Author P.L. Travers (Emma Thomspon) on the defensive as she squares off against Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in negotiations over the film rights to Travers’ novel Mary Poppins in Saving Mr Banks, a sentimental just-so story New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik calls “The Birth of a Nation of family movies.”
It takes a special breed of literary snob to argue the world would be better off if the movie Mary Poppins had never been made and the only way we knew of the world's most famous nanny was through P.L. Travers’ novels alone and instead.
On another front, I have never enjoyed a film that I disapproved of so much as “Saving Mr. Banks.” It is, so to speak, the “Birth of a Nation” of family movies: it presents so skewed and fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand that you are all the more astounded by how well it’s done. The story, if you have missed it, concerns the “Mary Poppins” author, Pamela Lyndon Travers, coming to Hollywood to resist allowing Walt Disney to adapt her books (though, at last, she is persuaded). Emma Thompson is so good as the author, and Tom Hanks is so good as Disney, that it seems surly and ungrateful to point out that the tale the movie tells is a lie, and an ugly one. (Hanks, as Disney, gives the most subtle performance of his career, making the cartoon-meister one of those handsome, dark-souled, mid-century middle-Americans who built amazing empires but were never truly at ease, even in worlds they had wholly made for their own pleasure, while dominating their employees with coercive, first-name intimacy.)
The moral of the movie’s story is not that a poet’s art got betrayed by American schlock—as, actually, it did—but, instead, that a frigid Englishwoman got “humanized” by American schmalz. My sister Alison, who is not given to emotion or excess in her opinions, writes that “Travers realized that the movie was going to be, as it is, an utter and obscene travesty, turning all the points of the books upside-down, and the idea that she was a cranky woman made to realize the value of friendship etc. by Disney is a bit like saying that Bulgakov would have realized that all his problems were due to his father if only he’d talked to Stalin a little more.” There are a couple of nice songs (minor-key waltzes, appropriately) in the movie—but the rest is schlock that betrays Travers’s intention with every frame. The movie is saying, basically, that Disney did P. L. Travers a favor by traducing her books. They didn’t. He didn’t.
That's Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker. And it’s Saving Mr Banks he’s calling schlock there at the end of the second paragraph. Mary Poppins,the movie, he dismisses as schmaltz, although he sometimes seems to be conflating the two, the schlock with the schmaltz, Banks with Poppins. That's his sister calling Mary Poppins an "obscene travesty" but Gopnik seems to agree or at least see her point. Even if he meant it as a hyperbolic joke, The Birth of a Nation crack shows Gopnik is too much of a white guy for his own good. His sister’s comparing Walt Disney to Josef Stalin makes me wonder what she thinks Walt did that was the equivalent of mass murdering millions of people. Walt Disney was far from being an American saint, but Stalin had Isaac Babel shot, Disney made P.L. Travers rich.
Well, more famous.
However good you think Travers’ book is, however much better than the movie you might believe it is, you’ve got to admit, it’s still read by many more people, children and adults, than would be reading it if the movie hadn’t been made or if it had been made the way Travers had wanted it made.
Ok. I suspect Gopnik of trying his hand at some Slate-like trolling. “You all love Mary Poppins, do you? Well, it’s going to take more than a spoonful of sugar to make this medicine go down!” I don’t think he out and out wishes the movie hadn’t been made.
He sure doesn’t like it though.
It surprises me he still liked Saving Mr Banks. Seems to have surprised himself on that count, as well.
I enjoyed Saving Mr Banks and for the same reasons Gopnik enjoyed it despite himself. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. Especially Thompson who has been repeatedly robbed over the course of this awards season. But I don’t think the movie portrays Travers as a frigid Englishwoman in need of humanizing by the Disney touch. I think the filmmakers are on her side the whole way. They treat her as very much humanized on her own. Maybe a little too human for her own good. But her problem is that she’s taken what the movie---and the audience---can’t help seeing as an indefensible position. She’s out to stop a beloved classic movie from being made.
Of course she doesn’t know that’s what she’s doing. She can’t see into the future. And the filmmakers don’t expect her to. Mary Poppins could have been a terrible movie (Believe it or not, more people than the Gopniks think it is.) or at any rate a much less than great one. At the time Mary Poppins was going into production, Disney Studios was concentrating on live-action movies, some of which were pretty good, most of which were so-so, all of which had a Disney look that hasn’t dated well and probably looked a little cheap to audiences back then as well. I’m not sure but I think many of them were actually made to be shown on The Wonderful World of Color and only made the rounds of the theaters to give them some artistic cachet at a time when television was still regarded as a second-rate medium. They included Old Yeller…
Come on. Admit it. Who cried when Old Yeller dies?
Like I said. Some pretty good ones, some somewhat less than pretty good. But all with that Disney look.
Travers couldn’t have predicted that Mary Poppins was going to become a classic, but based on those movies she would have had some compelling clues as to what an adaptation of her book was likely to look like.
We’re not required to be familiar with all those films ourselves. All we need to know is that Travers had an idea of what a Disney movie was and she didn’t care for it. And her idea isn’t treated as ridiculous or wrong.
She also couldn’t have known ahead of her visit to Disney Studios that the movie in the works was going to have a lot more in common, visually and stylistically, with Disney’s great cartoons.
