Peter Pan, An Awfully Big Adventure, Finding Neverland
by Michelle Erica Green

Peter Pan (Universal, 2003)
An Awfully Big Adventure (Fine Line Features, 1995)
Finding Neverland (Miramax, 2004)

Peter Pan: wonderful childhood fantasy about a land where the young-at-heart have adventures with pirates and fairies, or dysfunctional parable of the dark side of childhood in which every girl is expected to play mommy and every boy wants to avoid responsibility? It's been argued that J.M. Barrie's 1904 play -- and the novel, films and spin-offs that resulted from it -- may be both. What is inarguable is that Barrie created a character who has slipped into mythology, growing beyond the stories and play that launched him into an instantly recognizable figure of the imagination who now crosses the cultural and historical restraints in which he was created.

The Broadway musical and the Disney cartoon Peter Pan likely provide the most widely known versions of the title character, the children Wendy, Michael and John, and the infamous Captain Hook. But numerous contemporary adaptations and sequels -- from Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys to Steven Spielberg's Hook to Disney's Return to Neverland -- have complicated and changed the fairy tale. The 1983 book The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up identified a pathology identified with Barrie's beloved character. It's no wonder that contemporary filmmakers can't seem to decide whether Peter Pan is a blissfully unsullied children's story or a reflection of paradise lost in which, to quote singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, "Yearnings unanswered reckon the wage you pay to recapture the innocent age."

I dislike the male mid-life crisis fantasy Hook and love Wendy's adventurous daughter in the animated Return to Neverland, but of all the recent film versions of the story, three in particular have stuck with me: P.J. Hogan's 2003 live-action Peter Pan, Mike Newell's 1995 drama-within-a-drama An Awfully Big Adventure, and Marc Forster's 2004 Barrie biopic Finding Neverland based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. All three of them address the thorny subjects of naiveté and experience, eternal youth and mortality, and the way sex weaves its way into the most seemingly wholesome situations and complicates them immeasurably. I am tempted to wonder whether it is the story itself or my own perspective as an adult viewer that makes these issues seem so prominent. Adults are the enemies of Peter Pan, and -- as everyone from the stars to the director to the producers assure us on the superb array of documentaries on the Hogan Peter Pan DVD -- everyone identifies with the story of the child who doesn't want to grow up.

Is that still true? Particularly for girls, what are the advantages of Neverland? Hogan encapsulates this dilemma in his incandescent Wendy, who is torn between loyalty to her sweet yet unheroic parents versus the boy who awakens her romantic feelings and the pirate who triggers her darker rebellious impulses. This Peter Pan is far less the titular character's story than hers, though one might make the same case for any of the versions of the story that end with the grown-up Wendy relinquishing her own daughter to the fantasy for a time. "All children grow up except one," the film reminds us at the very start, and promptly suggests that for Wendy it is likely too late to halt the process . . . something of which she is aware, for she tells Peter more than once not only that she must grow up, but that she wishes to do so.

Still, being an adult is something portrayed as more fun to play at than to do. Wendy's mother hints at the dreams sacrificed by family patriarch George Darling, a meek little man trying to earn a promotion at the bank where he works in part to make his daughter's marriage prospects brighter. It is unclear what dreams Mrs. Darling may herself have put aside, since her children seem to be her top priority, yet she seems to be living through her daughter's ambitious fantasies and refusing to let Aunt Millicent force her to become a constrained Victorian lady too quickly.

Motherhood is fetishized to a bizarre degree in Peter Pan, with a title character who wants to bring a storyteller-mother home to his Lost Boys, something Wendy does not find at all surprising. "No wonder you were crying!" she exclaims when Peter reveals that he does not have a mother. Wendy's developing sexuality and potential future motherhood are a topic of great anxiety for the adults in her life, and when Aunt Millicent comments on Wendy's developing features, Mr. Darling gives her a decidedly un-paternal once-over as he marvels, "My Wendy, a woman!" In her most little-girlish pose, with her hair in pigtails at school, Wendy draws herself lying in bed with the flying Peter hovering above her; when the teacher discovers what Wendy has been illustrating, a stern note is sent to Mr. Darling warning him of his daughter's licentiousness.

