Who is Mary Poppins? PL Travers, Walt Disney & me

When I was young, one of my absolute favorite books were those that made up the Mary Poppins series by PL Travers. 

The novels (as opposed to the movie of the same name) were basically collections of short stories about the adventures of the magical (but crotchety and mysterious) nanny Mary Poppins and her charges, Jane and Michael (there are also the twins, John and Barbara, but they are too young to take part in most of the stories).

I read them over and over (somewhere I have my copy of the first book, which was simply titled Mary Poppins; the binding is a mess). Just thinking about them brings up some of my favorites: the one where Jane and Michael find out how the stars appear in the night sky (they are actually the stars from gingerbread cookies which are placed up there by a shopkeeper’s two awkward daughters); the one night every year where the animals take over the zoo; and the one where it is revealed that infants can converse with animals and to sunlight, and lost that ability when they become old enough to start to speak.

Unfortunately, what all this meant was that I absolutely loathed the film. Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins was nothing like the Mary Poppins I knew and loved — she was bubbly and pretty and much too cheerful. (A spoonful of sugar, indeed!) I hasten to add that, as an adult, I’ve come to quite like the movie — I enjoy movie musicals, and there are some lovely moments in it — but as a child, I was appalled. I didn’t want Julie Andrews. I wanted Margaret Hamilton. (Okay, sure, she was American, but I didn’t make those distinctions in those days.)

All this is just a preface to my discovering today that a motion picture about the making of the film of Mary Poppins, and PL Travers’ fights over it with Disney, is coming out soon. I was, initially, delighted, especially at my discovering (although why am I surprised?) that Travers was also appalled at the Disney version of her creation. The film, called Saving Mr. Banks, stars Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as PL Travers — two wonderful actors.

I was delighted until I realized that — it’s a Disney film. And saw the trailer. Which seemingly portrays Disney as a nice, understanding man who just wants to make a wonderful children’s film, and can’t understand why the irritable, problematic English author lady can’t understand that. And it looks like the upshot will be that all her objections stem from the fact that Mary Poppins was written to reflect ghosts from her past, and that she will eventually come to understand how happy Mr. Disney will make the children of the world if he makes the film the way he wants to.

I could be wrong. I know that trailers can be very different from the final film. It could be a wonderful film and after I see it, I’ll eat my words. But right now, I’m feeling a bit like an irritable, problematic American author lady. 


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