A Labyrinth of Pans

I recently read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the novel version, for the first time. My, it’s good. I was struck by how none of the films capture its bizarre humour, or its strange and melancholy conclusion. And the character of Peter himself, arrogant and “heartless” but insistently attractive (or so Barrie keeps telling us), is never really attempted.

There’s three films that work on their own terms ~

The silent PETER PAN (Herbert Brenon, 1924) is really lovely. At times, it feels like a record of the play, an opportunity to time-travel back and see what Edwardian audiences saw. But has enough cinema to it for this not to become a drag factor. We get the best of both worlds (stage/cinema, London/Neverland). And the cast is ideal.

The Disney version of 1953 ruthlessly homogenizes Barrie’s vision, as the silent did before it, but the visuals are attractive (those blue night skies!), the animation superb and the voice casting pretty fine, with even the Americanization of Peter working to its advantage — Bobby Driscoll is the elated Yank showing the stuffy Brits how to live/fly. The ending isn’t Barrie’s bleak last chapter, by any stretch, but in its way it’s poetic and magical and odd. The image of the flying ship is introduced here — Barrie doesn’t have it.

(I haven’t seen the belated [straight-to-video?] sequel, RETURN TO NEVERLAND, but I assume I’d hate it: imagine suddenly being shown a reproduction of your childhood only all your friends and relatives are being played by impostors with painted faces.)

FINDING NEVERLAND is pretty satisfying, though I’m not a fan of the director. It skirts around the more awkward questions, but it works, I think. Johnny Depp’s accent isn’t exactly a realistic Scottish accent but he isn’t exactly a realistic actor. It works too. And the outtakes of Kelly Macdonald as the stage Pan, flailing about on wires crashing into the set walls are fantastic — buy the DVD for those alone.

Oh wait, YouTube. Got to 2:17 and it all happens.

How, then, to explain the three monstrous, bloated and charmless renditions of Barrie’s work?

HOOK (1991) is probably the first Spielberg film I truly hated on sight. I remember getting stupidly annoyed at the plastic frost decorating the windows — they had all the money in the world to make this, why couldn’t they do convincing frost? I just rewatched forty minutes, in a kind of gaping disbelief, and this time focussed myopically on a really bad cut in the opening children’s play. Peter’s daughter seems to teleport. The disruptive continuity howler — some things really DO pull you out of a movie — occurs in front of an entire audience of potential cutaways, so there is no conceivable reason for it except sloppiness or exhaustion.But these focal points barely even qualify as symptoms of the big-picture rot. Our old friend James V. Hart, of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA fame, scripted. I’m in two minds about his high concept premise — “What if Peter Pan grew up?” Part of me thinks the answer is, “If that happened, you would lose your USP.” And this is what in fact happens – you get a Peter Pan film without a Peter Pan.

There are compensations, if you forget about why you came. The idea that Peter would forget who he is ties in with his infantile amnesia in the book — Peter forgets everything unless it’s actually active in his life — this leads to the final chapter where he can’t remember Hook, or Tinkerbell, or even Wendy. So Hart’s treatment is a little more faithful to the story than I used to give him credit for. And there’s a good nightmarish anxiety to the situation he then finds himself in — abducted to this fantasy land he can’t remember, and expected to play a role that’s no longer him. (They should have made something of a kid in the opening play being unable to remember the lines.)It’s just that the way it all plays out is gaudy and vulgar and ugly. The sets are simultaneously massive and expensive-looking yet horribly bright, clean and cheap-looking. They want to get some kind of theatrical stylisation going but it all has to look epic and belaboured. There’s not quite enough cartoon expressionism in the shapes to give a sense of lighter-than-air fantasy. And yet, squinting hard, I can’t put my finger on why this stuff feels forced while an MGM musical could pull off the same sort of look. I think it probably has more to do with what’s going on IN the sets.

