produced by strangers with limited respect for the original author’s talents and intent.
Fans of Mary Poppins, the movie, may look on the events of Saving Mr. Banks with fondness and a thoroughly warmed heart, since the film goes out of its way to justify the existence of Disney’s celebrated adaptation, a cozy tearjerker with wonderful songs that – as many fans of the original novel may tell you (I myself among them) – is actually a rather poor adaptation of her original work. The gist of it is there on the screen, and the story more or less the same, but the tone, the mystery and the overarching theme is malformed. For Mary Poppins argues that the world is a magical place already, and that it takes the stern hand of a no-nonsense person to put it in order, and Mary Poppins argues essentially the opposite.
But while Saving Mr. Banks goes to great lengths to dramatize the relationship of young P.L. Travers with her outwardly lovable, yet secretly alcoholic father (Colin Farrell), making a melodramatic but strong case for Travers’ ability to put her own life in order through her art, it also takes place in the 1960s, when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) spent a lot of time and effort trying to convince her that he could tell her story – indeed, her whole life story – better than she could. While audiences may agree (often, I find, without having read her actual books), P.L. Travers did not. She famously hated Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins because, as far as the author was concerned, he got it wrong.
So it’s no small insult when Saving Mr. Banks, a Walt Disney production (as indeed it would have to be, in order to incorporate Disney himself and the Mary Poppins music into the film), claims that she felt differently. As the film progresses, and Travers’ cold persona transforms into one of love and comparative kindness – you can tell because she eventually wears a pastel dress – the insidious rewriting of her history becomes all the more disturbingly apparent. Indeed, Walt Disney himself has a big speech about how he’s just like Travers because he had a troubled relationship with his father, but that unlike Travers he got over it, and that he lives happily and that he is therefore wiser than she is. Only when Travers gives up her well-earned artistic integrity and admits that Walt Disney, and by extension the whole Disney corporation was right about everything all along, and that she was wrong, wrong, wrong, does P.L. Travers ever achieve inner peace.
It’s just so hard not to find that contemptible, whether you love the film that resulted from their pseudo-collaboration or not. It’s so hard to like a film that picks on an artist for standing up for themselves, especially in an age when the right to oversee the adaptation of one’s own work can be taken for granted. J.K. Rowling got to oversee the adaptation of her Harry Potter novels, and they turned out (more or less) just grand. Disney took a comparably dark, but still hopeful tale of a British childhood sprinkled with magic, and turned it into a fantasmic musical production of saccharine feel-good, popular or not. And now the company expects to rewrite the actual history of Travers herself, not just the public perception of her creation, and to be rewarded for it as if they were doing the author a personal favor.
Try to imagine a world where J.K. Rowling gave up the rights to her novels, only to have them turned into the world’s most celebrated episode of “Glee.” Now try to imagine a world where, decades later, audiences never bothered to read those very different Harry Potter books because they love that episode of “Glee” so much. Now try to imagine that, decades after that, the company that produced the episode of “Glee” in the first place made a film about how Rowling was a stick-in-the-mud old nag for disagreeing with the creative direction of their episode of “Glee,” and claiming that Rowling’s very existence was miserable until those “Glee” producers convinced her that she was wrong about her own creation – and her own life – all along.
And that is – if you will forgive the extended hypothetical analogy – what Saving Mr. Banks is all about. It’s an attempt to justify a radical rewriting of an author’s work via a radical rewriting of the author’s life, in an attempt to celebrate those people who changed that author’s work and famously reduced her to tears in the process.
In a vacuum the cast of Saving Mr. Banks is delightful, the Hollywood insider schtick is endearing, the music (as it was and always shall be) is just phenomenal, and the dramatization of a difficult collaborative process is interesting and pertinent. But the only reason to allow Saving Mr. Banks to exist in a vacuum is willful ignorance. It’s a drastic page-one rewrite of reality to justify a familiar, maudlin, and silly conclusion: that anyone who doesn’t like Disney needs to be fixed, and that the magic of Disney will always fix them.
But P.L. Travers’ stories haven’t concluded. In the movies, at least, they have still never been told.