There's a quote from The Little White Bird — James Matthew Barrie's 1902 novel that marks the first-ever mention of Peter Pan — that epitomizes the cultural significance of the boy who never grew up:
If you ask your mother whether she knew about Peter Pan when she was a little girl, she will say, “Why of course I did, child,” … Then if you ask your grandmother whether she knew about Peter Pan she was a girl, she also says, “Why of course I did child.”
Like the residents of Neverland, the story of Peter Pan seems to never grow old. We find him on the side of peanut butter jars and on buses that take us from New York to Boston. It's not just appropriation by corporate culture, either; Peter continues to inspire artists and individuals, as well. NBC recently announced that they would be broadcasting a live performance of the musical adaptation of Peter Pan (a show that has delighted audiences since 1954 and even featured Mia Farrow in 1976), and a recent count has three new Peter-inspired films coming to screen. Peter and the Starcatcher, a play that tells the origin story of Peter, was nominated for nine Tony awards in 2013 and took home five. Even Walt Disney Studios continues to find inspiration (or maybe just financial gain) from the hundred-year-old story: Though they released the classic animated version over 61 years ago, they're still churning out Peter Pan-related content, mostly of the direct-to-video variety. Author Humphrey Carpenter says it best in Secret Gardens, his study of classic children's literature: “We are dealing here not just with a piece of imaginative creation by one man, but with a public phenomenon."
And yet, the creation of that one man, J. M. Barrie, has fallen to the wayside in favor of a more literally and figuratively animated version of his story. Peter, Hook, Michael, John, Wendy — they have all been appropriated by corporate culture and mutated into chirping Disney figures, cartoons that can't even begin to tackle the simple yet rich complexities of the Peter Pan myth.
There is far more speculation about the origin of Peter Pan than there are answers. Was he, as some critics argue, Barrie's way of dealing with the death of his 14-year-old brother, David? Or are there homoerotic undertones to Peter's story? Few critics have resisted the temptation to examine Barrie's relationships with young boys without questioning whether or not there was something sinister there. Frankly, I find it moot to make broad assumptions about Barrie's fiction based purely on his private relationships. It's both unfair on a personal level and untenable on a more scholastic one.
The truth: Though admittedly there are passages of The Little White Bird that makes one cringe (the novel tells the story of a bachelor who develops an attachment to a six-year-old boy named David), the fact remains that J. M. Barrie was innocent. All evidence shows that he was not so much interested in sleeping with children as he was with remaining one — and though that's of course physically impossible, Barrie was able to return to a childlike headspace by forming strong, powerful relationships with children.
The most notable of these relationships was his one with George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas “Nico” Llewelyn Davies. At London's Kensington Gardens in 1899, Barrie met the three eldest boys (Michael and Nico were not yet born), who were attracted to his large dog, Porthos. Their father, Arthur Davies, was too busy with his career as a lawyer to spend much time with his boys, but the childless Barrie was more than happy to get on his knees and pretend to be a pirate or a dog or whatever the boys wanted him to be that particular day. Barrie became Uncle Jimmy to the boys, and it was with them that he was able to begin crafting the story that would eventually become his life’s work.
Barrie was inspired to create Peter Pan, the Darling brothers and the Lost Boys though his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys. The six of them would play make-believe games, usually with the boys as Peter and the Lost Boys and Barrie as the pirates. Michael was especially close to Barrie, and in the author’s own words words, embodied the "true meaning of Peter," though he did wind up dedicating Peter Pan "To the Five," writing: “I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. … That is all he is, the spark I got from you."
Despite all the joy and creativity that existed early on in Barrie's relationships with the Llewelyn Davies, it eventually took a tragic turn. Both Arthur Davies and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of the boys, died of cancer, Arthur in 1907 and Sylvia in 1910. Suddenly Barrie was the legal guardian of five boys, ages 7 to 17, and it no longer mattered that he had a funny mustache or an enormous, gregarious dog. He needed to be a father, and it was a task he was not quite up to.
