This Sunday, January 18th, was Winnie-the-Pooh Day. It is the day on which the author of the beloved stories was born. And today is the best day of the year to remember or learn for the first time that Winnie-the-Pooh was originally a perfectly lovely and delicate story quite distinct from the general awareness of the “adventures” as reinterpreted by Disney from the early 1970s to the present day.
I recently saw the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which is about the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), handing over the film rights to her beloved books to the same Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). Travers resisted Disney’s courting for 20 years before she found herself nearly broke; and at the insistence of her lawyer, she flew from England to California to give him one last chance to win her trust. (The movie is especially fun for anglophiles like myself who will relish all of the very British reactions to some bits of American garishness—for instance, a giant platter of Jell-O).
When she arrives at her hotel room, she finds it stuffed with plush Disney creatures, mostly the iconic Mickey Mouse in several sizes. Among them she picks up a Pooh Bear, lifts him up to her face and says, frowningly, “Poor A.A. Milne.”
I lit up with a loud, “Ha!” at that moment because I found it very clever and it gave me the idea for this post. Disney had gained to rights to Pooh in 1961 (and dropped the hyphens in the name), the same year in which Saving Mr. Banks takes place. And 52 years later when I saw the movie in December, my four-year-old had just discovered the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories complete with Ernest H. Shepard’s subtle and beautiful illustrations. I also scored the excellent audio recordings of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner performed by Judi Dench, Stephen Frye, and others. These are just delightful. You can purchase them right now with those links. I don’t care if you don’t have kids, you will love them. They will transport you to the sunny moments of your own childhood. I can sit for hours with my son listening and laughing without ever growing tired of it. (He now says “Bother!” with a British accent all the time and it’s awesome.) Having this world of Pooh fresh in my mind, I knew exactly what P.L. Travers meant with that sorrowful sigh. And it was precisely what she feared would be her own fate as expressed in her shout at Walt Disney, “I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons!” What she feared most was that her own vision of Mary Poppins would be overshadowed by Disney’s and of course that is what happened. I certainly didn’t know that there were books (illustrated by Ernest Shepard’s daughter Mary, I discovered behind the Julie Andrews/Dick van Dyke phenomenon. Now, Saving Mr. Banks is going a long way towards changing that, thankfully. But since there may not be a Saving Edward Bear or somesuch on the big screen, I hope to make a similar contribution here.
I watched a documentary called The Making of Mary Poppins and a more recent BBC one about P.L. Travers in preparation for this. I also checked out several academic books on Pooh which made the librarian laugh and puzzle over who might want these and why. Some of it was quite good (Recovering Arcadia) while others were just sort of disturbing (The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh). I also spent a rather soul-crushing evening watching YouTube videos of the most recent Disney adaptations of Pooh and friends. Fun fact: if you type “Winnie the Pooh” into a Google Image search (or just click that) your retinas with be scorched by bulbous, glowing, cutesyness. All of that research added up to one sentence from Dick van Dyke in the first documentary: “Walt knew what children would like. He never asked the question of what parents like their children to see.”
Yes. That is totally it. Walt Disney loved Jell-O and he loved slapstick. He loved sentimentality and he loved silliness. He loved dancing penguin daydreams and so he probably would have loved dancing Heffalump nightmares (he died before The Many Adventures came out in 1977). P.L. Travers said his Mary Poppins, “Like chalk to cheese is the film to the book.” And I know for a fact that kids like to eat chalk. Sure—chalk can be a lot of fun. But if you eat chalk, it won’t nourish you. That’s basically how I feel about all of this: the original Winnie-the-Pooh truly nourishes—emotionally, spiritually, and otherwise. I’m not meaning to hate on Mr. Disney. I have thousands of Disney-themed memories; but most of them have the same feeling as shooting bottle rockets or eating Skittles. Milne & Shepard remind me of discovering a secret crop of cat tails by a pond or drinking chicken noodle soup when I was sick. To put it in the words of Pooh Bear himself, the original is a “Sustaining Book.”
There are many ways in which the books and the cartoons differ; but I’ll only focus here on what I think is the most important one: the role of Christopher Robin. In A.A. Milne: The Man Behind Winnie-the-Pooh, Ann Thwait explains why the little boy is portrayed as perfect (worth quoting at length):
He is seen in relation to Pooh and the other animals. Pooh and Piglet are the children and the boy himself takes on the role of the adult. The listening or reading child identifies with the superior strength and power he sometimes resents in the adults around him, however much he loves his parents. Christopher Robin is always resourceful and competent; he is the child as hero. […] It is Christopher Robin who reads sustaining books at moments of crisis, who comes to the rescue, who will make sure that no harm comes to the kidnapped Roo and protects the animals from the teeth of fierce things. (‘If Christopher Robin is coming, I don’t mind anything.’) He dries Eeyore’s tail after its immersion in the river and does all of the comforting and useful things that parents do. The boy is brave and godlike to the toys, just as the loving parent is to a small child.
Just occasionally, as any adult does too, Christopher Robin reveals his frailty, his feet of clay, and this surely adds to his appeal. He has forgotten what the North Pole looks like. (‘I did know once…’) It is Pooh who is childlike [I would use childish], egotistical, hungry, alternately boastful and self-deprecating, occasionally managing to be brave and unselfish, accepting things without really understanding them, as children so often have to accept ununderstandable explanations. The listening or reading child recognizes himself in Pooh and recognizes himself as he longs to be, as he thinks he will be, in Christopher Robin. He recognizes and enjoys the wit and tenderness of the books.
I think this juxtaposition of Christopher Robin and Pooh is very important modeling for the child who encounters these stories. And it makes them all the more interesting to the parents, as well. Unfortunately, Disney changes this dynamic by turning Christopher Robin into one more child in the Hundred Acre Wood. A good example can be found in Milne’s very first chapter, “In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees, and the Stories Begin”. In search of honey, Pooh attempts to outsmart the bees with some help from Christopher Robin. The only indication that the bees are really bothering Pooh is that he says “ow!” a few times. But in the Disney version, the bees form an angry army and attack both the bear and the boy. In Recovering Arcadia, Professor Paula T. Connolly points out that the serious problem here is that:
The child who seems to offer protection in Milne’s Forest has his facade of power utterly shattered here as he, too, must flee the bees and hide in a mud pond to escape their sting. This is not a world in which he seems to reign, but rather one from which he, too, must guard himself.
Losing the Godlike figure in the Disney adaptation of these stories is a sad misfortune; and I feel it cheats the child out of a fuller, richer tale of childhood innocence and wonder which can be found in the books. I hope that you’ll treat yourself and/or your family to the original boy, bear, and his friends this Winnie-the-Pooh Day. And join me in wishing A.A. Milne, in the words of pedantic yet loveable Owl,
HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA
Editor’s note: This article first appeared on the author’s blog, Through a Glass Brightly, and is republished here with kind permission.