That might not have mattered.
Saving Mr Banks has it that Travers didn’t like cartoons in any form and so wouldn’t have regarded Snow White, Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the rest as great. I can understand that. I’m not a real fan of any of them. I don’t love any of them, at any rate. I happen to think the Golden Age of Disney animation began with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and continued through the 1990s finishing with Mulan and Tarzan. Sue me. But the last three full-length animated features Disney had turned out before Mary Poppins wrapped were Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, and The Sword in the Stone.
Whatever you think of the first one, the second two are not top-notch. But if you want to imagine what an animated Mary Poppins might have looked like, 101 Dalmatians is probably a good model.
Travers arrives in California at the end of her professional rope. She’d rather not sell the rights to her book to anyone let alone Walt Disney but she needs the money. She feels lost and alone in hostile territory. She knows what she’s going up against too. On top of this she’s haunted by memories of her childhood in Australia and her adoration for her lost soul of a father, a drunk and a dreamer who bestowed upon her, his favorite, the mixed blessing of a faith in the power of imagination to get her through life. It’s not clear if these memories and the attendant guilt and self-reproach, have plagued her all her life or if they’ve been triggered by the prospect that she’s about to give away the work that has been her imaginative connection to her long-dead father. It doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s unhappy and in pain and she’s angry and defensive because of it, and we’re meant to sympathize and root for her.
We understand she doesn’t need humanizing or friendship, which she does happen to get, the friendship I mean, but not from Walt Disney. She needs release. And that’s something she has to get and the movie lets her get for herself.
She gets caught up in the spirit of things, thanks to the genius and patience of the composer-songwriter Sherman Brothers, but then she believes she's been lied to by Walt Disney himself and, furious at him and herself for falling for his sales pitch and mistaking it for a sincere offer of artistic collaboration, she takes her book and goes home. She changes her mind again but not because she’s humanized by American schmaltz. The schmaltz hasn’t gotten off the drawing boards yet. Disney apologizes and using the example of his own life with a difficult father, who unlike Travers’ father sounds like a bully and a sadist and not someone who sounds like a candidate for sympathy or forgiveness, persuades her not let someone else’s story, even though you are a character in it, become your story.
She saves herself by letting go of the ghosts who have taken over her stories, her own and Mary Poppins’.
It’s a sentimental just-so story, but hardly a “fundamentally vile a view of the essential matter at hand”.
What it is, though, is not the story Gopnik would have preferred.
He wanted a tragedy about how commerce defeated art, which isn’t what happened. Travers’ book didn’t get removed from the bookstores and libraries. It gained a great new audience (even though it didn’t include me) and Travers followed it up with more Poppins books.
To believe that’s what happened you have to know that a faithful adaptation of the novel would have been a better movie or believe that no adaptation at all would have been the better outcome so that all the generations of children who have come of reading age since 1964 would have only known Travers’ Mary Poppins and they’d have taken her to heart the way J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter’s been taken to heart.
I don’t think I want to know what Gopnik thinks of the Potter movies or of the books.
But that brings me to this:
With that calm verdict in mind, it is at least possible to return again to the original “Mary Poppins” books, which reward grown up re-reading as much as they please kids. They are, outside of the work of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, and T. H. White, the most distinguished poetic literature ever written for children.
I dislike Travers’ Mary Poppins. Always have. When I was a kid I outright hated it. But then I read it after seeing the movie. When I got a bit older I realized that was unfair, that books and movies were different and you shouldn’t judge one by the other. So I tried again.
Still didn’t like it. But I just figured I was too old to appreciate a book for children.
But when I was truly older and had children of my own and we were introducing the young Mannion boys to the world beyond picture books, I tried reading them Mary Poppins and they didn’t like it.
Wasn’t because they were picky or lacking in taste either. And they hadn’t seen the movie yet.
There were just too many works of “distinguished poetic literature” they liked better. Because they were better. Much better, in the judgment of this grown-up unrewarded by re-reading Mary Poppins.
Even if you accept that T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King for children and ignore that Tolkien wrote more than The Hobbit and that more has come close to subsuming The Hobbit and is decidedly not for children and let it slide that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is...um...a little weird, if you put those authors' works at the top, between them and Mary Poppins come a shelf-ful of books by (in no particular order except that’s how they’re occurring to me as I’m typing this) Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, Mark Twain, Beatrix Potter, C.S.Lewis, L.Frank Baum, Raold Dahl, Norton Juster, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.L. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, J.K. Rowling. and Lemony Snicket.
And,by the way, those few nice songs Gopnik mentions but doesn’t name? Chim Chimney. Feed the Birds. A Spoonful of Sugar. Let’s Go Fly a Kite.
A few nice songs. Sheesh.
Maybe Gopnik was trying to be funny again. Hard to tell. I hope so. I wouldn’t know what to say if he was just being dismissive.
Come to think of it, I know exactly what to say.
It’s what you say when you don’t know what to say.
Be sure to read Gopnik’s whole column, Behind Two Good Movies, Two Great Books. And for the record? In the first half, Gopnik convinces me I’d rather read The Mayor of MacDougal Street than see Inside Llewyn Davis.
Because everybody loves a post with a reading list.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.