Critics and the public loved the film; “Mary Poppins” received 13 Academy Award nominations (including best picture) and took home five. And folks still love it. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, the movie was “the pinnacle of [Disney’s] already fantastic career.”
A movie adaptation is a sure boost to the sales of the book it is based on. Every cinematic installment of Harry Potter, for example, sent fans back to J.K. Rowling’s novels. But the situation was more complicated in 1965, according to a contemporary report by Peter and Dorothy Bart in the New York Times Book Review: A Los Angeles bookstore owner complained that she had to steer customers away from seven knockoff versions of the movie and toward the original by author P.L. Travers. In the Disney editions, by the way, Travers’s name only appeared in minute type in a copyright footnote.
Other events also suggest that Disney wanted to erase the story’s original author. According to Valerie Lawson’s biography “Mary Poppins, She Wrote,” Disney did not want Travers at the film’s premiere and deliberately withheld an invitation. But the writer outfoxed him, sending a telegram that she was on her way and asking him to arrange a seat. Travers was sidelined during the gala, and staff made sure that attention was focused elsewhere. Still, the press wondered: Who is P.L. Travers, this unknown Englishwoman?
I first met Pamela Travers 10 years later when she was in her 50s. This was shortly after she had been a visiting writer at Radcliffe and Smith colleges, but before she had taken up the great passion of her later life — composing meditative essays for Parabola, a magazine “devoted to the exploration of the quest for meaning as it is expressed in the world’s myths, symbols, and religious traditions, with particular emphasis on the relationship between this store of wisdom and our modern life.” That mission statement also amounts to a description of Travers’s life.
Travers was the wisest woman I’ve ever met. She was the second Western woman to study Zen in Kyoto, part of the inner circle of the famous mystic G.I. Gurdjieff and did yoga daily (an exotic practice in the 1970s). One afternoon in her Manhattan apartment, we had a conversation that would later appear in Paris Review. She spoke about the meanings of Humpty Dumpty, how her book “Friend Monkey” had been inspired by the Hindu myth of Hanuman, the Zen expression “summoned not created,” the sacredness of names in aboriginal cultures and a spiritual understanding of the parable of the Prodigal Son. And as for linking “this store of wisdom and our modern life,” she led me step by step through parallels between the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the myth of Persephone. It was one of the richest afternoons of my life.
As she often did, Travers emphasized that she “never wrote for children” but remained “immensely grateful that children have included my books in their treasure trove.” She thought her books appealed to the young because she had never forgotten her own childhood: “I can, as it were, turn aside and consult it.”
Of Irish descent, Travers grew up in the Australian Outback and moved as a young woman to England in 1924 to pursue her dream of being a journalist and poet. By great good luck, she was taken in and encouraged by leading figures of the Celtic Twilight, including William Butler Yeats.
In 1934, she published “Mary Poppins,” the story of a plain but extraordinary nanny in a book illustrated by Mary Shepard. An immediate success, two sequels followed. Then World War II broke out, and Travers evacuated to the United States. She spent the war years in the American Southwest, living among the Navajos, before returning to England in 1945.
In the meantime, in a home outside Hollywood, on Christmas Eve, Walt Disney heard his daughter Diane laughing. When he asked the 11-year-old what she was reading, she held up a favorite book that had been on her nightstand for most of her childhood.
In the decade that followed, Disney made repeated overtures to acquire film rights to “Mary Poppins,” but Travers kept putting him off because she worried that he planned to make an extended cartoon. When Disney finally settled on a live-action film, Travers signed over the rights but made one unusual condition: that she have script approval. This was an unprecedented arrangement for Disney; most of his previous movies, from “Cinderella” to “Treasure Island,” were based on stories by long-dead authors who could not object.
At Disney’s invitation, Travers made a brief visit to Burbank in April 1961 to get an idea of the film. She jumped in as a full participant with a line-by-line critique of the draft shooting script. But she soon was overwhelmed by Disney, his crew and their vision: converting her novel into a musical with special effects, choreography and dancing penguins.
The greatest concession she was able to win was that there would be no love affair between Mary Poppins and Bert. At the end of her brief stay, she left resigned that Disney would have the last word.
The corporate version of these events, incidentally, is different. “Saving Mr. Banks,” the self-congratulatory 2013 movie, paints the studio as the patient, longtime victim of a prickly and demanding author. Emma Thompson plays Travers as a grouchy misanthrope who complains about a baby crying on an airplane, the endless sunshine of Southern California, the inability of Americans to make a proper cup of tea, and every jot and tittle about the would-be film. Tom Hanks plays the lovable Disney, whose job is to melt this cranky curmudgeon’s heart, and he succeeds to a degree by means of his aw-shucks amiability and some contrived pop psychology (in a heart-to-heart talk about her daddy issues). Perhaps the most realistic scene in the movie is one in which Travers makes a suggestion and (behind her back) the filmmakers roll their eyes. They can’t wait to see this scold off the lot so they can begin filming.
Travers got to see what Disney made of her story at the film’s premiere. “When I left the theater,” she told me, “I was crying.” Travers felt that Disney had trivialized her book, transforming it into a cloying musical. She did not want to seem ungrateful to the man whose film would eventually provide her with financial security and many more readers, but “everything was all so distorted, I felt I would never write again.”
The differences are conspicuous. Travers’s Mary Poppins is plain, prim and peremptory. And while she sometimes seems sharp, the children love her.
But what is most important is that Mary Poppins comes from the world of myth, where she is a magnificent and significant figure. In the world of myth, she is the Great Goddess, but comically reincarnated as a nanny who “pops in” to turn-of-the-century London. In the Disney version, her mystic and mythic story becomes music-hall song-and-dance. As Travers said in a letter to writer Brian Sibley, “It is as though they took a sausage, threw away the contents but kept the skin, and filled the skin with their own ideas, very far from the original substance.”
Take, for instance, the heart of the movie, where the children step into a sidewalk drawing and join Mary and Bert in a make-believe world, ride on a merry-go-round and hear the song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” The heart of the book, on the other hand, is a scene where Jane and Michael Banks go with Mary to the zoo — on the one night of the year when all of the animals dance together — and a wise snake tells the children about the unity of all life. That chapter reads like one of the animal fables from the ancient Indian epic “The Panchatantra,” set in a modern era.
When you read the original book, you enter a world of mythological thinking, where scholars have found references to the Bible, Greek deities and Sufi parables; and in commenting on Travers, critics have reached for parallels in the works of William Blake, Zen Buddhism and beliefs about the Hindu goddess Kali. Indeed, to the informed reader, “Mary Poppins” is a modernized collection of ancient fables and teaching stories. That’s what makes it an extraordinary children’s book.
When P.L. Travers died in 1996, I wrote a tribute in the Los Angeles Times and confessed that I have pressed copies of “Mary Poppins” on friends who, only familiar with the Disney version, responded to my gift with quizzical looks or patronizing indulgence. Well, here I go again. Now, with the new Disney version in the air, let me rephrase something Travers once said to me: “Mary Poppins is not lost. She is still somewhere. You only have to go and find her.”
Jerry Griswold is a retired professor and the author of several books, including “Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.”