Robin Williams ought to be a good adult Peter, if anyone ever wanted to see such a thing, at the end, when he acquires what I suppose we must call Panhood. But there’s such a struggle to use his manic, improvising persona in the early scenes, where he’s supposed to embody the worst aspects of adulthood (from the perspective of a disappointed son or a millionaire fantasist) that the glee is spurted out prematurely and we never get the melancholy Barrie clearly felt about growing up, which is what the movie desperately needs. The Depp of FINDING NEVERLAND would have been a better fit here. And I think Williams could have aced it, if they hadn’t kept trying to force him to be his usual self.

The idea of a violent Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) playing Three Stooges routines with the fortysomething Peter is lifted from the battering Carol Kane gives Bill Murray in SCROOGED, where it was also quite out of keeping with the source matieral but at least was an original take. And funny.Then there’s Dustin Hoffman. Spielberg had apparently been really keen to work with Dustin Hoffman. I guess maybe this cured him. But he didn’t really get any of the benefits of working with Hoffman — you know, the skilled, credible performance. All he got was a putrid Terry-Thomas impersonation, plus the downside of working with Hoffman, which is having to hang out with Dustin Hoffman.

Bob Hoskins embodies Smee beautifully. Hoskins was pretty much always good, and Smee is the character who always seems to work. Barrie sketches him in lightly, but the suggestion that Smee is a lovely, sweet man who thinks he’s a terrifying pirate, and even Hook doesn’t have the heart to disabuse him of this notion, always seems to emerge somehow.I also remember being offended by the multi-ethnic Lost Boys. It’s a nice thing that Spielberg wanted to get some diversity in. But why, then, are they all American? Why are they all boys? If they’re boys because we’re being faithful to Barrie, then they shouldn’t be American. They can be any ethnicity, his descriptions don’t preclude that, but he’s clear about how they talk. America is quite a big problem in this film — the whole opening has to set up a world the film will then abandon, in favour of London, which it then has to abandon ALSO. Oh, and the kids have basketballs and skateboards. They are all Poochie from The Itchy and Scratchy Show.

And Peter has to rediscover who he is to be a better father — except that Barrie’s Peter would make a TERRIBLE father, seeing as he’s totally self-centred.The film is full of evidence of Spielberg’s skill, and cinematographer Dean Cundey emits some gorgeous lighting — the real beauty seems to emerge from unexpected places, while the stuff the movie NEEDS to make beautiful tend to be leaden, garish or puddingy. Like Stevenson’s description of Mr. Hyde, the movie somehow imparts an impression of deformity without having anything you can really point to as proof of disfigurement.

Spielberg had a kind of Peter Pan obsession for a while, and talked about doing a version starring fellow enthusiast Michael Jackson, but I never heard any realistic plans for how they were going to make that work. A black, or originally-black Peter, sure. A Peter played by an adult who THINKS he’s a kid, maybe not. I believe Jackson tried to sue Spielberg when he made HOOK instead.

But look at these pretty things! I particularly admire the map markings on the actual geography of Neverland.

P.J. Hogan’s 2003 PETER PAN is also pretty repulsive. The cinematography is actually pretty tasteful as long as there are no special effects involved, but the long shots of Neverland, the skies etc, are all lurid monstrosities, Maxfield Parrish with the chroma turned up until your retinas catch fire.

Ever time a cherub vomits, a cloud is formed.

The departures from Barrie are striking,and pointless. The kids have acquired a meaningless auntie, and though it’s always nice to see Lynn Redgrave, she doesn’t get to have any fun here. Jason Isaacs plays both Captain Hook and the kids’ dad, which might make a kind of sense if he were the slightly oppressive, comic patriarch of Barrie’s opening chapters (the Disney film probably captures that guy best, and there Hans Conried voiced both Hook and Mr. Darling, and it DID work), but here he’s a milksop clerk, so there’s no resonance in the stunt casting. I guess Hogan just really likes Jason Isaac,Richard Briers is Smee. Works like a charm, though there’s nothing SURPRISING about it — except for the always pleasant surprise of finding Briers in a film. (The real Briers loved nothing better than SWEARING HIS HEAD OFF, and I wish there were a movie that indulged this. But I know of none.)

