Though cute and cuddly as can be, Winnie the Pooh is a child of war, and the creation of this adorable character nearly tore a family apart. This is the backdrop to A.A. Milne’s hit children’s series, according to a new film, Goodbye Christopher Robin.
Directed by Simon Curtis (of My Week with Marilyn fame), and starring big names such as Margot Robbie, Steven Campbell-Moore and Domhnall Gleeson, the film promises to tell an emotional tale that’ll have audiences weeping in their seats.
Set just after World War I, traumatised and shellshocked writer Alan Alexander Milne returns home to his wife and child, Christopher Robin. More or less estranged from his young son, Milne leaves Christopher in the care of an affectionate nanny (Kelly Macdonald), while he tries to readjust to the pleasantries of aristocratic life and his career as a writer. Hearing bombs going off at the pop of every champagne bottle, he channels his energies into writing an anti-war piece, which he hopes will stop his readers ever falling for the folly of battle again.
Unable to concentrate in the hustle and bustle of the capital, Milne uproots his family to the serenity of the Sussex countryside. It’s here he would find inspiration in the most unexpected of places. He and Christopher Robin go walking in the forest one day, and as a way of bonding, they invent innocent fantasies in which all the young boy’s cuddly toys come gleefully into life. The sun-dappled ‘hundred-acre wood’ becomes the new home of Winnie the Pooh (named after a bear in London Zoo), Piglet, Tigger, Kanga, Roo, and of course grumpy Eeyore.
Deciding to publish these stories with the help of his illustrator friend E. H. Shepard, the books bring Milne success he could only dream of. What follows, though, is a sad story of unwanted fame, family breakups, and lost innocence for the young Christopher Robin. Finding himself the centre of a media circus, his childhood is snatched away from him. Forced to participate in interview after interview, the family feel themselves growing apart from each other. Christopher Robin resents his parents for exploiting his childhood, while the personal stories he made with his father are turned into something unrecognisable.
The actual Christopher Robin’s disdain for the books is well-documented, and he claimed that it was the cause for a lot of bullying at school. In one of his autobiographies, he wrote that the use of his name “left [him] nothing but empty fame”. He allegedly also hated how commercialised Winnie the Pooh had become.
The film ends as Christopher Robin grows into a teenager, shadowed by his famous namesake. The bitterness he feels towards the senior Milne’s success is poignantly expressed when he cries, “we’ll see how father likes it when I write poems about him!”
Despite such animosity, when he went away to university, the real-life C. R. Milne followed in the footsteps of his father, and studied maths at Trinity College, Cambridge. But when he went to war in 1942, he distinguished himself independently of the Pooh books, only deepening his dislike of the cuddly bear and his friends. His father sent the original toys that inspired the residents of the Hundred-Acre wood to America, and Christopher was happy to never see them again.
Kanga, Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger © New York Public Library
On his return from serving abroad, he continued to carve out a path for himself, and distanced himself from Pooh – and his parents – in the process. When he married his first cousin in 1948, his mother disliked the match, and their relationship worsened when he moved to picturesque Devon to open a bookshop. “But you’ll have to meet Pooh fans all the time!”, she said, incredulously. In their last few decades of life, they barely spoke to each other.
The bookshop turned out to be a huge success, and was Christopher Robin’s livelihood for many years. He also produced three autobiographies, telling his side of the story, and the problems he encountered growing up. But these works also had a curative power, and helped him to come to terms with who he was. Each pounding of the typewriter was apparently “like a session on the analyst’s couch”.
In his later years, Christopher started to accept his Pooh past. He took part in related activities, such as unveiling a statue of Winnie (the London Zoo bear who inspired Winnie the Pooh), and repairing the bridge his fictional self would play Poohsticks from.
According to the film, Winnie the Pooh was recently voted the top children’s book of all time, beloved by millions. But the private troubles it caused its creator and his young son have been little known – until now.