With the release of Saving Mr. Banks and its reviews one might be left with a notion that there had been a distinct conflict of interest within Pamela Lyndon Travers in giving into Walt Disney.
Travers, born in Maryborough, Queensland, Australia, is better known as the author of the hugely popular Mary Poppins books. Travers, born as Helen Lyndon Goff, left Australia for London, England, where she pursued a career as an author. Travers began the series of Poppins books while recovering from a lung infection in the country. The first book, Mary Poppins, was published in 1934 and was a huge success.
It tells the story of a nanny that is blown by a strong wind to the door of 17 Cherry Tree Lane in London. Mary is taken on by Mr. and Mrs. Banks to watch over their children. As the children soon discover there’s more to Marry than a stern manner. She had a magical touch!
As early as 1946 Walt Disney approached Travers for the film rights to the book but she resisted with enthusiasm. She believed that her characters couldn’t possibly be brought to life in a manner to do them justice. She finally agreed to meet with Disney in 1961 and the ugliness that followed highlighted Travers’ attachment to her creation.
At the heart of the matter was her artistic rights. Even though she finally sold the film rights to Disney she had a word on final script approval. Travers never wanted to sell Mary Poppins but made the decision for financial reasons. As Disney began to develop the script he was met with objections by Travers at just about every step of the process. She did not want any animation in the movie, it shouldn’t be a musical, Julie Andrews was too pretty to play the role. After that first 10 day meeting there was much exchange between Travers and the studio until finally she signed off on the script. Much of this is covered in the new movie, Saving Mr. Banks.
When Mary Poppins was released in 1964 Travers was not invited to the premier, but she attended in any case. It is reported that she cried when she saw how the film had depicted her book and she vowed never to work with Disney again.
The transition of Mary Poppins from book to film was a very difficult one. Travers, feeling as strongly as she apparently did on the subject, should never have agreed to sell the film rights in the first place, but she had. For whatever reason, financial or otherwise, the rights had been sold, and once the sale was made an additional set of rights was established for the buyer. Did Disney not procure the film rights to make the book into a film?
Mary Poppins was released almost 50 years ago and today we have a new movie covering the process of that creation, Saving Mr. Banks, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. It has received good reviews and illustrates how an artists passion for their work can represent a conflict of interest. It’s also a bit ironic that it was made by the Disney studio.
Creative control for any artist is a very touchy subject. The selling of ones rights to a piece of work can be an extremely emotional decision, but where is the line that separates artist from producer. If one gives a right to another, what is the extent of participation of the first party after the transaction has taken place? In some cases perhaps the rights should never be sold as the artist will never be able to justify the transaction to themselves.
The film Saving Mr. Banks definitely raises some interesting questions. A relationship, any relationship, can be tempestuous at the best of times. Add to that relationship an artist’s emotional attachment to their work and things can veer off track very quickly as can be seen by Travers’ actions. In the end, the stronger the attachment, the stronger the conflict of interest to oneself.
By Scott Wilson