My assumption on reading Barrie is that the viciousness in the book would be toned down in movie adaptations, but this is not really so. We first meet Isaac with his hook off, and he’s sporting a graphic, scarred-up stump. Unlike in Disney, where Hook is humourously chased over the horizon by the crocodile, here he gets the demise Barrie planned for him, though having the kids taunt him for being “old” is a fresh bit of nastiness, and I couldn’t work out what benefit we were meant to derive from it.A book about being a kid, and staying a kid versus growing up, morphs into a film with teenage stars, which makes a kind of commercial sense, though I think you’d only get smaller kids and their parents going to see this. Rachel Hurd-Wood is an extremely toothsome Wendy, and Jeremy Sumpter is another American Peter, with an impressive young bod and a tendency to overdo the character’s crowing (which Barrie reports faithfully but winces at) so that he seems at times like a gloating bully.

Alan Moore always talked about doing an erotic Peter Pan, which eventually evolved into The Lost Girls, a graphic novel exploring the grown-up sex lives of Alice (of Wonderland), Wendy (of the Neverland) and Dorothy (of Oz). He was convinced, before it became fashionable to say so, that the Barrie book was laden with unconscious sexuality, which may be true. There was something that fascinated me as a kid in the Disney film and comics — something polymorphous and kinky. Hogan’s movie has a lot of arse jokes and lighthearted child nudity that’s quite eyebrow-raising now, and tries to concoct more of a teen romance than is really there, but leaves out the heartbreak which could have really made it worthwhile. It could have worked for teenagers the way Baz Luhrman’s souped-up, soaped-up ROMEO + JULIET clearly did, if there had been anything to get weepy over.

The visual effects, apart from being nauseatingly gaudy, do allow Peter to dart about in the air just as Bobby Driscoll’s cartoon avatar did. No need for the ponderous bobbing of an actor on wires — or rather, Peter and Wendy can float weightlessly, but then flash from one side of the room to another, like humming birds, which we suddenly realized we always wanted them to be able to do. Disney’s flying ship is back, and looks quite lovely at times. It’s a relief to escape back to London and get away from those chocolate box skies.

Joe Wright’s PAN is probably the most annoying of this trio although, to be clear, they are all absolutely INFURIATING. It has some of the same ugly visuals, although again it does better on London. WWII London, oddly enough. A story positioning itself as a prequel to Barrie’s Peter Pan for some reason sets itself historically afterwards. Why? It’s not really clear. It allows them to have flying galleons (Disney again) and Spitfires in the same scene, but this doesn’t in any way impact the wider plot. I have a theory for this madness, but I have to save it up until the end…Levi Miller makes a very beautuful Peter — we first encounter him as being bullied and starved by nasty nun Kathy Burke in an orphanage during the Blitz . We get a bit of what the BBFC quaintly calls “mild language.” Then flying pirates start abducting kids, and Peter follows them through space (the Hogan movie also includes a bit of interplanetary zooming, although Barrie’s Neverland is obviously an island, not an alien world). Then Peter is enslaved in a fairy-dust mine by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, giving it his all), and meets James Hook, who isn’t a pirate, but rather an Indiana Jones/cowboy type played by Garrett Hedlund.

There’s so much wrong with all this that I can’t even begin to sum it up, but let’s start by agreeing what the Neverland is supposed to be. In Barrie, Wendy and her brothers all know the Neverland from their dreams. It’s the place of adventure that children dream about, so naturally it’s a whole incongruous mixture of genres. The only justification for Barrie mixing pirates, Indians, fairies and mermaids in one story is that he’s recreating the Jungian collective unconscious as a kind of children’s theme park. One thing he omits to include, and I suspect it was intentional, is slave labour. You don’t start your awfully big adventure by getting shackled in a salt mine, especially if you’ve just escaped from a Dickensian orphanage,

Peter discovers he can fly around this point, but then loses the ability and doesn’t remember how he did it. An earthbound Peter who lacks confidence isn’t the Peter Pan we know at all, but I guess we’re here to find out how he becomes the legend. But it’s a bit like HOOK, a story designed especially to deprive us of the expected pleasures.If I wanted to do screenwriter Joseph Fuchs’ job for him, I would suggest starting either with a Victorian orphanage (so that the story would actually predate the novel), or else the background of child evacuees (so that the story is actually specific to WWII). But for all I know he thought of all that and the execs forced him to Fuchs things up. But since Peter doesn’t age, I’d be tempted to start him out in an even earlier period, perhaps contemporary with Hook, who should be a proper pirate.

