Interpreting Mr. Banks


Released this past Christmas, Saving Mr. Banks has already established itself as another Disney triumph, earning an Oscar nomination, a Golden Globe and SAG nomination for Emma Thompson, and over $77 million in the box office (so far). You’ll get no argument from me on the quality of this film: the cast was impeccable, the score was lovely, and the dripping sentiment for Disney’s Mary Poppins rings true for those of us that grew up with Disney as being the most culturally significant production company of our formative years.

What is difficult to digest, however, is sifting through the successful and poignant storytelling to pull the facts, and finding that we’re not left with much. In fact it’s like finding out the dirty truth behind a familiar family legend. We all knew PL Travers was resistant to Mary Poppins, but Uncle Walt had very little involvement trying to win her over on the depictions of her beloved characters. Why?

Because Disney already had the rights to Mary Poppins before the events in the movie ever took place. Travers only had “script approval” and not film editing rights, therefore Disney could do whatever he wanted and couldn’t give a flying kite what Travers thought of it. And when Travers cried at the end of the film, it wasn’t because she was won over. It was because she hated it and was mourning the death of her intended message.

But this blog entry is not about fact versus fiction in movies and storytelling. We’ve already discussed that broad subject on Nerds on Film episode “Loosely Sort of Based on Semi-Actual Events” (NSFW). Nor is it about the real making of Mary Poppins. If you want to hear that story, you can check out this, this, this, and this.

No, what I am concerned with here is the conflict between ownership and interpretation. An artist’s work is obviously sacred to the artist, and Saving Mr. Banks spends a lot of time reinforcing that concept by showing us Travers’ childhood struggle that inspired Mary Poppins. By all means, we should all be upset at the deliberate liberties taken to pull the film very far away from the book. Yet by making us believe in this story that the PL Travers was convinced to sell the rights AFTER seeing how the movie was shaping up, we are able to hold our sentiments for Disney.

Interpretive transgressions are not an uncommon occurrence though, especially for Walt Disney Studios. Look at almost every popular Disney movie ever made. Chances are the ones you can name off the top of your head are based on a fairy tale or classic story that was arguably too twisted for modern audiences, so Disney altered it for mass appeal, threw in some talking animals and catchy music, sprinkled on gender and heteronormative ideals, and rode it all the way to the bank.

Legally, Travers gave up her right to adjust the film to a more direct depiction of her book, and that worked beautifully in Disney’s favor. Morally however, weather vane spins a bit more wildly than that. Arguably, art is for everyone. I’ve said that myself when defending the right to film criticism. But can that be qualified? Does that also lend itself to the right to interpretation? Storytelling requires both a teller and audience. Once that books rests in the hands of the reader, they use their imagination and fully developed psyches to fill in the blanks. If interpretation flails so wildly away from that, is it a reflection on the original delivery as being insufficient somehow or a conscious choice to appeal to a different audience, a la the addition of Tauriel to the Hobbit trilogy?

On the other side of the argument, I wonder why Walt Disney, as an artist himself, wasn’t able to appreciate Travers’ work for what it was, a work that won over his daughters to the point that he promised to make the movie for them. If Travers felt that the movie was missing the delivery, and that the altered details were damaging to her created family, then why not trust the author?

This can be argued in circles, and I am certainly not qualified to make a final decision. I’m very torn because I know that Disney makes a damn good product, but I can definitely respect authorial intent. So I want to hear from you, dear readers? Do we lean towards the side of legality and cultural success, or do we choose the pious route? Tell me in the comments or write to me at sarah@nerdonomy.com. In the meantime, enjoy Dick Van Dyke’s (Travers’ least favorite part of the film) screen test!

Sarah Ashley