Peter Pan, as an iconic character, has undergone a transformation over the past century. The first stage production of James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan took place on December 27, 1904. In this play, Barrie emphasizes the childish nature of men and the matronly attitudes of women. Peter is the embodiment of childhood innocence and imagination; he cares naught for the feelings of others, but only for the thrill of adventure. Barrie’s Peter does not know how to love; nor does he understand what love is. Barrie’s Peter Pan is about the eternal qualities of childhood innocence and the inevitability of growing old. A different rendition of the story appears in Paul John Hogan’s 2003 live-action film, Peter Pan. Hogan focuses on the emotional and physical development of Wendy Darling, rather than the eternal qualities of childhood imagination. Hogan modernizes the characters of Peter and Wendy in his film and, in so doing, loses some of the original essence of the characters. More importantly, in modernizing Peter and Wendy, Hogan’s film fundamentally alters Barrie’s core message. Whereas Barrie’s original story promotes eternal youth and make-believe, Hogan’s modernized film version emphasizes the sexualized world of adults.
Barrie’s dedication, “To the Five,” shows that Peter Pan was born out of a love for childhood and imagination, and illustrates both his wit and his memory of happier times. Barrie immortalizes the imaginative playtime of the Llewelyn Davies boys, his adoptive children whom he calls “the Five,” within the story of Peter Pan and he credits the play to the boys, rather than to himself (Barrie “Dedication” 75). Although Barrie does not explicitly state the essential message of his play, he does state the most important part of Peter Pan: “My grandest triumph, the best thing in the play of Peter Pan (though it is not in it), is that long after No. 4 had ceased to believe, I brought him back to the faith for at least two minutes” (“Dedication” 437-464). He regards the wonders of imagination as a “faith,” convinced that the fantastical is more than just child’s play. Rather, it is a way to maintain the innocence and unadulterated excitement of youth. Barrie wants his audience to return to the magical time of their childhood and to believe, even for a second, in the wonders which they have lost. Barrie continued to believe in the world of magic and make-believe and, through his dedication to the Five, it is clear that he encourages others to experience the joy of imagination as well.
Peter Pan has undergone a number of revisions (Hollindale x). Just as the land of make-believe is different for each person who visits it, Barrie’s plays also change over time. Prior to 1928, Barrie allowed Peter to come into physical contact with different characters but, in the 1928 version, Barrie added Peter’s inability to touch the people around him in order to emphasize his otherness and the resulting isolation (Hollindale 313). In 1928, Barrie published Peter Pan constituting the first time that the story was in a fixed state. Peter Hollindale notes that Barrie’s plays often exhibit the dichotomy between changelessness and change (x). In the play, there is a striking difference between Peter and the rest of the characters: Peter is changeless and will forever remain a boy, whereas the others have the ability to change over time, if they so choose. In Barrie’s tale, Peter embodies the characteristics of youth and sprightliness while the other characters provide contrasts to emphasize these qualities. By doing this, Barrie allows the adults in the audience to relive their childhood fantasies through the character of Peter.
In the live action movie of Peter Pan, Hogan focuses the storyline not on Peter, but on Wendy and her development into womanhood. Hogan’s portrayal of the main characters and his development of the plot do not recreate Barrie’s vision. By changing the narrative structure of Peter Pan, Hogan disregarded the theme of Barrie’s tale, the eternal qualities of youth and make-believe which was intended for adults, in favor of an adult-centered storyline intended for children. Looking at the traits of the characters in a general sense, as well as the main characters in each narrative, one can see how the two narratives diverge and what that means for the intended audiences.
Barrie’s portrayal of males is fairly simplistic. He represents males as childish, often with a dependence on mothers or mother figures. As a result of this childish behavior, the males have no sense of authority over the women or children. Barrie’s males also fail to exhibit emotions that are normally found in adults like shame or guilt. In the first scene, for example, Mr. Darling behaves more immaturely than do his children. He tries to convince Michael to take his medicine, but when Mr. Darling is faced with the same situation, he refuses to take it himself and even tricks Nana, the dog, into taking it (Barrie 1.1.206-260). Furthermore, Mr. Darling needs Mrs. Darling to fasten his tie properly or else he refuses to go to the party (Barrie 1.1.129-133). Mr. Darling relies on his wife to play the role of a mother to him and his children. He regards the children as playmates; his idea to give Nana the medicine was to impress the children, rather than to avoid taking it himself. The fact that Mr. Darling is not in the scene where the children come home suggests that he is not emotionally connected to his children and does not conform to the traditional role of parenthood.