Some biographers claim that the Llewelyn Davies grew to find Barrie overbearing and possessive, and that they were uncomfortable with the ways in which their own lives had been used for his artistic gain. Barrie wrote to friends that the boys had outgrown him, outgrown Peter, Hook and Neverland, but for the boys, it was more than just maturing. After Barrie's death, Peter Llewelyn Davies's son expressed just how deeply his father, who had been cut of of Barrie's will, resented Peter Pan:
He was the inspiration for Peter Pan and it was only reasonable that my father should inherit everything from Barrie. … It would have recompensed him for the notoriety he had experienced since being linked with Peter Pan — something he hated.
Still, it's difficult to argue that Barrie's affinity for the Llewelyn Davies children was tied only to his own gain. When Michael died, drowned at Oxford, Barrie was heartbroken. "All the world is different to me now," he wrote to a friend. "Michael was pretty much my world."
It's hard to pin down just exactly when the version of Peter Pan that we're so familiar with today came to be. As mentioned above, Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie's novel The Little White Bird in 1902. Two years later, the author began to adapt his story into a play, a process that saw many drafts and edits. Original versions don't even feature Captain Hook and are much more heavy-handed with the maternal themes of the story. (An early draft features dozens of beautiful young women competing to be Peter's mother.)
In 1911, Barrie published Peter and Wendy, which later would become known simply as Peter Pan. The novel is darker and more complex than one might expect, closer to, say, Roald Dahl's children's literature than the animated Disney version of Peter Pan. There are, yes, still fairies and mermaid, Lost Boys and pirates, but for every mention of a child in flight, there will be some moment of despondency or malice. "The Lost Boys," a friend of mine said to me after I gave him the original Peter Pan novel, "are fucking sadists."
It's true. Even the literary Peter himself is far more sadistic than the orange haired, wide-eyed cartoon who shares his name. In fact, the reason that early versions of the play had no Captain Hook is because Barrie felt that Peter provided for all the brutality necessary. What he lacked in a weapon at hand, he made up for in cool narcissism.
The dark seeds of egotism aren't the only difference between the Disney version of Peter Pan and Barrie’s original. The novel (and the original play) are much more piteous, as well. In an introduction to the play, Barrie writes:
Some say that we are different people at different periods of our lives, changing not through effort of will, which is a brave affair, but in the easy course of nature every ten years or so. … Perhaps we do change; except a little something in us which is no larger than a mote in the eye, and that, like it, dances in front of us beguiling us all our days. I cannot cut the hair by which it hangs.
What we lose — or don't lose — as we grow older is an idea that haunted both Barrie's creative life and his personal one, where he dealt with the first death of the Llewelyn Davies boys (their growing up) and their second, final death. It's the idea that defines his original Peter Pan but has been sanded out of new versions.
The external conflicts in the final chapter of Peter Pan, titled "When Wendy Grew Up," mirror more psychological, internal tensions. Wendy, who in the beginning of the novel is haunted by the inevitability of growing up, is visited by Peter, years after their journey together:
"Peter," she said, faltering, "are you expecting me to fly away with you?"
"Of course that is why I have come." He added a little sternly, "Have you forgotten that this is spring cleaning time?"
She knew it was useless to say that he had let many spring cleaning times pass.
"I can't come," she said apologetically, "I have forgotten how to fly."
"I'll soon teach you again."
"O Peter, don't waste the fairy dust on me."
She had risen; and not at last a fear assailed him. "What is it?" he cried, shrinking.
"I will turn on the light," she said, “and then you can see for yourself.”
For almost the only time in his life that I know of, Peter was afraid. "Don't turn up the light," he cried.
She let her hands play in the hair of the tragic boy. She was not a little girl heart-broken about him; she was a grown woman smiling at it all, but they were wet smiles.
With this short conversation, the novel becomes about something darker, something more adult. Peter is isolated from the rest of humanity and is left alone, sobbing and scared. Wendy has grown up and has a full, beautiful life, with a daughter sleeping in the bed she once did, but, at the same time, she is "only a woman now," no longer an adventurous, bossy child flying through the sky. Barrie seems to say, "Stay a child forever or grow up — either way, you can’t win. Your heart will be broken."
Though both the novel and the play were intended for children — and, certainly, the fairies and flying do make them childlike — I can't help but side with George Bernard Shaw, who, after seeing the play for the first time, called it "entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people."
Barrie did dream of a film that would capture the essence of Neverland and tell Peter's story, and even wrote a scenario for a proposed film of Peter Pan. Safe to say, he imagined something darker than what Disney produced; his film would have featured Wendy, on her wedding day "[crying] a little, then bravely pulls down window as a sign that the days of make-believe are ended.”
