The girls and I finally had a chance to see Peter Pan again. We’d seen it once before and the girls had loved it, with Emma going so far as to declare it the best movie she’s ever seen. I’d loved it, too, but I wasn’t sure how much of my enthusiasm for the film was based on the film itself and how much was a result of the circumstances surrounding that first screening.
Peter Pan opened on Christmas Day, a day that I hadn’t been looking forward to. The holidays are already stressful enough, but this would be our first since the divorce. The plan was for me to go over to my ex-wife’s in the morning so we could all open presents as a family and then the girls would spend the rest of the day (and the weekend) with me. I was afraid that the painful fact that we weren’t a family anymore was going to weigh too heavily on the proceedings. Instead, it was one of the best days I’d had in a long, long time. The morning was tolerable, the girls and I had a ball all day, and that night we carried on a long-standing Christmas Day moviegoing tradition by seeing Peter Pan.
Again, we loved the film, and while we were in the theater it had snowed pretty heavily, so we emerged from the theater to find one of those bright winter nights where the whole snow-covered world is almost completely silent. Huge snowflakes meandered so slowly to the ground that everything seemed to be in slow motion. As we walked to the car I had one girl on either side of me. Emma, who was holding my left hand, was humming and swinging my hand back and forth as we walked. Zoë, who was holding my right hand, was stomping in every puddle that came within range, coating the right side of my pant legs with a heavy layer of slush. It was just one of those perfect moments where everything makes sense, even if only for a second or two.
So, given the circumstances, the film would have a special place in my heart even if it had been dreadful. But seeing it again just reaffirmed my opinion that Peter Pan was one of the most under-appreciated films of 2003.
It was directed and co-written by the matrimonially-obsessed P.J. Hogan, who directed both Muriel’s Wedding and My Best Friend’s Wedding. Looking at his filmography, you’d be hard-pressed to explain why someone would hand him $100+ million and send him to the southern hemisphere to make a special-effects-laden, big-budget-box-office-star-less adaptation of a cherished literary classic (now referred to as the “Peter Jackson Deluxe Package”), but I’m very glad they did. Because Mr. Hogan gets it and his script is, by far, the best adaptation of Peter Pan I’ve ever seen.
The dual role of Mr. Darling/Captain Hook is played by Jason Isaacs who is probably best known in the United States for playing villains. Bad villains. Very bad villains. Really very bad villains. The problem is, that’s all they are. There’s not much substance behind the sneer. Take, for instance, the really very bad Colonel Tavington in The Patriot or the really very bad Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He doesn’t merely chew scenery; he tends to swallow it whole.
But Mr. Isaacs’ Captain Hook is absolutely pitch-perfect as Captain Hook and his performance is so nuanced, so layered, and so rich that it reveals things about the character that may have never occurred to you before. He’s still really very bad, but there’s a heck of a lot more going on than that and it’s fascinating to watch.
He’s also excellent as Mr. Darling, a role that’s usually a toss-off, a way for an actor to kill time until he gets to change into his Hook costume and do some real acting. This production is the first I’ve seen where Mr. Darling is more than just a blustering plot device. He’s given a humanity and depth here that is usually denied him, even in the original text. For instance, as Mr. and Mrs. Darling are leaving for a party, the children try to convince their mother to stay home:
Wendy: Mother, must you go to the party?
John: Yes, mother, you don’t have to go. Father can go by himself.
Mrs. Darling: By himself? Your father is brave man, but he’s going to need the special kiss to face his colleagues tonight.
Wendy: Father? Brave?
Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before yourself. Your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens, but he has made many sacrifices for his family…and put away many dreams.
Michael: Where did he put them?
Mrs. Darling: In a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. And it gets harder and harder to close the drawer…but he does. And that is why he is brave.
That exchange isn’t in either the play or the novel, but it’s brilliant. Not only does it set the kids up for some of the emotional discoveries they’ll make later on in the tale, it transforms their father from the traditional, one-dimensional blowhard into a man you can actually care about. We’re never given the opportunity to see this bravery, but when Mrs. Darling tells her incredulous children that their shy father is, in fact, a very brave man, we’re perfectly willing to take her word for it. Her love and respect for her husband are obvious.
