Disney films are Christmas, essential to the festive TV schedule: almost a necessity. Mary Poppins (1964) may not be Disney’s greatest work, but it enshrined itself within popular culture, played through every Christmas and bank holiday, Chim Chim Cher-ee sung in middle school assemblies, abstracted from its origin. John Lee Hancock has made his name directing biopics – most notably The Blind Side (2009) – but also next year’s The Founder (2017), with Michael Keaton leading the Maccies revolution – here, he charts the inception of a classic film.
Far from a modern trend, adaptation sits at the core of Hollywood, from the Biblical epics of the 1950s to Disney, recrafting century old fairy tales for a new audience. Disney’s reworked fairytales have often been criticised, softening the darker aspects in favour of colourful princess narratives. Emma Thompson has already portrayed the non-serious, cartoonish nanny of Nanny McPhee (2005), but as Travers makes abundantly clear to Disney in the film, she doesn’t want her novel sugar coated. As a 2005 New Yorker profile on Travers writes:
Travers had discussed her poetry with William Butler Yeats and shared a masthead with T. S. Eliot. She thought that “Steamboat Willie” was a fine entertainment for youngsters, but she considered most of the Disney oeuvre manipulative and false.
But Disney’s films carry both darkness and lightness – more than mere “silly cartoons”, but moral lessons with real, human pathos. Bambi’s mom died. Ichabod rode through the dark forest into Sleepy Hollow. As Travers tries to exert control over the sanctity of her own work, we see her wanting the film to portray the mundane realities of adult life, beyond the fantastical – cleaning up after one’s self, managing a bank account – being a good adult. Travers holds onto the smallest elements of the book, wanting as little compromise as possible – she doesn’t want Dick Van Dyke, but Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness; refuses to have a frame animated; is rightfully insistent that the family’s house should avoid looking so upper class.
The processes of adaptation are not static, but involve reinvention from both parties – just as the factuality of events were reworked for the fiction of the film’s narrative. Walt Disney and the Sherman Brothers begin to accept some of Travers’ demands, whilst ignoring some other aspects that would be unworkable.
Unlike the creative process as depicted in Hitchcock (2012), adaptation is presented as a multi-faceted process, from influence through to reception. In Hitchcock, we see Alfred Hitchcock reading Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959) in bed; presenting the screenplay to producers; acting out the famous shower scene; the film’s premiere. Yet Hitchcock spent much of its duration examining Hitchcock’s fragmented relationship with his wife, unable to examine Bloch’s process in writing the novel. Banks is closer to The Hours (2002), where Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) undergoes processes of influence, writing and modern adaptation, whilst also charting the etherealness of memory. We intercut between present and past, as Travers loses herself in the memory of her father’s speech as a bank manager in Queensland at the turn of a century, juxtaposed with the Sherman Brothers composing Fidelity Fiduciary Bank:
If you invest your tuppence wisely in the bank
Safe and sound
Soon that tuppence safely invested in the bank
And you’ll achieve that sense of conquest
As your affluence expands
In the hands of the directors
Who invest as propriety demands
Saving Mr. Banks could be criticised for presenting a sanitised version of real events, yet as with Disney’s animated films, there is darkness behind it, presenting us with Travers’ childhood in Queensland. Australia’s seemingly unending vistas, though shot in California, seem to present a sense of newness, charting off into infinity; yet like Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), behind the safeness is something sinister. Travers’ father suffers from alcoholism, coughs up blood and collapses in the middle of his speech. In the middle of the night, the young Travers follows her mother Margaret, as she descends into the lake to drown herself. Rather than communicate these feelings through exposition, we become familiar with them.
Much as Travers seems to loathe the colourful presentation of Poppins’ film form, her characters emerge from the darkness – Mr Banks emerges from her father, insisting that his filmic analogue doesn’t tear up the children’s drawings because of her uneasy feelings around him; whilst Mary Poppins acts as an analogue to her aunt Ellie, a nanny-esque character in her childhood. The Australian nanny becomes Anglicised as the very trope of Edwardian society, before being Americanised for a new cultural context. This is not an afterthought, but an essential part of the creative process.
Paralleled is Walt Disney’s own process of pursuing the book’s rights, enamoured with the book because of its influence on his daughter, wanting to influence another generation. Far from merely a book, it carries power. Tom Hanks’ performance as Walt isn’t remarkable: Tom Hanks always plays Tom Hanks, unable to move beyond when his face and voice are so recognisable. Yet there is little to criticise about it either; it’s just there. The film condenses Walt’s involvement in pursuing the rights, leaving it as background rather than presenting 20 years of angry conversations.
Initially developed by BBC Films, the film maintains a sense of Disney’s corporate image. Through the Sherman Brothers’ unendingly happy relationship, almost intertwined with each other, and Disney’s tour of Disneyland with Travers, we are given a sense of Disney’s identity, outside of the more cynical view of Escape from Tomorrow (2013), but more in line with Walt Disney as Illuminati saviour in Tomorrowland (2015), whilst still maintaining a sense of authenticity. At points, the film may only feel like a nudge to to rewatch Mary Poppins, thanks to the Sherman Brothers performing the film’s most well-known songs, and playing extracts presented at its premiere – yet it still comes from a place of heart.
Perhaps the biggest criticism that could be levelled is the emotional manipulation of Travers by Disney. The author’s defence of her own work sometimes takes on a comedic role, as she stuffs a pamper of oversized Disney soft toys in her hotel room into a cupboard, aghast at the pre-recorded message by Disney on her TV set. Walt begins to recognise more and more the emotional core of Travers’ past: he comes to her house in London unannounced, leading her to tears as he talks about her father and her identity. He forces her to sign off on the rights: perhaps the most real part, as a cruel and unforgiving industry. Disney then has the audacity to not invite her to the film’s premiere, pretending that it got lost in the international postal service – screwing her over just like every other writer in Hollywood.
Travers undergoes an arc of transformation: just as she redeems Ralph, her fanboy writer driver in LA, who speaks of how his daughter loves the book and how it speaks to him, getting her to sign a copy, Travers’ life also changes thanks to Disney. She loses her emotional baggage, moving from the dark, isolating colours at the beginning of the film, where all she seems to do is lay on the sofa and complain about royalties, and ends up wearing colourful dresses, motivated to write further novels, crying at the film’s premiere over how wonderful it is.
Elements like these might make the viewer doubt the film’s reality, yet it remains grounded in such an emotional core that it hardly matters. Taking the viewer through the creative processes of adaptation, and the conflicts arising from it, Banks is perhaps essential viewing to anyone who sees themselves as a creative.