Pre-production for Disney's Peter Pan first began in 1939, when Walt Disney obtained the rights to the play from the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, which Barrie had made responsible for his estate. Disney was familiar with the story; it was a personal favorite of his, but it became clear early on that the story would be difficult to translate for the screen. When Dorothy Ann , an assistant in the story department at Walt Disney Studios, was asked to review and report on the source material, she returned frustrated: "I am trying to formulate a straight, simple storyline, but it's all over the place right now. ... Mr. Barrie has scattered it around and made it as confusing as possible."
Disney and his team explored many possibilities of how to interpret Barrie's play and novel, originally thinking they would tackle the origin story of Peter, who, as a baby, leaves his parents and breaks their hearts; ultimately, they decided that was a different story than the colorful, decidedly Disney one that they wanted to tell. As a critic for The New York Times pointed out in 1953:
The well-bred Wendy is a virtual duplicate of the prim Snow White; the pirate, Smee, is the same as the dwarf, Happy, and Baby Michael is a Dopey who talks. Captain Hook, the horrendous villain, is J. Worthington Foulfellow in plumes and Peter himself is reminiscent of some of the boys in “Pinocchio.” As for the famous Barrie fairy, the crystalline and luminous Tinker Bell, she is as nubile and coquettish as the maiden centaurs in “Fantasia.”
For the ending, Disney completely nixed Barrie’s poignant original, the one republished above. Instead, they simply had Mr. and Mrs. Darling return home from their night out to find their children asleep in bed. One of the most extraordinary things Barrie did was blur the line between children and adult relationships, showing how adults have childish traits and children exhibit adult behavior; with Disney’s change to the ending, that insight was gone.
There are plenty of other changes to the Disney versions, many of which have defined how our culture consumes Peter Pan today. One of the most iconic images from the film features Peter, Wendy and the boys flying over London and stopping to play on the face of Big Ben. This scene does not appear in either the book or the play. Michael's elated "I can fly!" or Peter's indignant "I'll never grow up!" are two of the most iconic lines of not just Peter Pan, but early Disney itself, yet they, too, were tacked on by the animators, seen nowhere in Barrie’s original versions.
Disney's changes in tone, character and plot are solely to blame for the ways in which the Peter Pan myth has been distorted. There have been many other screen adaptations since Disney's animated one premiere in 1953, including its own Return to Never Land (2002), a straight-to-video sequel that follows the adventures of Wendy's daughter Jane, and Tinker Bell (2008-present), a set of straight-to-video Disney films that provide the backstory of the eponymous fairy.
Peter Pan is, arguably, the most regurgitated modern myth and children's book. (The only other title that comes close is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.) In 1954, a musical version of Peter Pan hit Broadway; it has since seen two revivals, one in 1979 and another in 1990. The songs, written and composed by Moose Charlap and Carolyn Leigh, are jejune, cloying excuses for music. The final song, "We Will Grow Up," has none of the sadness of "When Wendy Grew Up." Instead, the characters sing, "We will grow up / We will mind our p's and q's."
Steven Spielberg's Hook (1991) dramatizes what happens to Peter Pan when he falls in love and leaves Neverland. We learn that he has turned into Peter Banning (Robin Williams), a successful corporate lawyer with children of his own. "Peter, you’ve become a pirate,” Wendy "Granny Wendy" Darling (Maggie Smith) tells him, and only when Captain Hook kidnaps his two children, does Peter return to Neverland.
Portions of the film do indeed pay homage to Barrie's original story (and not just because there is absolutely no one who can play "overgrown boy" as well as Robin Williams). The film is imbued with delightful scenes that capture the many facets of Peter Pan. Plus, the issue of Tinkerbell and Wendy's unreturned love for Peter is brought to the fore once again. (A very early draft of Barrie's play features Wendy and Tinkerbell making Peter choose between them.) Peter, we learn, grew up only because he found a woman he loved, and though he cared for Wendy and had fun with Tink, they weren’t worth growing up or staying for, respectively. It’s an unexpectedly adult comment on relationship politics and whom we love enough to change for.