Olivia Williams has done some excellent work in the past (she played the object of both Bill Murray’s and Jason Schwartzman’s affections in Rushmore, starred as Bruce Willis’ [SPOILER ALERT] widow in The Sixth Sense, and was the “mysterious Jane Fairfax” in the mysteriously drab, non-Gwyneth version of Emma), but she is stunning as Mrs. Darling. She is beautiful, calm, and poised, but you can sense the strength and passions that lie just below the surface. It’s not a large role, by any means, but her presence is felt throughout the entire film.
And then there are the kids. Last year was the year of stellar performances by British child actors. Take, for instance:
And if we include the entire Commonwealth:
With the exception of Peter, who was played by an American, the young cast of Peter Pan is the best child ensemble I’ve seen in years. Harry Newell is especially good as John and I can’t say enough about Theordore Chester, who is brilliant as Slightly. (He’s the one holding the telescope.) Mr. Chester has impeccable comic timing and every single line he utters he hits out of the ball park.
But it’s Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy that really carries this film. Because, despite the title, this really is Wendy’s story. She’s the one who goes on an adventure, learns lessons, and returns home a wiser person. (Peter has no character arc whatsoever. He ends the film as he began it.) And just as Mr. Isaacs does with Hook, Ms. Hurd-Wood gives such a rich performance that it transforms the whole film and gives it a depth that’s been missing in every other version of Peter Pan I’ve seen.
Now, having said all that about the film, you should know that I may be the only person who feels this way. The film opened to critical yawns and audience indifference. I think it managed to eek out $50 million at the box office. Both the misguided The Haunted Mansion and the unremarkable Brother Bear earned almost double that.
There are a number of reasons why people may have stayed away from the film, but the first hint of trouble came in 2002 when J.M. Barrie’s goddaughter gave an interview to the London Telegraph and was livid about plans to make an “adult” version of Peter Pan:
“It is a shame the play is being treated in this way. My father and Mr. Barrie would have been horrified. Mr. Barrie just was not interested in that sort of obvious sexuality and romance, and it certainly is not in the original story.”
That impression probably wasn’t helped by the casting of Ludvine Sagnier as Tinkerbell. At the time, the only other thing most people had seen her in was Swimming Pool, in which she played the [SPOILER ALERT] imaginary, sexpot daughter.
Then, once the reviews started rolling in, you had statements like this one from Marc Savlov in The Austin Chronicle:
“If you can get past the ick factor inherent in these suddenly adulterized relationships — and there’s really no way this film should have received a kid-friendly PG rating — and latch on to the film’s wealth of metaphor, you’ll surely have something to discuss over coffee post-screening.”
And here’s Peter Travers’ review, in its entirety, from the December 23, 2003 issue of Rolling Stone:
“Big bucks have been spent on another go at J.M. Barrie’s fantasy, but despite a hint that Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) and Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) might get it on, there’s nothing to crow about.”
“Obvious sexuality?” “Adulterized relationships?” “Get it on?” You’d think they’d just seen The Dreamers in Neverland, with Peter, Wendy, and John lounging about Peter’s hideout, starkers, playing “Name the Fairy or Pay the Forfeit.” With rubbish like that floating around it’s no wonder parents weren’t dropping off minivans full of kids at the multiplex.
There is one slight hint of “sexuality” in the film, but it’s a prudish adult that introduces it. In an early scene, Wendy is asleep in her bed and she awakens to find Peter floating above her, watching her sleep. She gasps, frightening Peter, who flies out the window, leaving his shadow behind. The next day at school, Wendy is drawing a picture of herself in bed with a boy floating above her. The teacher catches her doodling, confiscates the drawing and interrogates her after school.
Teacher: (Sternly.) If this is you in bed, what is this?
Wendy: (Hesitantly.) A boy…
Narrator: Miss Fulsom dispatched a letter of outrage to Mr. Darling that set new standards for prudery, even for her.
There was nothing sexual about the picture Wendy had drawn. It wasn’t until it had been filtered through the teacher’s prurient mind that it became dirty. In much the same way, anyone who finds anything sexual in this version of Peter Pan has brought their own baggage into the theater, because it’s certainly not up there on the screen.
What is up there on the screen for the very first time, the thing that has everyone talking in the same disapproving tone as Wendy’s teacher, is the one thing that distinguishes a child from an adult. And it isn’t sex…
What is it? Well, to Peter, the defining characteristic of adulthood is going to work in an office:
Peter: Would they send me to school?
