As a screenwriter and producer, James V. Hart has helped translate the work of several disparate authors to the big screen: Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Muppet Treasure Island), Carl Sagan (Contact)—he’s also among the ranks of writers who’ve taken a swing at adapting Ayn Rand’s weighty Objectivist tome, Atlas Shrugged. But to a certain segment of the moviegoing public, the Texan-born filmmaker is best remembered for his contributions to the continuing legend of Peter Pan: 1991’s Hook. The tale of a Pan who left Neverland and grew up to be everything he once despised, the film was deemed a bomb at the time of its release—an expensive production that had difficulty recouping its budget and went unloved by critics. Kids loved it, though, and 20 years on, it inspires fond memories from those who caught the film during its original run. “I’m overwhelmed when kids—they’re in their 30s now—come up to me and start quoting lines,” Hart tells The A.V. Club. “Or tell me a story about how they saw Hook with their grandfather, mother, or father, or how they watch it every Christmas again.” It’s these memories—“happy thoughts,” as the film’s Lost Boys might call them—that inspired a series of 20th anniversary screenings of Hook, the first of which takes place tonight at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. In advance of the Austin screening, The A.V. Club spoke with Hart about the film’s dinner-table origins, writing for pirates, and why Captain Hook is more interesting than his flying, eternally young adversary.
The A.V. Club: The screening is in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Hook, but your involvement with the project stretches back to 1985, correct?
James V. Hart: Probably before that. Jake, our son, whose idea Hook was, had even started messing around with the idea when he was 3 years old. We introduced him to Peter Pan, the storybook and everything, and at some point he did one of those drawings that a 2- or 3-year-old does, where it’s all scribble scrabble, and they hold it up and say, “Look Mom, look Dad, look what I did,” and you go, “Hey, that’s great… what is it?” And he said, “That’s the crocodile eating Captain Hook,” and we’re going, “Oh yeah, we can see that.” It looked like early Picasso or something. But then he corrected himself and said, “Ah, but Captain Hook got away. The crocodile didn’t eat him.” And that started the whole “Captain Hook got away/revenge” sequel to Peter Pan.
Everybody had been trying to do it—Spielberg had been trying to do it, Francis [Ford] Coppola had tried to do it, Michael Jackson—and it always came up the same idea. John Hughes was going to do a Peter Pan at Disney, Lasse Hallström was going to do a Peter Pan. But it was always pretty much the same story about the Darling family going back to Neverland. I was never going to be able to play at that game. Then when Jake was 6—we used to play a game at the dinner table where we tried to stand the great fairy tales and the great stories on their head and come up with a “what if?” “What if the glass slipper didn’t fit Cinderella’s foot?” “What if the ring didn’t fit Frodo’s finger?” And then Jake asked the question, “Well, did Peter Pan ever grow up?” And I was not a very good parent in those days, and I said, “Yeah, that’s a stupid question. Of course Peter Pan never grew up. Are you crazy?” And then he sort of defiantly looked at me and said, “Yeah, but what if Peter Pan grew up?” And that was it—all the bells and whistles went off. That was when we all realized that we had all outgrown our ability to fly and our belief in fairies, and we’d sold out our imaginations and our childhoods to be capitalists and materialistic and successful. We really had forgotten. We really had killed Peter Pan. And that was the beginning of the idea of Peter Pan growing up. And we worked on the story together as a family, and that became the basis for the movie seven years later.
AVC: Do you think that metaphor of young idealists growing up to become corporate pirates still carries relevancy 20 years after the movie came out?
JVH: Well yeah, just look around. It’s hard to maintain an imagination and a whimsical approach to life when you see the world falling apart around you. Greed and pursuit of success at the expense of others, and chopping arts budgets at schools, and trying to do in NPR, and trying to cut education and anything that has to do with the imagination—it’s sort of like corporate piracy, the enemy of the imagination, the enemy of any kind of innovation. And then you see somebody like Steve Jobs. Where did the iPad come from? It came from somebody’s imagination. So yeah, I think it’s relevant today, and I think it was relevant 100 years ago when Barrie created it. Look at Wall Street, look at what we’ve done to destroy people’s pension plans. If you believe in fairies, you’re screwed.
