Arrested development

A spectacular new film version of Peter Pan, which opens on Boxing Day, tackles the darker roots of Neverland. But the story of Peter's creator, JM Barrie, is as strange as that of the boy who wouldn't grow up. And it all began with a chance meeting in a London park. John Walsh reconsiders an enduring myth
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The Independent Culture

This Christmas, there's an outbreak of Peter Pans all over the place. A dazzling new $100m film version opens on Boxing Day. Its producer, Lisa Fisher, has been trying to get it made for 25 years, first with Francis Ford Coppola at his Zoetrope Studios, then with Paramount and at last (executive co-produced by Mohamed Al Fayed) by Universal, directed and co-written by PJ Hogan. A revival of the play has taken the stage at the Savoy Theatre in London, while Buena Vista's movie JM Barrie's Neverland, starring Johnny Depp as the troubled dramatist and connoisseur of boys, is in post-production. And lurking in the background is Michael Jackson's court case, at which the name of his Californian retreat, Neverland, will be studied again and the prosecution will ask the crucial question: is all the stuff about a lost childhood and a kids' paradise just a cover for paedophilia?

Peter Pan is 99 years old this month - the play was first produced at the Duke of York's, London, on 27 December 1904 - and there are contrasting schools of opinion about the eldritch centenarian. Some people can't forgive JM Barrie for inventing the name "Wendy", a mildly emetic contraction of the phrase, "I wish I had a friendy-wendy" that the childless Scots playwright once heard on the lips of a tearful girl.

Some people, myself included, can't abide the Edwardian tweeness of his imaginings ("You see, Wendy, when the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about and that was the beginning of fairies"). Some people regard his vision of childhood - in particular his invention of Neverland - as a creepy fantasy of arrested development, as inappropriate as his famous fan Michael Jackson's love for "innocent" nursery horseplay with other people's children.

Others see Barrie as a subtle cartographer of the child's world, where the hemispheres of innocence and experience, of childishness and growing up, blur and slide and blend into each other. For the rest, Peter Pan is just a fairy story, a lark, a pantomime in which the principal boy will reject the advances of Wendy Darling and will, sooner or later, fly above the auditorium on all-too-visible wires. Or else it's a Disney cartoon from 1953, with Peter as a grinning sprite (rather than a real boy) in a green tunic, a not-terribly-frightening villain in Captain Hook, and some jolly songs like "Never Smile at a Crocodile".

The new Peter Pan film is at pains to locate a dark side of JM Barrie. It's a bewitchingly beautiful movie, but its prevailing idiom is darkness. The makers have added scenes that emphasise its sexual, or at least pubertal, components. They have invented an Aunt Millicent, absent from Barrie's original, who scrutinises the young Wendy and sees a young woman bursting to emerge from her virginal carapace. In another new scene, Wendy has to explain to a teacher why she's been drawing pictures of herself lying in bed while a predatory youth hovers meaningfully above her. There's a running theme about her possessing a "hidden kiss" that will empower people until they can make storms rage and the earth move; the camera displays a corresponding obsession with the enormous, permanently wet lips of Rachel Hurd-Wood, playing Wendy.

Her courtship with Peter (Jeremy Sumpter, straight from the pages of Germaine Greer's The Boy) is a blizzard of meaningful gazes and shag-me-Robbie smiles, while her relationship with Captain Hook (traditionally played by the actor who also plays her father) is an unsettling amalgam of hostility and seduction. Murky but attractive knowledge is everywhere. Even the mermaids come on like hard-faced Vietnamese hookers, bent on immersing the innocent girl in Things They Shouldn't Know About. Sometimes the film seems not so much a portrait of a boy who wouldn't grow up, more a study of sexual frustration among prepubertal girls.

One could blame all this shameless eroticising on the writer-director PJ Hogan, were it not that Peter Pan was always a pretty rum creation and the titular figure a nasty piece of work. Peter kills people. He chops off their limbs. He treats his fairy girlfriend, Tinkerbell, like a plaything, to be dismissed when he's bored. Unlike most boys of 12, he has no empathy of feeling, no interest in the needs of others (except for telling them stories). He is emotionally autistic. In Freudian terms, he has a raging id, and is a mass of primitive energies and base desires (except for sex). When did we decide that he was a loveable scamp, like William Brown only with aviation skills?

Once you get started on Freudian readings, however, there's just no stopping. Take the relationship between Wendy and her father. Mr Darling is a weak, craven City clerk; she re-imagines him as a dangerous, damaged, sexy, confiding leader of men with a frightening, prehensile limb. It's a classic Electra complex, in which a daughter becomes sexually fixated on her father and entertains desires of killing her mother, the rival for his favours. When Wendy arrives in Neverland, she becomes a mother-figure to the Lost Boys and her own brothers, displacing her mother in their memories...

Alarming, isn't it? For a century we've been innocently celebrating a complex cat's-cradle of incest, bereavement, sexual awakening, frustration, abduction, murderous desire and dreams of abandonment, served up as jolly panto fare. How could we be so blind? What on earth was going on in the author's head? And who or what does Peter Pan represent?