Barrie’s Captain Hook and the other pirates are similarly childlike in their desire for a mother. Smee puts forth the idea to kidnap Wendy and make her their mother, and Hook enthusiastically agrees (Barrie 3.1.82-86). Hook’s childishness also comes out in his fear of the crocodile since, although fear of death is not uncommon, Hook’s actions when the crocodile is near are childish and comical. Peter himself understands only the maternal quality of females and not any sexual identities they may have. He says about Wendy, “You are so puzzling. Tiger Lily is just the same; there is something or other she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother” (Barrie 4.1.124-126). Peter also does not understand the emotional connection that Mrs. Darling exhibits when she finds her children in their beds (Barrie 150).
Hogan’s male characters, however, are emotionally fragile and are dependent on others, though not necessarily on mothers, for support. At the beginning of the film, Mr. Darling needs his wife to accompany him to a party with his co-workers, after he was embarrassed at his place of employment. Mrs. Darling explains to her children, “your father is a brave man but he’s going to need the special kiss to face his colleagues tonight” (Hogan 10:36-10:41). The special kiss, which Mrs. Darling is referring to, is a tool which women use to covertly influence the men around them. Even though Mr. Darling is brave, his wife, with her kiss, will need to solve his problems for him, by using something only women possess. Furthermore, Hook is dependent not on a female companion, but on Peter, to complete him. When Hook sees Peter dancing with Wendy, he gets teary-eyed and laments that he is all alone (Hogan 55:39-56:03). During this scene, Hogan emphasizes Hook’s need for Peter; without Peter, Hook’s life is meaningless.
In Barrie’s play, female characters have subservient roles and are secondary characters. Barrie portrays all of the female characters as motherly, especially as Peter understands them. Mrs. Darling acts as a mother to her children, her husband, and, to an extent, Peter (Barrie Act 1), while the maid, Liza, adopts one of the Lost Boys when they return with Wendy and her brothers (Barrie 5.2). Similarly, Wendy’s actions throughout the play are purely domestic, such as darning socks, telling stories, and taking care of the children (Barrie 4.1.15-183). She cannot even fly very well (Barrie 4.1.209-210), as if to say that only the boys have access to that kind of freedom. She tells the boys traditional stories of love before bed (Barrie 2.1.357), which demonstrates her role as a mother, but also her muted sexuality: Wendy narrates stories of love, but cannot have it for herself. Although Wendy, Tiger Lily and, to an extent, Tinker Bell, display discreet romantic behavior when they inquire about Peter’s feelings, Peter does not understand these small advances, nor does he take them seriously. The play focuses on Peter’s perceptions and intimacy is not one of them (Barrie 4.1.121-133). Throughout her time spent in the Never Land, every character refers to Wendy as “mother,” a role in which she revels. Yet for Peter, mothers are interchangeable and disposable; Peter does not need a mother, as a mother is just one form of pretend amongst many. The collective female role is to support the male characters and demonstrate Peter’s inability to understand the opposite sex. As the main character, Peter controls the direction of the play and maintains the passivity and supportive nature of the female characters.
In contrast, the females in Hogan’s Peter Pan constitute the foundation of the story. At the beginning of the film, Mrs. Darling is the one that the children and her husband look to for guidance and comfort. Mrs. Darling steadfastly awaits her children by the window (Hogan 58:46-59:58) and she is the first person the children see when they return home (Hogan 1:38:52-1:40:35). Aunt Millicent, who is not in Barrie’s original cast, is the voice of 19th century society; she warns Wendy that it would not be prudent for her to become a novelist, nor would Wendy easily find a husband (Hogan 4:10-4:22). In the end, Wendy chooses to take part of her Aunt’s advice to leave childhood antics behind and start the process of growing up, which the audience confirms when Wendy announces herself as the narrator (Hogan 1:46:46-1:47:02). Her role as the narrator is important, because it shows that Wendy embraced her place in the world of adults, seized the opportunity to become an independent woman, and is sharing her story with others so that they can do the same. Wendy ignores the societal convention that women were born to be wives and is living the life of her choosing: that of an independent woman that does not have to rely on the whims of men. The point of Hogan’s tale is not to retain childhood imagination and abandon, but to show that women both have a place in intellectual society and have control over their sexual development, something Wendy has proven is not only possible, but is also desirable.
