Saving Mary Poppins

As if the sugary 1964 film weren't enough, now Disney has put P.L. Travers' dark, magical heroine into therapy

Published December 18, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

Emma Thompson in "Saving Mr. Banks"
Emma Thompson in "Saving Mr. Banks"

"I don't not explain because I'm too proud to explain, but because if I did explain, where would we be?" So the great P.L. Travers once remarked to an interviewer. And even if Travers' inadequate biographer characterized these words as "'Alice in Wonderland'-like nonsense," they amount to exactly the question I asked myself all through "Saving Mr. Banks," a new Disney film about the making of the film "Mary Poppins," based on the character Travers invented.

Walt Disney pursued the film rights to the Mary Poppins books (there are a total of seven) for over 15 years, a fact that's mentioned several times in "Saving Mr. Banks." The new movie depicts a visit Travers made to Hollywood in 1961 to negotiate with Disney and work as a consultant on the film with screenwriter Don DaGradi and screenwriter-composers the Sherman Brothers. Travers needed the money the film would bring, but felt fiercely proprietary toward her creation. She tried to micromanage the adaptation, making impractical and downright impossible demands, and Disney had to charm, coax and outmaneuver her to get the movie made.

Poor Pamela Travers! Not only did she end up disliking the Disney film (although she pretended otherwise to Disney while the possibility of a sequel remained in play), but she gets the short end of the stick again in this new Disney production, which portrays her as a sour, uptight, disapproving English lady who turns out to be only fake English. The film incorrectly suggests that Travers concealed the fact that she was born and raised in Australia, turning her crankiness into one colonial trying to put something over on another.

It also portrays Disney cajoling Travers into signing over the rights by shrewdly perceiving that the Mary Poppins books were at heart about her painful relationship to her father, Travers Robert Goff. At the turning point of "Saving Mr. Banks," Walt turns up at Travers' London row house to confide in her about his own harsh father and to argue that by "letting go" of her story (i.e., allowing him to convert it into a commercially viable entertainment), she will somehow redeem her own father's memory and "finish the story."

I grew up with both versions of Mary Poppins, Travers' and Disney's, and while I very much liked the movie, particularly the songs, it was the creed of our household that the Disney version was "too sweet." (Notice I made no spoonful-of-sugar joke there? You're welcome.) Travers' Mary Poppins is plainer and more snappish than Julie Andrews' pretty, sunny nanny, but she is also more mysterious and thrilling. She seems to have countless relatives, mostly cousins. Some of these are London tradesmen afflicted with peculiar but amusing conditions that only occur on specific days of the month, while others are far more strange and impressive, like the giant talking snake that presides over the animals at the zoo and, apparently, the sun. Mary Poppins not only understands the speech of animals, but also that of the wind, and she is treated as a personage of great importance by the constellations.

The thing that Travers would never, ever explain was who exactly Mary Poppins is. And Mary Poppins, as Jane and Michael Banks often lament in the stories, "never explains anything." Rewatching the film recently, I was pleased to see that she states this herself, when confronted by Mr. Banks; the movie is truer to Travers' vision that I'd remembered, for if Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins smiles a lot more than the character in the books, she is almost as strict and no-nonsense. Travers' Mary Poppins refuses to acknowledge the magical adventures that the children share with her, waxing indignant when they mention having taken tea upside down or floated through the park by the strings of balloons, exploits Mary Poppins seems to regard as undignified. "On his head? A relation of mine on his head? And turning about like a firework display?" she asks wrathfully as they return from one outing on the bus.

This attitude seems to bother some contemporary readers. I've seen them complain that the Mary Poppins of the books is "mean." Yet Jane and Michael adore her, and so did I; her tartness only made her more alluring, perhaps because I mistrusted adults who pandered to me in gooey, ingratiating tones like the ladies of "Romper Room." In her way, Mary Poppins embodied the enigma of adulthood, all the things grown-ups knew that I didn't and all things they could do that I couldn't. And if she was always scolding the Banks children for dragging their feet or whining or behaving like the inmates of a "Bear Garden," well, it was usually a fair cop. Besides, what good is a mystery whose initiation rites come too easily?

For mystery is what Mary Poppins embodied, and what has piqued imaginations since her creation. Travers knew better than to replace the question marks with a period. People have speculated that Mary Poppins is an angel, a fairy or a star on vacation. In Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" comics, she appears as a manifestation of God to briskly dispatch the "dreadful" Antichrist. Neil Gaiman wrote a story in which an unknown book by P.L. Travers (whom he considers a major influence) shows Mary Poppins to have been Jesus' nanny and to be unbiddable by the deity himself, because, as God shrugs and explains, "I didn’t create her. She’s Mary Poppins." Most recently, the Internet has proposed that she might be a Time Lord, like Doctor Who. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Doctor Who could be a form of Mary Poppins.)

The mythic resonance of the Mary Poppins stories was intentional; Travers was an acolyte of the charismatic guru G.I. Gurdjieff and interested in folklore, fairy tales and Eastern religions. She also inherited a fascination with Celtic legends from her father, who considered himself an Irishman. (Mary Poppins -- powerful, capricious, vain, elusive -- does bear a certain resemblance to the Celtic conception of a fairy, as in a dangerous nature elemental, not a tiny winged ballerina.)

