Peter Pan: Part 1 of 2
(illustration by Flora White; from the Oxford University Press Peter Pan, 1914)
“Every child grows up… except one.”
PART ONE: 1. INTRODUCTION 2. HISTORY 3. VERSIONS (BOOKS, MOVIES, TV)
Peter Pan is a story we all know. Sort of. We are familiar with the basics of course: magical boy flies in window and entices children to fly away to Neverland with him, they have adventures with a fairy, pirates, Indians (redskins, picaninnies, what-have-you) and in the end the children return home but Peter stays behind, to remain a child forever. When one tries to remember the details of the plot, however, things grow a little hazier, dependent upon which version you are most familiar with. The story itself seems as hard to pin down as its eponymous hero.
There’s a very good reason for this. Unlike every other classic of children’s literature, there is really no definitive text for Peter Pan. No one book upon which all other versions are based. The character and story grew in bits and pieces, the ‘prequel’ was a small part of a novel for adults, then Peter sprang forth full-grown in play form – a play that the author tinkered incessantly with for many years. He was so reluctant to stop tweaking his play and commit it to print that the play itself was not published for 17 years. He did novelize the play, however, and a very good book it is too.
So the many versions of the famous story – play, novel, musical, animated film, live-action film – contain slightly differing plot points, scenes missing or added, even characters added or left out. Each version shifts emphasis from one aspect of the complex tale to another. Of course over the last hundred years these changes in focus reveal the changes in values and tastes of each new recreator and audience. But all this fiddling and ‘messing’ is quite what Barrie intended in the first place. He himself was vague about Peter’s backstory and was constantly changing it, even to the point of saying he couldn’t actually remember writing Peter Pan at all. In light of J.M. Barrie’s tendency toward ambiguity and uncertainty, tampering with his characters and story can be seen to be true to the author’s vision and entirely valid. Peter Pan himself doesn’t know who he is:
I am youth! I am joy! I am a little bird who has broken out of the egg!
he says in the play, ‘at a hazard’, as the stage directions put it. So why should we have any firmer idea of what or who he is?
“Peter Pan holds a peculiar position. His is the only story of recent centuries to escape from literature into folklore. For every one person who has seen the play or read the story there are hundreds who know perfectly well who and what Peter Pan is. Besides being a fairy-tale character, he is also a symbol – of what, precisely, even Barrie could not find words to describe…”¹
In this very complex, wildly popular story there are inevitably a few areas of interest and/or concern which bear discussing. What is deemed appropriate for children has of course changed significantly over the last hundred years!
Violence: In the novel Neverland is a place in which fantasies come to life… to real, full-blooded life. The adventures are real, and the danger is real. Very real. While it’s not dwelt upon, or presented in graphic detail, it is clear that there is a fair amount of casual maiming and killing going on between Lost Boys, pirates, Indians, and wild animals. (Even the mermaids would just as soon drown you as say hello.) In later versions this aspect is sidestepped, and in the 1953 Disney movie the violence has nearly completely vanished – Hook is even spared his fate in the crocodile’s jaws. In the play and musical there is no real violence seen, other than rather stagy sword fights. In P.J. Hogan’s 2003 film version the violence and threat have returned, so it is definitely suitable for an older audience.
Feminism: The gender-stereotyping may irritate some, as Wendy aspires to mother the Lost Boys, and is never happier than when she is cooped up in their hideout darning socks. However the story is more complex than it appears at first glance, with many boundary confusions at work between child and grownup as the children play-act their fantasies. Wendy is merely role-playing here, and reflecting the social limitations placed upon women at that time. There is much in the book to suggest a rebellion against the traditional constrained life of the Edwardian wife and mother, particularly in the character of Mrs. Darling. (More on this below.) With each new modern version of the tale efforts are always made to strengthen Wendy’s character, to make her more active, daring, and above all more modern. Also in some stage versions the Indians have been turned into female Amazon warriors, a nice counterpart to the pirates and the overwhelming ‘maleness’ of Neverland. Amazons aside, it is galling that all the females of the story – Tinker Bell, Wendy, the mermaids, even Mrs. Darling to some extent – are in love with Peter Pan and in the case of the first three are also extremely jealous of each other. Wendy wants a husband but Peter simply wants a mother. (Wasn’t it ever thus?) (sorry) At any rate, the girls of Peter Pan are doomed to the angst of adolescence while the boys enjoy an oblivious and carefree childhood.