As I realised that Peter’s brief burst of flight was going to be followed with an hour of performance anxiety, I suddenly flashed on DUMBO. That’s where this story idea comes from. Fuchs is going full Joseph Campbell on us, mashing up bits of familiar stories in the hopes of capitalizing on their resonance. It’s like he read the Umberto Eco piece on CASABLANCA and didn’t bother to fact-check it, took it all quite literally. So Hook, who is already Indiana Jones, makes a last-minute redemptive return EXACTLY like Han Solo in the first STAR WARS; Peter is the son of the Fairy King and a human mother, EXACTLY like Jesus. And so on. In fairness, Barrie was doing a kind of mash-up of his own, but he seems to have been having a lot more fun.

A prequel to Peter Pan that casts Peter and Hook as buddies, it seems to me, should end up by telling us how they became enemies. It’s not like we ever had a burning desire to know how they MET. And yet, this crucial scene is not included, as if the makers hoped for a sequel. Hmm, a sequel where the hero is betrayed, lops of his friend’s limb and leaves him for dead? Sounds like REVENGE OF THE SITH. Which did OK box office, I believe.The crocodile does appear, but doesn’t get fed Hook’s hand (Barrie’s most grisly and amusing idea, the great reptile enjoying the taste so much that it follows Hook doggedly from then on, hoping to snaffle the rest of him). Tinkerbell appears, but doesn’t get to do anything to distinguish her from the swarms of other humanoid fireflies. The mermaids appear, a shoal of Cara Delevignes, but do literally nothing. There are Never Birds, which are usually left out: they all look like THE GIANT CLAW. Tiger Lily is whitewashed into being Rooney Mara. Too old for Peter, too young for Hook: this makes the film completely sexless. I’m guessing that, if the previous PP was aimed at girls, this violent and dour Neverland is boy’s own territory.

So, everything is either neglected, absent, or all wrong. At the end, it’s Hook who says “Second star to the right and straight on till morning,” only he leaves out the word STAR, rendering the line both prosaic and meaningless, which sums up the whole enterprise.Oh, there’s a very characterful fellow called Adeel Akhtar, who is the Ideal Actor to play Smee. Who is now for some myterious reason Sam Smiegel. To get in a bit of LORD OF THE RINGS “resonance”? Akhtar is great, though, maybe the greatest Smee in a long line of great Smees. Smee alway works. He’s like Renfield and Goebbels. You can’t go wrong.

In fairness to all those who have tried and failed, what Barrie does is strange, hard to pin down, and difficult. Nearly all his considerable wit is contained in the descriptions of characters’ thoughts, and therefore not directly filmable. (A movie’s narrator can only do so much: they have to shut up eventually.) His plotting is loose, to say the least: he spends a lot of time setting up Hook’s poisoned cake plot, and then throws it away with a single line. He implies a near-infinite array of stories, almost impossible to choose from, and doesn’t traffick in satisfying pay-offs, preferring to pull dramatic rescues out of his ass whenever required. Deus ex anum. And all of this serves him very well on the page. The trouble with the screenwriters trying to fill his shoes is that they display all the same faults, which are much more destructive in a movie, and have none of his virtues. Hart, Hogan and Fuchs seem all curiously devoid of humour, to the point where I really wonder what would attract them to this material. (I know PJ Hogan had a background in comedy, but it’s deserted him here. He’s trying for laughs, but without being amused himself.)

Somebody should do Peter Pan again: it’s worth getting right. They will need to remember it’s a children’s story; that Peter and Wendy are children; that the Never Land is children’s dreams of adventure; that the book is funny both ha-ha and peculiar; that the brighter the colours, the more taste you need to apply. Have fun!

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14 Responses to “A Labyrinth of Pans”

  1. In HOOK, I liked that Peter’s first gambit when confronting Hook to win release of his kids is to whip out his checkbook. And that was about it.

