It isn’t surprising that Peter Pan has lasted for more than 100 years, or that each generation gets a new version of him in the same way the character himself returns to visit each of Wendy Darling’s descendants in turn (though they’re coming faster than once a generation now; the latest, Joe Wright’s Pan, hits theaters this Friday). Pan was designed to be the ultimate in children’s entertainment; creator J.M. Barrie specifically set out to stuff every wondrous thing he could imagine into Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, the play where he made his first fully fledged appearance. Thus, Neverland is populated with pirates and Indians and the ability to fly, all mainstays of childhood games of pretend, while childhood stresses of school and parental rules are verboten. If it’s hard to imagine a place more tailor-made to appeal to children, that’s by design.
But stories can say more than their tellers intend, and for all the fun that Neverland promises, the story of Peter Pan is suffused with melancholy, an element that sneaks into even the most lighthearted versions of the story. As is now common knowledge, Barrie’s creation was less a celebration of childhood than a desperate grasp for one; he lost a brother when he was young, an emotional blow that neither he nor his mother ever fully recovered from. Longing to return to a time when his family was happy and unburdened with grief, Barrie found himself in the kind of traumatic arrested development that defines his most lasting character.
It would be inaccurate to say that the Peter Pan story is a metaphor for how children deal with trauma, but that’s only because it is quite literally the story of how a child attempts—and fails—to deal with trauma. The origin story varies, but Pan’s pre-Neverland life is generally agreed to be a realization of the ultimate childhood fear, that you will be discarded by your parents. Sometimes Pan is an orphan from birth, in other versions his parents abandon or lose him. (That Barrie was made to dress up as his brother, essentially being erased in favor of a more preferred offspring, is a particularly heartrending and telling detail of his biography.). The idea that he was unwanted is irreparably instilled in Pan’s head, and this is the defining aspect of the character, far more than his chutzpah or love of pretend. Not for nothing is he introduced weeping because he’s incomplete, having been abandoned by something that was supposed to be with him forever, his shadow.
Look even a little past the surface, and Peter Pan is revealed as the tragic figure he is at heart. Yet only one version of the story has really acknowledged this. Not coincidentally, it’s by far the best one: P.J. Hogan’s 2003 film Peter Pan.
The Peter Pan of this film (Jeremy Sumpter) is a wounded creature. Like many troubled children, he reacts with hostility and violence when attacked, though the dangers that set him off here aren’t the physical kind posed by Captain Hook, but emotional ones that are threatening in their adultness. The film sees through his familiar traits, revealing his trademark cockiness and mischievousness as masks over underlying pain. When claims he wants only to be a boy and have fun, Wendy calls bullshit: “I think it is your biggest pretend.”
Remember that Pan’s ability to fly is contingent on not just fairy dust, but optimism; if he lets unhappy thoughts into his head, he will quite literally fall. This doesn’t result in a joyful character, but one in denial. When he plays a kind of word association game, pairing “jealousy” with Tinker Bell and “anger” with Hook, he claims ignorance at the word “love,” hissing that “the sound of it offends me.” While it’s never underlined in close-up, there’s a scar running across Sumpter’s heart.
The exchange about love occurs at the key scene of the film, one lacking an equivalent in other versions. Hogan (who co-wrote the screenplay) cannily develops the story so that Wendy, on the cusp of womanhood and luminously played by Rachel Hurd-Wood, first views adulthood as a prison. Near the start of the film, she learns that she is to be molded into marriage material, a prospect that looks singularly unappealing, if her parents are any indication. Her father is incapable of playing the career game (“Wit is very fashionable,” he has to be advised), but must, to provide for his family. When the Darling kids doubt his courage, their mother (Olivia Williams) responds with some of the most disquieting dialogue in family-movie history:
Mrs. Darling: There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before one’s self. Now, 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: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer… He does. And that is why he is brave.