Racism: I hesitate to insert the ‘r’ word here, as I think it’s a little unfair. Unfortunately however it can’t be denied that another troublesome element in Peter Pan occurs with the presence of the Indians – referred to in the book strangely as ‘Pickaninnies’, a term more commonly used for African-Americans and those of mixed race. Barrie’s use of this term suggests to some that he is trying to mess with the Edwardian audience’s simplistic and rather confused notions of native, colonized peoples. In truth, the most objectionable depiction of ‘Redskins’ occurs in the Disney film Peter Pan (1953), although the musical productions (1960, 2000) are also cringe-worthy. In comparison the ‘Pickaninnies’ in Barrie’s book are rather dignified, ‘noble savages’, and a definite cut above the pirates in terms of morality and character. Furthermore, Neverland is a creation of children’s dreaming minds, and is inhabited by characters from the books they read. The Pickaninnies are therefore the living, walking embodiments of literary characters found in adventure novels of the time, as opposed to any real-life indigenous peoples. (Just as the pirates are based more on literary pirates than any true historical characters.)
The Good News: The above, I feel, are not serious concerns. The appealing elements of this story far outweigh the problems. The allure of being able to fly, as well as to live in a make-believe land without grownup rules is of timeless and universal appeal to kids. Add to that a lovely little fairy (with issues) and deeper musings about the roles of children and grown-ups and their relationship to each other and to magic and imagination… And pirates too!
Peter Pan is a perfect vehicle to introduce children to live theatre, as there are always productions of the play Peter Pan being mounted, typically around Christmas time. A sure crowd-pleaser on the stage for boys or girls, from the very young to grown-ups. Age appropriateness depends on the production, of course, but I took my daughter to a matinée performance of Peter Pan when she was four, and she was absolutely and totally transfixed. (She already knew the story from the Disney film, which probably helped to mitigate any scary parts.)
¹ Roger Lancelyn Green, as quoted in Bruce K. Hanson, The Peter Pan Chronicles; The Nearly 100 Year History of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993) p. 266
1860 – J.M. Barrie born in Kirriemuir, Scotland
1902 – the character of Peter Pan first appears in a novel Barrie wrote for an adult audience, The Little White Bird. A ‘prequel’ to the events of the 1905 play, the ‘Peter chapters’ in this book tell about how (and why) he first came to escape his nursery and live in Kensington Gardens with the fairies
1904 – the play “Peter Pan” premieres on Dec 27 in London, and is an immediate, enormous success
1905 – play opens in New York, again to great popular and critical acclaim
1906 – the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is published, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham; book consists simply of the ‘Peter chapters’ from The Little White Bird
1911 – Barrie produces a novelized version of the play, entitled Peter and Wendy. It is considerably different than the play, though the structure of adventures is the same. The title is changed in 1924 to Peter Pan and Wendy, then finally to Peter Pan.
1924 – silent movie Peter Pan is released in time for Christmas, starring Betty Bronson, to terrific reviews
1928 – J. M. Barrie finally publishes the play version of Peter Pan
1931 – Barrie gives perpetual rights to the books and plays of Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital
1937 – J. M. Barrie dies of pneumonia at the age of 77.
1953 – animated Disney version is released, with original songs added
1954 – Peter Pan the Jerome Robbins musical, starring Mary Martin, opens in October
1960 – the Robbins musical is broadcast live on TV, and taped for posterity – this version is now available for purchase
1976 and onward – Robbins musical is periodically remounted with a new star – Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby; the original non-musical version occasionally appears too
1982 – the Royal Shakespeare Company mounts a production of the original play featuring a male actor in lead
1987 – the terms of the Peter Pan legacy run out for the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Copyright ownership of stage and book rights expire. In the US the novel had already entered the public domain in 1986 while the play would continue to pay royalties until the year 2003.
1988 – the House of Lords votes almost unanimously to amend the copyright law for Peter Pan which in essence allows the hospital to receive royalties from English productions of the play in perpetuity.