In Hogan’s film, Wendy, not Peter, is the main character of the story. Hogan gives females a primary role in the film and Wendy, more than anyone else, moves the plot forward. For example, Wendy tells a story about Cinderella fighting pirates, bringing Peter to her window in the first place (Hogan 01:02-2:12), causing him to return to get his shadow and hear the end of the story (Hogan 12:46-19:49). Wendy confronts Peter on how he feels about her (Hogan 56:54-58:15), which sends him into an emotional tantrum where he threatens to banish her (Hogan 57:43-58:06). In this scene, Wendy is exploring the concept of love and if there is more to life than just play and make-believe. Although she does not initially understand, she expresses hope that her feelings will become clearer with time (Hogan 57:57-58:02). Wendy shows her dominance by standing her ground when Peter threatens her, declaring, “I will not be banished!” (Hogan 58:06-58:07). Afterward, Peter flies away from the feelings that he does not want to confront, but that are clearly present. Hogan continues to give Wendy agency when she temporarily becomes Red Handed Jill (1:04:53-1:05:39). Although her role on the ship is to tell stories, the fact that Wendy becomes a pirate at all is far removed from Barrie’s narrative. Furthermore, Wendy shows that she is the hero of the story when she saves Peter from being killed by Captain Hook. Wendy fights off the pirate trapping her and stops Hook from striking Peter (Hogan 1:31:53-1:31:59). Wendy’s final act of rescue is to give Peter a “thimble,” in the form of a kiss, which revitalizes him enough that he flies up into the air to resume his swordplay with Hook (Hogan 1:32:27-1:35:25). Wendy ultimately defeats Hook by crushing his spirit: when Wendy kisses Peter, she restores his confidence and youth, ultimately destroying the happy thoughts of Hook, who cannot fly without them, and causes him to be swallowed by the crocodile (Hogan 1:36:11-1:37:01). Furthermore, Wendy is also the first to note that Hook is “done for” (Hogan 1:36:12). By giving Wendy agency throughout the movie, and making her the savior of the Never Land, it is clear that Wendy is the central figure of the story, as opposed to the title character, Peter Pan.
Not only does Hogan give Wendy agency, he sexualizes her character as well. At the beginning of the film, Aunt Millicent notes that Wendy possesses a “woman’s chin” (Hogan 4:30-4:56) and that Wendy has a hidden “kiss” on the right hand corner of her mouth, just as her mother does (Hogan 5:02-5:09). Aunt Millicent explains that the purpose of the kiss is to find “the one the kiss belongs to” (Hogan 5:26-5:29). Interestingly, only women possess the hidden kiss. Hogan’s narrative, therefore, centers on Wendy’s transformation into womanhood and finding her sexuality and independence. Over the course of the film, Wendy establishes her independence and explores her sexuality on her own terms. She challenges Peter to a duel when he mocks her counterpart, Red Handed Jill, for being merely a story-teller (Hogan 1:04:24-1:04:59). In the same scene, Wendy calls Peter ungallant and deficient because he is “just a boy” (Hogan 1:05:24-1:05:32). At this point, Wendy has already found her independence, and realizes that she is more than just a girl; she is a woman, despite the fact that she is still very young. Wendy releases herself from Peter’s hold on her when she gives him her hidden kiss (Hogan 1:32:24-1:33:28) and is able to walk away from Peter and the Never Land since a kiss, after all, “is a powerful thing” (Hogan 1:34:13-1:34:15). By the end of the film, Wendy discovers her sexual identity. She moves past the inanity of childhood and looks forward to adulthood, the exact opposite of Barrie’s message.
Conversely, the title character in Barrie’s original script, Peter, is the main character and moves the plot in the play. Barrie’s Peter Pan epitomizes youth and childhood. Peter is confident and arrogant throughout the play. He takes credit for things he has not done (Barrie 1.1.375) and believes himself unstoppable (Barrie 5.1.192). Peter lives not just in the moment but for the moment and often forgets what he is doing or who is around him (Barrie 146). Peter does not have unhappy thoughts because he only understands how to play and have fun. His callous and heartless behavior stems from a lack of understanding of the emotional connection that two people can have with one another. According to Nell Boulton, in “Peter Pan and the Flight from Reality,” Peter is unable to love, which is an essential characteristic of his being (315); he is unaffected by the concepts of love and sexuality. He has freedom and the opportunity for perpetual play at the cost of his ability to love. Barrie’s choice to add Peter’s resistance to physical contact with others in the 1928 version of the play further emphasizes Peter’s disconnect with sexuality, as well as his lack of connection with the mortal world (Hollindale 313).
In Barrie’s play, Peter is not like any of the other boys in the Never Land since he is not a mortal child. According to Jack Zipes, in “Adapting Fairy-Tale Novels,” Peter chooses not to grow up and be a man (314). In actuality, Peter does not have a choice in the matter since he is not a real boy. At the end of the play, Hook asks Peter “who and what art thou?” (Barrie 5.1.196) to which Peter replies, “I’m youth, I’m joy, I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg” (Barrie 5.1.197-8). In this scene, Peter explicitly states that he is the embodiment of youth and freedom. Furthermore, Peter does not have physical substance. When Peter and Wendy are stuck on Marooner’s Rock, she recalls when the Lost Boys told her that Peter is weightless (Barrie 124). Peter is neither burdened by physical weight, nor the emotions which weigh so much on the minds of mortals. Moreover, he is not clearly visible to those who have lost their youth and innocence. For example, Hook cannot see Peter clearly while they are fighting in the fifth act (Barrie 145), and nor can Mrs. Darling see Peter after she is reunited with Wendy (Barrie 151). The most striking example of this occurs when Wendy stops seeing him clearly after a year apart from one another (Barrie 153). Through the character of Peter, Barrie comments on the inability of grownups to literally and metaphorically see the embodiment of childhood.
