As I suffered through David Lowery’s Peter Pan & Wendy on Disney+, I kept wondering what it is about this character that has kept him alive for more than a century. Hell, how about just the past 30 or so years? Every cinematic adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s children’s tale in those years has been a critical and commercial disaster. Why do we keep going back to this well?
Although this latest adaptation is mostly a retread that adds little to the pantheon of Pans, it does offer—inadvertently perhaps—a crucial insight into something that’s always puzzled me about the character. Though Lowery maintains the compositional skill he’s shown in previous films like The Green Knight and The Old Man & the Gun, and though some of the visuals are striking, the film has no firm hold in a tangible space, as the scenes are either CGI or green-screened. This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to Neverland, which ought to be an enchanting place.
The film’s individual badness, though, isn’t what I’m interested in. Rather, I want to know what it is about Peter Pan that has so attracted filmmakers including Lowery, Joe Wright, Steven Spielberg, and Benh Zeitlin, particularly because beneath the childlike veneer of the story lie much darker truths, ones that contradict the ostensible message of the character. But what is that message, exactly? What does Peter Pan mean? And how has that meaning changed over the decades and through the many iterations? Why, in other words, do we keep making new versions of the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up?
He May Not Age, But He Was Born
Peter Pan—no matter how I view him—is a depressing character. Matter of fact, I’m not sure why this crowing, cocky figure has been so tenacious in our culture. Nearly every single thing you learn about the origins of Peter Pan, Wendy, the lost boys, and Neverland makes what is marketed as an uplifting tale about innocence and imagination instead a sobering reminder of the inevitability of loss, decay, and death.
Let’s start with the inspirations behind Pan. First, there is J.M. Barrie’s older brother David, the star of the family, who was killed in an accident just before turning 14. Barrie’s mother never recovered from the death, leaving six-year-old James with the burden of “trying to make her forget him,” a feat he never accomplished. “When I became a man,” Barrie wrote, “…he was still a boy of 13.” This context gives a much more tragic meaning to the famous opening line of Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy: “All children, except one, grow up.” In life, this isn’t accomplished by fairy dust; the only children who don’t grow up are the ones who die.
Barrie also quite famously befriended the five sons of the Llewelyn Davies family, who he first encountered in Kensington Gardens in London, where he set the first stories featuring Peter Pan. These boys, individually and collectively, became not only the inspiration for Pan’s personality but also, eventually, the Darling family and the lost boys of the Neverland (over the decades the article “the” has been stripped from the name). Much of the details of Pan’s mythology was developed with the two oldest boys, George and John (who went by Jack). Peter Llewelyn Davies, the middle son, was a baby when Barrie met the family, tucked into a carriage; Peter Pan’s origin story begins with him in a pram.
Peter Davies became, in adulthood, a prominent publisher, but whenever he or his brothers were reported on in the newspapers, the association with Peter Pan followed them. “PETER PAN BECOMES PUBLISHER” ran the headline of the Daily Express in 1926, which article featured the following passage: “He would speak about his first book, but not a word would he utter about Peter Pan. ‘Please forget that,’ he said, and his lips seemed to say, ‘I’m grown up now, you know.’” Peter loathed the media’s constant references to Barrie’s iconic character, but they never ceased. In April 1960, headlines across England read “THE BOY WHO NEVER GREW UP IS DEAD,” “PETER PAN’S DEATH LEAP,” and “PETER PAN COMMITS SUICIDE.” Peter Llewelyn Davies jumped underneath an oncoming train in London.
I’m not sure why this crowing, cocky figure has been so tenacious in our culture.
The final inspiration for Peter Pan is Barrie himself, who flourished best around children, as if he never wanted to grow up. Though he married actress Mary Ansell in 1894, it doesn’t appear that the couple had a healthy sex life, or even a sex life at all: they had no children, despite Mary wanting them, and there were rumors that Barrie was impotent and that they never consummated the marriage.
What seems most likely is that Barrie was what is now referred to as asexual, which would explain why a man so captivated by kids would have none of his own. He and Mary eventually divorced. (There is no evidence—and in fact there is more testimony to the contrary—that Barrie ever acted inappropriately or criminally around any of the many children he befriended throughout his life.)
The idea of Peter Pan as a metaphor for Barrie’s dead brother David—a lost boy helping other lost boys find peace in an idyllic setting—is heartbreaking, but Pan as a stand-in for Barrie is even more tragic. Barrie’s most formative childhood experience with an adult was watching his mother grieve the loss of her beloved son. Couldn’t we imagine that such an image would turn an adolescent boy away from the idea of growing up? Why be an adult with all its pain and sorrow when you could remain young and go on adventures?