The story of Peter Pan really began when James Matthew Barrie, married but childless, befriended a family of young boys while walking his dog in Kensington Gardens in London. He became very close to the family, and spent many happy hours entertaining George, Jack, Peter, (and later) Michael and Nico Llewelyn-Davies with stories and make-believe play, which supplied the major characters and plot points of the play that he eventually wrote.
J.M. Barrie was a well-established playwright by 1904, but still felt rather tentative about bringing his new play Peter Pan to producers. The first producer he showed it to thought he had lost his mind.¹ Barrie took it to a second producer, Charles Frohman, with a new strategy. He offered him another play, Alice Sit-by-the-Fire, which was more of a sure-fire hit, if he would agree to stage Peter Pan as well. To his great credit, Charles Frohman was “immediately enamoured” of Peter Pan, to the extent that he used to stop people in the street to act out parts of it for them. The ‘guaranteed financial investment’ Alice Sit-by-the-Fire is largely forgotten today, while Peter Pan is still going strong, over a hundred years later.²
The first production was beset with problems and delays, due mostly to the incredible technical requirements of the show’s special effects. The cast and crew were kept guessing, as a lot of last-minute rewriting was going on. The first actress to play Peter, Nina Boucicault, later wrote:
“When first I began to study the part of Peter Pan, I remember going to Sir James Barrie and asking him, since I was to be the first Peter, if he would tell me something of his conception of the part and how it should be played. I thought that he would naturally have a great deal to say on the subject … But I was doomed to disappointment. ‘Peter is a bird,’ he said to me in that quiet, level voice of his, ‘and he is one day old.’ And that is all I had to go on. At rehearsals, it is true, he would drop an occasional hint, but if one wanted to ask him a question one could never be quite sure of finding him. At one moment he would be sitting in the stalls, and the next he had slipped out in his elusive way and disappeared.”³
One big concern to everyone in the production was the scene in which Peter appeals to the audience to save Tinker Bell’s life, and clap if they believe in fairies. The first audience would be mostly adults⁴ so the director instructed the musicians in the orchestra to clap if the audience did not.⁵ Happily, though, the audience “clapped so boisterously about their belief in fairies that Nina Boucicault as Peter burst into tears, and [the audience] screamed for curtain-calls long into the evening.”⁶ The play was a tremendous hit from the very first night, with critics and audiences alike. Children clamoured to attend matinees, and “aficionados took up places in the front stalls to throw thimbles at Peter and jeer Hook”.⁷ (Echoes of Rocky Horror Picture Show, in 1904!) Indeed the love affair that audiences had with the play provided some difficulty for later stagings of Peter Pan, as any deviation from the original might bring down upon the company the wrath of the devoted public.
If possible, America embraced Peter Pan even more enthusiastically than the British had. According to Andrew Birkin “the American critics proved, as always, less averse to Barrie’s sentimentality than their British counterparts”. No less a figure than Mark Twain was moved to write:
“It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and that the next best play is a long way behind it.” ⁸
Frohman not only toured the play through the large cities but also remote outposts and small towns throughout America and north into Canada and the Northwest Territory, everywhere to great acclaim. There was an added resonance for North American audiences, as Never Land seemed to symbolize the New World, and Peter the champion of Youth and Freedom. In fact “Peter’s intimacy with Tiger Lily and the Lost Boys’ alliance with the Red Indians was seen to have a special and meaningful significance.” (A significance which was not lost on, or approved by, the audiences in Selma, Alabama.) ⁹
Whatever meaning the audience chose to draw from it, Barrie had written one of the most popular and acclaimed plays of the century.
The later history of Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies boys was, however, tragic. Their father Arthur died in 1907 from cancer in his cheek and jaw, and their mother Sylvia followed three years later, also succumbing to cancer. Barrie, as close family friend ‘Uncle Jimmy’ was named joint guardian of the boys, a role which he took very seriously. (His own marriage had already ended in divorce after his wife’s affair with another man.) As a wealthy playwright Barrie was able to assist the family greatly, and shepherded the boys through school and into early adulthood. The death of the eldest, George, in the trenches of World War I was a great blow to Barrie and the family, as was the death of Michael in 1921 in a swimming accident. Many years after Barrie’s own death Peter died as well, throwing himself under a train in 1960. Rumours about the nature of Barrie’s relationship with the five boys surface occasionally, but suggestions of improper behaviour have always been strongly denied by the surviving members of the family. The record seems to suggest that Barrie was innocent of any sexual impropriety. (The full story of Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies family is told with great heart by Andrew Birkin in his wonderful book J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys.)