Although Barrie’s play attempts to reach adults by portraying the world which they have lost, Hogan’s film relates more to children by simulating the world they are about to enter. Hogan’s Peter transforms emotionally throughout the film with the help of Wendy. Although Peter rejects affection outright, his behavior and actions suggest that he has a semblance of emotion, especially where Wendy is concerned. Peter has emotional tantrums throughout the film which demonstrate his childishness as well as his ability to make emotional connections with others, whereas Barrie’s Peter could not. For example, the faerie dance between Peter and Wendy indicates that he has feelings for her (Hogan 53:39-56:24) and his complete desperation at Tinker Bell’s near demise shows his compassion for others (Hogan 1:12:39-1:17:34). Wendy describes Peter as being lonely (Hogan 1:18:47-1:20:11) and Peter is literally and figuratively brought down by the prospect of being alone and unloved (Hogan 1:28:44-1:30:08). Hogan, in essence, humanizes Peter.
Although Barrie’s Peter is an archetypal representation of youth and childlike abandon, Hogan’s 2003 film has taken away Peter’s eternal qualities and made him more mundane. Hogan’s Peter is burdened by the turmoil of everyday life, which diminishes his role in the narrative structure, as well as his role outside of the story. For the audience, Peter’s world of imagination is no longer something to be cherished, but rather something to be pitied. Young girls everywhere can admire the role of Wendy; she exhibits agency, sexual awareness, and independence. Wendy has stepped out of her role as temporary care-giver and into her role as emotionally mature adult.
Hogan’s narrative is fitting for this era of over-stimulation and sexualization. By focusing on Wendy’s journey of growth into womanhood, he is both advocating and advertising the benefits of being a sexualized young person in the modern age. In other words, he is telling his young audience members that it is not only okay to sexualize oneself, but that for females it is especially important to do so. Children today are bombarded with videos and images of sexualized females and, although Hogan’s narrative may not be as overt in its message, it is there nonetheless.
Hogan took Barrie’s idea of the story, stripped it bare, and turned it into a forbidden love story. Hogan’s narrative focuses primarily on Wendy and her physical and emotional transformation into womanhood while Peter is a minor character that merely aids in this development. By shifting his focus away from childhood, Hogan rejects the message that Barrie promotes and undermines the true Never Land that Barrie created. Hogan minimizes the importance of make-believe to promote and reiterate the unimaginative and sexualized world of adults. Hogan idealized the process of growing up and, although the narrative of the film suits the atmosphere of an overly sexualized twenty-first century audience, children do not need more encouragement in this area. Barrie specifically focuses his narrative away from the complex world of adulthood, and exposes the audience to the wonders of childhood. Barrie realized that being an adult is not the quintessential element in life; creativity and childhood wonder are the most magical elements a person, young or old, can possess. Barrie created a space where his audiences can keep their childhood hopes and dreams alive, no matter how whimsical. By re-imaging the story of Peter Pan, Hogan eradicated the ingenuity and magic of the Never Land and turned it into a transitional place for children to learn the importance of growing up quickly and for adults to realize there is no going back to the days of their youth. The world today does not need another form of media telling children how and when to grow up. It had what it needed all along in Barrie’s Peter Pan: a little bit of fairy dust.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan in Peter Pan and Other Plays. Ed. Peter Hollindale and Michael Cordner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, 75-154. Print.
Boulton, Nell. “Peter Pan and the Flight from Reality: a Tale of Narcissism, Nostalgia, and Narrative Trespass.” Psychodynamic Practice: Individuals, Groups, and Organizations, Vol. 12, No. 3 (August 2006): 307-317. Web. 17 February 2013.
Hollindale, Peter, ed. “Introduction.” Peter Pan and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Hogan, P.J., dir. Peter Pan. Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and Revolution Studios, 2003. DVD.
Zipes, Jack. “Adapting Fairy-Tale Novels.” Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Holly McElrea wrote this essay for an English course on Fairy Tales and Culture during the final year of her undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. She recently graduated with an Honours degree in History and began working toward a Master’s degree in Archival Studies in fall of 2014. She hopes to focus on the interrelation between archives and social memory. Holly wants to give a special thank-you to her editors: Devon Berofe, Eric Roy, Christina Fawcett, April McElrea, and the wonderful folks at QCW.