Rewriting the Past

Yesterday, my husband and I decided to venture outside our warm and toasty house, braving buckets of rain and nasty winds to catch a showing of a film we both had been wanting to see for several weeks: “Saving Mr. Banks.”

For those who don’t know, the film revolves around Walt Disney’s machinations to persuade P.L. Travers, author of the “Mary Poppins” books, to sign over rights to Disney for a film adaptation.

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Travers, a feisty, difficult person who had fallen on hard economic times, was loathe to part with the rights to the character, unwilling to sanction what she feared would be a cartoonish and folksy simplification of a story important to her. As the film goes on, we learn the reasons why “Mary Poppins” mattered so much to her. It was not, as we first suppose, Mary Poppins who was important to Travers, but the character of Mr. Banks, the father in the story. Mr. Banks was an idealized depiction of her father. We see just how idealized as the story flashes back to Travers’ past and then to the “present” day, which happens to be the early 1960s, when she was meeting with Disney and the Poppins’ screenwriting team to discuss the story.

Emma Thompson’s thoughtful performance is quite impressive: she brought to life not only Travers’ eccentricities and often supercilious way of dealing with others, but she managed to make us like and, yes, sympathize with that irritating woman. She found a vein of vulnerability in Travers and exploited it for all it was worth. Thus, instead of being piqued by Travers, I found myself in league with her, commiserating with her on the difficulties of her childhood, understanding how complicated is the nature of love, and even how the most unworthy of parents can claim a child’s undying affection. Travers loved her father in spite of the emotional chaos of her childhood, and blamed the child she had been for not being able to exert some sort of control over things that were beyond her ability to address.

Control is a key element of this film: the desire to control events from our past continues to affect us well into our present. Travers, who loved her magnetic, alcoholic father, tried to rewrite history, to control the story by giving it a different spin.

Like Travers, Walt Disney was no stranger to a harsh childhood. He, too, had experienced life with a difficult father whom he professed to love in spite of the pain the man caused his family. Disney went to his grave trying to convince others and himself that he loved the man who never seemed to achieve any lasting security for his family; a man who subjected his children to harsh duties and even harsher punishments.

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Throughout his career, Disney catered to rewriting the story of family – all Disney stories, no matter how sad they start out, end in happily ever after. Disney made a career out of redeeming the past.

A visit to the Magic Kingdom starts with a walk down Main Street where an idealized representation of a street from his childhood in Marceline, Missouri, stands. In fact, this version of small town American life probably never existed; at least, not as Disney experienced it in real life. But like all creative people, he takes what he knows and embroiders it. In Disney’s earnest hands, the embroidering is positive and its intent is meant to soothe a heart’s longing for a simpler time, a simpler past. Main Street is Disney’s nostalgia for what might have been. All ugliness, all squalor, all reality is washed clean, enabling us to love and long for those days that never were. Above one of the stores on Main Street is a fake office window with the words ‘Elias Disney – Contractor” in gold lettering. Elias was Disney’s father, a man never successful enough in real life to rate an office on the Main Street of any town, and certainly not the town of Walt’s youth.

But Disney is rewriting history; attempting to control the past. It is a desire for what might have been. It is an effort at redemption.

Travers does the same. A key event in her life was the arrival of her mother’s older, capable sister to the family’s ramshackle house in Australia.

At the time, her father was confined to bed, in the last stages of the illness that would take his life at a young age. Travers watches the arrival of the cool, precise woman who became the inspiration for Mary Poppins, and her eye catches her aunt’s unusual umbrella with its parrot’s head for a handle, and her colorful, tapestry carpetbag, with all of its mysterious magic contained within. Magic? Indeed, it must have seemed so to the young girl as the stern woman pulled from the bag a flower blooming in a small clay pot, her own china tea cup with saucer, and a series of unctions for the unfortunate Mr. Banks. As each item was pulled from the bag, the aunt assured them in brisk tones that she’d brought every cure known that might help the dying Banks. Her arrival was meant to be a godsend: she enters the Travers’ disorganized household with a competent flourish, and then attempts to produce a measure of order and hopefulness for the wretched, defeated family.

Her presence promises to be the cure for what ails the family. But to the childhood mind of Travers, she was there to save the father – not the family. Unfortunately, this was beyond the capabilities of Travers’ strange, no-nonsense aunt; even she lacked the magic needed to save her dying brother-in-law, and young Travers watched her father’s inexorable slide toward death.

In real life, the sister-in-law failed. In the book, “Mary Poppins,” she succeeds because Travers imbues the character with magical qualities. Mary Poppins does indeed save “Mr. Banks,” and in the saving of Banks, she also rescues the family.

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Like Mary Poppins, Travers is trying to save her father. She is rewriting her history, embroidering it, trying to give the sad events of her childhood a happy ending. It is why the version to be captured on film was so important to her. She didn’t want her father reduced to a cartoon; she sought for him the understanding and redemption that real life never afforded him.

While watching “Saving Mr. Banks,” I was struck by the thought that every creative person has a charmed life in at least one way: he or she does get to rewrite the past. They get an opportunity to control what once seemed uncontrollable. Perhaps we are haunted by the ghosts of our past, and the only way to quiet them is to give them life in fiction, poetry, painting… or, perhaps, in a theme park that looks at an America that really never existed.

The circumstances of our past not only make us who we are, but they are the fodder for the stories that we seek to tell. Stories that, hopefully, will not only entertain or instruct, but also – just maybe – lay to rest the ghosts that continue to haunt us.

