Peter Pan, Antihero
In the novel, the real hero is Wendy.
I might eventually watch the new Peter Pan & Wendy on Disney+, but I’m not in any hurry to. A solid live-action Peter Pan already exists, and it came out a mere twenty years ago, which isn’t enough time to justify another adaptation of the same one book.
The 2003 Peter Pan takes some liberties, but it faithfully captures the spirit of J.M. Barrie’s novel.
The score by James Newton Howard is just about perfect, and Jason Isaacs (who played Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series) makes an excellent Captain Hook. The movie, more than the novel, emphasizes Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) being caught right between childhood and adulthood, but that still fits the story’s main themes. Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) is very much the Peter of the novel.
The novel is what I really want to focus on here, because that’s the definitive Peter Pan.
J.M. Barrie writes with an infectious narrative voice. It reads like he’s telling a bedtime story that he’s making up on the fly and he’s somehow nailing it on the first go. He infuses the whole thing with abundant imagination as well as more substance than you’d expect in a children’s story, and that substance is why the story has endured for over a century.
In a lesser book, Peter Pan would be a straightforward, harmless fantasy hero guiding children on delightful adventures, each ending in a moral. But he’s not a heroic figure here. He plays at being a hero when it suits him, but he’s neither hero nor villain. He could turn out either way, provided he ever lets himself turn out any which way.
And that’s the tragedy of Peter Pan. All other children allow themselves to grow up eventually. They leave Neverland. They mature. They develop. Peter Pan never develops. He, by his own choice, stunts himself in a perpetual childhood. He gains a lot of colorful, shallow adventures but loses so much more.
Since he won’t solidify, he’s always in flux. He epitomizes the capriciousness of young children.
In the book, the Darling children’s flight to Neverland is not a quick trip, and it nearly veers into a nightmarish turn more than once. The kids get tired along the way, but if they fall asleep, they’ll drop right out of the sky.
“The awful thing was that Peter thought this funny,” the narrator says.
At one point, Michael does drop “like a stone,” and Wendy urges Peter to save him.
“Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that engrossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next time you fell he would let you go.”
The kids realize that they should be nice to Peter because if he were to abandon them, they’d have no idea how to get home. They wouldn’t even know how to stop flying, because he forgot to show them how.
Peter occasionally gets bored and shoots on ahead to some other adventure, then returns and laughs about what a great time he had, even though he barely remembers the adventure.
More chillingly, he keeps nearly forgetting the Darling children altogether. Peter and memory have a tenuous relationship throughout the book.
“Indeed, sometimes when he returned he did not remember them, at least not well. Wendy was sure of it. She saw recognition come into his eyes as he was about to pass them the time of day and go on; once even she had to call him by name.”
John and Michael also begin to experience memory loss after they’re in Neverland for a while. Wendy devises tests, like they’re in school, to ensure that they don’t forget their parents.
“What did disturb her at times was that John remembered his parents vaguely only, as people he had once known, while Michael was quite willing to believe that she was really his mother.”
Wendy is the real hero of this novel, whose original title in 1911 was Peter and Wendy. She achieves her heroic stature not by besting Captain Hook in combat but simply by being willing to grow up and bring others along on the path to adulthood.
Peter is essentially recruiting kids and pulling them down into his perpetual childhood. He not only refuses to grow up himself, but he also encourages the Lost Boys to join him in arrested development. The kid is a bad influence.
Wendy’s arrival in Neverland fills a void in the Lost Boys’ lives. She becomes the mother figure they sorely need. The novel, beneath all the colorful episodes, recognizes the importance of mothers, similar to how Mary Poppins, beneath all the colorful episodes, recognizes the importance of fathers.
At first, Wendy and Peter are merely playing at being “mother” and “father” to this ragtag group, and for Peter it’s never more than a game, just another variation of Neverland make-believe. But Wendy takes an important step toward adulthood by realizing she needs to leave Neverland. And she saves the Lost Boys by offering them an opportunity to leave too.
Peter doesn’t take it well.
“But of course he cared very much; and he was so full of wrath against grown-ups, who, as usual, were spoiling everything, that as soon as he got inside his tree he breathed intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second. He did this because there is a saying in the Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off as vindictively as possible.”
Not exactly a boy you’d want your daughter to bring home, and not someone you’d want any child to emulate. He’s not all bad, though. Earlier, when he and Wendy are trapped on a rock in a lagoon, he gallantly puts her safety before his own.
Tinker Bell is similarly mercurial. When she’s deciding to kill Wendy, the narrator describes her as follows:
“Tink was not all bad: or rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good. Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for only one feeling at a time. They are, however, allowed to change, only it must be a complete change.”
It’s a more extreme version of what children experience in Neverland. They explore through imaginative playtime, which is something kids need for a time. They can pretend to be all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, but so long as playtime persists, they never have to commit to becoming anything or anyone in particular.
Neverland is sort of like the gingerbread house in “Hansel and Gretel.” It lures children in and entices them to gorge themselves on all the many delights it contains. And the more they do that, the more Neverland devours their memories and all the potential that they might achieve out in the real world. But leaving the gingerbread house is a matter of basic survival. Kids have to choose to leave Neverland (and their childhood) behind, and that takes a different kind of effort.
Toward the end of the novel, Peter watches the happy reunion of the Darling family:
“There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.”
There’s lots of magic in Peter Pan, but the novel never forgets that the most satisfying magic can be found in real life.
Here’s a different look at the American Revolution …
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