Peter: And to an office?
Wendy: I suppose so.
Peter: Soon I shall be a man. (Teasing.) You can’t catch me and make me a man.
Peter: (Very seriously.) I want always to be a boy and have fun.
Wendy: You say so, but I think it is your biggest pretend.
But I think we all know that working in an office has nothing to do with being an adult. Some of the most immature people I’ve ever known have worked in offices. So, what is it?
The thing they keep coming back to in the film is the concept of “feelings.” Not just any feelings, though. After all, even kids can experience all of the base emotions. Here’s a conversation between Wendy and Peter after a beautiful mid-air dance at a fairy wedding:
Wendy: Peter, what are your real…feelings?
Wendy: What do you feel? Happiness? Sadness? Jealousy?
Peter: (Free associating.) Jealousy? Tink!
Peter: Anger? Hook!
Peter: (Evasively.) I have never heard of it.
Wendy: I think you have, Peter. I daresay you’ve felt it yourself for something…or…someone.
Peter: Never. Even the sound of it offends me.
Peter: (Angry.) Why do you spoil everything?! We have fun, don’t we? I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be!?
Wendy: There is so much more…
Peter: What? What else is there?
Wendy: I don’t know. I think it becomes clearer when you grow up.
Peter: I will not grow up! You cannot make me! I’ll banish you, like Tinkerbell!
Wendy: I will not be banished!
Peter: Go home! Go home and grow up…and take your feelings with you!
Wendy: (As he flies away.) Peter! Peter, come back! Peter!
No, the thing that separates the men from the boys is love. And that’s what separates Wendy and Peter. The ability to recognize love, the ability to experience love, and the ability love someone in return.
Wendy eventually becomes so frustrated with Peter’s “deficiencies” in this area that she even considers joining Hook’s gang:
Wendy: It’s true, John. Your sister has been invited to piracy.
Tootles: But, mother! Hook is a fiend!
Slightly: And a bounder!
Wendy: On the contrary, I find Captain Hook to be a man…of…feeling.
(Peter, furious, goes after her and they engage in a sword fight.)
Tootles: Mother and father are fighting again.
Wendy: Sir, you are both ungallant and deficient.
Peter: How am I deficient?
Wendy: (Dismissively.) You’re just a boy.
And she realizes that’s all he ever will be. She knows that Peter will never be capable of real love and she knows that unless she grows up she’ll never be able to experience it fully either.
I know what you’re thinking. If love is at the core of the story, why has the subject been conspicuously avoided for the last 100 years? Well, it probably has something to do with the harebrained tradition of casting females in the role of Peter Pan. The very first Peter Pan was Maude Adams, who was 32 years old at the time. Mary Martin (41) had a successful run on Broadway in 1954, Sandy Duncan (33) revived the show in 1979, and Cathy Rigby (46) starred in the 1998 Broadway hit.
If people are having a problem with the depiction of the first stirrings of love between a young girl and a young boy, just think how they would feel about the first stirrings of love between an underage girl and a middle-aged lesbian.
(The first production of Peter Pan that featured a male in the title role was in Germany in 1952. England didn’t see it’s first pair of authentically packed tights until a 1982 production directed by Trevor Nunn, which was revived at the National Theatre in 1997, with Ian McKellen as Captain Hook.)
But the core of this story has always been Wendy’s discovery of the importance of love. If she flies away to Neverland because she doesn’t want to grow up, why does she return home? In most productions, her decision to return home is based solely on her loneliness for her parents but, sorry folks, that’s a cop-out. She must return because there is something about growing up that she believes will be even more rewarding than staying.
There is another reason that this version of the Peter Pan was especially poignant for me. Rachel Hurd-Wood is like a 12-year-old replica of a girl I once dated. Her hair, her eyes, her mouth, her voice, her mannerisms, her spirit. The likeness is remarkable. She, too, was a delightful girl…beautiful, calm, and poised, but you could sense the strength and passion that lay just below the surface. She was my Wendy.
We started dating when we were both in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Sundance Summer Theater. But after we’d been dating for a while, I noticed that the spark we’d had at the beginning of the relationship wasn’t there anymore. I just didn’t have the same intensity of feeling for her that I’d once had. To my mind, that could only mean one thing: I must not be in love with her anymore.