AVC: You’ve written several scripts and one novel—the Peter Pan prequel Captain Hook: Adventures Of A Notorious Youth—involving pirates. What got you interested in that subject matter?
JVH: My mother. I was a pirate fan from the very beginning. Jean Lafitte jumped out at me when I was a Cub Scout. We’re from Louisiana, I grew up in Texas—the Battle of New Orleans was always a big thing for me historically. I was impressed that a pirate joined with the U.S. government to defeat the invaders. I was reading about pirates, wanting to be a pirate, acting out pirates. When I first saw Peter Pan on stage as a musical in Fort Worth—and then the Disney cartoon—I was more interested in Captain Hook than I was anybody else. Especially in the musical; I didn’t care for him in the cartoon—he wasn’t very threatening. The whole relationship between Peter Pan and Captain Hook was something I grew up with. Long John Silver was another big hero of mine. I couldn’t find them as being totally bad guys. Long John Silver taught a lot to Jim Hawkins. Captain Hook, the way J.M. Barrie wrote him, was an extraordinarily tragic character who was angry about getting old. Captain Nemo, my other favorite villain: The guy wanted to end slavery, abolish war, get rid of WMDs—I couldn’t figure out why we were supposed to hate him. The more I investigated these guys, the more I liked them. I had to start beginning to think that pirates aren’t bad, there’s something else about them.
I’m involved in a miniseries by Donald Parks based on a book called The Republic Of Pirates, which is about the nation that pirates formed in the Caribbean, in New Providence, in the Bahamas in 1715 that was the purest democracy that we’ve ever seen in the Western Hemisphere. Ex-slaves fled there to be free, and they were treated as equals. Everybody had an equal vote. It was a republic that brought trade between Europe and the States to a standstill. And it was all about freedom. It was guys who had been persecuted by the British Navy, the Spanish Navy, and the French Navy. Runaway slaves, people who had been tortured. Here they go and form a very pure democracy. That was news to me; I hadn’t seen a pirate portrayed that way. I still haven’t. I’m hoping my next big pirate adventure is The Republic Of Pirates.
AVC: Is there anything you find challenging about writing for those kinds of characters?
JVH: Yeah, what are you going to leave out? They’re so rich, and they’re so layered in back story and with dreams and torment and trauma and psychological disorders and heroics. Captain Hook, in [Captain Hook: Adventures Of A Notorious Youth]—I really investigated his makeup and why he turned out the way he did. I always like making the villains have a heroic side to them, having a moral compass, because the good guys are flat out boring. We learn more from the villains.
AVC: In both of your versions of Hook, you really drive home his obsession with that “good form/bad form” dynamic.
JVH: Yeah, “good form” was his favorite phrase, and he believed in it. If you go back and read Barrie’s writings about Captain Hook, there is an essay called “Hook At Eton,” which is where I got the idea to expand that. He was educated, he was well-read; he believed that knowledge is the most powerful thing you can have. He’s sort of rueful about all of the hypocrisy and the institutions that are supposed to be right really being evil. That was the character I wanted to write. When I began to research Dracula, I found out he was a knight, he served the church, he defended the cross of Christ. This was a guy that wasn’t wearing a cape, running around wanting to suck people’s necks. This was a very elegant, very distinguished warrior. I always try to find the other side of the villain that nobody’s bothered to explore, because they deserve their day, they deserve to be revered for what they are and not just cast off as some evil, stupid, dark, dumb, cardboard villain. The key is to make them difficult to hate.
AVC: The majority of your produced screenplays have been adaptations of literary works. How do you balance writing within and from someone else’s work with asserting your own voice?
JVH: Well, adaptations are sort of how I made my career. I think if I had a curse, it was that I could find the movie inside the book—and still be true to the spirit of the novel, of the story, and the characters, and not just throw it out the window and start over. I still have a lot of respect for the author. I always find solutions to problems inside the original book. Just like in Captain Hook, I became the character. I found the persona, I found an identity that I can wear very easily. So it’s fun for me to write that character. That’s who I want to be. I think it’s so consistent with my own philosophy, and sort of how I view the world. And I think all writers do that. We all find—whether we’re writing a female character or an animal or an alien or a monster or a villain—we all find ways to fold ourselves into them. Captain Hook just seems to be my favorite. If I come back as a CG animated character, I want to come back as James Hook.