By Shanee Edwards
Most of us grew up with the Winnie-the-Pooh books that feature Pooh Bear, Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and Roo. What many people don’t know is that the adorable books are based on the author AA Milne’s real son Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals.
The new film Goodbye Christopher Robin, written by British screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Hillary and Jackie, Millions) from a story by Simon Vaughn, is a powerful yet surprising story of war, loss of innocence and the creation of some of the most beloved children’s books of all time.
The screenplay for Goodbye Christopher Robin is written in a circular structure. The film starts with a postwoman delivering a telegram to the Milne home. Because it’s the 1940s, we know the telegram can’t be good news. We later learn that the adult Christopher Robin is missing in action from World War II and is presumed dead. When screenwriter Boyce was doing his research, he knew the screenplay must begin with that telegram.
“When I first read Ann Thwaite’s biography of Milne, she didn’t make much of that incident but it really jumped out at me. As a father, it just punched me in the stomach. I can’t imagine anything worse. But as a writer, about two seconds later, I thought, ‘Well, this is good!’ Because you’ve got two story points that are hugely emotional.”
To be clear, the two “hugely emotional” plot points are AA Milne getting the letter about his son being M.I.A at the start of the film and the discovery of Christopher Robin’s actual fate in act three. Boyce had a specific reason for structuring the screenplay this way.
“In the middle of the film, I wanted the story to pause and just float. If the film has any virtues at all, it’s that lovely section where Milne and Christopher Robin are just in the woods playing and they find a frog or they’re playing a game and nothing is happening. If you want to do that, you have to find two points of tension that will hold that moment together. It’s almost why I decided to write the film – that was my take, straight away. There have been a few people who thought I made that up, but it’s really true and it was the thing that excited me from the beginning.”
It’s during “the middle of the film” (or act two) that Milne and his six-year old son spend two weeks alone together, playing in the woods and making up stories about Christopher Robin’s toys.
This was a rare, emotionally freeing experience for Milne who suffered from PTSD after fighting in World War I. The playtime with his son allowed him to break through his writer’s block and develop the idea for the first Winnie-the-Pooh book. But after he started writing the Pooh book, he suddenly stopped spending time with Christopher Robin, baffling and hurting the little boy. Here’s what Boyce thinks happened.
“Milne was ambushed really, surprised by how close he got to Christopher Robin, and what wonderful, special times they had together.”
In essence, it made him feel vulnerable and that scared him.
“One of the things that’s difficult for a writer and soldier who’s suffered PTSD, is being present. Post traumatic stress makes people feel preoccupied and removed and I think the business of writing means you’re often preoccupied and removed. I think what happened to those two was that Milne was suddenly very, very present and felt love for the first time. That’s the beauty of it, the glory, the magical thing that happens and the tragedy is he didn’t know what to do with that. He just reverted to writing which is fabulous for all of us but very difficult for the little boy.”
Luckily, Christopher Robin has a loving, nurturing nanny to look after him. Olive (Kelly Macdonald) dotes on the boy but not even that lasts for very long.
There are many stories in this movie and Boyce decided to include many different characters’ viewpoints – something we’re usually told not to do.
“Sometimes it’s Christopher Robin’s story, sometimes it’s Milne’s, sometimes it’s the nanny’s – it does play fast and loose. We’re taught to privilege one particular character, but actually in life, particularly in a family, one of the richest things that happens is that you get knocked out of the center of your own story for a little bit. We go around thinking, ‘Well, this is my life,’ but actually, you may be the prologue to someone else’s life, a chapter in someone else’s life. And that’s the sad thing that happens. Christopher Robin thinks he’s in a story about him and his dad. His dad thinks he’s in a story about his creative career, in which the boy is just a chapter. The idea that, ‘Oh, this story moved on without me,’ seemed like a legitimate thing to put into the film.”
The movie has already opened in the UK, and Boyce admits he went to go see it at his local cinema.
“Watching it I thought, well technically, this is all wrong, but everybody’s crying so it must be okay,” he said with a laugh.
While the trailer for Goodbye Christopher Robin makes the film look like a warm and fuzzy feel-good story, it’s actually heartbreaking. I cried – no sobbed – for a large portion of it. Good to know I’m not alone.
For Boyce, the most difficult part of writing the screenplay was the character of Daphne (Margot Robbie).
“Daphne was quite a hard character to write because we’re incredibly attracted to her, she was very charismatic, people did what she wanted. It was a different time and I think if she had lived a few years later, she would have been the kind of woman who went to work breaking Nazi codes or joined special operations because she just felt strong and invulnerable. Milne was obviously intoxicated with her but she’s obviously a nightmare mother.”
It’s also not a role that many young actresses are willing to take on. Luckily, Margot Robbie was game.
“I respect Margo [Robbie] for wanting to take on such an unsympathetic character and finding some kind of sympathy in it. In the end, isn’t that what art or filmmaking, telling stories is about – finding empathy? She found a way of making us understand Daphne a little bit.”
Goodbye Christopher Robin opens in limited release Oct. 13.