“Authorial intent” is one of those phrases I loved as a graduate student in literature. Is that a shockingly nerdy proclamation only serving to back up Liz Lemon’s disgusted labeling of graduate students as “the worst”? Yes!
But authorial intent and unreliable narrators are some of those literary subjects that seem to be continually misconstrued—look at any banned books list and you’ll recognize novels that were written to criticize something and are then (often wrongfully) dismissed for supporting it.
One of the most obvious examples of this is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which has been taken off curriculums for decades for its depictions of slavery and violence, even though the brutality of that subject matter is precisely the point of the book. The question of why an author wrote a book, what their initial intentions were, and whether the reactions of the audience hold more primacy and urgency than the original creator’s motivations are questions that are integral to how we understand literature, and any form of pop culture, really.
All of that is a preface for saying: What in the actual hell, Goodbye Christopher Robin? One of the first allegedly feel-good movies of the year-end cinematic season, Goodbye Christopher Robin was released wide last week, with a marketing campaign that played up the “untold history” of author A. A. Milne, his son Christopher Robin, and how the story of Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Wood was crafted. It’s glossy and beautiful in that British biopic way, with exceptional flapper-style costumes for Margot Robbie and a solid performance at its center from the omnipresent-in-2017 Domhnall Gleason as Alan Alexander.
The film’s story of parental pressures, familial estrangement, and ultimate forgiveness and redemption, all in the traumatic shadow of World War I and in that anxious time before World War II, is pretty much engineered for tears from its audience. There was sniffling all around me at the early screening I attended, and the common refrain as I walked out was “I never knew that!” In the years since Milne’s four stories about Winnie the Pooh set the children’s literature world on fire, we’ve become accustomed to the chubby yellow bear, Disney-engineered version of this story, and so much of Goodbye Christopher Robin is shocking: that Milne wrote the stories while suffering through post-traumatic stress disorder; that little Christopher Robin became increasingly agitated that a version of his childhood that was no longer private or unique to him existed in these books; that a major falling out occurred between Christopher Robin and his parents after he went to boarding school and suffered relentless teasing and bullying about his fame. “That bear made my life a misery,” Christopher Robin says. You can imagine Piglet quivering his little heart out at the awfulness of all that.
The filmmakers of Goodbye Christopher Robin are relying on the element of surprise (assuming that American audiences don’t know much about the Milne family) and on the undeniable sadness of the material (Christopher Robin volunteering for World War II to get away from his family is harsh) to gobble your cash and fuel your tears. And the inherent hypocrisy at the movie’s center is that the heart-warming ending, where Christopher Robin returns home from World War II, reconciles with his formerly distant, now weeping mother, and has a lengthy sit-down with his father in which he forgives Milne for monetizing his childhood and for essentially using his identity without his permission to get rich, doesn’t seem to have happened. The emotional core of Goodbye Christopher Robin is probably an exaggeration, and at worst, a total untruth.
It’s curious: If you read interviews with biographer Ann Thwaite, who wrote the book on which Goodbye Christopher Robin is based, it doesn’t seem like anyone is actually asking, “Hey, so did that Milne family lovefest happen, or nah?” She doesn’t talk about it with Picturehouse Spotlight or with People. She discusses wanting to dig deeper than most of the resentful quotes from Christopher Robin that have gained attention, such as his “love-hate relationship with my fictional namesake that has continued to this day” and the damning shade toward his father, “my father had got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son,” but did father and son reconnect for the purpose of forgiveness, the one scene that the movie’s entire forgiveness arc hinges on? I’m not sure. I don’t know. And if you believe one of the most-publicized interviews with Christopher Robin, in which he talks about a continued estrangement between him and his parents after his marriage, then it seems even more unlikely.
And that’s extra disingenuous and icky given that the movie makes it a point to encourage our judgment of Milne and frown upon his use of his son to sell books, but then itself uses a manufactured presentation of the Milne family pain to sell movie tickets. Which takes us back to authorial intent: Milne’s original intention may have been to write a whimsical, fantastical story about a boy and his bear that would soothe Brits after the heavy losses of World War I, but what ended up happening was a fame that engulfed his son and ruined his childhood. He made his son into a character, and then tweaked that character for his own ends. And that is, in fact, what Goodbye Christopher Robin is also doing! It is taking the Milnes and inserting a focus-group-approved ending into a story that was far more complicated than the version we’re given, and implying that as the truth. It is making the exact same mistake as A. A. Milne and refusing to acknowledge the grossness of that. It is a hypocrisy that is honestly kind of amazing in how much it fully craps all over your beloved childhood memories of Winnie the Pooh.
The movie isn’t setting the box office on fire or anything, but I could totally see it hanging around in theaters through Thanksgiving as a “family-friendly” pick that is slightly less derivative than Daddy’s Home 2 or A Bad Moms Christmas, two sequels that prove we are, in fact, living in the worst timeline. But the lack of self-awareness and the duplicity exhibited by Goodbye Christopher Robin is frustrating, too—certainly not as much as anything Mark Wahlberg will do in Daddy’s Home 2, but disappointing and off-putting nevertheless.