In Saving Mr. Banks, Robert Sherman (B.J. Novak) interrupts a diatribe from P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to ask a critical question: “Does it matter?”
Sherman is asking about Travers’ objections to the design of the Banks’ house. But Saving Mr. Banks is the P.L. Travers biopic/Mary Poppins creation story that has us wondering, just how much does historical accuracy matter to a film? The film depicts the complex relationship between Travers and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), as Disney attempts to convince Travers to hand over the right to her beloved Mary (Poppins – “never just Mary!”).
It is a delightful story. Unfortunately, it is not really a true one.
While we enjoyed the Disney-fied final product (it was, after all, produced by Disney), we started wondering about Travers’ life. The film might be based on a true story – but we all know that means very little in Hollywood with regards to historical accuracy. Here are 9 facts you may not know about Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers.
Yes, the central conceit of the film is fictionalised. Travers had already handed over the rights when she traveled to Los Angeles to consult on the script. Saving Mr Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel also admits that the conversation Disney has with Travers, when he convinces her to hand over control based on their shared experiences with troubled fathers, is total fiction (although the stories about Disney’s childhood are true).
Rather, according to a Disney historian, he quickly abandoned ship and left the Sherman brothers to work with Travers. Since he already had approval for the film, it was up to the team to argue over Travers’ script changes. As is portrayed accurately in Saving Mr Banks, Travers was granted script approval, but apparently Disney did not wait around to haggle over the details.
There is a beautiful moment in Saving Mr Banks when Mary Poppins screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) asks Travers to dance. But in reality, the only song that Travers showed any affection for was “Feed the Birds,” and even then she disliked the Sherman brothers’ songs so much that she forbade them (and anyone involved in the film’s production) from contributing to the Mary Poppins stage musical.
Saving Mr Banks depicts Travers’ time at the Disney studios as a somewhat cathartic experience, as she relinquishes her death grip on her beloved character. According to The New Yorker, Travers’ tears were a result of the anger she felt towards Disney’s treatment of her books. While the film implies that they are tears of relief and release, her offhand joke that they are a result of the animated penguin sequence may not be so far from the truth.
Given Travers’ reaction to the film, it is not surprising to learn that Saving Mr Banks once again embellished reality, for the sake of a happy ending. Well, it is Disney. After the premiere, Travers told Disney that they had a lot more work to do before the release, and asked for certain sequences to be entirely removed. Disney’s response, according to actor Tom Hanks? “Pam, the ship has sailed.”
According to Brian Sibley, who wrote the screenplay along with Travers, there could have been a Mary Poppins sequel in the 1980s. The film was to be based on the sections on Mary Poppins Comes Back, the Mary Poppins sequel penned by Travers in 1935, that went unused in the first film. There was even talk of casting Michael Jackson. However, the film fell down over casting difficulties, and obstacles arising from the new Disney management.
Additionally, Sibley states that when he re-watched Mary Poppins with Travers as part of their writing process, she claimed that she had not watched the film since the premiere. Sibley also comments that by this point, Travers’ original opinion of the film must have mellowed, because she found certain sequences very enjoyable. But, we are willing the bet, the animated scenes were not one of them.
But as with everything in her life, this situation was also complicated. Travers was set to adopt twin boys as a single mother, but at the last minute decided to only take one of them. She never told her son, Camillus, about his brother – but the twins ended up meeting in a bar as adults. This naturally created a rift in Travers’ relationship with her son, especially as up to this point, he had not known that he was adopted.
Travers appears in Saving Mr Banks as the lonely spinster, in contrast to Uncle Walt’s jovial outlook. But in real life, Travers’ life was far more colourful than Disney’s conservative one. According to The New Yorker, Prior to her adopting of Camillus, she attempted to adopt her 17-year-old maid. And far from being alone, she had long term relationships both with a much older married man, and with a woman with whom she lived, and was openly bisexual.