The words “based on a true story” have lost their meaning lately. Movies allegedly rooted in fact invariably deviate from the truth, whether for creative or political reasons. With Oscar season bringing in a truckload of “based on a true story” movies, I thought it would be a good time to check up on the veracity of one highly buzzed film, Saving Mr. Banks, which covers the story behind the making of Disney’s Mary Poppins.
Claim: Walt Disney attempted to purchase the book rights for Mary Poppins from a skeptical P.L. Travers for 20 years.
Accuracy: True. Disney did in fact spend a long time trying to persuade Travers to sell the rights to her book, and Travers really did despise his movies, especially his earlier films such as Pinocchio and Bambi. In fact, during her stint at New English Weekly, she wrote an incredibly venomous review of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, suggesting that, “There is a profound cynicism at the root of his, as of all, sentimentality.”
Claim: Travers had a deeply troubled childhood in rural Australia, growing up under a loving but alcoholic father and an ineffectual, depressed mother.
Accuracy: Mostly true. Saving Mr. Banks does paint the father, Travers Goff, a little more positively than he actually was, but the basics — i.e. that Goff was an alcoholic, failed bank manager with an immensely romantic imagination — are all correct. Even the pear flashback toward the end has some basis in reality.
Claim: In 1961, Disney persuaded Travers to come to his studio for two weeks of intensive editing on an already-completed script in the hopes that Travers would finally sell the rights to her book.
Accuracy: Slightly true. There is some basis in fact — Disney did invite Travers over to Los Angeles in 1961 — but by then, Travers had already signed over rights and sent Disney a treatment for the movie. The 1961 trip was instead so Travers could read the treatment Disney’s writers had prepared.
Claim: Travers hated the script and spent most of her time in Los Angeles refusing everything presented to her and generally being pedantic.
Accuracy: True. According to the transcripts of these writing conferences, Travers took umbrage with a huge amount of the work presented to her, from tiny word choices to broad tonal concerns. In particular, Saving Mr. Banks nails Travers’ struggles with the script’s take on George Banks, who, as the transcripts suggest, did represent an idealized version of her father.
Claim: Travers left Los Angeles suddenly after finding out about plans for animated penguins to be inserted into the film, which led to Disney finally persuading Travers to sign over Mary Poppins after having a heart-to-heart with the author in London.
Accuracy: False. Though it’s unclear whether Disney and Travers did have any conversations about their respective upbringings, Travers had already signed away the film rights by this point in 1961. She also did not leave Los Angeles in a huff. In fact, she sent a thank-you letter to the Disney writers after she departed the studios for London. The idea for animated penguins would come after Travers had left.
Claim: Travers wasn’t invited to the premiere of Mary Poppins because Disney was afraid of her possible reaction. She went regardless, and ended up being moved by the film.
Accuracy: Mostly true. Travers wasn’t invited to the premiere of Mary Poppins, and she did attend it nonetheless. However, Travers’ reaction to the film was far less clear. While complimentary to Disney and many correspondents, Travers still revealed to her publisher that she felt the film lacked much of her version of Mary Poppins.
Overall, Saving Mr. Banks contains a lot of moments that, to the best of our knowledge, did occur during the making of Mary Poppins. However, not unlike Disney’s method for adapting Travers’ book, the film plays fast and loose with the emotional reality of that production.
Much of the film is inarguably accurate, but the movie’s troubling inclination toward pushing Disney as a good guy in his frequent creative debates with Travers suggests a biased perspective at best or self-serving studio propaganda at worst.