¹ Beerbohm Tree was the first agent he took the script to. Tree wrote the following to Frohman in America: “Barrie has gone out of his mind. … I am sorry to say it, but you ought to know it. He’s just read me a play. He is going to read it to you, so I am warning you. I know I have not gone woozy in my mind, because I have tested myself since hearing the play; but Barrie must be mad.” Andrew Birkin, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2003) p. 104
² Karen McGavock, “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State”, in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan In and Out of Time; A Children’s Classic at 100, edited by Donna R. White and Anita C. Tarr (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) p. 201
³ Bruce K. Hanson, The Peter Pan Chronicles; The Nearly 100 Year History of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993) p. 36
⁴ Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995) p. 133
⁵ Op. cit., Hanson, p. 42
⁶ Op. cit., Wullschläger, p. 133
⁷ Ibid., Wullschläger, p. 133
⁸ Op. cit., Birkin, p. 126
⁹ Ibid., Birkin, p. 126-127
The best first meeting of your young child (aged 5 or under) with Peter Pan would probably be either reading an adaptation of the novel or attending the stage play. (Personally I would pick the original Barrie play over the musical version, but others will disagree.) Second choice: 1953 animated Disney version. If your child is particularly skittish about scary parts and you’re not sure how they’d fare with the pirates and crocodile in the stage play, start with the Disney film, as the crocodile and Captain Hook are played for optimum humour and are far more cartoony than scary.
BOOKS by J.M. Barrie:
The Little White Bird – 1902
This novel was written for an adult audience. A handful of chapters within the book gives us a prequel to the action of Peter Pan, with the introduction of Peter Pan and the story of how he ‘escaped’ mortal life in the first place. The novel, about the innocent friendship between man and boy as it plays out in their favourite park, was so popular in 1902, according to Jackie Wullschläger, “that Barrie was regularly accosted by mothers and sons in Kensington Gardens.”¹
The Peter Pan story within the longer novel explains that babies begin life as birds in the park, living among the fairies. Only when they are delivered to their parents do they forget about their previous lives and forget how to fly. Except for Peter of course. Overhearing his parents planning his future, he feels a revulsion for growing up and decides to fly back to the park, not fully realizing that he is no longer a bird. Later he must get a special dispensation from the fairies to fly back to his mother. After a first visit he decides he’d like to live with his parents again. However he lingers a little too long over his farewells to the fairies (days… weeks… months perhaps), and when he finally flies back to his mother, intending this time to stay, it is too late. The window is barred and there is another baby in his place. (This event is told in shorter form by Peter himself to Wendy in the later play and novel, and is the reason he feels a general enmity toward mothers.) This rejection is wounding to Peter, although not altogether tragic, for he is shown to be of two minds about going home in the first place, he’s having so much fun flying and living with the fairies.
Also included is a longer story about little Maimie Mannering, who stays overnight in the garden and attends a fairy ball. (The fairies are depicted as mean-spirited and rather ignorant, which is fun.) Peter tries to convince her to stay but when morning comes Maimie decides to return to her family.
As Andrew Nash explains in the introduction to the above collection,
“When the Peter Pan chapters were lifted from The Little White Bird and published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the work became divorced from its original context as a deliberately artificial story told by a middle-aged bachelor to a little boy inside a novel that we later learn the bachelor to be writing.”
Jacqueline Rose, in her book The Case of Peter Pan: or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, believes that “much of the complexity of Peter Pan is lost if the work is read outside The Little White Bird.” Within White Bird the narrator of the chapters is understood to be a grown man speaking to a particular child, whereas in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the narrator becomes a traditional, omniscient voice, eliminating a lot of the subtext of the former version. In The Little White Bird the narrator’s negative attitudes toward mothers stems from the jealousy he feels toward the mother of his little friend, as she holds a privileged place in the child’s heart that he can only wish for. His bird-explanation of how babies come to be is thus self-serving, in that he’s trying to reduce the importance of parents. So what starts out in first novel as a jab at, if not an assault on, the exalted place of parents in their children’s lives, becomes (without its context) simply a cute story in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.
