Saving Mr. Disney: The Conflicting Arts of Adaptation and Brand Management

By  · Published on December 24th, 2013

There’s a scene late in John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks in which author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) barges into Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) office, livid about the fact that the company’s proposed adaptation of her intellectual property “Mary Poppins” may contain a moment of animation integrated into live action, which Disney promised her would not occur. Travers catches Disney putting a cigarette out into an ashtray, blindsided that she caught him in this uncouth moment. Disney says something out loud about not wanting to be seen with a cigarette in his hand, and the scene moves on.

We never see the cigarette touch Disney’s lips. There is no still image that exists of Hanks-as-Disney smoking. Yet the Disney-produced film acknowledges that Disney himself smoked and hid that fact from the public eye during the 1960s.

Saving Mr. Banks admits openly that there is a distance between the man and the myth, the everyday Walt Disney and his heavily regulated public image. The film makes a gesture of transparency in this direction, yet not enough to actually show the contradiction between the myth and the man. We never see that cigarette hit his mouth. This moment isn’t really all that important on its own, but it is in terms of what it represents: that Saving Mr. Banks is a film which acknowledges the negotiations and compromises that go into making and reinforcing the image of “Disney,” while also exercising careful maintenance of the identity of the Disney brand.

Like other recent films about making iconic movies (Hitchcock, The Girl, RKO 281), Saving Mr. Banks has its cake and eats it too, appealing to the myth of the cinemagician while taking him down a peg or two. Yet Saving Mr. Banks is the first of these that exercises a considerable degree of self-interest, a work about Disney the historical figure made by Disney the company. In doing so, the film accomplishes something considerably more odious than a myth-laden production history: it not only claims the primacy of the Disney corporation, but attempts to claim authorship on behalf of those who can no longer speak for themselves.

“They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.”

This oft-repeated quote – in reference to a journalist asking an author whether or not filmed adaptations of his work ruin his original books – has been credited to everyone ranging from James M. Cain to Raymond Chandler to Stephen King. Regardless of where it came from, it’s a useful quote to remember as it accomplishes two seemingly contradictory things at once: it reinforces the idea of an “original” author and at the same time argues that there is no such thing as a “definitive” text. The author’s voice remains in circulation, and an adaptation (famed or not) does not erase the novel or any other versions of the story.

There is a case to be made, then, that those who adapt novels (particularly celebrated filmmakers) are interpreters of works rather than persons in charge of capturing the written word’s essence: they simply go about one of a potentially infinite number of possible ways to take the source material to screen, functioning as uniquely entitled and empowered readers who disseminate their contestable vision of a work. Yet the image possesses concretizing power in relation to the written word: Double Indemnity is as much Billy Wilder’s as it is James M. Cain’s; Tolkien’s visions of Middle Earth seem to belong equally to Peter Jackson; and who can read a Michael Crichton book without imbuing into it Spielbergian imagery? It’s a utopian democratic ideal to think that the imaginative space between book and a mental image of the words on the page belong simply to the capacities of any given reader, but cinema culture often fills that space with particular sounds and images, forever re-framing our access to a particular work like a pop song you can never shake out of your head.

It was this power that Travers sensed all too well when she reluctantly allowed Disney to attempt a filmed adaptation of her 1934 novel and its subsequent series. She worried (in historical reality and Hancock’s film) about intellectual theft by the Disney corporation – not the type condemnable by law, but the potential threat to the artistic integrity of the work. The thing she feared most was that Disney and his company viewed storytelling not as a means of coping with and understanding a complex world, but as a superficial means of escaping from it.

Thompson’s Travers, while affecting a dry English disposition, cries at Mr. Banks’ restaged premiere, overjoyed that a big-screen adaptation has done justice to her work and its allegory for her relationship with her alcoholic father. In reality, Travers greatly disliked Disney’s adaptation of Mary Poppins. Travers cried, but because Disney’s adaptation was indeed the betrayal she feared, never matching the tone and themes she intended for her story; this fact was revisited time and again as she publicly spoke out against the 1964 film and sought to minimize correlations between the film and a musical adaptation made decades later.