There's no question that viewers are supposed to notice Hook as a virile image of masculinity, despite the loss of his dominant hand; our first glimpse shows him shirtless and disheveled, strapping on the kinky-looking leather-and-metal contraption that allows him to control his prosthetic. Despite the long hair and ferocious expression, Hook is the spitting image of Wendy's father, both of whom are played by Jason Isaacs -- best known to children as the handsome villain Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films and to adults as the sexy villain Colonel Tavington from The Patriot.

When Hook abducts Wendy, Isaacs' portrayal slides between protective father-figure promising to keep the girl from heartbreak by selfish Peter and potential ravisher trying to force her to grow up and serve among his crew. It's hard to tell which sort of attention attracts Wendy more, but both hold her interest in a different way than perpetually immature Peter and ineffectual Mr. Darling, neither of whom would approve her fantasies of being Red-Handed Jill. In many productions of Peter Pan, Hook's only interest in Wendy is as bait to lure Peter, but this Hook appears to have a sincere attachment to the little rebel. He is delightfully sincere while weeping his loneliness to Tinkerbell and declaring to Wendy that she is his new obsession, not to mention hilarious threatening to shoot the pursuing Peter "right through his noble intentions."

Wendy doesn't appear certain what to make of all this. She knows she's not ready to be a mother to all the little men who want her -- neither the Lost Boys nor the pirates -- but her fantasy version of maturity is something that she can't articulate even to Peter. She only knows that the pleasures of adulthood have something to do with a kiss powerful enough to make storms erupt and nothing to do with the ladylike modesty her spinster aunt wants to teach her. Watching the graceful, dreamlike pas-de-deux of the Fairy Queen and King excites her, as does dancing with Peter, but when he announces that it's all make-believe and refuses to discuss love, her pleasure wanes and she quite literally stops flying. Then Hook tells her that Peter can't love, which is "part of the riddle of his being," and this makes her cry. Wendy may be old enough to have an adult's fear of death (as opposed to Peter, who declares that "to die would be an awfully big adventure"), but she nevertheless wants to take that step closer to death: to grow up and discover the secrets of love, even knowing that adults pay a price for such knowledge.

This Peter Pan's Neverland is a sumptuous and lush place that appears to be adapted from the paintings of Arthur Hughes, Maxfield Parrish and J.W. Waterhouse, with seductive, dangerous mermaids and sexy, shimmering fairies. Its Darling home is a Victorian fantasy of painted ceilings and gilded wall trimmings, pristine toys and musical instruments, a glowing mother and a well-coiffed dog. They're both equally distant from the world of Stella Bradshaw, the teenage protagonist of An Awfully Big Adventure, born in Liverpool to an indifferent mother and left in the care of her aunt and uncle. To give the high-strung girl focus after the end of World War II, her uncle suggests an apprenticeship at a local theater. The theater is under the directorship of a man named Meredith Potter, a chain smoker who seduces and abandons other young men, makes cruel jokes at the expense of his aging actors and has occasional flights of theatrical brilliance that keep the company successful in spite of all its backstage intrigue. Stella, who has been sheltered as best her relatives can manage, falls in love with this attractive figure without ever seeing what lies beneath the facade.

Meanwhile, actor P.L. O'Hara returns to Liverpool, ostensibly to star as Captain Hook in the company's production of Peter Pan, but also to search for the child he abandoned when he left his pregnant lover 16 years before. Now a respected war veteran, O'Hara is certain that he will recognize any offspring of his by the child's appearance and demeanor, but he presumes that the child must be male, thus failing to appreciate the significance of his belief that he has met Stella before. Both O'Hara and Potter have delusions of being Peter Pan -- they cling to their fading youth, dallying with much younger lovers, choosing careers involving play-acting, and the older O'Hara is teased for riding his "bloody motorbike at your age" and chasing "anything in a skirt." Meanwhile Stella is trying to grow up too fast. She is bothered by stagehands and critics who try to take advantage of her, yet she accepts the sexual experience she gains from them so that she can attempt to seduce Potter.

