Saving Mr. Banks

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

At first, Saving Mr. Banks seemed to be a writers’ horror story.  The prickly Ms. Travers, author of beloved childrens’ book Mary Poppins, has fallen on hard times.  Walt Disney wants to make a movie of her book – has courted her, in fact, for twenty years.  And now, lacking other choices, she ventures to Hollywood to try to protect the integrity of her book.
P.L. Travers is presented as an irascible, unyielding creature – and oh, how I rooted for her.  Because dammit, she is the creator.  Mary Poppins was so real to her that she made Mary Poppins real to thousands of children, and so to me Saving Mr. Banks was about watching an author slowly beaten until she was worn down enough to allow other people to compromise her vision.
Fortunately, the film became a little more complex than that.
Saving Mr. Banks is smart enough to make this not about one artist fighting a soulless machine, but rather one artist’s vision conflicting with another artist.  For Walt Disney is presented as a successful creator as well, and there’s a very telling scene where he knows he’s not going to be able to make Mary Poppins because a successful artist once tried to purchase Mickey Mouse from him when he was poor, and he never would have given that mouse up.
What we have here is an interesting bit of conflict, housed in a sugar-coated casing.  P.L. Travers dislikes frippery, dislikes anything that erases the idea of hard work, dislikes sentimentality.  And yet that’s precisely what spurs Walt Disney as an artist, and the fact that he has caught on to the very real core of Mary Poppins as a savior narrative has pulled him in a different way.  There’s a fascinating interplay here that explains to the general public what every artist who’s ever released a work knows: you don’t get to control how other people react to your work.
What Walt Disney loves about P.L. Travers’ work is nothing that Travers intended.  And Saving Mr. Banks admits that Walt Disney is essentially filming Mary Poppins fanfic.
But Walt Disney is, thankfully, very good at fanfic.
The reason I say this is a “sugar-coated casing” is because the outcome of this battle is well-known: Walt did get his way, Walt’s vision was wonderful, and even if Mary Poppins the film isn’t the book it’s still a classic.  Yet this battle takes place a thousand times a year in Hollywood, this compromise of vision, where a producer’s idea obliterates the author’s intent… and most of the time, it’s fucking horrible.  Hollywood is littered with eviscerated books, where the producer overrode everything the author created to insert needless sentiment, put in a good love story, make it fun for the kids… and the movie flopped.
And what then?  How’s the author feel when she’s been shoved into abandoning everything she loved about the book she created in order to make money, and then the movie was awful?
Some day, the Alamo Drafthouse will hold a back-to-back showing of Saving Mr. Banks and Barton Fink.  Just to show both sides of that coin.
But of course, things did turn out well, and the movie is wonderfully acted by Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks and Paul Giamatti (yay!), and the story has very little to do with real life.  It bends Travers’ history to make Walt seem wonderful, which of course is what we want to believe in, and I don’t mind; that’s the movies.  They don’t have to present reality.  Some present a tinselly fantasy, and Saving Mr. Banks is a pretty nice fantasy, that two people can help reclaim each other’s childhoods.
I wouldn’t take this film any more seriously than Mary Poppins, but it’ll get some Oscar nominations.  It’ll be worth them.  And once again, you can hear the muffled screams of P.L. Travers bellowing, “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!” – and you can safely ignore her, because, well, this may be a lie but it’s a pretty good one.

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