Because even though the first version of Pan was unable to grow up (in the original mythology, all babies are “birds before they [are] human,” but they lose their wings shortly after birth; Peter, having escaped before this happens, is said to be neither human nor bird), the version that becomes the Peter Pan we know doesn’t want to. Peter may have begun life as a panegyric for Barrie’s brother, but he evolved into the self-portrait of an artist who felt lost in adulthood and who sought out the only like-minded people he could find—children—to revel in a fantasy world where kids neither died (like David) nor grew up (like Barrie).
Peter Pan Doesn’t Grow Up, But He Does Evolve
He’s like the imp version of Leonardo DiCaprio.
In his first appearance in the novel The Little White Bird (1902), Peter is a baby—“His age is one week”—because “he escaped from being a human when he was seven days old.” A narrator leads a boy (named David, naturally) through the gardens with some confusing and frustrating syntax. The narrator is a disembodied “I,” but he refers to David alternately as “you”—as if directly addressing David—and as “he” or “David”—as if addressing us, the readers, about David—as in this passage (italics mine): “There are more gates to the Gardens than one gate, but that is the one you go in at, and before you go in you speak to the lady with the balloons, who sits just outside.” Which is very shortly followed by, “Once she was a new one, because the old one had let go, and David was very sorry for the old one.” It makes for annoying reading.
This was followed by the play Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up in 1904, which was so successful that Barrie adapted it into the novel Peter and Wendy (1911). These iterations are the ones that feature the stuff we all remember—the Darling family, Peter’s lost shadow, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, Neverland—but also some things we don’t remember—the Neverbird, the rampant violence of Neverland, and, most significantly, Peter’s callous sociopathy (when Wendy returns to Neverland a year after the novel’s conclusion, Peter has forgotten almost everything that happened and most of the people involved, saying, by way of explaining why he doesn’t remember Hook, once his “arch enemy,” “I forget them after I kill them”)—and some things we’d rather not remember—Tiger Lily and the Piccaninny tribe, the “redskins” and “noble savage[s]” who are massacred by the pirates.
Despite Peter’s casual murderousness and the racist depiction of Native Americans, the meaning of Barrie’s play and novel is pretty straightforward: childhood is a Neverland that only children can inhabit and that adults forget, and we must allow children their adventures there and try, as we inevitably mature and age, to remember our time in that magical place. But Peter, though a symbol of eternal innocence, represents what would happen if someone never grew up. He is forgetful and doesn’t always see how hurtful his words are; he is selfish and arrogant; and for all his crowing autonomy he constantly needs to be cared for.
In the novel’s epilogue, Wendy breaks her promise to Peter and is now a wife and mother. Peter is sad for like five seconds, and then he meets Wendy’s daughter Jane and decides to take her back to Neverland to assume the place of Wendy and be his mother. Or, as Jane explains to Wendy, “he wants me always to do his spring cleaning.” The final passage explains how this lineage of women—first Wendy’s mother, then Wendy, then Jane, then, once Jane is too old, her daughter Margaret, and so on ad infinitum—have become a mother mill for Pan. He’s like the imp version of Leonardo DiCaprio.
What’s worse is that earlier in the novel, Wendy develops feelings for Peter and asks about his feelings toward her, to which he says, “Those of a devoted son, Wendy.” Peter is completely unable to reciprocate Wendy’s romantic longings, much more interested in a caretaker than a companion. Not only does this sound like a plausible portrait of Barrie, but it also works as a warning against perpetual adolescence. Peter Pan cannot provide anyone with what they need; he can only take what he needs from others.
He wants us to believe that youth is life’s hero and aging its villain. This is also, not coincidentally, what Hollywood wants us to believe.
The irony, of course, is that Peter isn’t depicted as a tragic figure. Disney’s animated version from 1953 excises this ending—which, to be fair, wasn’t a part of Barrie’s original play but was added some years after the premiere—and leaves both Peter and the lost boys in Neverland, concluding immediately after Wendy and her brothers return home. The Mary Martin adaptations from the 50s and 60s stick closer to the sources, so the epilogue remains, but it’s treated as a triumphant moment, as if we’re supposed to be delighted that Wendy has passed down her relationship with Peter to her daughter. This despite the fact that Wendy begged Peter not to forget to return to her, which he eventually does. Why is she so forgiving of Peter’s self-centeredness? And why are we expected to forgive him too?
