A story about a First World War veteran, shell-shocked from the trenches, hardly sounds like the backdrop for a man who brought us the beloved fictional children's character, Winnie-the-Pooh. But best-selling author A A Milne – the focus of a new film Goodbye Christopher Robin – witnessed death and destruction long before he envisaged a honey-loving bear plundering beehives in the Hundred Acre Wood. Like so many fellow soldiers, The Great War left him torn apart.
"That was the thing that drew me in," says Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Milne. When the Irish actor read Milne's 1939 autobiography It's Too Late Now – published five years after his anti-war essay Peace With Honour – he was surprised to find how little he spoke about his wartime experiences. "He doesn't really talk about it. He mentions briefly someone getting killed. He mostly talks about what a wonderful childhood he had and the rest of it, he skips over. There's something going on there."
Milne's own issues with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder were not the only unusual elements of his story. "He could be quite cutting as a character and quite brutal with people," says Gleeson, "but then he did love his son." However, his relationship with Christopher Robin – the inspiration for the boy who befriends Winnie-the-Pooh – was far from trouble-free.
The real Christopher Robin became a publicity tool for Milne. “He created something for his son, that made him better, made the world better and damaged his son deeply,” says Gleeson. But whether it was being bullied by other kids or losing his own identity as fans of the books wanted to meet him, Christopher Robin resented his fame. “That’s so sad,” adds Gleeson. “The one person you were trying to cheer up and be generous towards ends up paying the price for everybody else getting that out of it.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin is not the first time filmmakers have broached the subject of children's authors and their volatile private lives. On the surface, Saving Mr Banks (2013) sees Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convince P L Travers (Emma Thompson) to sign over the film rights to her beloved tale of a magical nanny, Mary Poppins; but it's the flashbacks to her youth that really provide the emotional ballast.
With an alcoholic father and a suicidal mother enduring a strained marriage, it's little wonder that Travers – or Helen Goff, as she was then – would pen a story about a fantasy childhood. As Saving Mr Banks's director John Lee Hancock put it, Travers was perfect movie fodder. "She was a complex and fascinating person. She could be at one point completely closed off and the next very open; at one point clipped and the next sensual. She didn't fit any one archetype."
Similarly, Marc Forster's Finding Neverland (2003) – the story of Scottish author J M Barrie – is mired in turmoil. Enduring his own marital difficulties which ended in divorce, Barrie (Johnny Depp) befriends the Llewelyn Davis family, whose five boys inspire his play Peter Pan. The film is haunted by the spectre of death, however, when the boys' mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet) dies of an unspecified terminal illness (in reality, it was cancer).
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Yet Forster's film avoided digging deeper into Barrie's personal life (while Piers Dudgeon's book Neverland explored issues of sexual impotency and psychological abuse). Perhaps it's no surprise to see Hollywood sanitise the more colourful elements of writers, even if it's what drove them to create. Take Miss Potter (2006), which starred Renée Zellweger as Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit. A sugary biopic that largely sucked out the drama in Potter's real existence, the aim of the film was clearly to conjure a twee romance.
Potter's life was far more interesting and unique than the film, directed by Chris Noonan, ever let on. Living in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, at a time when women had few opportunities for education, her study of fungi led to her being widely respected in the field of mycology. She later became interested in breeding and raising sheep, and also in land conservation (when she died, her estate was left to the British National Trust). And yet little of this makes it into the film.
Fortunately, most filmmakers seem to recognise why audiences are fascinated by such authors. Currently in development is an as-yet untitled film about Roald Dahl, with Hugh Bonneville set to play the man behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. Said to focus on his marriage to Oscar-winning actress Patricia Neal, it also delves into the mysterious creative process. "People always want to know about how creators create and where it comes from," says Bonneville. "As [poet Philip] Larkin says, happiness writes white. Tension and conflict are often the best creative source." A A Milne would certainly agree.
Goodbye Christopher Robin opens in cinemas on Thursday