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The Disney spin on P.L. Travers
on 20 May 2016
Full disclosure up-front: I have a fondness for both these films in their own right, but also a huge dilemma with what they represent.
I was a fan of Disney's Mary Poppins from my first viewing in childhood, and I still think it's a brilliant film. It will always have a special place for me, even after I encountered P.L. Travers at university (both her Poppins books and her academic writing on mythopoetics) and realised I much preferred Travers' version of the character.
Then I read about the stand-off between Disney and Travers, and how it became Disney Corp lore that Travers was difficult and dogmatic and too uninformed about the film biz to understand how unreasonably demanding she was being, and that the incident served mostly to show how forbearing "Uncle Walt" was and how dedicated to his art that he would put up with this strident, ungainly woman. Travers aficionados, on the other hand, point out how she was lied to, patronised, marginalised and impugned for years. Rightly or wrongly, she felt strongly about the nature and tone of her stories; she was given firm undertakings about how they would be adapted, *none* of which were kept; and when she tried to use the voice in the production meetings that her contract granted her, she was condescended to and shunted aside. While it's true to say Travers didn't understand the Disney formula for making a film, and so within their production context many of her suggestions were misguided, it's also fair to say that the Disney people didn't understand her anxiety over her story being Americanised in sentiment, saw no need to keep their word to her as things changed in production or even explain why they had changed, and bluntly had no patience for anyone trying to say no to them or not embracing their ideas.
And now "Saving Mr Banks" has upped the ante by giving a very one-sided Disney Corp account of the proceedings as if it is the full story. In fact, almost none of the film is true, including the flashbacks to Travers' childhood and this version of her father who (according to the film) needed to be "saved" for her.
Dammit, it's a beautifully-made film, well-balanced and with some lovely performances. People are arguably entitled to enjoy it for what it is -- hence my dilemma. But is dismaying to see comments all over the internet that clearly assume it's a true account, griping about what a <insert negative label here> Travers "obviously" was and how wonderful Disney was to put up with her.
There's no reason most people would care about this, and while I personally wish they would, I won't condemn them if they don't. But I wanted to voice a few things from the Travers side, hence this comment. I'll finish by saying that if, as they say, the victor gets to write the history, it's a little galling that the one "Saving Mr Banks" represents has been so lacking in generosity to the real-life P.L. Travers. For me, as a fan of the woman behind the myth, it has to colour my appreciation for both these films.