Pooh Bear, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo are all lovable characters most of us know well from our childhoods. What many people don’t know is that the adorable books are based on author A. A. Milne’s real son Christopher Robin and his stuffed animals. While the trailer of the new film Goodbye Christopher Robin teases a warm and cuddly film, it actually tells the true story of a little boy who felt betrayed by those who should have loved him the most: his parents.
Playwright A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) returned from World War I “shell shocked.” Today, we call the psychological condition post-traumatic stress disorder, but that term didn’t exist at the beginning of the last century. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is a beautiful but shallow socialite who loves fashion, parties and dancing. Though reluctant, she agrees to have a baby to please her husband.
The couple names their son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), but they prefer to call him Billy. Daphne doesn’t seem to enjoy motherhood and eagerly hands the boy over to his governess, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), who luckily adores the child.
After the Milnes move to the country for a quieter life, Daphne, missing her glamorous social life, gets fed up and takes off to London for two weeks. At the same time, Olive has to leave to attend to her dying mother. Little Billy is left alone with his emotionally distant dad.
The result is surprisingly wonderful — for both father and son. They spend their days playing in the woods. Billy brings his stuffed animals and he and his dad make up stories about their adventures.
Milne is so inspired after spending time with his son, he writes the Pooh books based on his son and his stuffed animals. While it sounds like a decision made out of love, it didn’t exactly end up feeling that way to Billy.
Once the book was published, it became a huge success. As it flew off store shelves around the world, an unexpected dynamic took place.
Readers everywhere wanted to meet the real Christopher Robin, the boy at the center of this seemingly magical world. Thrust into the spotlight by his parents and publishers, Billy was paraded around for the media, not understanding why everyone kept calling him Christopher.
But all the little boy wanted to do was play a game of Poohsticks in the woods with his father.
With the media attention all around the world focused on his son, Milne grew jealous. He was the writer, after all, and he began to resent his son. When he started avoiding Billy, the young child became confused and hurt. The two weeks of bliss he spent playing and bonding with his father now seemed like just dream. His life became about spending long days meeting unfamiliar children and adults surrounded by cameras, forced to wear the outfit depicted in the book.
Olive finally stood up to his parents, saying the boy needed to be protected, not treated like a show pony. But his parents didn’t appreciate her uppity attitude, and a rift is formed. When Olive’s boyfriend asked her to marry him, she had no choice but to leave the family. Billy was heartbroken.
Milne wrote four Winnie the Pooh books, but agreed to stop writing them at the request of Billy, who was constantly bullied and beat up throughout his schooling. The other boys didn’t appreciate the media darling and wanted to put him in his place. Billy was forced to learn how to box to protect himself.
What’s so surprising about this story is that the Winnie the Pooh books still continue to bring joy to children almost 100 years after they were written. Surely, it seems, only a kind and loving soul could have written them. But looking through a modern parenting lens, the Milnes were rotten parents. At the time, however, it was normal for wealthy British children to be kept at arm’s length. It seems the success of the books created a situation neither parent expected or knew how to handle. Could they have done better? Yes. Were they self-absorbed? Yes. But it seems unlikely they set out to purposefully hurt their son.
In 1974, Billy published the first of three autobiographical books. The Enchanted Places details what his life was like as a child. He never took any money associated with the Pooh franchise and eventually gave his treasured stuffed animals to the books’ editor. They are now on display at the New York Public Library.
Christopher Robin “Billy” Milne died in his sleep in 1996. He was 75.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is an unflinching look at a dysfunctional family that will have you in tears. Newcomer Will Tilston as Billy will steal your heart and make you want to pull out those Pooh books to read again to your kids.
Goodbye Christopher Robin opens in limited release on Oct. 13.