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Who Is Peter Pan?

Dilip Mehta/Contact Press Images
Michael Jackson at Pebble Beach, California, January 1991

After assorted supernatural experiences and a strenuous course of physical training, Peter Banning appears to shed twenty years and at least ten pounds, and remembers who he really is. He relearns to fly, defeats Captain Hook, and returns to London with Molly and Jack. The idea is that Peter has reestablished connection with his inner child, and will now be the kind of father they need. But given how the real world is presented in this film, there seems some danger that he will forget and regress.

Hook is essentially a story for grownups; it is also a kind of Hollywood fairy tale. In the film industry, youth and energy are eternally desirable but eternally threatened. But here time, though it still haunts the pirate captain, becomes reversible for Peter Banning: the corrupt, out-of-shape, middle-aged executive turns back into a handsome, dashing hero.


For years pirates have been prominent in popular culture. Robert Louis Stevenson, who was a Scotsman like Barrie and a frequent correspondent of his, had one of his greatest hits with Treasure Island. Today in Disney amusement parks both here and abroad, “Pirates of the Caribbean” rides are big attractions. They have done so well and sold so much merchandise that they were eventually developed into video games, and then into a series of successful films starring Johnny Depp. Pirates are also dominant in many Peter Pan sequels and prequels for children, like Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s Starcatchers series, in which Peter and his friends wage an apparently endless struggle with Hook and his crew; five volumes of their adventures have already appeared in book form, and a film version is in the works.

Today there are pirate festivals in thirty-one American states, including a three-day event in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, during which 450 local businessmen in pirate costume storm the town and kidnap the mayor. And about an hour away from where I am writing this, in Johnson City, New York, there is now a Pirate School, where for $15 “both youngsters and adults [can] discover their ‘inner-swashbuckler’!” The appeal of all these rides, films, books, and events has apparently not been diminished by the recent appearance in the Indian Ocean of a lot of very real and unpleasant pirates.

Politically Correct Pan

In Barrie’s original play and novel, Neverland contains not only pirates but fairies, mermaids, Indians, and wild beasts: lions and tigers and bears and wolves. But as time passed, while the pirates became more and more prominent, the rest of the cast gradually changed or sank into obscurity. The Indian princess Tiger Lily and her tribe of inappropriately named “piccaninnies” were among the first to go. In the play they talk in dialect, but they are brave and dignified. Disney’s 1953 animated film, on the other hand, is full of caricatured Native Americans who wear feathers and live in comic teepees. Their song “What Makes the Red Man Red” attributes the complexion of Native Americans to blushes of sexual embarrassment. They are also portrayed as notably misogynistic: they exclude Wendy from the pow-wow and force her to carry wood for the fire. More recently, American Indians take up less or no space in the story, and are no longer figures of fun. The animal rights movement has also had its effect on Peter Pan. Already in the Disney film the Lost Boys do not kill wild beasts; instead they wear animal skins that look like Halloween costumes for toddlers. Today animals make rare appearances in Neverland, and there are no hunting scenes.

The traditional Christmas pantomime usually included a singing and/or dancing chorus line of some sort, and in the original Peter Pan some of the showgirls were mermaids. According to the stage directions, they are friendly to Peter Pan but hostile to ordinary children: in the lagoon scene one of them tries to drown Wendy. Later versions of the story portray the mermaids only peripherally, as equally attractive but less dangerous. Tinker Bell, on the other hand, who was just a flashing point of light in the original play, became a voluptuous little sexpot in the Disney film. From then on she was usually a tiny, pretty young woman in both animated and film versions. In Hook she turns into a beautiful life-size fairy who dances in the sky with Peter and kisses him, something that would probably have deeply annoyed Barrie—but of course, this Peter is well past puberty and the father of two children. Several concessions are also made to contemporary conventions of political correctness. The Lost Boys are a multicultural gang, and Peter’s daughter Molly is a brave little girl who fights the pirates along with her brother.

Lost Girls Lost

Children’s literature contains very few girls who do not want to grow up. In Peter and Wendy Mrs. Darling looks at her daughter, then aged two, and cries, “Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!” but Wendy herself never shares this wish. As Barrie puts it, “She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls.” What Wendy mostly does in Neverland is to play at being a mother, not only to Peter and the Lost Boys but to her own brothers. In fantasy, she is what was called at the time, with sentimental approval, a “little mother.” When Peter Pan was first staged it was still not uncommon for women to die young, leaving small children; and daughters who took over their role in the family were much admired.

The rapidly declining maternal death rates and the growth of feminism gradually made Wendy’s maternal focus seem uncomfortably old-fashioned. Soon, both on stage and in films, she was often replaced by a more active protagonist. Disney’s Return to Never Land (2002) replaces Wendy with her daughter Jane, who starts out by being the worst kind of liberated female: a self-important rationalist who does not believe in fairies. In the course of the film, however, she learns not only to believe, but to fly and to fight.

