The Story Behind Saving Mr. Banks /

When Walt Disney’s daughters were young, they loved a little book about a magical (and slightly sadistic) nanny named Mary Poppins. He promised them that he would someday make a movie out of the series, and 20 years later, he delivered. But it was no easy task, which is what the upcoming film Saving Mr. Banks is about.

It took Disney—Walt himself, not a bunch of execs with money-stuffed briefcases—16 years of wheedling, convincing, and coaxing before author P.L. Travers would agree to let him make a movie. She believed that Disney would make Mary Poppins a twinkling, rosy-cheeked delight—and to an extent, she was right. Disney did give her script approval, but no doubt later regretted it, since script approval proved to be an extremely painful process. Every little word, every tiny detail, seemed to be a point of contention.

After they finally came to terms on a script and the movie was filmed, Travers screened it and then asked Walt, “When do we start cutting it?” Disney shook his head and explained that she had script approval—not film editing rights—and refused to change a thing. Travers was furious.

Since Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, of course, I’m guessing that the movie will end with P.L. Travers and Disney agreeing to disagree goodnaturedly. But nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the picture above of Ms. Travers smiling with Walt and Julie Andrews at the movie premiere, she was actually miserable. She cried when it was over, feeling her characters and ideas had been butchered.

Mary Poppins, Travers said, was “already beloved for what she was—plain, vain and incorruptible—(and now) transmogrified into a soubrette. ... And how was it that Mary Poppins herself, the image of propriety, came to dance a can-can on the roof-top displaying all her underwear? A child wrote, after seeing the film, ‘I think Mary Poppins behaved in a very indecorous manner.’ Indecorous indeed!” Other things Travers hated:

- The animated horse and pig.
- “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.”
- The idea that Mary Poppins would have a romance with anyone so commonplace as a chimneysweep.
- Turning Mrs. Banks into a suffragette.
- The idea that Mrs. Banks should be named Cynthia instead of Winifred (Cynthia was considered "unlucky, cold and sexless"). Though Travers did win that battle.
- The Banks house. It was too grand.
- The servants. Too common.
- American words and phrases like “outing,” “freshen up,” and “on schedule.”
- Dick Van Dyke.

She swore that as long as she was alive, Disney would never defile her beloved Mary Poppins again. And she stuck to her guns, even in death: Travers' last will and testament stated specifically that if a stage musical was to be made, the Sherman Brothers could not be involved, only English-born writers could be used—no Americans—and absolutely no one from the original film production was to be involved.

Based on her anger at Disney even more than 30 years after the release of the movie, I get the feeling that Saving Mr. Banks romanticizes the Walt Disney-P.L. Travers relationship a lot. I'm guessing that if Ms. Travers were still around, she would be as happy about this film as she was about Mary Poppins.

That being said, you bet I’m going to shell out $9.25 to watch Tom Hanks do his best Walt Disney impression come December.