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About Kate Loveton

Aspiring novelist. Avid reader of fiction. Reviewer of books. By day, my undercover identity is that of meek, mild-mannered legal assistant, Kate Loveton, working in the confines of a stuffy corporate law office; by night, however, I'm a super hero: Kate Loveton, Aspiring Novelist and Spinner of Tales. My favorite words are 'Once upon a time... ' Won't you join me on my journey as I attempt to turn a hobby into something more?
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42 Responses to Rewriting the Past

  1. I’m sure that I commented on this post the first time round but I can’t see anything in the comments list.

    This is a wonderful review of a film that I have to admit that I still haven’t gotten around to watching yet. Now that I have access to Netflix, it’s definitely one that I’m going to check out! ❤ ❤ ❤

  2. noelleg44 says:

    I’d read anything you write, Kate, and this was a wonderful, thoughtful post. I still need to see that movie. Hubs is not a big movie-goer but I bet we could get it on TV.

  3. Wonderful post. I’ve never seen the movie, but now I think it is a must see.

  4. jan says:

    Coincidentally I also blogged about this movie – however not in such depth! Great analysis.

  5. I haven’t seen the movie, but have seen the trailer around the time the movie first came out. Now, I want to see it after this wonderful in-depth review. A wonderful synopsis, Kate. 🙂 ❤

  6. Wonderful (old) post that no, I hadn’t seen before. I just saw the movie Saving Mr. Banks a few months ago and found it lovely, thoughtful, sad, and endearing. Ah, one of the wonders of writing is to change the past into a more interesting/loving/livable future, yes?

  7. Julia Lund says:

    I think that perhaps the mix of memory and inagination are the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Julia, I’m reading a biography of Truman Capote. In his well received ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms,’ Capote utilized both his memories of being raised in the South by his three maiden aunts as well as his powerful imagination to create a lovely, affecting novel. I think your comment is right on the money!

  8. Thanks for posting this! I definitely want to see this movie about Travers. You give a lot to think about, plus inspiration and courage to tackle difficult topics. Have you ever read or worked with “Your Life as Story – Discovering the ‘New Autobiography’ and Writing Memoir as Literature” by Tristine Rainer; (pub. Penguin Putnam, 1997/98)? I think it is very helpful to someone who wants to write about events and people as “creative nonfiction.” She discusses with sensitive insights how memory, emotion, facts and fiction intersect. I see it’s available on Amazon.

    • Kate Loveton says:

      Hi Hildegard. If you see the film, do let me know what you think of it.

      I’m not familiar with Rainer’s book, but you’ve sparked my interest in it. I’m going to look for it on Amazon.

      Thank you for the lovely comments – I appreciate your reading the piece. 🙂

      • Hi Kate, I bought the DVD and watched Saving Mr. Banks. My background: I saw and thoroughly enjoyed Disney’s Mary Poppins movie when it first came out when I was 12, and several times since, and was a fan of Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke (i.e. I obviously have a bias in favour of promoting a nice, clean, fun, innocent-childhood viewpoint). I knew nothing of P.L.Travers or her original book, so I took this new movie at face value as being mostly historically correct. I really liked the movie as a story on its own terms! Afterward I googled P.L.Travers to learn more. People added comments that the movie could have been deeper and more satisfying by including more of the complexity of Travers’ real life. Perhaps. But putting in too much could also have dragged down the story for its own sake. The Title reveals the purpose of the movie’s story, and the movie itself conveys sufficiently that in the process of “Saving Mr. Banks” Travers was also trying to save herself. Well, I’m not a movie critic, but I enjoyed this one!

  9. Kate Loveton says:

    Reblogged this on Odyssey of a Novice Writer and commented:

    This is a blog post I wrote back in January 2014. Frankly, I’d forgotten I’d written it and only came across it yesterday when it popped up as suggested further reading at the end of one of my current blog posts.

    The reason I’ve reblogged it is that for many of you this will be something new as I had pretty much just started blogging when I wrote the post.

    The second and more compelling reason is that it fits in nicely with some of the posts I’d written earlier this week about my father and the past. I think it is true that as we get older, we do tend the remember the better moments in our past and in our relationships with others. And I think it is also true that when those memories are not always good ones, we seek to rearrange them into something more palatable.

    This is certainly true in this review and essay about the experiences of Walt Disney and the writer of “Mary Poppins,” PL Travers. If you have time, I hope you can spare a moment to read this. Thank you.

    • I missed this post first time around, Kate. Thank you for highlighting it again. There’s a lot of deep thought and understanding in your review; you may just have missed your vocation!

      • Kate Loveton says:

        Hi Keith, I’m flattered that you enjoyed the review so much. I really connected with that film, for some reason. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to blog about it. 🙂

  10. I am very excited to see this movie. I live in a small town so it won’t be in theater for a while yet. 😦 This is a very inspiring post. Thanks for writing.

  11. C Ryan says:

    I’m a big fan of Walt Disney, and really loved the film. Thanks for this blog, some interesting information I didn’t know!

  12. Hatter says:

    Reblogged this on Hats at theShop.

  13. L. Palmer says:

    I like the point that “Disney made a career out of redeeming the past.”
    I’m looking forward to seeing this movie because it’s always nice when there’s a well-made film that has a positive, uplifting feeling. I also like how reflective your own review is.
    Warm fuzzies are usually a good thing.

  14. Very insightful. I certainly use both “the good” and “the bad” from my past to influence my writing, and also my hopes for the future.

  15. Great post! I think you have an excellent point about creative people wanting to “rewrite the past” and I had no idea that Walt Disney had had a hard childhood which just makes his legacy poignant, I think. This movie looks great, I can’t wait to see it! 😀

  16. Carol says:

    A Mary Poppins “practically perfect in every way” commentary on both the film and the lives that the story represents. Thanks for sharing your insights. Glad I stumbled upon your blog.

  17. I’m going to check the movie out. Love Poppins and Travers seems to have my interests now. Great post, Kate.

  18. stacilys says:

    Really great post. Thanks for sharing it.:)
    –Staci

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