I’ve just started watching “Saving Mr. Banks” – the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) acquired the book rights of Mary Poppins from the author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson). At the beginning of the story, P. L. Travers is a control freak, absolutely paranoid that her creation will be modified, changed, ruined.
Disney has been chasing her for 20 years, but she’s always refused. Now, she’s out of money and in danger of losing her house, so she agrees just to go on an “exploratory mission,” but makes it a point to be rude to everyone and make the process unbearable by taking control over the tiniest of details.
She even demands they record every conversation, so no one tries to screw her over or go back on their word.
Mr. Banks tries to console her, but also asks her to share. “I love Mary Poppins. You have to share her with me.”
When they show her some illustrations of the neighborhood, she says “No no no… Oh goodness me no. The Banks’ house doesn’t look like that. My house is a terraced house. With a pink door, white bricked, with a crack in the gable. The windows are led-lined. And the flower boxes grow pink Nasturtiums to go with the pink door. Oh dear, it’s all a big mistake, it’s all wrong.”
She continues to disapprove and argue over every little thing, until Robert, one of the helpers – who got shot in the war, has a limp and doesn’t want to put up with her crap anymore – puts his foot down. “Does it MATTER?” He repeats himself to fill the long pause.
“Does. It. Matter?”
She kicks him out of the room and asks, “Can I expect any more drama from anyone else?”
An assistant relays her “ideas” to Walt Disney.
“She wants to know why Mr. Banks has a mustache.”
“Oh I asked for that.”
“Yes, they told her. She wants to know why.”
“Because I asked for it.
“Oh, and she doesn’t want the color red in the film. At all.”
He goes to tell her you can’t make a film without the color red.
“I understand your predicament, Mr. Disney, I really do. But I’ve gone off red. I don’t know what it is. I’m suddenly very anti-red. I shan’t be wearing it ever again.”
“Is this a test?” he asks her confidentially. “Are you requiring proof as to how much I’m willing to make you happy, so we can create this wonderful thing together?”
“I took you at your word, Mr. Disney, and it seems my first stipulation has been denied. There will be many more. So perhaps we should just call it quits, and I should hand you back these…” she says, presenting the unsigned papers. He agrees, for the moment. No red.
She smiles smugly at her big victory. What she doesn’t know is that every “victory” for her is a step down the quality ladder. These appalling socialization skills are brought into focus each night, as she glances into the hotel bar, but decides not to join in. When she does, she can’t find anyone willing to talk with her (even the bartender).
Her backstory provides some illumination… she was raised with her sisters and a creative, over-doting father, and never really had to deal with getting along with other people. Her anti-social, high anxiety tendencies are probably what made her become a writer. As she grows older, she realizes her “fun” father is an alcoholic who can’t keep a job.
While Disney likes the “Spoon full of Sugar” song, she says “It seems enormously patronizing to me. Just the sort of annoying tune you’d have playing in your themed park I daresay, all giddy and carefree, encouraging children to face the world unarmed. All they need is a spoon and some sugar and a brain full of fluff and they’re equipped with life’s tools! Unlike yourself, Marry Poppins is the very enemy of whimsy and sentiment. She’s truthful. She doesn’t sugarcoat the darkness in the world that these children will, eventually, inevitably come to know. She prepares them for it. This entire script is flim-flam. Where is the gravatas?” Then she throws the whole script out the window.
“No whimsy, or sentiment” rejoins Disney, “says the woman who sent a nanny with a flying umbrella to save the children.”
“You think Marry Poppins has come to save the children? Oh dear.”
In another flashback, she remembers her father telling her: “This world is just an illusion. As long as we hold that thought they can’t break it. They can’t make us endure their reality. Money, money, money. Don’t you buy into it. It’ll bite you on the butt.”
She becomes an addict like her father (but with pills), with the same negative attitude towards money. Her daddy issues even bring her to invite Micky Mouse into her bed for some semblance of emotional support.
It’s getting down to the deadline of the final decision, and one of the assistants says “She might surprise us all.”
Disney replies, “No, she won’t. I’ve been on her side of this thing.” Way back when he was a kid and all he had was a sketch of Mickey Mouse, a bigshot offered to buy it off him, but he refused. “It would have killed me to give him up. The mouse is family.”
This world is just an illusion, her father told her. Being creative and imaginative is more important than “real stuff” like working or making money. She remembers a fight her mother and father had when she was pretending to be a hen and waiting for her eggs. Her mother wanted her to set the table. Her father yelled back “She can’t! She’s laying!” To him, he desperately wanted his daughter to believe that this life was just a game and nothing else mattered. He wanted to keep her innocence as long as possible. “Don’t you ever stop dreaming, my love. You can be anyone you want to be.”
She says, “I want to be just like you.”
Realizing that he’s a loser drunk who can’t provide for his family and yells at his wife, he says “Don’t,” and then breaks down in sobs.
He’s hoping she can skate through life without facing anything real – but he can’t do it, and he shouldn’t expect her to be able to do it either. Instead, the eventual discovery that life was tough and hard broke her spirit, and that her father was a drunk and a joke, broke her heart. And then her mother tried to kill herself.
She realized she needed to grow up and take care of her floundering parents. (A lesson confirmed by a no-nonsense, strict nanny who arrives to take care of them).
She compensates for her failed home by building little houses out of trees and sticks.
Disney finally calls her up and says, “I’m wondering, what to do to make you happy. And you’re wondering that too, aren’t you? You know, you’ve never been to Disneyland, and it’s the happiest place on earth.”
