For almost a hundred years, children of all ages have firmly believed in an island called Neverland that's just outside the bedroom window and a million miles away. For almost a hundred years, they have tried to summon enough good thoughts to follow Wendy and John and Michael Darling over the dreamy border to a land where life is filled with adventure.
And it has taken almost a hundred years for filmmakers to make a faithful rendition of J.M. Barrie's most famous play. The latest version of "Peter Pan," directed by P.J. Hogan, may have had marketing issues and a tepid opening weekend, but it restores the magic of the classic tale by returning complexity and depth to its characters.
There have been many versions of "Peter Pan," several by the author, a successful novelist and playwright. But the most widely known is the play, which Barrie wrote in a two-week burst of inspiration in 1902. Triumphantly produced in London in 1904, "Peter Pan" was instantly vacuumed into the Anglo-American psyche. There has been a silent film (1924), a radio play (1936), an animated film by Disney (1953), and a musical play (1954) that was later televised and several movie "sequels" ("Hook" and "Return to Never Land").
Peter has been hijacked as a peanut butter, an '80s self-help metaphor ("The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up" by Dan Kiley), and an archetype endlessly analyzed by lit crits and psych types. Neverland became an infamous pop star's isolated estate.
But a new surge of interest in the real "Peter Pan" marks the centennial. This month sees the debut of "Lost Girls," a novel by highly regarded author Laurie Fox that is narrated by Wendy's great-great granddaughter. In October, Miramax will release "J.M. Barrie's Neverland." Directed by Marc Forster, the film follows Barrie, played by Johnny Depp, through the theatrical debut of his most famous character. The cast also includes Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, and Dustin Hoffman (who, fittingly enough, played the title role in Steven Spielberg's "Hook.")
Most significant, though, is the bold new film produced by Universal, Revolution and Columbia studios. Amazingly, it's the first live-action cinematic treatment of the original story.
A film's crucial shift
This new "Peter Pan," which has received mostly good reviews, not only features a real, live boy (Jeremy Sumpter) in the title role for only the second or third time in a century, it returns Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) to her place as the central character and narrator. This crucial shift brings forward the romance and pathos of the story, gives other characters like Captain Hook and Mr. Darling (both played by Jason Isaacs) new dimension, and infuses the movie with the folkloric quality of the original play.
Because what many people seem to have forgotten is that without Wendy, Peter Pan is nothing.
Yes, he's the immortal child, the spirit of this and that, the archetype of whatsis. But that's a little creepy if it isn't grounded by a Wendy, as the folks behind the movie "Hook" found out.
"The point of view was always Wendy's -- jumping out the window and coming back in," producer Lucy Fisher says.
Wendy's point of view, as envisioned by Hogan, is by no means stay-at-home. A $100-million budget bought a fantastic menu of special effects that would have thrilled Barrie who, in 1904, dazzled audiences when he wrote in a mechanical crocodile, a St. Bernard dog and a device to lift the Wendy House into the treetops.
In marketing the film, the spectacle card has been played for all it's worth. There's the pirate ship and flying swordplay scenes that owe as much to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and skateboarding videos as to Errol Flynn -- and scenes of creepily seductive mermaids who wouldn't be out of place in Middle-earth. In fact, such movie fantasy credentials may have hurt it at the box office where it opened poorly against Peter Jackson's opus. "I thought ['Peter Pan's'] trailers were good," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box office tracking firm. "They played up the fantasy aspect and made it look like a new rendering of this classic story. But no matter how hard you marketed, all the newcomers would stand in the shadow of 'Lord of the Rings.' "The good news for Peter Pan," he added, "is that it may do very well on the long haul and of course on video. Family films do extraordinarily well on DVD and video."
The success of "Lord of the Rings" actually proves a Barrie insight -- that adding swashbuckling adventure elements to a fairy story extends the appeal. Barrie, who had tried out his tales on real kids before bringing them to the stage, very mindfully stitched together elements aimed at different age groups. He also crafted a story that cut across gender lines, allowing his latest interpreters to find the romance embedded in the adventure story.