J. M. Barrie’s The Adventures of Peter Pan ends with the words, "and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless." It’s a romantic picture of childhood, but not a sentimental one. Somewhere under the surface in Peter Pan is something cold and dark, as in most true fairy tales.
To readers whose only previous familiarity with the character is the nonthreatening 1953 Disney adaptation, the last word of Barrie’s text may seem strangely harsh and dissonant — as, indeed, would the real ending of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, or the last scene in any complete retelling of Robin Hood’s adventures, to those who knew only the Disneyfied version.
One of the functions of fairy tales is to reflect in an imaginative way truths that, were they presented literally, children might not be ready for, but which they can on some level apprehend and assimilate in this form, and be in some way more prepared emotionally for life. Fairy tales help children grasp what life expects of them, what dangers, adversities, and opportunities they will face. From them children can begin to learn the prudence to avoid the dangers, the fortitude to face the adversities, and the enterprise to seize the opportunities.
J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a modern fairy story, a literary effort of a single writer rather than a work of folklore. Even so, it has resonated with generations of children and adults in the way of a traditional fairy tale, and in it the same dynamic is at work. Like many fairy tales, it’s about the transition from childhood to adulthood, but unlike most fairy tales it’s a tribute to childhood — both to its magic and cruelty, but also to childhood as what it truly is: a preparation for adulthood, for adult responsibilities and roles.
Pan, Barrie relates, was the cockiest and vainest of boys; and the Neverland, which Barrie tells us in so many words is the map of a child’s inner world, is a magical place, but also a rather heartless place. The reason, in both cases, is quite simple: There are no parents in Neverland, and in particular no mothers. In fact, no grownups, except for childish imaginings of pirates and Indians, who are no real grownups at all.
Yet eventually even Peter and the Lost Boys want someone to tell them stories and tuck them in at night; and for a time Wendy acts as their surrogate mother, modeling the role of an adult woman and mother. But Wendy understands something Peter doesn’t: If she is to be a mother, someone must be the father; she cannot be a mother without first becoming a wife.
Wendy insists that Peter be the husband and father (of course Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily have the same feelings for him). Peter agrees to Wendy’s condition only reluctantly, and with protestations that it’s only play-acting. His real feelings for Wendy, he declares, are "those of a devoted son." Herein the intractable tragedy of Peter Pan — and all who refuse to accept the burden of responsiblity that comes with adulthood; herein the true answer to the question "Boy, why are you crying?"
The two best-known screen versions of Peter Pan, the much-loved Disney version and the almost equally beloved musical starring Mary Martin, do a bit more than scratch the surface of Barrie’s nursery tale, but only a bit. Two lesser-known but superior renditions, Cathy Rigby’s delightful 2000 restaging of the Martin musical and the enchanting 1924 silent adaptation, go rather deeper, and deserve a wider audience than they have gotten to date.
Now comes a lavish, big-budget adaptation from director P. J.
Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding; Muriel’s Wedding),
which shoots for the whole works, and winds up nailing somewhere
from 70 to 80 percent of Barrie’s story. Breaking from tradition,
Hogan eschews musical numbers, casts a boy (Jeremy Sumpter,
Frailty) rather than a petite woman in the title role, and
confronts the darker themes in Barrie’s tale
As with Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a Down-Under director has reworked an older British novelist’s fantasies with an emphasis on hyped-up action, effects, and production values. Also like Jackson, Hogan generally gets away with it. His Neverland combines an endearingly storybook quality (the bouncing on clouds looks just exactly as it should) with a modern action aesthetic (Hook’s crocodile has become a post-Jurassic Park predator of almost dragonish proportions).
But where Jackson established his world so well with his lovingly evoked Hobbiton of the Shire, Hogan seems awkward and uncomfortable with the early scenes in London and the nursery. He lets us glimpse Peter too soon, before the stage has been set, and never quite captures the whimsy of a world in which a dog could be a nursemaid and an unattainable kiss hover in the right-hand region of a mother’s sweetly mocking mouth.
Another misstep is the characterization of Mr. Darling (Jason Isaacs, Lucius Malfoy in the last Harry Potter film), who’s strangely diffident and tongue-tied rather than blustery and precipitous. But Mrs. Darling (Olivia Williams, The Sixth Sense) helps anchor the London scenes, and even displays the respect for her husband of which he is so proud in the book, explaining gently to their children how courageous their father is in his daily life, even if it’s not the kind of courage required to fight off pirates or Indians.
Once Peter enters the story, Hogan seems on surer ground. As the first boy to play Pan onscreen, Sumpter has an impish grin and an enigmatic gaze that works well; he can throw Wendy his most charming smile and yet still seem credibly confused and frustrated by her inexorable feelings for him. His only major drawback is his grating American accent; wasn’t there an English boy who was up to the role?
Newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood is English, and she’s Sumpter’s equal, fascinated but not overawed by the magical flying boy. And Isaacs, doing the usual double duty of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, is much better in the latter role; his Hook is less foppish than usual, but manages to convey the same sense of threadbare breeding, and it’s a quite reasonable interpretation of the character.
Hogan does quite well with the scenes with Wendy playing mother to the lost boys (the bit with the medicine is inspired), though Peter takes too readily to the father-figure role. And the big "believing in fairies" scene, corresponding to the moment in the play when audiences are meant to clap to affirm their "belief" in fairies and thus save Tink’s life, comes off surprisingly well.
In the end, what keeps this Peter Pan from being a great adaptation of Barrie’s story is that it is, finally, too self-aware. As I said above, the whole point of a fairy tale is to present in imaginative form what cannot be said openly, at least not yet. A fairy tale must be about something, but it must not, in a sense, know what it is about. Hogan’s Peter Pan does know.
Specifically, Captain Hook knows — and this alters the character’s whole dynamic in the story. The only reason Peter can beat Hook is that Peter is a child’s idea of magical childhood, and Hook is a child’s idea of grown-up malevolence. The moment Hook can psychoanalyze Peter, he becomes a real grown-up, confronting in Peter the shadow of his own lost youth. No fair.
There’s also a significant kiss scene that treads too close to the heart of the story, especially in how the effects of the kiss are depicted. In the book, and in previous screen versions, there’s a moment when Peter expresses his bewilderment at what exactly it is that Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily all want to be to him, but Wendy can’t enlighten him: "It isn’t for a lady to tell." That’s as explicit as the story should get. (Compare to the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Gandalf says "I can put it no plainer than to say that Bilbo was meant to find the ring, and not by its maker." It must not be put any plainer, or fantasy becomes transparent allegory.)
Hogan veers over the line, in doing so creating what amounts to as much a commentary on Peter Pan as an adaptation of it. It’s an interesting, enjoyable commentary, and fans of Peter Pan may enjoy it as I did, though something has been lost. Parents may even enjoy watching it with older children (the action is probably too intense for the younger set), though if it were up to me I’d make everyone watch either the Cathy Rigby or at least the silent version before seeing this one. Better yet, I’d make them read Barrie.
Hogan doesn’t follow Barrie’s story to the end: We don’t see Wendy grown up and married with a daughter of her own, and Peter’s hurt and bewilderment at finding her in this state, and Wendy’s melancholy that it is now her daughter’s turn to go to Neverland with Peter. But he doesn’t shy away from the tragedy of Peter at the window watching Jane, her brothers, and even the lost boys welcomed into "the one joy from which he must be for ever barred," that of home, family, and parental love. It’s an interesting if flawed tribute to all that is "gay and innocent and heartless" in Barrie’s enduring story.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.