Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Friday, December 20, 2013

It may take more than a spoonful of sugar to make Saving Mr. Banks go down as the real deal

Amidst the many big movies coming out between now and New Year's Eve(most of which are in serious Oscar contention mode), the most seemingly commercial one of them all is actually about an artistic struggle.

Saving Mr. Banks stars Emma Thompson as British author P.L. Travers,the creator of Mary Poppins who reluctantly sells the adaptation rights for her popular series of children's books to Walt Disney(Tom Hanks).

Travers came along for the ride and offered her input,most of which was critical of the changes Disney and company wanted such as the songs, the casting choices(Dick Van Dyke was not who she had in mind there) and the inevitable animated dancing penguin sequence. This clash of creative forces does sound like a great story and who can resist Emma Thompson when she's in full snark attack?:

However,even the positive reviews for this movie make the case that Travers is mainly being depicted as a cranky writer with daddy issues who softens up slightly due to the magical charisma of Walt Disney.

From what I gather,Travers and Disney did fight tooth and nail over the film from the beginning as she retained script approval yet he had the last word on the final cut. Even at the premiere of Mary Poppins,Travers(who had to ask for permission to attend) confronted Walt over the animated scene right then and there,which he brushed off as a "what's done is done".

Although Travers wrote four Mary Poppins novels(two of them were blended together for the Disney film), she refused to allow any sequels to be made and when she was approached about a stage version back in the 1990s, her main stipulation was that no one from the Disney film production would be involved with it and that also meant the Sherman brothers who wrote the songs for the 1964 movie. Talk about your hard feelings there!

Despite not having seen this film yet, I can't help but not be surprised at the sugar coating of the story line since Disney(along with the BBC) made this film. It's rather difficult to imagine a movie company willing to make a film that could put their founder in a non twinkly light there and perhaps if another studio had taken the reins, we might have gotten a more intriguing result:

I did read all of the Mary Poppins titles when I was a kid and the tone is very different from the movie,more Roald Dahl with a twist of magic than the sun shiney musical would lead you to believe. I don't hate the film version but it's not on my list of favorite children's book adaptation either.

I think what really bothers me about Saving Mr. Banks is the standard trope about the uptight author being too particular about their work to allow others to make it more accessible. Granted, I know that in real life many writers are not always cheerful charmers and that in bringing a story off the page and onto the silver screen, changes can and are necessary.

Yet, part of me feels strongly for Ms. Travers in this dispute. Yes, she could have walked away from the money but she was in true need of it and maybe she really thought this could have worked out in a way that would please all involved. I suspect that being a woman author in those days made it easier for the folks at Disney to override many of her objections as they did there.

Jane Austen once referred to one of her books as her "darling child"(it was Pride and Prejudice) and is it really so hard to suppose that P.L. Travers felt the same way about her fictional nanny? In that light,shouldn't it be easy to  understand the motherly instinct to protect one's own creation?

Fortunately, times have changed for the better in this regard,as J.K. Rowling's hands-on role as adviser for the film versions of her Harry Potter series have proven in abundance:

So far, Saving Mr. Banks has earned a few critical honors and Emma Thompson is up for a Golden Globe as Best Actress and might even be nominated for an Oscar before all is said and done. I wish this film well but must sigh and wonder about the behind the scenes story this might have been. In P.L. Travers' mind, this Hollywood fairytale was much more of a nightmare and a touch of fear certainly would slice the sweetness factor sharper than Freddy Kruger's finger blades:

1 comment:

Thaddeus said...

Yes, Disney is not an especially self-aware corporation, and they are fond of viewing themselves and their actions with a pretty strong set of blinders. I cannot blame anyone for prejudging how a Disney film will portray their talented and difficult founder.

And I do agree that the lack of prominence for women would have put Travers in a very weak position. However, I didn't know any of the facts you related - hell, I haven't even read the books, much less seen the film.

I would be offended, regardless, to see a movie that reduces the personality difficulties of some artists to "no-fun nag with daddy issues." I will say this: from what you've described, it sounds like Travers only sold the rights to a film adaptation, and I'm glad she wasn't one of many artists who sold most/all of their copyrights. As a creator, it might have really put her through hell...