  2. Fee here – In the Finding Neverland out-takes, I see Hoffman’s up to his old, touchy feely ways. I can’t remember if he’s meant to kiss that character on the neck. (Correct me if I’m wrong) Instead he blows a raspberry into it and she giggles in a a slightly embarassed way. Awkward.

  3. Kelly Wiggin Says:

    Regarding Jason Isaacs: It’s the stage play’s tradition (going all the way back to Gerald du Maurier) to have the same actor play Hook and Mr Darling. Thinking that it was sort of clever of Hogan to do that is about all I remember of his adaptation.

  4. Thanks gor this! Any thoughts on An Awfully Big Adventure?

  5. “What if Peter Pan grew up?”
    “The curtain rises to show PETER a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in HOOK’S hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw.” – end of Act V sc. 1

    Saki’s view of PETER PAN: “With all reverence for the author of that masterpiece I should say he had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys. To make only one criticism on that particular work, can you imagine a lot of British boys, or boys of any country that one knows of, who would stay contentedly playing children’s games in an underground cave when there were wolves and pirates and Red Indians to be had for the asking on the other side of the trap door?”
    … “You evidently think that the ‘Boy who would not grow up’ must have been written by a ‘grown-up who could never have been a boy.’ Perhaps that is the meaning of the ‘Never-never Land.’ ”

  6. I don’t recall An Awfully Big Adventure resonating that much with its own title, but it’s been a long time. I remember wishing it hadd more obvious Charles Wood linguistic experimentation, but he did have the shell-shocked guy with echolalia which was nice.

    One of Barrie’s more fascinating hints is that Peter could turn into Hook — but his goldfish memory ultimately precludes any real evolution.

    The playing house stuff isn’t very boyish, it’s true, but the kids DO have lots of adventures, though Barrie only really narrates one. The sense is that, like kids, they like to run wild in the day but then have a mother (Wendy) to run home to,

    Mr Darling and Capt. Hook as the same actor makes sense if both are tyrants, which is how Barrie plays it. In his novel and play, Mr. D is humbled (complete nervous breakdown, living as a dog) and Hook is eaten, so the adult males are defeated. Since Hogan’s script destroys any resemblance and makes Mr. D a milksop, I’m not sure that helps at all, especially as it’s a movie and stunt casting of that kind arguably needs a better justification.

    Creepy Grampa Dustin.

  7. Jack Lechner Says:

    Amen to most of this — but I have to disagree with you about the Hogan movie, which I think is remarkable, right down to the double casting of Jason Isaacs. (Why make Mr. Darling a milksop? Because watching the actor play two diametrically different people is FUN.) Hogan drills right down to the core of the story, i.e. the “unconscious sexuality,” and the result is something far stranger and more complex than just about any other movie with this budget and this level of VFX. Not to mention the delight of a swashbuckling Wendy; if Smee always works, then Wendy almost never works … except in Hogan’s version.

  8. There DOES have to be some kind of pre-sexual tension between Wendy and Peter otherwise she’ll be a complete snooze, serving tea and playing mother. And letting her swashbuckle is certainly necessary in any modern version, though I wouldn’t think it’s a masterstroke because it’s almost obvious you have to do it. Beefing up Tiger Lily’s role can also a way to get more feminine interest.

    Maggie Smith’s elderly Wendy in Hook is one of the better Wendies, though not as great as Coral Browne’s aged Alice in Dreamchild. You can’t beat THAT.

  9. The “sex” take in most versions seems to be that Wendy is just old enough to have a fairy-tale view of love, while Peter Just Doesn’t Get It. He also Just Doesn’t Get It when his little pal Tinkerbelle turns violently jealous. The play ends with Wendy old enough to get serious, while Peter remains anchored in Neverland (“The Peter Pan Syndrome” was a successful book and quickly an accepted shorthand for adult males who won’t commit).

    The Mary Martin musical ends with Peter returning to find Wendy a married woman with a family. Peter, for a moment, weeps. Then he meets Wendy’s daughter. Peter and Neverland will always be there for children. “Hook” took this idea and messed with it: Prepubescent Peter meets a little girl he wants to grow up with.

