Mary Poppins, as we know from the 1964 film staring Julie Andrews, is a loveable, family-oriented, charming story about a nanny who brings the Banks household together. The new movie, Saving Mr. Banks, claims to tell the story of how Walt Disney's classic adaptation of the children's books by P.L. Travers came to be. But does Saving Mr. Banks misrepresent what really happened between Disney and Travers?
Travers, the author of the beloved Mary Poppins children's book series, was Walt Disney's biggest adversary when he was struggling to win the rights to her legendary story and bring it to the big screen. It took 20 years for Disney to achieve his vision of Mary Poppins, finally fulfilling the promise he made to his daughters that he would bring their favorite story to life.
But why did it take so long for Disney to get the film made? Because Travers hated Disney's sweet and uplifting style of storytelling. "There is a profound cynicism," Travers wrote about the 1937 Snow White Disney film, "At the root of his, as of all, sentimentality." Disney, meanwhile, was used to getting his way.
Though Travers became an adviser during the production of Mary Poppins, she remained uncompromising as Disney tried to change her original concept of the story. "Disney brought her to Hollywood and decided he would charm her into making this film," said Marc Eliot, the author of Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince. "But she wasn't very charm-able. She was a tough woman — not quirky or cute. She didn't like American movies, and she hated animation more than anything else."
Travers was known to be a strong-willed woman, and she staunchly resisted Disney's proposed changes to her story. Travers did not want there to be cartoon elements, nor did she want Mary (Julie Andrews) and Bert (Dick Van Dyke) to have any romantic relationship. She also despised the song "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Unfortunately for Travers, Disney won most of these battles — but not without a fight.
"I don't think Disney had the faintest idea of what to expect when she turned up [on the 'Poppins' set]," Briban Sibley, a fellow British writer who worked with Travers, said. "She was an immensely complex person. Amazingly independent and strong, very determined, very strong-willed."
This side of the story may be obscured by Saving Mr. Banks, which portrays Travers as a cranky, stubborn killjoy rather than the legendary female author of a story that has become a classic. Travers led a dynamic and unusually free-spirited life in the early 20th century, pursuing an assortment of careers including writing, journalism, dancing and acting. She dated both men and women and had a longstanding interest in fairy tales and myths that inspired her writing throughout her life. An artist as well as an adventurer, Travers was well respected in Britain, where she ran with some of the most respected poets and artists in the country. It's no wonder, then, that she was one of the few artists willing to stand up to Walt Disney at the height of his power.
But Saving Mr. Banks offers a much different story, changing key facts to make Travers seem like an old grouch and Walt Disney seem much more sympathetic. For example, in real life, Disney did not initially invite Travers to the premiere of the Walt Disney film. She eventually was able to come, but cried in disappointment and disgust throughout the entire premiere. In Saving Mr. Banks, however, they show the author in tears of joy rather than in disappointment.
In real life, Travers went on to live the rest of her life in great dissatisfaction with the film that she believed ruined the legacy of her books. As literary historians tell the story today, Disney got his way at the expense of an author who deserved better. "Disney had no creative respect for this woman," Eliot said. "He wanted a property and once he got it he completely ignored her input and all the restrictions she had agreed to. And that's how the film got made."
As for Saving Mr. Banks, Eliot said: "That revisionist history — that's part of the myth of Walt Disney."
Be sure to catch the movie Saving Mr. Banks in theaters starting Friday Dec. 13 to find out if Disney gave a fair account of the battle between Travers and Walt Disney.