It is true that one famous heroine of children’s literature, Jo March in Little Women, wants to stop time. When her older sister Meg becomes engaged, Jo is upset, and wishes that the family could stay just as they are; she also complains about having to give up her tomboy freedom. But what Jo is really rejecting is not maturity; it is the constricted life of a Victorian woman. Usually the protagonists of famous children’s books are eager to grow up; and in one modern classic, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (1975), the ten-year-old heroine deliberately refuses to drink from a spring of immortality.

Girls in children’s books often visit other worlds, but they seldom want to stay. Though Wendy enjoys Neverland, she is the first to suggest that they leave. Alice is uncomfortable in Wonderland, and in the first few Oz books Dorothy Gale keeps trying to go home to Kansas—though in later sequels both she and her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em end up in the magical world, where they will never age or die.

There are, further, no Lost Girls in Neverland. Barrie explains this by telling us that the Lost Boys were all babies who fell out of their perambulators, and that girls were always too clever to do any such thing. Today, perhaps for a similar reason, there are few female slacker films. Women in popular culture are often shown as upset and depressed by the idea of growing old, usually because age will make them less attractive to men, but they seldom seem to long for a permanent adolescence in which they can hang out with other lazy, unemployed females, get drunk, and talk dirty. Usually they want the traditional perks of successful adulthood: good jobs and expensive clothes and attractive lovers and husbands. Possibly, after being treated as irresponsible children for so many years, they have no desire for that role; while men, with a long history of pressure to grow up and take responsibility, are still dreaming of escape into perpetual youth.

Michael Jackson’s Neverland

The strangest reincarnation of Peter Pan in our time was surely that of the pop star Michael Jackson (1958–2009). For years he identified with Barrie’s hero, declaring to reporters, “I am Peter Pan,” though it was an identification that as time passed, especially after Jackson reached his fiftieth birthday, became harder and harder to sustain, just as it had for Barrie. Jackson also dreamed of playing Peter on stage, and when on tour in England in his late twenties he spoke to the director Trevor Nunn about this possibility. According to Nunn:

I described our production, in which all the children’s parts had been played by adult actors. He bounded across the room, his eyes full of tears, he knelt down in front of me, his hands on my knees, and he said: “Could I play Peter, is it too late?”

Like Barrie, Jackson sometimes said that his childhood ended at the age of six. In Barrie’s case the death of his older brother David, his mother’s favorite, caused her to withdraw from the world and lie in bed with her face to the wall, refusing to care for her surviving children. For Jackson the break came when the demands of performance and publicity began to prevent him from having a normal boyhood.

As soon as he could, Jackson did his best to realize the fantasy of reliving those lost years. From 1988 to 2005 his home was a three-thousand-acre property in Santa Barbara County that he called the Neverland Ranch. Eventually it contained an amusement park with a Ferris wheel and carousel, a petting zoo, several Disney-type rides (one featuring pirates), a floral clock, two miniature railroads, and a Tudor-style mansion. His Heal the World Foundation, established to fight world hunger, homelessness, and child abuse, also brought busloads of underprivileged boys and girls to the Neverland Ranch, where they were lavishly entertained, and often met and played with Jackson. Occasionally, young boys slept over in Jackson’s mansion; he was twice accused of having abused them, but never convicted. Today, the consensus seems to be that he was innocent. (According to both his wives, he was heterosexual and a lot of fun in bed.)

Like that of his famous character, James Barrie’s life has been subjected to many revisions and interpretations, including a 2004 semibiographical film—Finding Neverland, directed by Marc Forster and starring Johnny Depp as Barrie—about the writer’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family. At first he was portrayed as a genius who rose from a poor provincial background to become world-famous, and much was made of his friendship with and generosity to the Davies family. Critics have seen him as both the hero and the villain of his own story. He is Peter Pan, the charming, impulsive young captain who leads a gang of boys on exciting imaginary adventures—and who reportedly never consummated his marriage. He is also Captain Hook, the sinister middle-aged man who is in conflict with Peter over the possession of both the “little mother” Wendy and her brothers, just as Barrie was at odds with Arthur Davies, who resented his growing presence in the family’s life. (When Barrie played pirates with the Davies boys, he was always Hook.)

Occasionally Barrie has been presented as a sad, neurotic pedophile. Piers Dudgeon’s Captivated: J.M. Barrie, the Lost Boys and Daphne du Maurier (2008) goes even further; it reinvents him as a malevolent asexual magician who was ultimately responsible for the illness and death of Jack Davies, which actually took place twenty-two years after Barrie’s own, and the suicide of Jack’s brother Peter the following year. (Dudgeon also claims that Barrie had a sinister postmortem influence on Sylvia Davies’s niece, the writer Daphne du Maurier, whose father, Gerald du Maurier, starred in many of Barrie’s plays: according to Dudgeon, Barrie caused the “invasion and destruction of her entire family.”) Unfortunately, any writer who can create a figure as fascinating and enduring as Peter Pan will always seem to some to have supernatural powers, perhaps beatific, and perhaps of a darker sort—it almost goes with the territory.

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