Pamela Lyndon Travers was an author, actress, and journalist, born in Queensland, Australia who spent most of her life in England. After writing for newspapers and briefly working as a Shakespearean actor in roles such as Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Travers moved to London and began writing novels. During World War II, Travers worked in the British Ministry of Information, but by that point in time, she had already introduced the world to Mary Poppins, arguably the most famous nanny in pop culture. Travers lived a long and complicated life, which included various fleeting relationships with men, an "intense" decade-long companionship with a woman, adopting a child in her forties because her astrologer told her to (he also told her not to bring along the boy's twin brother because his name was a bad omen), and traveling the world to study Zen mysticism.
But the chances are you know her best from Emma Thompson’s performance as the stern figure standing in Walt Disney’s way in the film Saving Mister Banks. In that reimagining of history (made, of course, by The Walt Disney Company), Travers’s more tangled elements have been sanded down and softened, making her more of a meanie who doesn’t appreciate a good time. She is consistently contrasted with Disney himself, played in full America’s Dad mode by Tom Hanks, an equally ambitious figure but one whose own edges are clad in approachable warmth. Where Disney is shown as the jovial friend to everyone and the epitome of the American dream, Travers is cold, pushy and difficult to be around. Her attachment to her own creation and steadfast refusal to allow it to be Disney-fied is shown to be a side effect of her difficult childhood with the alcoholic father she idolized, and her first viewing of the finished film of Mary Poppins gives her the emotional release she needed from her unresolved past. Of course, it didn’t happen like that. Infamously, Travers didn’t like the film and never entirely reconciled with herself over how it changed from her books.
There are eight Mary Poppins books, published between 1934 and 1988, with illustrations by Mary Shepard. The books follow the Banks household at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London, where Poppins arrives to take care of the rambunctious household. In the books, Poppins is stern, vain and often very tough to love. While she is still whimsical and whisks the children off on magical adventures, she’s a strange unknowable character who maintains a distance between herself and the children. In that aspect, she has more in common with the traditional nannies of the British upper classes than the image of Julie Andrews singing to robins. Reading the Poppins books, it’s easy to imagine them influencing the world of Roald Dahl, whose stories were always more anarchic but have that similar underlying sadness to them. They are stories that don’t talk down to their young audiences but are still full of imagination, so it’s no wonder Disney wanted to get his hands on them.
To talk about Mary Poppins, one of the true masterpieces of the Disney cinematic output, is to talk about the problem of dueling authorship. Who is the real owner and creator of Mary Poppins: PL Travers, the woman who wrote the source material, or Walt Disney, the king of synergy who redefined other people’s work into the products of his corporate brand? It’s not an easy issue to tackle, and it opens up myriad questions about copyright, artistic integrity, corporate oversight, and audience responsibility. Beauty and the Beast, for example, is an iconic centuries-old fairy tale with countless adaptations to its name, but most people recognize it as a Disney film first. This is the same fate that has befallen Mary Poppins. The books may be popular but the chances are that when you hear that name you think of Julie Andrews, the Sherman Brothers music and dancing cartoon penguins. And that’s not a bad thing.
Sean Griffin wrote in Tinker Belles and Evil Queens: The Walt Disney Company from the Inside Out that "Walt Disney so successfully performed authorship of his studio's output during his lifetime that many customers thought Walt Drew all the cartoons himself." That was by Walt's design, and the myth of the all-powerful creator endures decades after his death. We think about Disney films in a way we don’t think about films from other recognizable Hollywood studios. Everyone knows what a Disney film looks like, from its character arcs to its emotional beats and happy morals, which is something you can’t say about, for example, a Sony or Warner Bros. movie. This means we also end up defining Disney films almost exclusively by the Disney brand and not who makes them. You never call Frozen a Jennifer Lee film: You call it a Disney film, even though Uncle Walt has been dead for 52 years. As noted by scholar Paul Wells, “‘Disney’ has become a signifier for a particular way of reading a film, or series of films, with coherence and consistency, over-riding all the creative diversity, production processes, socio-cultural influences, and historical conditions et cetera which may challenge the perspective.”
All of this makes talking about Mary Poppins interesting and brings us back to the difficult history that got her on the big screen in the first place. Disney first attempted to purchase the film rights to Mary Poppins from P. L. Travers as early as 1938 but was rebuffed because Travers didn't think any film adaptation would do justice to her work. She also wasn't a fan of cartoons and at the time Disney was almost exclusively defined by his animated output. But Disney loved those books, as did his daughters, and he spent over 20 years trying to convince Travers to sign over the film rights. Eventually, she relented but only after assuring she got script approval. And she intended to use it. She hated the Sherman brothers songs in particular, she opposed turning Mrs. Banks into a suffragette, she disliked the idea of Mary having a romance with a lowly chimney sweep, and she thought Julie Andrews was too pretty for the part. While Disney yielded on some elements (such as Mrs. Banks’s name), he mostly railroaded his way past her objections. He didn’t even invite her to the premiere for fear she’d cause a stink, but Travers attended anyway. She did cry at the first screening, which Saving Mr. Banks shows, but not in emotional relief or catharsis. The film frustrated her and she couldn’t accept how different it was from her books. She famously told Disney after the premiere that he would need to cut out all that silly animation, to which Disney replied, “Pamela, that ship has sailed.”
It’s hard to be a Mary Poppins fan – which I am – and overlook how its existence is built upon a very powerful man stripping a woman of her authorial intent and the very identity of her own work. Perhaps a Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins that was more in line with Travers’ books would have been just as successful in its time as the actual film was (it was the third highest grossing film of 1964, won 5 Oscars and was nominated for 13). But we’ll never know and that’s a sticking point for many. To the majority of people, Mary Poppins is an icon of Disney, not PL Travers.
But it’s hard to be mad at the final product. Mary Poppins the film is a beautifully composed story full of astounding set-pieces, endlessly catchy music and technological marvels that stand the test of time. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry and it makes you believe in wonder. For a Disney movie, it’s also remarkably progressive in its worldview, condemning Mr. Banks’s money-driven workaholic tendencies and supporting the notion that being happy matters more than being rich (and let’s not forget the entire musical number dedicated to the women’s suffrage movement). Watching Julie Andrews sing Feed The Birds is indisputably one of the great moments in the history of the movie musical. That new icon of Poppins – the youthful soprano with the carpetbag and warm smile – endures far beyond the limitations of Travers’s source material. For many kids who grew up with her, she was the great heroine of our time. I know she was for me.
One cannot speak for the late PL Travers or condescendingly explain why her stories benefit from being out of her hands. It’s also unavoidably unfortunate that Disney has continued to use Travers in less than favorable ways by giving even her own life story the fairy tale sheen. At a time when Disney’s own media monopoly has grown vastly powerful and the extension of copyright works mostly in the favor of mega-corporations rather than the creators themselves, loving Mary Poppins isn’t an issue as simple as separating art from artist or wondering if it’s okay to “sell out.”
In a 1977 interview, Travers said of the Disney film, "I've seen it once or twice, and I've learned to live with it. It's glamorous and it's a good film on its own level, but I don't think it is very like my books." That may be the best way to view the film on its simplest terms. Mary Poppins is a wonderful Disney movie, although it remains worth examining what we mean when we reduce art to those unusual terms.