Peter Pan

I’ve seen several movie version of Peter Pan: the Disney cartoon, of course, a 2003 live-action version, and Hook. But I had never read the book by J. M. Barrie.

Peter was originally a character in Barrie’s book The Little White Bird. A few years later, the chapters about Peter were extracted and published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Later Barrie wrote a play with Peter as the central character, and later still he expanded the story into a novel, Peter Pan and Wendy, in 1911. These days it’s usually published as just Peter Pan.

Some think that inspiration for Peter came from Barrie’s older brother, who died young and was always thought of as still a boy. The name “Peter” came from the son of friends, the Llewelyn Davies. “Pan” was from Greek mythology.

You’re probably familiar with the story, but Peter lives in Neverland with Lost Boys. Occasionally he travels around. He lands outside the Darling family nursery and is captivated by the stories he hears there. He entices the daughter, Wendy Darling, to come to Neverland and be the Lost Boys’ mother. Wendy’s brothers, John and Michael, come, too. They have a lot of adventures with fairies and a Neverbird and Indians and pirates. The pirate captain is a man named Hook due to the prosthesis he had to wear after Pan was responsible for cutting off his arm in a fight.

Though Peter is portrayed as fearless, cunning, and skilled with a sword, he’s also selfish and thoughtless of others’ feelings. I’m glad Barrie portrayed the immature side of his childishness rather than just making him idyllic.

Barrie had tried different subtitles and settled on The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up. But a producer didn’t like that and suggested changing “Couldn’t” to “Wouldn’t.” I think “wouldn’t” is much more fitting. If he couldn’t grow up, we’d feel sorry for him. But since he wouldn’t, that adds a little bit of exasperation with him and explains why everyone else did grow up.

A few years after Peter Pan was published, Barrie wrote When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought. Peter returns after a absence of some years and is dismayed to find that Wendy has grown up and married. But then Wendy’s daughter, Jane, goes with Peter with her mother’s permission. This was sometimes published separately, but it was included at the end of the volume I read.

There has been some criticism in modern times of the way that Indians were portrayed. Wikipedia says, “Later screen adaptations have taken various approaches to these characters, sometimes presenting them as racial caricatures, omitting them, attempting to present them more authentically, or reframing them as another kind of ‘exotic’ people.” I don’t recall that they were portrayed negatively at all: they were respected even as enemies, and eventually became friends. But they were written rather stereotypically.

I was surprised that the book was darker in places than I remember the films being, though I admit it has been a long time since I have seen any of the films. It seems like in the Disney version, there was a lot of fighting but no bloodshed or real injuries except Hook’s hand. But in the book, people did die.

In the 2003 film, it didn’t dawn on me until fairly late that the same actor portrayed both the father and Hook. I read somewhere that the play usually does the same thing. Also, that film has something of a romance between Peter and Wendy, but in the book he always thinks of her as a mother.

I can’t say Peter Pan will be my favorite children’s classic, but I am glad to be acquainted with the original story now. I am counting it as my children’s classic for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

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