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The Lowdown from a Book Lover: Does Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins Dishonor Travers’ Original Books?

Mary_Poppins_HouseIf you’re like me, between choking back tears, tapping your toes, and rooting for Walt Disney while watching Saving Mr. Banks, you’re also likely to ask yourself a number of serious questions.

There are the obvious historical questions, like “Did she REALLY forbid the use of the color red in the film adaptation of her books?” (She really did.) But then, there are the other, quieter, more existential questions that many of us will ask ourselves as we experience the profound displeasure of the Travers we come to know in Saving Mr. Banks, like: Does the beloved Disney version of Mary Poppins malign the books it’s based on? And, most importantly, because I love Walt’s Mary Poppins so deeply, does that make me some kind of a simpleton?

Take it from me loving Disney’s Mary Poppins doesn’t make you a simpleton. I have read each of Travers’ eight Mary Poppins books cover to cover — along with the comprehensive biography of Travers by Valerie Lawson. I am a bibliophile of the highest and most annoyingly snooty degree (as many of my closest friends would willingly attest), and still, I wholeheartedly support Walt, the Sherman Brothers, and the rest of the creative team who made the classic Disney movie. Walt Disney brought Mary Poppins to life in a genuine and admirable way. He may even have understood Mary Poppins in ways Travers herself never could.

As Saving Mr. Banks dramatizes well, Walt and his team endured ferocious rebukes and reprimands from Mrs. Travers as they attempted to adapt her book into the movie we now know and love. The movie draws parallels between Travers’ abrasive disposition and the circumstances of her own childhood, and between her unwillingness to collaborate or give up a reasonable amount of creative control and her fear of dishonoring the memory of her father, whom she lost tragically at an early age.

As someone familiar with the books, the movie, and the author’s biography, I can tell you that the most striking parallel is between Travers herself and the Mary Poppins of the books. Travers’ verbal assaults on the Disney creative team pale in comparison to the vicious tongue-lashings the Jane and Michael of the original books faced every time they recounted the details to Mary of adventures they had recently enjoyed with her. If the Mary Poppins of the books could be compared to the Travers of Saving Mr. Banks, Poppins did enjoy whimsy, did occasionally lose her gravity, and did dance and play musical instruments at night in the park she just wanted to be very discreet about it after the fact. The merest allusion to her light and playful side was offensive to Mary. To Jane and Michael, Mary’s expressions of insulted outrage were withering. Her ideas about decorum made no sense to them. But the Banks children never questioned Mary’s devoted affection towards them. According to Saving Mr. Banks, Walt dealt with Travers’ scorn the way Jane and Michael dealt with Poppins he turned his cheek many times, because he knew in the end she would come to appreciate the movie he wanted to make.

One of Mary’s fundamental characteristics is that her outward demeanor is different in the eyes of each character she encounters. Bert sees her one way, the children another, the tyrannical Miss Andrew another, and so on, with everyone from the policeman to the Park Keeper seeing a different Mary Poppins. Unique temperaments and personal histories brought unique points of view.

Enter Walt Disney. Walt looked at most stories from a child’s point of view, and no one, least of all Travers, should have been surprised that he saw Mary Poppins much the way Jane, Michael, and his own daughter did. They saw a magical, strict, but safe and loving woman whose heart was boundless and whose prickly exterior was “only skin deep” (Travers’ words).

Like Bert, the Banks children, and countless others, Walt was untroubled by Mary’s no-nonsense comportment, seeing only her very heart of hearts. There were no secrets about this: Walt’s team understood Mary’s inner nature because they had read the books, which couldn’t have revealed Mary’s character more clearly. For example, in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the author explains that Mary “couldn’t really have been as cross as she sounded . . . Her eyes softened. A little smile skipped over her mouth and crinkled the edge of her cheek.”

No one should have been surprised that Mary’s heart would always outshine her outward demeanor (which, truth be told, was sometimes ebullient). Walt and his team certainly had nothing to be surprised about. They were focused, from the very outset, on the things they most loved about Mary Poppins. And what they loved they celebrated.

Throughout the Poppins books, Travers invites the starchiest, most pompous among us to float upside down and eat sponge cake while standing on our heads. Dangle in the sky from balloons. Soar through the air on peppermint stick horses. Dance the Sailor’s Hornpipe among the fishes at the bottom of the sea. Frolic with fairy tale characters. Consort with constellations. More than anything else, Travers urges us to lose our gravity, if only for a moment, and stop taking ourselves so seriously. Mr. Banks, especially, was ready to benefit from this advice, and he did so on numerous occasions, sometimes to Mrs. Banks’ consternation. Of all the adult members of the Banks household, George Banks was the most easily persuaded.

Strangely, the author herself was not so easily persuaded. Decades after she had written the first Mary Poppins book, Walt Disney encountered a P. L. Travers who insisted on downplaying Mary’s cheerful side. Her whimsical side. Her dancing side. Travers was clearly uncomfortable with the cavorting and twinkling side of Mary Poppins that she, herself, had created and Mary Shepard had brilliantly illustrated under Travers’ close supervision.

And here, Mrs. Travers may have broken one of the cardinal rules of authorship: She brought a fictional character to life, released that character into the world at large, and then wanted to summon it back and confine it in the cage of her ever-darkening world view. Here, she would exert absolute control over it, filtering out the embarrassing bits, the twinkling, whimsical, and cavorting artifacts of her very own making. Of course, this would prove impossible, because it was far too late: The white cat was long out of the bag.

Long before 1961, all the world knew that Mary Poppins danced. That she rode through the air on a candy stick horse. That she entertained dancing storybook characters with her concertina. That she got her feet wet at night while frolicking in the park. That she smiled frequently. That she gave her unalloyed tenderness to babies and toddlers. That she behaved sweetly towards many, many people.

When P. L. Travers introduced Mary Poppins to the world, she drew a universally recognizable character, a mythical character of such immense scope and depth that she needn’t have wondered about the outcome. Not even Mary Poppins the movie.

In a 1988 essay, Travers acknowledged her familiarity with the following statement from C. S. Lewis:

“It is impossible that we should ever know the whole meaning of our own works, and the meaning we never intended may be the best and truest one.”

Walt Disney understood Travers’ books. And he probably understood Travers herself better than she did. Furthermore, he understood why children loved her books in ways she could not. And aren’t we lucky he did?

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