She refuses. “No no no, I can’t tell you how uninterested – no positively sickened I am at the thought of visiting your dollar printing no printing machine.”
But then she gets the royalty treatment by celebrity Walt Disney.
She still treats him as an “other” – as a “happy, successful” person. Nothing like her.
He wants to put her on a carousel. She declines politely several times, but he says “GET ON THE HORSE.”
She has fun. Then they rewrite her ending (which, I think, was sad), to one in which the whole family is reunited, symbolized by mending the kite (and having the mother tie her suffragette banner as the tale).
Her mean, cold exterior is broken by the exhilaration of the carnival ride and the celebrity treatment. As she listens to the new closing song, she starts tapping her feet and nodding her head. She even accepts an offer to dance.
Nobody can believe it.
She’s jovial. She’s having fun. She’s singing.
“He fixes the kite! Oh I love it.”
On the next day, she’s still happy, appreciates the scenery and approves most everything.
Until she finds out about the animated dancing penguins (she refused from the beginning to have any animations in the film).
So she flips out again, and storms into Disney’s office. He offers her a seat.
“I shall not sit in the seat of a trickster, a fraudster a SNEAK. You have seduced me with music. But I shall not be moved on the matter of cartoons, sir. Not. One. Inch.”
On the one hand, she’s right. Disney was trying to charm his way into making changes the author didn’t approve of.
On the other hand, she’s immune to his charm because she’s pretending to be someone else. When he chases after her to Australia and show’s up at her doorstep, he has a better sense of who she really is.
“You expected me to disappoint you, so you made sure I did. Now I think life disappoints you, and Mary Poppins is the only person in the world who hasn’t.”
He talks out his tough childhood to prove he “gets” her. He worked for a tough dad who beat him.
“I’m tired of reminding it that way. Aren’t you? Don’t you want to finish the story, let it all go and know your life isn’t dictated by your past? It’s not the children she comes to see. It’s their father. It’s your father. Trevor Scoff.”
“George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. And all he stands for will be saved. Trust me, let me prove it to you. I give you my word.”
He convinces her. She trusts him. So she lets it all ago, telling Mickey Mouse, “Enough.”
She finally starts working on something new.
She crashes the premiere, and ends up in tears (which we assume are tears of emotional catharsis, and finally joy).
Lessons we can learn from the movie
1. Details don’t matter.
I deal with this one a lot with cover design. Authors often want the cover details to match their story perfectly. And they should… as much as possible. But the immediate, overall effect is what really matters. The story, not the details. Do the details change the emotional impact of the story? Do they change what happens? If not, don’t sweat them too much. Focus on the big picture, and be flexible.
2. If someone’s trying to help you make it better or develop something new, let them.
If somebody wants to use your story to make something, let them. If they are doing it for free, or paying you, they believe it will be successful. The worst that can happen is some free exposure that will sell more books. Don’t be hard too work with. Copyright/trademarking isn’t a big deal. Nobody’s going to steal your writing and claim it as their own.
3. Writing SHOULD be emotional, especially your first book.
“Write about what hurts,” Hemingway says. But this also means you’ll be much too close, too attached, too emotional about your book to see things clearly. Hire people with skills and let them do their best work making your book a product other people will like. Disney was a hugely successful film maker. Even if she hated animations, they were his trademark, and he was going to make her story loved by tons of movie goers. You may not see clearly how to make your story marketable. And if people don’t buy it, it doesn’t matter how great a story it is.
Lots of authors are strange birds, anti-social, anxious, and prefer to be alone. They can also have trust issues. While keeping integrity over your artistic vision is important, when you’re invisible and nobody is reading your book, it doesn’t matter. Network. Build. Have fun. Help people out, and accept help and criticism when it comes. (I often offer to help people out on projects that excite me, and many refuse).
5. Let go.
The author’s main problem is she was emotionally unable to let go because her story reflected psychological issues she still hadn’t healed from.
Write the best book you can, publish it as well as you’re able, then let go and move on to something else. Don’t be a control freak or a pain in the ass. Don’t hire professionals and then fight with them to make sure they do things the way you want. Crowdsource – get feedback from lots of strangers. Don’t assume you know what’s best for your story, or what your audience will like.
Don’t be firmly set on what you want your audience to enjoy; figure out what they enjoy and give it to them.
6. (On the other hand…) Be unstoppable.
Walt Disney got what he wanted because he persisted for 20 years, because he threw time, money and effort at the problem, because he was both flexible and accommodating, but also pushy and direct. He manipulated an emotional basket case and control freak into signing papers she didn’t want to. So if you’re looking for a review from a celebrity, or trying to find an agent or publisher, or partner with a bookstore or another big company – learn to be a salesperson. Read psychology of selling books, learn how to convince people. And don’t give up.
What REALLY happened
Mary Poppins won five out of 13 nominations in total, and was Walt Disney’s single most successful night at the Academy Awards.
The author did leave the premiere in tears; most probably because she hated it. Mary Poppins was supposed to be cold and serious, not warm and comforting.
The new ending was also politically anti-feminist, with Mrs. Banks re-dedicating herself to her family. P. L. Travers hated the movie and never trusted anyone with her precious book again.
Disney “tricked” her out of her manuscript and created a movie she hated with dancing penguins she loathed. It was absolutely not the movie she wanted made.
But she had NO IDEA what people wanted to see. If she had had control over the movie, it probably wouldn’t have been successful, and most of us today would have never heard of her or her book.
Mary Poppins is one of the only movies from that time period that I’ve seen – the name is widely known – and that’s a result of Disney’s movie that she never wanted. If it had just been a book, I’m sure we’d never have heard of it.