A Disney Story, or A Better Story
Last month Tom wrote of “telling the better story.” He spoke of “God’s alternative narrative,” which values forgiveness over winning and community over control (see Gil Rendle’s Doing the Math of Mission). Tom then described three beautiful examples of churches in Los Ranchos who have chosen to live by God’s new story.
I want to add to the idea of a better story. The better story can only be better if it corresponds with God’s good news.
Why should Presbyterians in Southern California care? Because we live in the shadow of Hollywood. The “Industry” excels at story. And Disney Studios—considering its possession of the Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel worlds on top of its own material—is perhaps the most influential storyteller of all.
A Story of Redemption
The Mouse House laid out its definition of a better story in “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013). “Banks” depicts how Walt Disney persuaded P.L. Travers to adapt Mary Poppins to the screen. According to the movie, their clash came about because both Travers and Disney saw their own fathers in Mr. Banks, and sought to ease their childhood pain through the retelling. By the movie’s climax, Disney has realized as much. He appeals to the struggle of her heart:
“Now we all have our sad tales, but don’t you want to finish the story, let it all go, and have a life that isn’t dictated by the past?…Life is a harsh sentence to lay down for yourself. Give her to me, Mrs. Travers. Trust me with your precious Mary Poppins. I won’t disappoint you. I swear every time a person walks into a movie house…they will see George Banks being saved…George Banks will be redeemed…maybe not in life but in imagination. This is what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
I have never seen a better credo for Disney. Consider any Disney adaptation of a traditional fairy tale. Storytelling promises salvation from the bleakness of the past. It offers redemption and a chance to start fresh. Hope comes through a new narrative.
At What Cost
The sentiment is beautiful—nearly enough to be persuasive. But in a bitter irony, “Saving Mr. Banks” perfectly embodies its own philosophy. For through the power of imagination, the movie rewrites what was otherwise a very painful relationship. In so doing, it does violence to the wishes and memory of Mrs. Travers.
“Saving Mr. Banks” does recreate the production battles over “Mary Poppins.” But it ends with Disney as savior. The fictitious Travers weeps tears of release, letting go the pain of her childhood. The real author, on the other hand, was so unhappy with the adaptation that she denied Disney the rights to her other books, and even insisted in her will that no Americans be included in future stage adaptations.
Redemption and Grief
Disney-style storytellers can write the pain out of life. They can rework, reframe, recast, and reshape it until the pain is almost forgotten. But they cannot redeem it.
For some types of grief, a new perspective is enough. Turning our focus from what we have lost to what we still have opens us to fresh gratitude. From gratitude spring joy and faith and hope.
But other grief requires true redemption—the kind that comes through telling and hearing and responding to the story we remember each year at Eastertide.
God so loved the world that God became a human being—one who loved, suffered, died and was buried. And then this human being rose again and ascended so that the Holy Spirit could be sent to heal us in God’s good time.
God has done this, not by rewriting truth until it is less painful, but by writing a new chapter, one built on love.
That’s a better story. It’s both a truer one and a deeper one. It offers to redeem the pain of life at a level that Hollywood never can.
Somewhere along the Way—