“The Little White Bird plays out a reflexive debate on the values and drawbacks of fantasy” says Nash. Indeed, the place of fantasy in our everyday life is a recurring theme in all of Barrie’s plays. The Peter Pan fantasy was simply part of an ongoing analysis of the act of fantasy itself.
“The events of the book… show how reality is always intruding upon the narrator’s fantasies, breaking them down and forcing him to recognise their limitations.”²
Another really interesting element of this first treatment of the character, is the darkness and tragedy included. In choosing to remain a child, Peter finds himself actually locked out of reality – barred from returning to his nursery. Nash writes that he is thus “the ultimate fantasist” – having committed himself to the fantasy world, he is unable to penetrate beyond the iron bars to reality and as a result always feels a sense of loss. Barrie tempered the darkness somewhat when he aimed his later play toward an audience of children, but it retains a great deal of sorrow and longing. In the early years of the 20th century works for children were not as strenuously ‘cheerified’ and stripped of sadness as they routinely are today.
“It is significant … that this first telling of the Peter Pan story should be articulated with the sense of tragedy that Barrie always associated with it.”³
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens – 1906
This book is a prequel to the familiar story, as it is basically, with minor alterations, a republishing of the Peter Pan chapters from The Little White Bird (see above), beautifully illustrated by the reknowned Arthur Rackham. This book recounts how Peter first ran away from home when only a week old and portrays his life as an outlaw baby with the fairies in Kensington Gardens. (It is never explained exactly how he got to Neverland for the later works. Barrie was a writer of deliberate ambiguity, and seemed to have a horror of full explanation or the filling in of blanks.) The illustrations reflect Peter’s very young age, as he is a dimpled baby rather than the older youth he is depicted as later.
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (adaptation) – 1929. Barrie, Sir J.M., retold by May Byron. Ill. by Arthur Rackham. Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1929, 1965.
An adaptation for younger children, “retold with permission of the author”. Again, it consists simply of chapters 14-18 from Little White Bird, but this telling is quite changed from the original words; it is simplified and the more tragic bits are ironed over. For example in Little White Bird the children who stay in Kensington Gardens overnight don’t always survive and Peter must bury some of them. There is no mention of this in the adaptation.
This version is quite suitable to read aloud to 4-year-olds. The story of how birds turn into babies and the details of fairy life in the park are quite charming.
Peter and Wendy – 1911
(title later changed to Peter Pan and Wendy, and finally simply Peter Pan)
The Barrie novelization of the play is beautifully written, deep with insight about the nature of children and adults, and the complex relationship between the two, and chock full of fascinating asides and tantalizing details and jokes. Both Peter Pan and Captain Hook are multi-faceted characters, filled with paradox and both tragic in their own way. The book is unique in that, following the enormous success of the play, before it was even written it was destined to be a classic. Perhaps this caused the author no small amount of stress, for he took a very long time to commit it to paper. On the other hand, the book benefits from the years and years of ‘workshopping’ via theatrical productions; Barrie revised, tweaked and refined his play constantly. With the added freedom of extended asides from the narrator, the novel is perhaps the most complete version of this complex tale. The full novel, however, might be a long slog to read to youngsters below school age, so an adaptation might be a better way to introduce the book to them. I read a pretty good adaptation to my 4-year-old, one chapter per night, and she was very keen to get back to it every day.
Of course there are many, many editions… For those interested in different illustration styles a good, unabridged one is:
Peter Pan; A Classic Illustrated Edition
Compiled by Cooper Edens, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2000. Distributed in Canada by Raincoast Books.
“This edition retains the content, spelling and grammar of the original 1911 edition.” The gorgeous illustrations are selected from many different editions of the early 20th century. They are interesting in that you can see the tendency over time to ‘age up’ Peter: in the earliest illustrations he is a pudgy toddler but as time goes on he is transformed into a lanky youth. I liked this edition as a historical artifact, however the work of the various illustrators vary so greatly in style and treatment, I’m not sure I’d use it to read to children. A stronger impact would probably be made by a book with a single illustrator.
