Who’s up for a trip to Neverland? I know I could sure use one. J.M. Barrie‘s immortal story has been delighting children and children at heart for over a century with its joyful, sparky melée of pirates, mermaids, Lost Boys, Native Americans (although the story calls them Indians), happy thoughts, fairies, and of course, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
Peter Pan first came to life in Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird, in which Peter was a minor character but still pivotal to the narrative. The protagonist is “Captain W” who befriends a married woman and her children, telling them stories and encouraging them to use their imaginations.
The story was slightly autobiographical, of course (read it here), as Barrie was close friends with Sylvia Llewelyn-Davies and her five boys, who ended up inspiring the play, Peter Pan. Barrie met the boys in Kensington Gardens and encouraged them to use their imaginations, culling a lot of their fanciful exploits in his new stage production. Peter Pan is named after the middle son.
Peter Pan also had roots in Barrie’s early life. When his brother David died in 1867 at the age of thirteen, it struck the six-year old Barrie that his brother would always be young, and when he saw his mother asking for David and heard her talking to him at night, Barrie took up some of David’s habits, such as whistling with his hands in his pockets.
As hard as he tried, though, Barrie was never able to help his mother forget about David enough to focus on him, and as time went on he became a little jealous. Still, that knowledge that David was essentially frozen in time never left him: “When I became a man…he was still a boy of thirteen.”
Barrie went to university in Edinburgh because his mother said David would have done that, and even though he graduated, the experience only turned him shy and even more turned off by the world of adulthood. In his notebook he wrote, “Grow up and have to give up marbles–awful thought.”
Bound and determined to become a writer, Barrie had a brief stint as a newspaperman, but where he really hit his stride was as a novelist and playwright. It took a while, though, as most of his first works were not well received. His 1901 play, Quality Street was the point at which things started to turn around.
Peter Pan premiered on December 27, 1904 in London and was an immediate success. Sylvia’s brother, Gerald du Maurier (yes, Daphne’s father) played both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. The tradition of Peter being played by a woman started at the get-go, with Nina Boucicault first bringing the character to life. Since then, of course, the part has been played by Maude Adams, Mary Martin, Sandra Dee, and Cathy Rigby, for starters.
The big question typically is, why is Peter Pan often played by a woman? Simply put: English child labor laws in 1904 prohibited children under fourteen from performing after nine PM, and if Peter is played by a younger person, the other actors would have to be scaled down. Ergo, it’s been a tradition for women to play the role.
This doesn’t always carry over in the various film versions, though, where Peter has been played by quite a variety of folks. Here are just a few of them:
Peter Pan (1924)
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–this is one of my favorite silent movies. It was made with J.M. Barrie’s direct involvement, although not as much as he would have liked, and is a fanciful, fun production.
Peter Pan (1953)
Starring the doomed Bobby Driscoll as Peter, the Disney version has come under fire recently for its depiction of Native Americans, but it’s not without its charms.
Piter Pen (1987)
This Russian production sticks pretty closely to Barrie’s original story, or at least it seems to. It’s easily accessible on YouTube, and while there are no English subtitles, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s going on.
I Would Be Peter Pan (1992)
Another straight retelling, this Romanian film is apparently very well-done, but unfortunately it’s extremely hard to find, at least in North America.
This movie needs no introduction because it’s Robin Williams, Maggie Smith, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman, and Bob Hoskins. Commence bowing and scraping.
Finding Neverland (2005)
An origin story within an origin story, Finding Neverland is based on a play of the same name and presents a fictionalized look at the relationship between J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies family. This one deserves its own Stage To Screen, so we’ll be coming back someday.
OK, this version is straight-up weird. Among other things, Peter doesn’t become Peter Pan until he’s twelve and Hugh Jackman as Captain Hook looks like that Pierre Le Pieu guy from Ever After.
All has not been rosy for the Peter Pan legacy. The dialogue in the original play is considered very dated nowadays, so it’s rarely performed, and besides the complaints about the treatment of Native American peoples, Peter Pan’s namesake, Peter Llewelyn Davies came to hate his association with the character. Although he grew up to be a respected and famous publisher, it seemed that every time he achieved anything the papers would always refer to him as Peter Pan. Peter struggled with deep depression, alcoholism, and emphysema and finally threw himself under a train, dying in 1960 at the age of sixty-three.
Its history might be a wee bit tarnished, but Peter Pan remains a madcap festival of imagination, possibility, and eternal youth. As Peter Pan himself said, “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”
All right, everyone, I’ll be taking a teeny break until Veteran’s Day because I’ve been sick, unfortunately, and just barely gotten these last few posts up in a somewhat timely manner. It stinks, but that’s life sometimes. After that, with the exception of Thanksgiving break, we’ll be going gangbusters for the rest of the month. I hope you’ll keep checking back because it’s going to be fun. Thanks for reading, all, and see you on November eleventh…
Hook (DVD and Blu-ray), Finding Neverland (DVD and Blu-ray) and the 1924 (DVD and Blu-ray), and 1953 (DVD and Blu-ray) versions of Peter Pan are available to own from Amazon. The original novel is available here. The Little White Bird is available here.
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Birkin, Andrew and Sharon Goode. J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2003.