Spielberg’s 1991 flop Hook is the only adaptation to grapple with these themes properly. By having Peter himself grow up and forget about Neverland, Spielberg places the struggle between innocence and maturation into a single character, and it shows how the lessons of Peter Pan—that we should carry some of our innocence with us into adulthood—can benefit us as grown-ups.
Moreover, Robin Williams’s Peter is a much more interesting protagonist than Barrie’s, because he undergoes real changes to his character. He must remember who he used to be in order to become a better version of the person he’s become. The film has problems—particularly in the ramped up sexual tension between Peter and Tinker Bell—but it also features wonderful performances (especially Dustin Hoffman’s Hook) and the most appealing take on Neverland, as it seems like a place children would love.
The other singular thing about Hook is that it asks what might happen after Barrie’s story ends, whereas the subsequent remakes always seem more fixated on what happened before. Joe Wright’s Pan (2015) tries to deepen the mythology by providing origin stories for both Peter and Hook in which they’re buddies and partners in piracy. In Wright’s telling, Peter’s father was the Fairy Prince, meaning that Peter’s ability to fly is genetic, but it also means that Peter is like the chosen one or whatever to the natives of Neverland.
I hate when Hollywood does this shit. They take a beloved character (or, in their eyes, proven IP) and proceed to give reductive, unnecessary explanations for the things that made them beloved in the first place, thereby stripping those qualities of any mystery. Oh, I see! The Grinch was bullied by Whoville kids in grade school, so that’s why he has all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.
And, yeah, it totally makes sense that Willy Wonka’s father was a dentist who never allowed him to eat candy, so that’s why he founded a chocolate empire and constructed a magic factory and used his considerable wealth to conduct an elaborate moral experiment on a bunch of unwitting children. As Patton Oswalt so succinctly put it when describing his bitter objection to the Star Wars prequels, “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love.”
Peter Never Dies, But Maybe He Should
Lowery’s Peter Pan and Wendy, though it’s mostly faithful to the novel, pursues a similar line by explaining that Hook (Jude Law, who’s quite good in a film with not a ton of great acting) was once a boy named James, “the very first lost boy,” in fact, and Peter’s best friend.
That is, until Peter banishes James for missing his mother. James then tries to return home, but he gets lost at sea and ultimately rescued by pirates. Peter is kind of the villain here, and not just because of his treatment of Hook. He’s got a stalker vibe to him the whole movie. When describing how James left Neverland and returned “cruel” and “evil” (leaving out the detail that it was him who exiled James in the first place), Wendy asks, “Was he though? Or had he just grown up?” Peter, angry, responds, “What’s the difference?” Then he moves toward her and says, “That’s why you must never leave. Who knows what you’ll become.”
This is some classic only-I-can-protect-you-but-really-I-just-want-to-control-you type shit. So, although the Hook backstory is a bit hackneyed, if you think of Peter as the bad guy, this might be the only adaptation to get at something that’s always unsettled me about the Peter Pan story.
Even if Peter was right—growing up is bad and staying a kid forever is the solution—that isn’t a helpful message as we can’t just stop ourselves from aging. The glib notion to “remain a kid at heart” is all well and good, but Peter, in order to be innocent, can’t form deep emotional attachments, or remember the people with whom he’s spent years of his life. These aspects of life change us, mold us, and make us grow, and through them we accrue what we loftily call wisdom.
Peter cannot know wisdom, as the experiences that create it necessitate growth. Peter can’t return Wendy’s love or feel grief or guilt over those he’s killed. He may not be a villain, but Peter does represent a tempting yet ultimately flawed way of extolling innocence and lamenting its loss. Because innocence is a fiction, like virginity, or nobility, or eternal life. It’s just a name for an absence, an absence that needs to be filled in order for life to truly begin. That hole gets filled by the needs and actions and motivations of other people, for our clashes with others are what most significantly cause our maturation.
Innocence, then, is necessarily singular, experienced most acutely in isolation. Peter is who we are before we become a part of a community. He is not someone we should aspire to be like; he is someone we must comprehensively reject. He wants us to believe that youth is life’s hero and aging its villain. This is also, not coincidentally, what Hollywood wants us to believe. As such, Peter Pan is an apt emblem of Hollywood, which I guess explains why they keep returning to him again and again, year after year, and expecting different results.