RELATED BOOKS by others
GENERAL NOTE: Disney versions – I would stay away from any Disney books, which are pumped out like sausages, badly written and based solely on Disney product, which is already fairly distant from original source material.
Below are some of the many works evolving from the original. Due to the ‘eternal’ copyright protection afforded to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, some are unauthorized, and could only be published in territories not included in the copyright protection. Some have definite adult themes and content – not all are suitable for children! I haven’t read all of them myself, unfortunately, but will provide links if I find further useful information or reviews.
Peter Pan and the Only Children – 1987 – by Gilbert Adair, an unauthorized sequel-or-maybe-prequel – illustrations by Jenny Thorne. In this story Peter lives with Lost Boys under the sea, battles with Captain Hook. (Adair has also written a ‘sequel’ to Alice in Wonderland called Alice through the Needle’s Eye.)
Neverland – 1989 – by Toby Forward. Everyone is brought back to life through a computer game. Published by Simon & Schuster in the short time span that Peter Pan was in the public domain in the UK, before its copyright was revived in 1995. Sneaky.
Hook – 1991 – by Terry Brooks. A novelization of the Spielberg film.
After the Rain: A New Adventure for Peter Pan – 1999 – by J. E. Somma, an unauthorized sequel. Set in modern times, Peter learns it’s okay to grow up. Some legal dispute over copyright in the US was settled out of court.
Wendy – 2003 – by Karen Wallace, an unauthorized prequel novel for young adults. Explains that the Darling family’s home life was filled with abuse and tragedy.
The Lost Girls: A Novel – 2004 – by Laurie Fox, an unauthorized sequel. Peter Pan interacts with each generation of Wendy Darling’s female descendants up to present day.
Starcatchers series – 2004 – 2009 – by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson – a series of unauthorized prequel novels published by Hyperion Books (a subsidiary of Disney) in the US and Walker Books in the UK.
Peter and the Starcatchers
Peter and the Shadow Thieves
Peter and the Secret of Rundoon
Peter and the Sword of Mercy
Capt. Hook: The Adventures of a Notorious Youth – 2005 – by James V. Hart, illustrated by Brett Helquist, published by HarperCollins in the US. An unauthorized prequel illustrated novel recounts the early history of Captain Hook, painting him in a sympathetic light.
Peter Pan in Scarlet – 2006 – by Geraldine McCaughrean, Oxford University Press/Simon & Schuster – an authorized sequel, the only official sequel novel! McCaughrean was authorized and commissioned by the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital to write this book. Her novel, while quite gripping, does not have the same tone as the original at all. It’s a much darker and much more complicated action story. In the style of most modern tales (à la Lord of the Rings), there is an apocalyptic threat to all of Neverland and a fantastic quest that our heroes, the grown-up Wendy and Lost Boys, must complete at great peril. Barrie’s novel is rather light and frothy overall, carefree and not too concerned with explanation. McCaughrean’s novel is laden down with characters and explanation-heavy… Everything has a reason, and we are going to hear about it. Even the handkerchief Wendy coughs into at the beginning has consequences later in the story. It’s almost as if McCaughrean made a list of every little thing that Barrie didn’t fully explore in his book, and resolved to tackle each and every one herself. What happens to the nannies who lose the lost boys? How did Smee get to Neverland? How to explain Hook out of the crocodile’s craw???
The book is over-crowded, over-ornamented… dare I say baroque? Clever, but heavy going. And not a smooth read; it’s crammed with unwieldy metaphor. I found myself pausing frequently (“Wait, what?”). If made into a film, it would probably be deemed too intense, dark, and frightening for children.
A second opinion – Commonsense Media
Never Land Books series – 2006 – 2008 – by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, illustrated by Greg Call – unauthorized – a spin-off series from the Starcatchers series (see above). Still chapter books, but for a younger audience than Starcatchers.
Escape from the Carnivale
Cave of the Dark Wind
Various Disney Fairies and Tinker Bell books – see above note re. Disney books; nothing much to do with original Peter Pan story at all.
