Saving Mr. Banks

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film Saving Mr. Banks, and you plan to watch it and prefer to discover it for yourself, then stop reading now. I’ve just discovered it myself, and I have a lot to say about it. You have been warned.

Years ago, when I was little, I saw the Disney film Mary Poppins, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. I loved it. I learned all of the songs. I remember very little of it now, but I do recall it having lots of music and dancing in it. I didn’t until this past summer actually read the original book, written by P.L. Travers (not her real name). The Mary Poppins in her pages does not sing or dance or laugh or do anything as silly as say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I was shocked that such a film was created from such a book.

Well it turns out that Travers herself was pretty shocked, too. Saving Mr. Banks chronicles the difficult process that occurred between Disney Studios and the book’s author during the film’s creation. Emma Thompson is brilliant as the rigid, terrified Travers, and Tom Hanks plays Disney in all of his frustrated creativity. Disney had promised his daughters to make a film version of Mary Poppins, because they loved the books. He somehow decided to make it a musical, and it ended up being a huge success. But Travers always regretted the choice to sign over film rights to Disney. She despised frivolity and animation and what she called “fluff.”

The movie also explores Travers’ difficult childhood with an alcoholic father who dies young. In the film, it looks like tuberculosis, but in reality, her father died of influenza, in the early 1900s. She was a young girl at the time. In the critical scene, we discover that the author’s birth name was Helen Goff, and that she had taken her father’s first name, Travers, as her pen name. And we discover that both she and Walt Disney have projected each of their own fathers onto the character of Mr. Banks. Disney says, “Mary Poppins didn’t come to save the children. She came to save the father.” And we know by her silence that Travers agrees.

Of course. Disney goes on to talk about some of his own difficulties growing up, and how he wanted to create a different story for himself. “We can redeem him, save our father, if not in life, then in the imagination,” he says. “That’s what we do, as storytellers, renew a sense of hope.” And according to the film, it’s this argument that finally convinces Travers to sign over the rights for Mary Poppins. Something that in reality she regretted. But in Saving Mr. Banks, we see her respond to the film with tears and laughter.

I’ve been stewing about this film all evening. It’s heartbreaking that she had to lose her father so young. And it’s understandable that such a loss could have hardened her against a world that seems just too utterly cruel. I identify with her in so many ways, as a writer and as a daughter. That’s perhaps why Disney’s words strike such a deep chord for me. I realized as I wrote tonight in my journal that everything I’ve written has this same goal, of redeeming my father, of creating for him and for me — for us — the happy ending we never actually got in real life.

So far, that’s three books. None of them published, all in rough-draft, vomited-onto-the-page form. All of which I resist editing or revising, because it’s all so close to my heart. It hurts. But I’ve been such a mess, not writing. I get depressed. I’ve been more anxious about Jack and life and everything. I said to Brian tonight, “Maybe I’m just anxious about the surgery coming up.” And he said, “Or maybe you need to be writing again.” What a smart man. Dammit.

So I turn back to the drawing table, or writing desk, or whatever. Again. And add as much fluff as I can. 🙂

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