So, at that point, the question became: How do I extricate myself from this relationship without becoming the bad guy? I couldn’t just say, “I’m sorry, but for reasons that I don’t understand, and certainly can’t explain, I’m not in love with you anymore,” because then she’d want to “talk about it,” or worse, “work on it.” But, surely, that magic spark that occurs between two people isn’t something you can talk into existence or work to create. It’s either there or it isn’t, and if it’s not there, it’s nobody’s fault…it just wasn’t meant to be, right?
So, what did I do? I did what any coward would do. I didn’t do anything. To my everlasting shame, I essentially checked out of the relationship emotionally and waited for it to die of (un)natural causes.
The real problem, of course, had nothing to do with sparks, or lack thereof. And it had nothing to do with her. It was me. I was, as Wendy would put it, “deficient.” I was just a boy, a Lost Boy, and I didn’t even know it. It’s not that I didn’t want to grow up, it just never occurred to me that I hadn’t. By all outward appearances, I was quite mature. I was bright, sensitive, caring, responsible, conscientious, attentive. But I didn’t have the slightest idea what love really was.
I blame society. Young men in America don’t have many opportunities to learn about relationships as they grow up. While nearly every young man will have someone sit them down and talk to them about the facts of life, there’s no corresponding discussion about the facts of love. There’s no Pee Wee Relationship League, no Emotional Economics class in high school, no Feelings merit badge. We’re pretty much left to figure out this whole love thing for ourselves. Alone.
Why alone? Well, we certainly can’t discuss it amongst ourselves. Opening up and sharing your true feelings with someone is a very intimate thing to do, and intimacy between males is not necessarily something that is encouraged in our society. It also reveals a certain emotional vulnerability, and “vulnerability” equals “weakness,” right? And it opens you up to possible ridicule, which is something adolescent boys are not especially keen on. So, the rules are simple: Sex, you talk about; feelings, you don’t.
So when I talked about love, I didn’t actually talk about love. I talked about the giddy, exciting, adrenaline- and hormone-induced euphoria that occurs at the beginning of a relationship. In other words, I talked about the sparks.
Sparks are certainly necessary in order to get a relationship off the ground, but sparks are cheap. Sparks fly millions of times a day between all the wrong people and for all the wrong reasons. Heck, a 1972 Buick dragging its muffler down the highway can generate sparks. But we often become so entranced by the bright, sparkly lights that we seem to forget that the whole reason those sparks exist is to produce a flame. And as any Boy Scout trying to light a campfire can tell you: sparks are easy, it’s the flame that’s hard.
Those sparks that occur at the beginning of a relationship can’t last forever. That intensity is, by its very nature, fleeting. The only way you can maintain the sparks in a relationship is to not maintain the relationship. When the sparks subside, which they inevitably will, your only option is to ditch the relationship and move on to someone else. Which is exactly what I did.
What every adult needs to learn at some point in their life is that what a relationship loses in intensity, it can gain in depth. What it loses in flash, it can gain in heat. Until you learn that lesson, every relationship you enter into has an expiration date in the not-so-distant future.
I broke one more person’s heart after I broke Wendy’s. Again, I checked out of the relationship when the sparks subsided, but this time there was this nagging feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Deep, deep inside my shallow self there was this little pile of burning embers. This time, the sparks had actually done their job. I was in love. I sat up and thought to myself, “You idiot! What in the world are you thinking? Get off your butt and beg that girl to take you back.” I did and she did and we ended up getting married.
I often think about what would have happened if I hadn’t had that epiphany, if I’d stayed a Lost Boy. Craving love, but incapable of really experiencing it, I would have spent my entire life in an endless parade of relationships generating plenty of sparks and no real heat. Sure, the relationships would have gone to 11, but they would have been about one inch deep and had a shelf life shorter than most Hostess products. And I would have made myself, and everyone who truly loved me, miserable.
No, my marriage didn’t last, but it wasn’t because I was a Lost Boy. If anything, I’d learned my lesson too well. I stayed too long, I compromised too much, I kept on trying long after it was intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that there was no hope. But if I had to err on the side of loving too much or loving too little, at least I finally did the right thing.
I may have lost the girl, but I found myself.