Tigerheart – 2008 – by Peter David. Retells the Peter Pan stories from another perspective, with changes to many of the original characters.
The Child Thief – 2009 – by artist Gerald Brom – an illustrated novel reinterpreting Peter Pan by highlighting the darker themes in the story.
MOVIES and TV
silent movie, b&w – Paramount Pictures, dir. Herbert Brenon, starring Betty Bronson, Ernest Torrence.
Can’t say much more about this film, as I haven’t gotten a hold of a copy to see it. I’ve only seen clips and stills, and it looks good though stagey. After being pursued by movie people for years for the rights to the story, J. M. Barrie finally gave in to Famous Players in 1921. He went so far as to write a screenplay⁴, in which he strove to capitalize on the strengths of film over the stage. He offered this screenplay to the film’s producers but they chose not to use it. Barrie later felt the resulting film to be disappointingly static and stagy. (A complete turn-around from the usual state of affairs – in this case the originator urges changes to his work but the film people prefer to cling slavishly to the original!)
The film starred a 17-year-old unknown named Betty Bronson and was shot in a hurry – they began filming in September of 1924 and the finished film was released in time for the Christmas holiday season of that same year! Such speed of production was common in those days. This is probably one reason the producers chose a straightforward, cheap and easy approach for their film over Barrie’s more complex script.
The film in the end was not bad, and beautifully shot by the famous cinematographer James Wong Howe. Though it was just a filmed stage play with a fixed camera, Peter Pan the play was so beloved in the US that the film opened in New York to fantastic reviews. It made Bronson famous, immediately but briefly, for thereafter she was always known solely for that role.⁵
SIDEBAR: In the early 1920s Barrie briefly flirted with the idea of Charlie Chaplin in the title role. What an interesting film that would have been! ⁶
animated film – Walt Disney / RKO, dir. by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske, starring Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conreid. Original songs by Sammy Cahn and Sammy Fain.
The 1953 Disney movie is quite good for the very young. It’s not a bad retelling of the original story, though it does downplay the dark nature of the original, aspects such as
a) the fact that Neverland is violent and that people are actually killed, many by our hero, who rather carelessly kills and then forgets about it afterward…
b) the fact that the children thoughtlessly abandon their parents, leaving them to grieve and worry until their return (this is cut entirely in the Disney version, as no time at all passes back home, and mother and father aren’t even aware that they’re gone)…
c) the sadness of Peter Pan, who in his arrested development cannot share in the joys of family life.
The positive side of these omissions, however, is that this treatment is a light, bright movie suitable for the very youngest audience. Not violent at all, not scary. Hook and the crocodile are played for optimum slapsticky laughs and were my daughter’s favorite part of the film.
Many were sorely disappointed with the changes to the original tale, and understandably so. This is definitely a ‘Disneyfication’ of Peter, but the film on its own works so well that I don’t really mind. (It should however be stated here that my view is coloured by the fact that this movie was my absolute favourite movie as a child.) My biggest complaint with it is that at the end Wendy is shown waking up, suggesting that the whole adventure was just a dream. This cheat is okay for The Wizard of Oz, I suppose, but not Peter Pan! It’s a cliché that undermines the whole premise of the tale. In the book it’s emphasized that until now Neverland existed only in their dreams, but finally the Darling children are faced with it as a fantastic reality, and have the difficult choice of choosing between it and their home-life reality. In the Disney film, right at the end, Mr. Darling admits he may have seen the pirate ship before, long ago, but the message here still seems to be that we visit fantasy lands only in our dreams.
TV broadcast of Jerome Robbins musical – Producers’ Showcase series for NBC, starring Mary Martin.
Some baby boomers retain a nostalgic fondness – to the point of mania – for Mary Martin in this role, particularly if this TV broadcast was their first introduction to Peter Pan. Not being a member of this club, and seeing it for the first time just recently, I found it a little hokey, with only a tenuous connection to the original story. It doesn’t age all that well, especially the song and dance bits with the Indians. (ie. song: “Ugga Ugga Wigwam” is frankly cringe-worthy.) Only for enthusiasts.
