Anthony Breznican
December 20, 2013 AT 05:00 AM EST

There’s no denying the rough edges of P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, who died at age 96 in 1996. Fearsome and sharp-tongued, she tried to wrest control of the 1964 Mary Poppins film from Walt Disney — a rousing battle brought to the big screen in Saving Mr. Banks, costarring Tom Hanks as Uncle Walt. She even enshrined her sourness by insisting that her conversations at the House of Mouse be taped for posterity. (Stick around for the movie’s end credits and you’ll get to hear some original recordings of Travers bossing around the Disney gang.)

But instead of making her character come off as a monster, Emma Thompson, 54, lets us see how pain from the distant past — like Travers’ losing her father at a young age — can harden a heart.

“She thought [Disney] was taking [Mary Poppins] away and would turn her into some dreadful, chirping cheery person,” says Thompson, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role. “The Disney version of her story was anathema to her. It was, as far as she was concerned, sentimentalized and sugary. Famously, she went up to Walt Disney on the night of the premiere and said, ‘Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do.’ And he said, ‘The boat’s sailed, Pam!'”

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