I had a magical New Year’s Eve in part because I went to see the film “Saving Mr. Banks,” which tells the story of how a folksy, wily Walt Disney cajoled – actually, “prevailed upon” would be a better choice of words – a frosty P.L. Travers to sell him the rights to her “Mary Poppins” books so that he could make the film we all know and love. This movie features superb performances led by Emma Thompson’s commanding turn as Mrs. Travers – never P.L., Pamela or Pam, a nom de plum anyway; a subtle one by Tom Hanks as Walt – never Mr. Disney; and a charismatic appearance by Colin Farrell as the imaginative but alcoholic father who gave Mrs. Travers so much material to work with. (The title refers to the character of the father in “Mary Poppins,” a put-upon bank executive who learns the importance of being a parent, and indeed Mrs. Travers’ father was a bank manager, though not as successful as the father in the “Mary Poppins” film.)
Like the clumsy novel and movie “Atonement,” “Saving Mr. Banks” asks you to consider whether art can redeem the past. Unlike “Atonement,” “Saving Mr. Banks” understands that the answer to that question is “Alas, no.” You can create magic out of suffering – and there’s no doubt that as presented in the movie, both Walt and Mrs. Travers had enough childhood misery to rival Dickens. But you cannot make up for the past with art, because however great, art isn’t real and life is. If that weren’t true, all an artist would have to do is imagine a world where, say, the Nazis never existed. It doesn’t work that way, though, does it?
But that’s only one theme in the story, which is really about an artist’s – here a writer’s – relationship to her creation, something that’s very much on my mind as I’m about to release my first novel, “Water Music.” Mrs. Travers can’t let go of hers. Even though she keeps saying Mary Poppins – never just Mary – isn’t real, she not only acts as if she were. She acts as if she herself were Mary Poppins, which, in a way, she is.
Characters, after all, spring Athena-like from your head, as if you were giving birth, an intellectual birth. Their situations, quirks, flaws, strengths often belong to people you know, the person you are. It’s hard not to take them personally, let alone have someone else take them from you and say, “No, they’re really like this.” It’s all about control, which is hard to surrender when you’re still that emotionally orphaned child who feels control is all that she has.
The movie – which is, after all, a Disney film – stacks the deck against old P.L. (oops, Mrs. Travers). I mean, who wouldn’t want to have her book turned into a Hollywood movie, with all the attendant courting, the suite at The Beverly Hills Hotel, the sympathetic chauffeur (Paul Giamatti), the eager-to-please collaborators and assistants, the palm trees, for goodness sake? I’d be saying, “Walt, where do you want me to sign, how much are you paying me and if I take you and the Missus to dinner, will I get even more?”
Then again, maybe not. Writers have been making two distinctly different choices with regards to this for decades. J.D. Salinger wouldn’t allow the adaptation of his work. (And given how overrated “The Catcher in the Rye” really is, perhaps he did us a favor.)
Bernard Malamud was the anti-Salinger. I remember attending a lecture he once gave at what is now Purchase College early in my career as a reporter. It was at the time that his novel “The Natural” – a dark mirror held up to the American soul – had been made into an irresistibly romantic film starring Robert Redford that completely subverted the novel’s message. Malamud was asked if he were worried about what the filmmakers had done.
“No,” he said, “the film is their thing, and the book is mine.”
In other words, P.L., take the money and run.