In the film “Saving Mr. Banks,” the children's author P.L. Travers finds herself in tense negotiations with Walt Disney over the 1964 film version of Travers' classic stories featuring the magical English nanny Mary Poppins. Played in what's rumored to be an Oscar-worthy performance by Emma Thompson, Travers struggles to protect her sharp-edged creation from being softened too much by Disney (Tom Hanks).
She fails, ultimately, but along the way, the audience learns how “Mary Poppins” — the book, not the movie — reflects Travers' own troubled history as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a psychologically fragile mother in Australia.
The original source of much of that history is “Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers,” by the Australian journalist Valerie Lawson. Originally published in Australia in 1999, the book later saw print in Great Britain and America as a result of renewed interest in Travers due to the West End and Broadway productions of Cameron Mackintosh's stage musical “Mary Poppins.” Lawson's book is receiving a new wave of attention in paperback form as a result of “Saving Mr. Banks,” in theaters now.
Printers Row Journal caught up with Lawson, a former feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, for a telephone interview from her home in Sydney. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: Your book was published a number of years ago, but now with the movie coming out, you must be getting a lot of interview requests.
A: Yes, any time anything new happens regarding Pamela Travers, there's a lot of interest in the book. When "Mary Poppins, She Wrote" was published for the first time in Australia, it was too early, in a way. Nobody knew much about Travers, including the fact that she was an Australian, in part because almost nothing had been written about her. She was this mystery woman.
But not long after that, Cameron Mackintosh, the English theater producer, created the stage musical, which opened in London in 2004 and later went to Broadway. The book was published then for the first time in Britain and the States, in 2005-06. And now with the film — which is partly based on a documentary based on my book by an Australian filmmaker, Ian Collie, who is also one of the producers of "Saving Mr. Banks" — everyone is now interested again. It's like she never goes away, but at the same time she's never fully revealed. It's lucky for me, the way things have worked out.
Q: Have you seen the film?
A: Yes, I've seen it twice.
Q: What do you think of it?
A: It's a really good film. I think Emma Thompson has just nailed it. She's really annoyingly funny and lovable, which was a really hard thing to do. Travers was a lovable woman in many ways, but as a public figure, no, she was quite sharp, as you can see in the film. Of course she had a lot of life issues that explain, much more than they can do in flashbacks in the film, why she was so prickly. Tom Hanks is good; he makes Disney lovely, although Disney wasn't totally lovely or lovable.
Q: I saw Emma Thompson on a talk show recently, and she said Travers wasn't very nice. Do you agree?
A: Nice? Well, certainly she wasn't your best friend. She wasn't warm and fuzzy. If you think of a children's writer being like, I don't know, your favorite auntie or something, she was completely unlike that. She was Australian, but she assumed this identity of an upper-middle-class Englishwoman who was demanding, you know, and commanding. She didn't give in to anyone's questions or explain herself.
So when they say in the movie, "We're going to put in this song now," or "Dick Van Dyke will play Bert" — a shocking piece of casting — she's always saying, "Definitely not." She was trying to protect her precious Mary Poppins, who she feared — and she was right — that Disney would make very pretty and sweet. Julie Andrews was not the Mary Poppins she created.
Q: Travers had a difficult life, in some ways.
A: That's right. She was the daughter of an alcoholic, and later adopted a son who also became an alcoholic. At the time the "Mary Poppins" movie was being made, her son was actually in prison for drunk driving without a license. And she never married, so she had to go through everything alone. She had a lot of reasons to be not very jolly.
Q: But she wasn't a monster, either.
A: No. Some of the English newspapers, not knowing very much about her, have written that she was a "dragon woman." It's not true. She was a complex woman, and not inclined to be particularly friendly. But of course filmmakers want a lovable character, even though the character may do very unpleasant things. Look at Tony Soprano. But there wasn't much lovable about Travers, which is what made it so challenging for Emma.
Q: Why is it, do you think, that Travers was so protective of the book?
A: First of all, she came up with a unique mythical character in Mary Poppins. Second, she'd seen Disney's animated films, and she feared that he would do what he ended up doing: making Mary Poppins just fun, singing and happy and playful, not at all mysterious and otherworldly.