Monday, January 6, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks and The Writer's Love for a Character

by Julia Buckley

My sister treated me to a showing of SAVING MR. BANKS this past weekend, and I loved the movie.  I am continuing to ponder a couple of themes that relate specifically to writers, since the premise of the film was that P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, was reluctant to give up the rights to Walt Disney, who ultimately made the film which starred Julie Andrews.  Two things came to the forefront in the film: that writers love their characters "like family," and that one's intellectual property is, when it comes down to it, one's most precious possession.

Every writer might dream of seeing his or her work on the big screen, but along with that dream would go the dread that something might go wrong. The ill-fated movie V.I. Warshawski did no justice to Sara Paretsky's elegant and exciting novels, but crammed the books' plots together in a way that was not satisfying to her loyal readers. Sue Grafton has famously refused to ever let Kinsey Millhone become a character on the screen, and has told her children that they may not allow it, either.

It's not a surprise that writers are fiercely loyal to their characters. First of all, these literary people are born from the author's mind, as Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. JK Rowling says that Harry Potter was fully formed when he came to her, and on her website she writes that "I had never been so excited about an idea before." And there's the crux of the matter: writers fall in love with the act of creation, which is itself a mystery, and each character becomes a new love affair.  To betray that character is to betray a loved one, which is the dilemma of P.L. Travers in the movie.  Walt Disney even says he understands, since he once faced the same conundrum with Mickey Mouse.

So why sell out at all?  Well--for money. Writers struggle just as all artists struggle. Everyone knows that JK Rowling is the exception, not the rule, and even she couldn't have anticipated just how well Harry would do in the literary world.  In the case of P.L. Travers, she muses "I would like to keep my house," as a reason that she might consider going to the dreaded Los Angeles to meet with people she is sure she will not like.

But I think many writers would agree that the dream of money is only a dream which would allow them to write in peace (and perhaps luxury) for the rest of their lives.  Writers like to write, and the world often doesn't want to let them do so, since the world demands that people work to pay their bills.

Walt Disney, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, is weirdly benevolent and never angry, which I don't believe for a second,  and of course P.L. Travers is represented as an odd crank who needs to just get along. Luckily Emma Thompson gives her dimension, which makes the film a moving examination of the writer/producer relationship.

Hollywood may be the dream that many writers have for their novels today, but I doubt much has changed in the way authors feel about their characters. Those people on the page are intimately known to their creators, and their creators won't entrust them to just anyone lightly.


Sheila Connolly said...

As it happened, I read a review of the movie in an Irish newspaper, before it was released--and the reviewer panned it as a complete betrayal of P.L. Travers. Of course, I always hated what Disney did with the movie (and I gather from the article that the author fought him every step of the way)--too much treacle and dancing cartoons. The original Mary Poppins was acerbic and enigmatic, but I adored her, and I thought the author captured the innocence and acceptance of children when they watched their nanny pull improbably things from her carpetbag. Julie Andrews is a lovely woman and a fine actress/singer, but she's no Mary Poppins. Maybe if the roles had been swapped--Julie Andrews playing the author and Emma Thompson playing Mary Poppins...

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good one, Julia. Another of this season's excellent movies, Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen's take on the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early Sixties, has sparked a lot of discussion and debate. One of the key characteristics of that world is that the singers of the time despised commercial success as "selling out." I can understand that attitude, but unfortunately it was as self-defeating as the Shakers' principle of celibacy, which resulted in the Shaker community dying out. The artist's struggle to remain authentic and still have a roof over his or her head and food on the table is certainly alive and well among mystery writers today.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I agree with you about the real Mary Poppins, but see the movie and form your own opinion. I expected a movie about the relationship between Travers and Disney, and instead saw (from my professional perspective) a movie about alcoholism and how it affects the family. The adored Irish alcoholic father and the guarded, controlling adult child of an alcoholic who regards the very idea of fun with terror are very familiar characters to me.

Steve O. said...

In the film Travers is shown as liking the movie at the end whereas she hated it to her dying day.

Julia Buckley said...

Interesting, Sheila! Having never read the PL Travers books, I grew up loving the movie.

Liz, I think you're right, and an agent would be poor indeed if he/she didn't work for that "film rights" percentage in the contract.

Great points about Colin Farrell's character affecting Emma Thompson's. A friend of mine likened it to the A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN plot, and I do think there are many similarities.

Steve, that's a good point, although I thought the ending was rather enigmatic.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

At the end, Travers is writing something called Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, the implication that the movie inspired her to keep on writing. I was sure I'd read all the Mary Poppins books, four of 'em, so I looked it up when I got home, and sure enough, the kitchen book exists. It's a cookbook! And doesn't that say something about the publishing business!

Julia Buckley said...

Haha. Yes it does. And Travers, too, had an agent who had advised her to the best of his ability--at least in the movie she did. I'll bet he was pleased about the cookbook. :)