This undated photo released by Disney shows Tom Hanks, left, as Walt Disney showing Disneyland to Emma Thompson as "Mary Poppins" author P.L.
This undated photo released by Disney shows Tom Hanks, left, as Walt Disney showing Disneyland to Emma Thompson as "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers, in Disney's "Saving Mr. Banks." (The Associated Press)

As Emma Thompson points out, there have been millions of books written for children, but there are only a handful of characters that have really stuck — among them, Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Mary Poppins.

“They are atomic characters — that is sort of something I came come up with to describe them — because they speak to something universal,” says Thompson, who plays P.L. Travers, creator of “Mary Poppins,” in the Disney Studios movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”

The film tells the story of Walt Disney's attempt to secure the rights to the book — a two-decade process — finally getting the author to leave London reluctantly for two weeks in 1961 for creative meetings on the Disney lot in Burbank. It turned into a rather tumultuous trip.

 

“She wasn't emotionally consistent in any way,” Thompson says. “Everything about her is contradictory, which is why people didn't know what to expect, and, I think, neither did she.”

A writer herself, Thompson won an Oscar for her adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” (1995). It was her second Academy Award, having been named best actress for “Howards End” (1992). So she seems to be the perfect fit to portray the author who didn't want to be “labeled.” Now there is talk of another best-acting nomination for Thompson for playing Travers, not the most likable of characters.

 

As an example, the author — who had final say over the making of the movie — supposedly demanded that red not be used in the filming of “Mary Poppins” because she had gone off the color.

On this day, Thompson is wearing large dangling white earrings and a white blouse. Her hair is loose and a shimmering blond as opposed to the tight brown curls she wore in the film to play Travers.

How true “Saving Mr. Banks” is to real events is open to interpretation. Perhaps it is as true as how much the movie “Mary Poppins” is true to Travers' vision of her title character. There was no doubt the author at times could be exasperating. Tapes survive from some of the studio sessions in which she acts dreadfully toward the Sherman brothers, Robert and Richard, who co-wrote the film's memorable songs.

 

“If you listen to the tapes of her talking to those boys, it's almost impossible. You just can't bear it because every time they open their mouths, she is on them,” Thompson says. (Tape excerpts are played as the end credits roll on “Saving Mr. Banks.”)

Thompson admits that some of the story has been smoothed over in the telling. “I think the challenge of it was making sure the audience didn't become overwhelmed by irritation.”

The day before the interview, Thompson had dipped her hands and feet in cement outside TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The recently renovated grand old movie palace was where “Mary Poppins” — starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke — had its world premiere in August 1964.

 

Travers was not invited. By that time, Walt Disney had had enough of the author's eccentricities and was worried how she would react. The film mogul, who had created the “Happiest Place on Earth” in Disneyland as a place to take his daughters, had pursued the rights to “Mary Poppins” as a promise to them to make a movie out of their favorite book.    

Kelly Marcel's script, which was adapted from an early version by Sue Smith, is partially inspired by Valerie Lawson's book “Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers.” Originally, the idea was to do a story on the life of Travers, who had an extraordinary and unconventional life, traveling in literary circles with the likes of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.

 

Marcel's version incorporated a lot of material from the 1964 film that went on to win five Oscars, including best picture and best actress for Andrews. “Saving Mr. Banks” also made Walt Disney a character, and that meant only Disney Studios, which owns the rights to all the “Mary Poppins” movie material, could really make the picture.

Chief executive Bob Iger approved, and Marcel was granted access to the studio's archives, including the Travers tapes, which the author insisted on making because she didn't trust Disney on the adaptation of her creation. John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”) was brought in to direct, and in a shrewd bit of casting, one of Hollywood's most likable men, Tom Hanks, agreed to play Disney.

 

While there was a lot of footage of Disney from the TV show he hosted, as Hanks notes, “It was Walt already being Walt,” something of a character he created. The actor received access to some of the Disney family archive through the late Diane Disney Miller, Walt's oldest daughter, who had been a fan of “Mary Poppins” as a child.

Disney was a cultural icon, and there have been numerous books and documentaries that have explored his personality and business practices, with opinions about him landing all over the map. “Saving Mr. Banks” is hardly a incisive portrait of Disney the man, although it shows his toughness and perseverance and does allude to his heavy smoking — not shown on screen for ratings considerations. (He died of lung cancer in 1966.)  

 

But there is no doubt that the man who gave us Mickey Mouse was far more complex than his image. Travers, who died at age 96 in 1996, was, too. The title “Saving Mr. Banks” refers to the father in “Mary Poppins,” whom the Disney people wanted to turn into something of a nasty sort in the movie. The author couldn't understand that. She felt they didn't understand the story, and was already suspicious of the studio's intentions, fearing the Disneyfication of Mary with songs, dances and animation.

“Saving Mr. Banks” also incorporates the story of Travers' own early childhood in Australia and her own difficult relationship with her father, a banker. The film eventually ties some of this loosely together. It's hard to say if Travers would have approved. She was an academic and something of a seeker, pursuing various metaphysical inquiries, including the spiritual teachings of George Gurdjieff; she didn't much cotton to psychoanalysis.

 

She called her relationship with Disney an “uneasy wedlock” and was in Japan studying Zen when the film was being shot, according to Lawson's book. Her main contact during filming was with Andrews, whom she had befriended earlier. Those moments are not shown in “Saving Mr. Banks.”

On the surface, Travers would seem an unlikely candidate to create the much beloved “practically perfect” nanny. 

“She always said, ‘I didn't create her,' ” Thompson says. “In the film she says, ‘She flew in through the window,' and I do understand what she means. Writing is so interesting. I love the phrase that inspiration is the activity of pulling the writing chair up to the table because, in fact, it's only by sitting there and putting in the hours that something will happen.”

 

Thompson says she knows from her own experience that “sometimes something happens and the next day, you don't know who wrote that. You can't remember writing it. That must've been what happened to her,” she says.

The actress-screenwriter has a couple of her own writing projects in the works. One was made into a film. “Effie Gray” is a look at the relationship between Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his teenage bride Effie Gray, played by Dakota Fanning, but Thompson, who is also in the film, doesn't know what is happening with it.

 

“It's one of those experiences that happens sometimes when the production team parts company with the creative team,” she said.

Thompson also wrote the screenplay for the new version of “Annie” being filmed, starring Quvenzhane Wallis of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and she just finished the second draft of the new “Bridget Jones” movie. “I really enjoy writing comedy at the moment.”

In the movie “Mary Poppins,” the character is a no-nonsense nanny who is also pretty and sweet. In Travers' novels, Lawson describes her as “tart and sharp, rude, plain and vain.” For a while, the author managed to reconcile the two. She praised the film upon seeing it, having solved the problem of not being invited to the premiere by showing up in Hollywood and forcing Disney's hand. Later, her opinion supposedly soured, and when she was approached by producer Cameron Mackintosh about a stage musical version in the 1990s, she agreed on the condition that no American-born writers would be involved. Still, her “Mary Poppins” books remain in print, the movie is in many homes, the musical a giant hit, and that is something of a victory.

 

Thompson believes you can't kill characters like Mary “whatever you do to them. That is one of the reasons Mary Poppins survived her journey into Walt Disney's film and remains powerful. She did not lose her essence.”

Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1