TV broadcast of Jerome Robbins musical – A&E, starring Cathy Rigby.
Another tv broadcast of the stage musical, which Mary Martin made famous, and which is periodically remounted everywhere, usually around Christmas time. Some changes have been made, and it is slightly less embarrassing than the 1960 version, but no more ethnically sensitive to America’s indigenous peoples.
A little flashier than the 1960 show but still stagey. You probably had to be there.
live-action film, Universal Pictures, dir. P.J. Hogan
This version is truer to the original book, darker and violent, and the director/screenwriter has chosen certain aspects to play up, namely the confused sexuality of the main character. This Peter Pan is definitely an adolescent – a heart-flutteringly cute actor plays him so that he obviously feels a sexual yearning and need to grow up, but denies it firmly, remaining forever young. I would definitely save this version for older children. Adolescent girls with a literary bent will swoon over it.
Many revisions made to plot points and new scenes and characters have been added. Some of Hogan’s changes are extremely thoughtful and add to the richness of the tale, others… not so much. (see my full review)
live-action film, dir. Damion Dietz
age: NOT for kids
I haven’t seen this, but it is apparently a dark, surreal, edgy reinterpretation of the story, heavily updated to the modern day but also true to original. The tag line is “Never grow up. Never grow old.”
Not well known, I’m only including it on this list as a curiosity.
RELATED WORKS: MOVIES and TV
Peter Pan and the Pirates (1990)
animated TV series on Fox Kids. With the voices of Jason Marsden and Tim Curry. Wikipedia lists 65 episodes for this series, which plays up and develops the pirate characters.
live-action film, dir. Steven Spielberg
A speculative story – what if Peter decided to grow up? And then forgot he was Peter Pan? And had kids, who he ignored because he’s a workaholic lawyer? And then Captain Hook kidnaps his kids so he has to go to Neverland again to get them back? Yeah, that’s about it. Pretty predictable on all fronts – Hollywood flash. The only tidbits with charm and heart are those which directly reference the original novel/play, in flashback. I wouldn’t bother with this one.
Disney animated film
A full-fledged sequel to the 1953 Disney film. In this one Wendy’s daughter Jane is whisked off to Neverland. Strenuous attempts have been made to make her a strong female character, no doubt a reaction to the original, passive Wendy. In this film Jane is an adventurous ‘do-er’, and actually becomes the first ever Lost Girl, rather than being a mother to them all like her mother was. Hook is back, and an enormous octopus takes the place of the crocodile for some very funny slapsticky scenes. A good sequel for kids who are fans of the original Disney film and want more.
Finding Neverland (2004)
live-action film, dir. Marc Forster
age: teens and up
For adults who are interested… A slightly truthful account of the genesis of the play Peter Pan and the author’s friendship with a widow and her sons. Loosely plays with the actual facts of the matter, particularly the chronology of the play vs. the death of the boys’ parents, and the details of the first mounting of the play. (Far from being reluctant, the original producer Charles Frohman was totally in love with the play.) Despite liberties taken, however, the personalities seem quite genuine and are heart-wrenching. The restrictive nature of society at the time is effectively portrayed, as tongues wag about the innocent friendship between a married man and a widow, as well as about the relationship between him and her sons. (About which tongues still wag to this day. Any suggestion of sexual intent or misconduct on the part of Barrie is strongly denied in this film, as it was denied by he and the boys their entire lives.) The themes of imagination vs. reality are certainly true in spirit to Barrie’s own life and artistic vision. This movie is quite a tear-jerker, but not in a gratuitous way. Beautifully done, if not altogether historically accurate.
¹ Jackie Wullschläger, Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne (London: Methuen, 1995) p.125.
² Andrew Nash in “Introduction”, J. M. Barrie, Farewell Miss Julie Logan: A Barrie Omnibus (Glasgow: Canongate Classics, pp. xii-xiii
³ Op. cit., Nash, p. xv
⁴ A screenplay described by Bruce Hanson as “lovingly detailed”. Bruce K. Hanson, The Peter Pan Chronicles; The Nearly 100 Year History of ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’ (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1993) p. 121
⁵ Op. cit., Hanson, pp. 128-133
⁶ Ibid., Hanson, p. 237