Travers Goff is depicted accurately in "Saving Mr. Banks" as a failed, alcoholic banker with frustrated mystical yearnings, but inaccurately as a doting, attentive father. Instead, Travers described both her parents as almost neglectful and as wrapped up in themselves: "I was allowed to grow in the darkness, unknown, unnoticed, under the earth like a seed."

The dubious notion that Mr. Banks in the Mary Poppins stories was based on Goff comes largely from "Mary Poppins, She Wrote," by Valerie Lawson. This biography, the source of "Saving Mr. Banks," is worth reading because it's the only life of Travers we've got, but it's also badly marred by a forced, lumbering whimsy that is at best irritating and at worst confusing. According to Lawson, Travers' life consisted of one long quest for a father figure, but "Mary Poppins, She Wrote" doesn't inspire the sort of confidence required to sell such a reductive summary of what was in truth a complex and contradictory life.

Even so, Lawson's biography does not portray Travers as two-dimensionally as the film does. You would never know, for example, from "Saving Mr. Banks" that Travers was a worldly, well-traveled woman who had been an actress in a touring troupe before turning to writing. Or that she wrote frankly erotic poetry for newspapers and that after she left Australia and was living a flapperish life in London during the 1920s, she became a protegé to the circle of Irish writers that included William Butler Yeats, Sean O'Faolain and George Russell ("AE"), all of whom admired her work. These writers, she once wrote, "cheerfully licked me into shape like a set of mother cats with a kitten." Probably bisexual, Travers never married but lived with a woman for a decade and adopted a boy from an impoverished Irish family. She lived on a Navajo reservation for two years during World War II.

What this cosmopolitan figure found most unfathomable about the Disney version of her book was the way it treats the Banks family as a problem that Mary Poppins has arrived to solve. Travers thought the Banks family as she wrote them were just fine, perfectly normal. But among other things, the Disney team felt they needed to explain why someone like Mrs. Banks was hiring a stranger to take care of her own children. (It was common practice for a member of her class.)

Having the film hinge on the saving of Mr. Banks was DaGradi's solution to the narrative problem presented by the book, which is really a collection of tales, not a single plot. In fact, most of the stories in any given Mary Poppins book could be easily transplanted to one of the others without creating much of a problem, although new Banks children do get added along the way. Travers viewed the individual chapters as fairy tales, timeless narratives set in a world that never changes much. Instead of forests, castles or cottages inhabited by woodsmen, kings or tailors, the Mary Poppins tales take place in the perpetual childhood of Jane and Michael, in which they never get older and the adults around them -- the other household servants and neighbors like Admiral Boom and Mrs. Lark -- are as iconic as the gods in the Greek pantheon.

Anxiety and reassurance about the integrity of the family is central to American family films, and to a lot of American children's fiction, too. Dorothy is always trying to get back to Aunty Em. British children's fiction tends to get caught up in the romance of adventure for its own sake. ("Doctor Who" is part of this tradition.) In the American-made film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," for example, the Pevensie children are portrayed as worried about their soldier father and eager to reunite with their mother, while in C.S. Lewis' novel, they don't give their parents a second thought and end up spending upward of a decade in Narnia without a qualm. Making "Mary Poppins" a story about how Mr. Banks learns to appreciate his children and to spend more time playing with them is probably the most significant and most Americanizing change the Disney team made.

As Travers saw it, the Mary Poppins books (in which the parents are decidedly minor characters) were not about magic suddenly intervening to fix a crisis that disrupts everyday life. Rather, they reveal the wonder that resides within every ordinary thing. The little old lady who runs the candy story down the block also hangs the stars in the sky. There's a whole world inside that decorative plate. Your nanny goes to a celestial circus on her evening out and her mother was a great friend of the cow who jumped over the moon ("... very respectable, she always behaved like a perfect lady and she knew What was What.")

While some of this surely comes from Travers' spiritual interests, you could never tell as much just from reading the books. They are perfectly translated to the language of childhood, suffused with an enchantment at discovering the world and its endless surprises. Here is the fanciful longing that makes kids talk to their stuffed animals and tell themselves that miniature people live in the backyard. Central to that enchantment is not knowing. There is far more power in whoever you imagine Mary Poppins to be than there could ever be in an explanation. And that's why Travers never explained her.

We live in a disenchanted world, especially when it comes to pop culture narratives. Today, it's nothing but endless and idiotic explanations. Every character must come supplied with a suitable back story and plausible if not outright redundant motives to justify everything they do. No one can become a crime fighter simply because they hate crime and injustice. The real reason has to be a murdered nuclear family member -- spouse, parent, child or sibling -- whose death must be (yet can never truly be!) redeemed.

And so, according to "Saving Mr. Banks," P.L. Travers could not have written "Mary Poppins" because she felt like telling a modern-day fairy tale and maybe needed the money, or let alone because she was summarily seized by the muse. No, she had to be nursing an unresolved trauma -- daddy issues, of course -- all of which can be laid to rest by handing over her baby to that ultimate daddy figure, Walt Disney. Those lingering emotional issues also explain why Travers gave the Disney team such a hard time during the production of the film, why she so perversely resisted their idea of fun and their vision of what "Mary Poppins" really meant. It wasn't that she resented their attempts to drain the wilder magic out of her creation. It was that she just needed a good session of pop culture therapy, and to have herself completely and conclusively explained.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Disney Fiction Mary Poppins P.l. Travers Saving Mr. Banks Walt Disney Writers And Writing