Faced with a life of snuffed-out dreams, the adventurous Wendy obviously finds Pan’s argument for Neverland persuasive, and she’s soon rescuing her brothers from Hook’s dastardly clutches. A real adventure! But here’s where it gets complicated: That adventure essentially frees her from her youth. Having lived the fullest possible expression of childhood play—this is Neverland, after all—she’s newly ready to pass into adulthood. She’s eager for a deeper relationship with Pan, and when he proves incapable of even entertaining the idea, she begins to lose interest (making her more mature than most women in man-boy comedies).
Pan’s stagnation is what makes Wendy’s childhood feel limiting, and that’s why she finds herself susceptible to the charms of Captain Hook, another character who’s never been more psychologically compelling than he is in this film. Like Pan, Hook is driven by his intense loneliness, and he is as crushed as the jealous Tinker Bell when he learns that he’s lost the attention of his nemesis to a girl, of all things. When he seduces Wendy to his side, he uses Pan’s inability to love to push her from him. When he taunts Pan in their final battle, insidiously undoing his fairy-dust optimism, he does so by preying on the boy’s fear of abandonment, detailing a future where Wendy has “forgotten all about you” in favor of “another in your place, called husband.” Pan, he says, is doomed to die “alone and unloved—just like me.”
This isn’t simple evil, but the lashing out of someone with his own bitter wounds. Attempting to poison Pan, he uses a potion distilled from his own tears, “a mixture of malice, jealousy, and disappointment.”
Lest you think this is a radical interpretation of the source material, remember that Peter Pan In Scarlet, the sanctioned sequel to the story, has Pan commandeering the Jolly Roger and essentially morphing into Hook, the only emotionally honest development a character this adverse to change can undergo. Pan and Hook are symbiotic in the same way that Batman and the Joker are, but no other movie lays out the central relationship so brazenly.
For Wendy, Hook’s appeal, to put it bluntly, is that he’s a man. Though she is but 12 and Hook is played by the same actor who also plays Mr. Darling (Jason Isaacs, the dual-casting a tradition with a lot of thematic implications), he promises growth where Pan represents atrophy. On some level Wendy has been aware of this from the start; the first time she looks into Hook’s eyes she finds herself “not afraid, but entranced,” and when Peter’s Neverland pitch mentions that she’ll never have to worry about adult stuff again, she demurs: “Never is an awfully long time.”
She flirts with becoming a pirate, another new wrinkle to the story, and one whose implicit betrayal obviously infuriates Pan (this is also the only version of the story where Pan holds a sword to Wendy’s throat). But her reasoning is nothing if not mature: “I find Captain Hook to be a man of feeling,” she says, calling Peter “ungallant and deficient.” How is he deficient? He’s “just a boy.”
“Deficient” is a pretty devastating charge to level at your main character, especially because the thing that makes him deficient is also central to his appeal. Other versions of his story paint his eternal youth as something to enjoy, assuming they choose to probe it at all. (The Disney animated version, to name one prominent example, doesn’t). The “I Won’t Grow Up” number of the famous musical hints at the downside to his immortality; nonetheless, the lyrics place his defiance to aging in opposition to boring school and lame tie-wearing, rather than spelling them out as a response to the abandonment issues that define the character.
Despite the film’s bright color palette and bloodless violence, Hogan’s Peter Pan exposes the story’s true darkness by deconstructing its most resonant theme. Perhaps this is why it failed to find much of an audience, though it’s easy to imagine a cult rising around it, given the wave of coming Neverland projects. (Count this lifelong Lost Boy its first member.) But the darkness has always been a part of the Pan story, even if Barrie hid it. Consider this: Despite the love he and Wendy share, Pan always stays in Neverland. The Lost Boys go to London with the Darlings, but family is “one joy from which [Pan] must be forever barred,” according to the film’s narration. A boy who boasts that “to die would be an awfully big adventure” is in some serious need of therapy.
Children have always sought refuge in fantasy worlds in the face of pain, sometimes escaping so completely that they hardly interact with the real world. That’s what Neverland is for Peter Pan. It’s a reprieve from the place that hurt him so deeply. Staying despite the loss of Wendy and the Lost Boys is his admission that he’s afraid of life. The reason no version has him leave is simple: He’s not strong enough to. He’s just a boy.