How do you solve a problem like P.L. Travers? In her sessions with Walt Disney’s team over Mary Poppins, she objected to nearly every adaptation of her books: the Sherman Brothers’ songs, the animated penguins, and Dick Van Dyke. The studio made the movie Walt wanted. Now in Saving Mr. Banks, even Travers herself cannot escape from the Disney sheen. Emma Thompson is an imperious Mrs. Travers, withered by every imposition made upon her beloved character. We’ve been raised to find “an element of fun” in every job, but this is not Mrs. Travers’ temperment. “Where is the gravitas?” she asks. By contrast, Tom Hanks’s Walt Disney drips with a molasses smile, determined to crack Thompson’s prickly shell. The filmmakers dig into her childhood and her relationship with an alcoholic father (in an moving performance by Colin Farrell). For all her effrontery, Travers needed her own magical nanny to rescue her family.

The philosophy behind Saving Mr. Banks is simple and (mostly) true. The movie strikes a false note whenever the screenwriters (Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) invent, especially Thompson’s cathartic tears at the movie’s premiere. The real Travers did cry, it seemed, at watching her characters so thoroughly changed. I personally do not feel badly that Travers agreed to the film rights; its success can’t have hurt interest in her books, and the question of “should she sign?” is answered by the beloved Mary Poppins film itself. What is an artistic culture without adaptation and transformation? But I wish this movie didn’t try to win Mrs. Travers over so easily. She was not the spoonful of sugar type.

Mary Poppins author DL Travers with Walt Disney and Julie Andrews

Here’s a thorough, more accurate account of Travers and Disney’s work together:


  1. I liked reading your thoughts! While the film obviously took plenty of liberties, I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t completely say that Ms. Travers loved the film adaption of her work in order to keep the movie warm and fuzzy. While they glossed over the fact that she really did not like it at all, I think the way they handled her reaction to the film at the premiere was smart by making it more about her story and less about the story of the creation of the adaptation. What I loved the most was seeing the Disney studio of the 1960’s, right in the middle of its heyday, come to life – pretty fun to see!

    I would love to read more about Traver’s and Disney’s collaboration, but can’t seem to get the New Yorker link to work?

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