But there is something that falls short in Spielberg's version, something that is, at times, too childish and, at other times, too maudlin. Spielberg never manages to strike the same subtle chord that Barrie was able to. Instead, it’s too much of a romp. In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg spoke of his dissatisfaction with the final product: “There were parts of Hook I love. I'm really proud of my work right up through Peter being hauled off in the parachute out the window, heading for Neverland. I'm a little less proud of the Neverland sequences." In a 2013 radio interview, he reiterated: "I so don't like that movie, and I'm hoping someday I'll see it again and perhaps like some of it."
In 2004, Marc Forster directed Finding Neverland, a film based on Allan Knee's play The Man Who was Peter Pan. Finding Neverland served to simplify, not just the story of Peter Pan, but Barrie's relationship to the Davies, as well. In fact, the five boys were reduced to just four in the film.
There are two adaptations that successfully manage to replicate the more psychological, internal elements of Barrie's work. Michael Goldenberg and P. J. Hogan's Peter Pan (2003) adheres closely to both Barrie's play and novel, even borrowing much of its language.
"This is Peter Pan as J. M. Barrie originally intended," said Hogan. "A heroic, magical, real boy who fights pirates, saves children, and never grows up." Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars, writing, "It's so different from what I expected. I walked in anticipating a sweet kiddie fantasy and was surprised to find a film that takes its story very seriously … and even allows a glimpse of underlying sadness." Goldenberg and Hogan's Peter Pan recognized what Barrie's play and novel were really saying, and illuminated it even more: to grow up is sad, but to never grow up is just as tragic. Peter's life becomes no less monotonous than one at a desk; sure, he's fighting pirates, but it's the same one he's been fighting his whole life. There are no new challenges. "To die would be an awfully big adventure," he says in Barrie's original text and in Goldenberg and Hogan's Peter Pan. Of course Peter thinks that; he's cursed to a life unable to give him any more adventures through living.
Like the young woman that Barrie created, Goldenberg and Hogan's Wendy is far wiser than Peter, and though she's having fun with him on this adventure in Neverland, she knows that adventures are only fun if they last a night.
"Come with me where you'll never, never have to worry about grown up things again," begs Peter. But Wendy resists, telling him, "Never is an awful long time."
The second adaptation to capture Barrie's essence is the play Peter and the Starcatcher, based on the 2006 novel of a similar name. The play tells the story of how a nameless orphan became the iconic Peter Pan. It's both original and evocative. What Peter and the Starcatcher lacks in the familiar characters of Wendy, John and Michael (Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, Smee and, of course, Peter are all present), it makes up for in its heartbreaking language. It's difficult to see or read the show's final scene between Peter and Molly (an adventurous young girl, who grows up when Peter cannot) without being reminded of the one Barrie wrote between Peter and Wendy, over a hundred years earlier:
Molly: I'm bound to grow up. What would we do?
Peter: Be friends.
Molly: In a year, that'd be hard. In five years, it'd be silly. In 20 years, it would just be sad.
Peter: (Bitterly) You sound older already.
The broadened versions of Peter Pan have much to do with how our culture treats children's literature. While Young Adult is having it's moment, children's literature is still thought of as being just fun plot points and neat resolutions. In reality, the best children's books — like Tuck Everlasting (no doubt inspired by Peter Pan), Harriet the Spy, Coraline and, of course, Peter Pan — are not as dreamy as they might initially appear. These books and the authors who wrote them admired the shrewd, deft nature of children and spoke to children, rather than at or above them. With luck, some of these authors have seen their work adapted into pieces that do their writing justice. The film versions of both Roald Dahl's Matilda and James and the Giant Peach do justice to the eerie, excruciating tensions of the novels they're based upon. Meanwhile, somewhere in children's literature afterlife, Lewis Carroll turns to J. M. Barrie and says, "You thought Johnny Depp was bad in your adaptation?"
In the opening lines of Peter and Wendy, J. M. Barrie, speaking of Peter, writes, "All children, except one, grow up." Grow, no, but change, yes. Over a hundred years after it was first written, Peter remains part of our collective conscious, but it is not the Peter that Barrie originally dreamed up. I can only hope that, with the newly announced adaptations and the many more that are undoubtedly to come, our culture's collective understanding grows to understand the boy that never could.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29 and The Topaz Review. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.