PETER PAN – Overview: The short version

(Here’s my first Overview – a detailed look at a ‘classic’ book, including it’s historical context and how it’s changed through the years in various versions and media. I had thought to publish Overviews as simple posts, but this one has turned out so, um, voluminous that I think I will put it up as a page instead (ie. accessible through the menu at the top under “Overviews”, or here. Below is a Short Version, for those who have neither time nor patience with obsessive research…)

illustration by Mabel Lucie Attwell

“Every child grows up… except one.”



A mysterious boy named Peter Pan flies in the Darling family’s nursery window and entices Wendy, John and Michael to go with him to a magical place called Neverland. With the help of a little pixie dust from a fairy named Tinker Bell, they are able to fly away with him and encounter the real (yet deadly) land of their imaginations and dreams – a land where they never have to grow up. After many adventures there Wendy convinces her brothers that they must return to their anxious parents. Peter’s entire band of Lost Boys have enjoyed having a mother (Wendy) so much that they decide to go with them to the real world. Peter alone stays behind – he thinks parents and growing up is terribly overrated. As they exit the hideout, however, the children are captured by the evil Captain Hook and his pirates. Tinker Bell prevents Peter from drinking the poison Hook has left for him, and Peter rushes to rescue the others and do battle with the Captain. The pirates are vanquished and Hook is eaten by a crocodile. Peter returns the children to their nursery window, where their parents and dog Nana await. Peter refuses to stay, he prefers to remain a boy forever – no matter what the cost – and he flies off, back to Neverland.

(Note: story events can vary greatly from one version to the next.)


The main concern of this story is the great divide between children and grownups. What is lost and what is gained if a child could choose not to grow up? It’s got fairies, pirates, mermaids, Indians, a gigantic ravenous crocodile, and children who learn to fly. What’s not to love about this classic? Well…..

violence – Novel: Never-Land is a place in which fantasies come to life… real, full-blooded life. There is a fair amount of casual maiming and killing going on between Lost Boys, pirates, Indians, and wild animals. Disney movie: violence is gone, apart from some rather benign sword fights. In general, all is cartoony and fun. Stage play/musical: no real (convincing) violence, other than stagy sword fights. 2003 live-action movie: the violence is back!

feminism – The gender-stereotyping of the female characters may irritate some, however the story is more complex than it appears at first glance. (With each new version more effort is made to modernize Wendy and make her more dynamic/less passive.)

racism – ah yes… the Indians. As with the feminism issue the book is more complex on this topic than it seems to be at first glance. The ‘Pickaninnies’ in Barrie’s book are walking embodiments of literary natives of the day, rather than referring directly to actual tribes. At any rate, they are – if stereotyped – at least rather dignified and noble. The most objectionable depiction of ‘Redskins’ occurs in the Disney film Peter Pan (1953) and may require a little explanation or tempering from parents.

good news – again: fairies, flying, magic, mermaids, pirates, a giant crocodile!  ALSO, this is a perfect way to introduce children to live theatre, as the stage version is a sure crowd-pleaser for boys or girls, from the very young (4) to grown-ups.

You can introduce this classic tale in many different versions, book, play or movie.


Peter Pan (original title: Peter and Wendy) – novel by J. M. Barrie

A longish chapter book which came after the play version. A very lovely read, though it contains a lot for the adult reader, and therefore may be too long and convoluted for pre-schoolers. There are, however, many shorter adaptations which are terrific to read aloud to the under-six crowd, starting around age 4, if they can sit still for a chapter book.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens – by J. M. Barrie

A prequel, outlining Peter’s first adventures with the fairies. This text originally formed a series of chapters in a novel for adults called The Little White Bird. The story is a little dark and tragic, since it was not written expressly for children. Abridged versions are suitable for 4 years and up.



These are just the most well-known versions of the classic story…

Peter Pan (1924) – Paramount Pictures – silent movie version – starring Betty Bronson – available on DVD

Peter Pan (1953) – Walt Disney – animated movie – good for ages 4 and up – no violence, villains are cartoony/not scary, depiction of ‘Redskins’ stereotypical

Peter Pan (1960) – NBC – video of TV broadcast of Jerome Robbins musical version of play, starring Mary Martin, available on VHS and DVD – good for ages 4 and up – stagy, musical version – hasn’t aged well but is loved by many

Peter Pan (2000) – A&E – video of TV broadcast of Jerome Robbins musical version, starring Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby – available on VHS and DVD – good for ages 4 and up – stagy, musical version again, with some changes

Peter Pan (2003) – Universal Studios – live-action movie by director P. J. Hogan – for ages 8 and up – darker, more violent and intense, and with the addition of adolescent sexual awakening (only the tension, nothing graphic)

related MOVIES

Hook (1991) – Amblin/TriStar – live action – dir. Steven Spielberg – an imagined sequel in which Peter Pan has grown up and forgotten who he really is – overblown star vehicle; not a great movie – for ages 8 and up

Return to Neverland (2002) – Walt Disney – an animated sequel to the 1953 Disney flick, in very much the same style, about Wendy’s daughter’s adventures in Neverland – good for age 4 and up

There is also a series of direct-to-DVD Disney animated movies about Tinker Bell.  No other characters from Peter Pan are involved in these stories. All part of the company’s Disney Fairies franchise, these are rather beautiful and well-made, with very high production values. (Previous Peter Pan movies from Disney are traditional, 2D animation. The newer Tinker Bell movies are CGI, or computer animation, à la Toy Story.)
Eminently suitable for age 3 and up, though Lost Treasure is a little scarier than others.

Tinker Bell (2008)
Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009)
Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010) etc. etc. etc., I’m sure


Click here to go to the Long Version Peter Pan Overview… you brave soul!



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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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