    The Disney version is full of weirdness. Whether by design or just a confluence of gags all the Neverland girls are hot for Peter, who struts and shows off but wants nothing more than to impress them. Tink is explicitly sexy, and Hook slyly exploits her perception of Wendy as a romantic rival. The sultry adolescent mermaids clearly adore Peter; they’re vicious to new girl Wendy. And Tiger Lily, usually animated as a preteen, does a sexy dance in front of Peter during “What Made The Red Man Red” and kisses him, eliciting an out-of-character Tex Avery wolf take. Wendy herself is already affecting grown-up propriety; you just know she forces her brothers to sit through play tea parties as often as she tells Peter Pan stories. She pressures Peter to play at being a suitable domesticated mate.

    The London scenes have their own thing going. Where the play declares that Peter and Neverland are real (Mother Darling has caught Peter’s shadow and shows it to Father; the Lost Boys are very real additions to the family), Disney is explicit that it’s just another story Wendy told. In the beginning Father’s dire threat is to move Jane out of the nursery into her own room — the end of childhood and fantasy, and the acknowledgement of puberty. In the end, Jane seems okay with it. She’s ready to let go of Peter Pan; even in Neverland she cast herself as the grownup. And Father finds it safe to admit he was a child once. (He’s also subtly softened up in the opening. He’s all bluster and fury with his family, but tying up Nana in the yard he’s apologetic and gentle. Sometimes it sucks to be an adult.)

  10. There’s also a book and play, “Peter and the Starcatchers”, that details how orphan Peter met the Starcatchers and other beings who eventually made him Peter Pan. In the end, the pirate who becomes Hook is acutely aware he and Pan need each other, just as Sherlock Holmes needs Moriarty. They are parts of a story bigger than they are.

    Disney cranked out a series of CGI direct-to-videos covering the life of Tinkerbell, a chipper and talkative sprite with a bunch of fellow fairies in Neverland (there are boy fairies, but plots focus on Tink and her clique of girls). She’s frankly more well-adjusted than the Tinkerbell in the movie; re-invented as a positive role model for little girls. The series is set before the advent of Peter and the Lost Boys, and we do meet a suave young pirate destined to become Hook. It’s just as well we never see how this perky and wholesome kid became the solitary, mean-spirited mute obsessing over Peter Pan.

  11. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Peter Pan has never held appeal to me because as a kid I envied grown-ups and wanted to be treated as one. I can’t think of a single fairy tale or story about being that kind of kid or addressed to those kinds of kids, but then Barrie was part of the post-Carroll Victorian invention of childhood phase, where the idea of childhood as a special time was really invented and came into being.

    I do remember seeing Hook when I was small, in a dubbed-in-Hindi print on TV, and I remember liking it, but haven’t seen it since. I did like the melancholy post-fairy tale idea of that. I think AI is Spielberg’s most profound treatment of fairytale and childhood.

  12. Sudarshan, it makes sense that you don’t relate to Barrie since he’s obviously jealous of childhood and would like to return to it. That’s the subtext that the movies can’t get at by directly adapting the book.

    I’m told that Peter Pan in Scarlet is also an interesting sequel.

    Most all the stuff described in the Mary Martin musical is present in some form in the book, including Wendy growing up and having her own daughter. Barrie DOES understand that eternal childhood would be a kind of tragedy, but just one the victim wouldn’t notice. And the alternative, growing up, is another kind of tragedy.

  13. I saw Hook as a child, and the one thing that I remember clearly about it now is the death of Rufio. It annoyed me then and it annoys me now. Plenty of stories aimed at kids involve death, but this one, as I recall it, followed the template of a shallow adult melodrama. Rufio dies; Pan gets mad; Pan wins; happy ending. Also Rufio’s death is a kind of victory for Pan anyway because it confirms that it is he, and not the brash upstart, who is the hero. Quite unpleasant in my view.

  14. In keeping with the hard-to-pin-down ickiness of the whole enterprise.

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