The Peter Pan complex of Dan Kiley's psychological study describes men who avoid responsibilities, live in their heads rather than the real world, believe they deserve success whether or not they did the work for it ("oh, the cleverness of me," to quote Peter Pan himself) and think fun is the most important thing in life. That's a fine description of Potter in the film, though he takes on responsibility when he must and goes onstage as Captain Hook in the end to salvage his show. But despite his womanizing and expectation of acceptance by a child he abandoned, O'Hara isn't only Peter Pan; nor is he primarily the pirate whom he plays onstage with the traditional exaggerated moustache and sailor's jigs. He is also Captain Hook's alter ego Mr. Darling, the ineffectual father, and in this case the actor O'Hara embodies the role quite thoroughly, for it becomes apparent to viewers before either O'Hara or Stella realize it that she is his daughter.

If Hogan's Peter Pan is vaguely lewd in its attention to Darling/Hook's awareness of a young girl as a sexual being, An Awfully Big Adventure is thoroughly wanton. After dancing with Stella at a cast party, O'Hara casually invites her over to tea, finding his planned gentle seduction derailed when the adolescent promptly sits on his bed and offers her virginity to him. Whether oblivious or willfully blind, O'Hara introduces her to lovemaking, despite the fact that she reminds him of another Stella -- the lover he had left behind in Liverpool. When he cries out the name of Stella Maris in bed, it doesn't distress Stella Bradshaw, for she is only there to learn the basics of sex so that Potter won't ultimately reject her for her lack of skill. "I think I'm getting the hang of fucking," she announces to O'Hara, who asks plaintively whether she doesn't love him even a bit. But Stella does not. Just as she becomes O'Hara's second star to the right, he finds that he's merely a substitute for the boy who makes people fly.

Though viewers are given only small glimpses of Peter Pan over the course of An Awfully Big Adventure (and we never see O'Hara onstage as Mr. Darling), Barrie's story and its darker implications are scrawled all over the storyline. Potter announces at the first rehearsal that he doesn't want to hear any talk about the symbolism of the play; at the time, he is hung over, has vomit on his shirt and has recently seduced an assistant stage manager whose later misery inspires O'Hara to snap, "The play's about innocence, not seduction or exploitation!" Naturally Potter points out the irony of this, coming from a man whom he knows to be sleeping with an underage girl. But despite his reputation, O'Hara is not the rapacious pirate here. Stella comes in his window just like Peter Pan to Wendy, telling him, "You look at me as if I might fly up the chimney." Aware that her behavior is a transgression, she fails to talk about it in her monologues to her absent mother, instead turning the woman's photos toward the wall in an effort to forget her the way Wendy begins to forget her parents in Neverland.

Yet it's a small mercy that Stella can never speak directly to her mother and so never can learn the truth about O'Hara's blood relationship with her. During a visit to the Bradshaw home, O'Hara sees a photo of Stella Maris and realizes the truth about his child, which destroys him. Like Hook, he ends up beneath the waves, and Stella hears rumors of his demise while performing her disliked role as Tinkerbell for schoolchildren, trying to convince them that death can be negated if they believe in fairies. It is Stella's long-vanished mother who is the crocodile in An Awfully Big Adventure: her voice tells the time at the tone over the telephone, and Stella's one-sided conversations with her play out in phone booths as the mother's voice counts down the seconds to the next hour. "I'm learning, Mother," she explains tearfully at the end, but what she is learning is the width of the chasm between imagination and reality.

Imagination versus reality is the theme as well of Finding Neverland, a fictionalized biography of the man who created Peter Pan. Here we see how central a role death and loss play in James Barrie's imagination; as one character explains, "It's all the work of the ticking crocodile . . . time is chasing after all of us." The character of Barrie explains that Neverland was born when his 12-year-old brother died; he could not stop his mother's obsessive mourning even when he dressed up in the brother's clothing to remind her that she had another son. He holds this grief inside, marrying a beautiful actress named Mary who ultimately grows as frustrated with her inability to enter her husband's world of imagination as she is with her exile from the bedroom where the man shares his bed with the dog.

