PL Travers, Happy Endings and the Neutering of Difficult Women.


Warning: This post contains spoilers for “Saving Mr Banks” and “Atonement” by Ian McEwan.

At the end of Ian McEwan’s most famous novel “Atonement”, it is revealed that the preceding events are the writings of one of the story’s characters, Briony, decades after the events actually happened. The perspective she gives is not that of the truth; her sister and her lover never reunited and Briony never made amends for the mistakes she made that drove them apart. The revelation is a true punch to the gut for the reader (as well as the viewer in the stunning film adaptation) and yet it’s also totally understandable. Briony reasons that she did not want to give her readers an ending void of hope, and that her story was the only way she could return a happy ending to two people who were deprived of one.

It’s a human urge to seek happiness, both in our real lives and in the entertainment we consume. While we don’t always want smiles and kisses at the end of our stories, it’s not hard to see why such stories are so popular, especially in tough social and economic times. Of course, Hollywood is famed for the happy ending, and one of its most famous advocates was Walt Disney. Indeed, he built a multinational, multi-billion dollar empire on one. That legend of happy ever after was revived recently in the critically acclaimed movie “Saving Mr Banks”, starring Tom Hanks and everyone’s favourite high-heels hater, Emma Thompson.

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Hanks plays the king of the House of Mouse while Thompson plays PL Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins novels. The film centres on the real-life events surrounding Walt Disney’s fight to make a film of Travers’s books and the creative struggles that went on as the famously prickly author fought to retain the very essence of her work.

The Mary Poppins of the books is not the rosy cheeked songstress who brings joy to all she meets. Often, she’s downright cold and terrifying. Her grip on the nursery is never less than tight, and everyone knows who the boss is. The frequent dark tone of the stories has more in common with Lemony Snicket’s output than anything Disney, and Travers’s reaction to the film was less than positive. After the premiere for the film (which Travers wasn’t invited to – she had to basically fight her way to a ticket), when Travers told Disney that the animated sequences would have to go, Disney replied “That ship has sailed.”

You wouldn’t know any of this if you’d watched “Saving Mr Banks”. The film ends with Travers crying tears of relief during the premiere screening, mostly due to the film’s portrayal of Mr Banks, based on her father. The Travers of the film is prim, proper, extremely prickly and not very well liked by those she meets. She’s a Scrooge-like woman who dares to question the genius of the man who created the happiest place on earth, but even she isn’t immune to Disney’s charms and gives him the rights to her work (in real life, he already had the rights to the books by this point in time. He also didn’t spend a seemingly infinite amount of time trying to please Travers).

You also wouldn’t get much of an insight into the real Travers from the film. Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE, born Helen Lyndon

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Goff, was an Australian writer who dabbled in everything from poetry to journalism to erotica. She spent time as an actress in a Shakespearean troupe and studied mythology and folklore with a number of First Nation tribes in America. While she never married, she was rumoured to have had relationships with both men and women, and at the age of 40 she adopted her son, Camillus, choosing him based on advice given to her by her trusted astrologer. Said advice meant she would not adopt Camillus’s twin brother, nor would she tell him he was adopted, which caused the mother-child relationship to fracture irrevocably once he found out. When “Mary Poppins” premiered, Camillus Travers was struggling with alcohol and legal issues. Travers was a complicated woman and one deserving of a far more respectful biopic than was given to her with “Saving Mr Banks”.

What the film does is neutralise Travers. It defangs her, removes all the prickly edges and leaves behind the bare bones of a woman who is “fixed” by a smiling man who clearly knows best. The pain of seeing one’s lifeblood, one’s creative output, changed beyond recognition despite reassurances that it wouldn’t happen is seen as a mere inconvenience that’s quickly solved because good old Walt Disney helped Travers deal with her daddy issues. Travers is a project to be fixed, a figure seen as far more in need of saving than Mr Banks, and of course, the noted racist, sexist, union crushing studio executive is the man to do it. It’s not hard to see why Hollywood likes a movie where the studios come out on top as the good guys. Fortunately, it wasn’t liked well enough by the Academy when Oscar season rolled around.

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Who does it serve to reduce Travers to such a stereotype? Who benefits from the neutralising of a “difficult” woman? This is not uncommon, unfortunately. History has its foundations in either reducing the impact women have played throughout the centuries in our world or just flat out ignoring it. When women are “difficult” or dare to stand up to those in power, it’s easy to dismiss them or mock them as being ridiculous for doing so. Regardless of whether or not it was the screenwriter’s intention to weaken Travers’s own story in order to achieve a studio approved happy ending, the end result is highly insulting, although it is a twistedly fitting accompaniment to what Disney did to Mary Poppins. Just as generations of children will grow up thinking the story of Mary Poppins is the film, the fear that Travers’s life will be remembered as it was in “Saving Mr Banks” is all too real. PL Travers may have been given a “happy ending”, or at least one that is defined as such by the medium, but doing so doesn’t fix anything or anyone.

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