While the film does a great deal to humanize Disney – never assuming that everyone is, by default, taken by that “Disney magic” – and makes Travers the main character. But as a condition for doing so, Saving Mr. Banks presumes from the outset a subjective identification with Disney alongside a historically pre-determinist notion that the justice of his vision will unfaultingly prevail in the end. While the audience is given direct access to Travers’s biography, her insistence on an approach that reflects the artistic integrity of her written work mandates that she be treated as a difficult eccentric (by the film and by supporting characters) until publicly-made biographical information proves otherwise, and not until then does she receive Disney’s surface gestures of sincere empathy and his full sense of entitlement to her work.

Saving Mr. Banks is, by all conventional criteria, a “good” film. It is well written, tightly structured, and an engaging viewing from beginning to end. Thompson gives a terrific performance, and Hanks a requisite star turn. It’s certainly the best film made by the guy who directed The Blind Side. And the film’s flashback sequences are often truly moving – the film’s strongest suit.

But Saving Mr. Banks is a public relations maneuver posing as as historical real talk, a film clearly unable to tell even a liberty-heavy version of Travers’s story without insinuating anything outside the unassailability of Disney himself.

It’s both fascinating and frustrating that Disney (the company) here exhibits a shrewd consumption of its own criticisms – that the theme park is a shallow commercial venture, that Disney’s film style both patronizes and idealizes childhood while never treating seriously the difficulties of life – yet within the next hour negates all the above simply by reminding people that Walt Disney was also a human being who exercised some authorship in his expansive creations. Travers rejects a giant, plush Mickey Mouse given as a novelty gift in her hotel room at the beginning of the film, but by the third act literally embraces the brand symbol to comfort her to sleep, and Mickey even accompanies her arm-and-arm at the Mary Poppins premiere.

So one has to ask, if Saving Mr. Banks isn’t comfortable enough to directly engage with the threats embodied by Travers, why bring them up in the first place? Is Disney so fragile about its omnipotent brand ego that it even has to co-opt a dispute over creative property they won fifty years ago?

Travers is indeed a relic of another time. In a contemporary context where interacting with narratives can include anything from reading to piracy to fan fiction, it’s difficult to make the assumption anymore that a work “belongs” to an author once its been unleashed onto the discerning public. Moreover, major publishers now give away film rights before a book is even published, making Travers’s extensive creative control over the adaptation of “Mary Poppins” something of an impossible fantasy in a contemporary context unless your name is Jonathan Franzen.

But Mary Poppins wasn’t simply any adaptation. It wasn’t the work of one creator interpreted by another. This wasn’t Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which still stands in contestation with King’s book. Walt Disney may have been a flesh-and-blood human being, but he was and remains something far greater: a brand name and a corporate identity. Walt Disney is a name that exemplifies corporate personhood and a set of associations whose influences reaches well beyond anything than can be distilled down to an individual. And that’s why Travers feared that her work would be erased from the bookshelves by Disney’s film: her work wasn’t being adapted by another “person,” but a company whose carefully-maintained identity automatically assumes certain impossibilities.

And that’s the difference between Saving Mr. Banks and similar films like Hitchcock. Saving Mr. Banks seeks to speak on behalf of two subjects: the assumed creative genius (Disney) and the person who signed off her intellectual property to the assumed creative genius (Travers). In doing so, Disney no longer simply owns the adaptation (which, purely coincidentally, is seeing a 50th anniversary special edition blu-ray this holiday season), but seeks to own the process and terms of that adaptation.

The film Mary Poppins Disney-fied P.L Travers’s books, which ostensibly keeps open the possibility for people to encounter the original source on its own terms. But Saving Mr. Banks Disney-fies a person, incorporating her literary identity wholesale into the Disney brand.

Over the end credits of Saving Mr. Banks, a tape plays uninterrupted that depicts real audio of Travers’ recorded script negotiations. It’s an enticing gesture of transparency, a symbolic opening of the tightly regulated Disney vaults. Yet this, like the cigarette moment, encapsulates something essential about Saving Mr. Banks’ careful tango with history: it’s a friendly nod at open dialogue and self-evaluation, but one that’s only interested in a conversation in which the terms have already been set.

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