While their marriage is disintegrating, James meets four little boys and their mother in Kensington Gardens and falls in love . . . though whether with the woman, the children or the fantasy of a close-knit family, the film never makes explicit. The boys have recently lost their father, and third son Peter Llewellyn Davies is taking it the hardest. James draws them all into games of imagination and role-playing, staying away from his house more and more so that he can play pirates and Indians with the children under the eye of their indulgent mother and their prim, disapproving grandmother. But Sylvia Llewellyn Davies is having trouble keeping her house in order, and it soon becomes apparent that she is ailing from far more than the persistent chest cold that she tells her children is slowing her down. As James turns his fantasy-games with her sons into the play that will become Peter Pan, Sylvia attempts to play make-believe about the disease that will cut short her life.

Though Peter Llewellyn Davies identifies the playwright himself as the source material for Peter Pan, ostensibly named after the real life Peter, James takes on the role of the pirate captain when the boys play pirates and the maternal storyteller when their mother is too ill to participate. It's perhaps no surprise that the role of Captain Hook is doubled with that of Mr. Darling in the play Peter Pan -- the wicked grownup and kindly father all in one. It's hard to be certain with whom James identifies -- the bravest of the boys, the fantasy figure who will live forever? It doesn't seem to be the meek patriarch, for although James ultimately takes custody of Sylvia's sons, he appears to have given up sex with his wife and the possibility of his own children before he has met them.

"Surely you don't mean to keep spending your afternoons with those children?" asks Mary as she goes into her separate bedroom filled with elegant furniture while James retires to his own, which he envisions as a scene from the great outdoors. Mary believes that there must be something erotic going on between James and Sylvia, while one of James' friends warns him that some people are gossiping about whether his real attraction is to little boys -- something James dismisses in horror as an evil thought, though it does seem a fair one. James' true obsession, however, may be with the tragedy that first put Neverland into his imagination and the strategies he developed to cope with death, and it is this that would-be socialite Mary cannot understand when she watches her husband disappear to the park.

Neverland may look like heaven, but death is the path to heaven in these stories as surely as it is the only way for a child to avoid becoming an adult. When Sylvia passes away, moving from the green of the stage set of Neverland to the gray, raining world where her funeral takes place, James tells Peter, "I will never forget how happy she looked sitting in her parlor watching a play about her boys who never grew up." By now he has been told by Sylvia's mother that they will share guardianship of the children, that he will have a real as well as fantasy role as their paternal figure, even though his approach to childhood discipline has been to tell Sylvia that young boys should never be sent to bed because they only wake up one day older.

"She went to Neverland and you can visit her any time you like," James assures Peter when the child asks why his mother had to leave them. Yet this is scant consolation to a boy who has repeatedly dismissed imagination as silliness, who ripped up his own creative writing because he was so angry at his mother for lying and saying she only had a chest cold. If Peter has grown up enough by her funeral to understand that Sylvia was pretending for herself as much as for her family, he has only taken an additional step away from the land of make-believe and eternal youth.

"To die will be an awfully big adventure," declares Peter Pan in all three of these films -- defiantly in Peter Pan where Peter doesn't quite believe it, theatrically in An Awfully Big Adventure where Neverland is constructed of screens and stage tricks, fearfully in Finding Neverland where the actress playing Peter is standing in for J.M. Barrie, Sylvia Llewellyn Davies and the children ultimately raised by both of them. The secrets of eternal youth require the repression of both the joys of sexuality and the horrors of mortality. In the end, is Peter Pan a creature to be envied or pitied? Perhaps it depends on where one is standing, for long after Wendy has put aside her dreams of Neverland, her daughter is waiting for the cycle of fantasy to begin anew.

Here are the official web sites for:
Peter Pan
An Awfully Big Adventure
Finding Neverland

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