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The Writer's Love for a Character
My sister treated me to a showing of Saving Mr. Banks this past weekend, and I loved the movie. I am continuing to ponder a couple of themes that relate specifically to writers, since the premise of the film was that P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, was reluctant to give up the rights to Walt Disney, who ultimately made the film which starred Julie Andrews. Two things came to the forefront in the film: that writers love their characters "like family," and that one's intellectual property is, when it comes down to it, one's most precious possession.
Every writer might dream of seeing his or her work on the big screen, but along with that dream would go the dread that something might go wrong. The ill-fated movie V.I. Warshawski did no justice to Sara Paretsky's elegant and exciting novels, but crammed the books' plots together in a way that was not satisfying to her loyal readers. Sue Grafton has famously refused to ever let Kinsey Millhone become a character on the screen, and has told her children that they may not allow it, either.
It's not a surprise that writers are fiercely loyal to their characters. First of all, these literary people are born from the author's mind, as Athena sprang from the head of Zeus. J.K. Rowling says that Harry Potter was fully formed when he came to her, and on her website she writes that, "I had never been so excited about an idea before." And there's the crux of the matter: writers fall in love with the act of creation, which is itself a mystery, and their relationship with each character becomes a new love affair. To betray that character is to betray a loved one, which is the dilemma of P.L. Travers in the movie. Walt Disney even says he understands, since he once faced the same conundrum with Mickey Mouse.
So why sell out at all? Well—for money. Writers struggle just as all artists struggle. Everyone knows that J.K. Rowling is the exception, not the rule, and even she couldn't have anticipated just how well Harry would do in the literary world. In the case of P.L. Travers, she muses, "I would like to keep my house," as a reason that she might consider going to the dreaded Los Angeles to meet with people she is sure she will not like.
But I think many writers would agree that the dream of money is only a dream which would allow them to write in peace (and perhaps luxury) for the rest of their lives. Writers like to write, and the world often doesn't want to let them do so, since the world demands that people work to pay their bills.
Walt Disney, as portrayed by Tom Hanks, is weirdly benevolent and never angry, which I don't believe for a second, and of course P.L. Travers is represented as an odd crank who needs to just get along. Luckily Emma Thompson gives her dimension, which makes the film a moving examination of the writer/producer relationship.
Hollywood may be the dream that many writers have for their novels today, but I doubt much has changed in the way authors feel about their characters. Those people on the page are intimately known to their creators, and their creators won't entrust them to just anyone.
***This piece originally appeared on Poe's Deadly Daughters and was republished here with permission.***
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