There was a lot more to James Matthew Barrie than Peter and Tinkerbell. The seventh child (of eight) born to a Kirriemuir weaver, he ended up with a baronetcy, the Order of Merit and several honorary degrees. He experienced the pain of loss very early - when he was six, his 12-year-old brother (and his mother's favourite) died; James resolved "to make up to her" for her loss. He went to Edinburgh University, joined the Nottingham Journal as a leader writer and began writing sketches of Scottish life. He had a popular hit with his novel The Little Minister in 1891 and began writing for the stage. His future wife Mary Ansell was an actress in his debut farce, The Lifeboat. At the turn of the century, his whimsical plays, Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton were huge hits. For a while he was spoken about as a minor-league Bernard Shaw.

Everything changed in 1897. That year, when he was 37, he saw a vision in Kensington Gardens and fell in love. It was three children playing together: George, Jack and baby Peter Llewellyn Davies. They were the children of Arthur Llewellyn Davies, a barrister, and his wife Sylvia, the daughter of George Du Maurier (who wrote Trilby and introduced the world to the character of Svengali). Barrie was entranced by George, then five years old, and struck up a friendship. He took to telling George and Jack (then four) little stories about what their pram-bound baby brother Peter got up to when they thought he was asleep - how he'd fly to Kensington Gardens and pick up the dead babies that had fallen from their prams, unnoticed by their nannies...

Shortly afterwards, he found himself at a dinner party on New Year's Eve, sitting next to the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. After dinner he noticed that she was secreting the post-prandial chocolates in a handkerchief and putting them into her handbag. "What are you doing?" he asked. "They're for Peter," she whispered. And it dawned on him that this stellar beauty was the mother of his "lost boys" in the park.

For the next 40 years, Barrie became the family's most devoted and sentimental admirer (the father, Arthur, seems to have only tolerated him). He and the boys became very close. As fourth and fifth sons, Michael and Nico, arrived, they were inducted into the psychodrama of Peter Pan. When Arthur died in 1907, Barrie took on financial responsibility for the children. When the Barries divorced, and Sylvia died of cancer in 1910, Barrie took in all five boys - then aged six to 17 - to live with him.

Meanwhile, Peter Pan had been gradually gestating in his imagination. His novels Sentimental Tommy and its 1900 follow-up, Tommy and Grizel, concern a writer inventing a little boy who is unable to grow up. When Peter finally appeared, in The Little White Bird (1902), he was a faintly sinister figure - a boy who can fly and who takes dead children to a heaven specially designed for kids. He developed as a character through successive stories that Barrie told the children. In 1914, Barrie gave a rare interview to The New York Herald about George Llewellyn Davies. "It's funny that the real Peter Pan - I call him that - is off to the war," he said. "He grew tired of the stories I told him, but his younger brother became interested. It was such fun telling those two about themselves. I would say, 'Then you came along and killed the pirate,' and they would accept every word as the truth. That's how Peter Pan came to be written. It's made up of only a few stories I told them."

So where did all the haunted sexuality come from? How did the story of a boy's adventures become charged with Freudian overtones? Andrew Birkin, the author of JM Barrie and the Lost Boys (and screenwriter for the unmade Coppola movie) has examined 500 notes that Barrie wrote for different drafts of Peter Pan. "Originally Peter was a baby," he says, "but after he and the boys spent a summer in Black Lake, playing castaways on a pirate lagoon, where the villain was a black man called Captain Swarthy, he got the idea of making Peter older. And he was the villain of the play. There was no Captain Hook in the early versions. Wendy was the heroine and Peter the villain, the boy who chose not to grow up. But Barrie needed something to keep the audience happy while the scenery was changing, so he wrote a 'front-cloth scene' borrowing a few ideas from their boy castaways games, and all the stuff about Captain Hook came up. He never went back and re-wrote it - it just became incorporated into the play."

Birkin points out that Barrie liked to identify with Hook, "but he was much closer to Wendy, always wanting to mother the boys and enfold them. Strangely, in one of the notes, he recommends that Hook should be played, not by the actor playing Mr Darling, but by the actress playing Mrs Darling. It's a little odd - but then, Barrie was the last person to psychoanalyse himself."

To Barrie, therefore, Peter Pan is both his 12-year-old dead brother, flying about in an eternal prepubescence with his sword, his Pan pipes and his unruly haircut; but is also a spirit-being who looked after the dead brother, who rescued him from the grave, who kept him away from adults and found him an eternal adventure playground, only with real pirates to kill and real crocodiles lurking in the water.

And there was something else. In a programme note for the Paris production in 1908, Barrie wrote: "Of Peter himself, you must make what you will. Perhaps he was a little boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures. Perhaps he was a boy who was never born at all - a boy whom some people longed for, but who never came. It may be that those people hear him at the window more clearly than children do."

Visitors to Michael Jackson's Californian Neverland - with its Ferris wheels and funfair carousels, a zoo with giraffes and elephants, waxwork figures, puppet shows, cake shops and a miniature steam-train - are surprised to find a studiedly old-fashioned Edwardian fun museum, and describe its air of aching loneliness and spooked emptiness. Loneliness is the prevailing note struck by the curious dedication to the play written by Barrie for the first publication of the script in 1928, by which time two of the boys had died and the others had grown. He claims to have no recollection of having written Peter Pan, and that it has been a private collaboration between himself and the boys.

"What was it," he asks, "that made us eventually give to the public, in the thin form of a play, that which had been woven for ourselves alone?" He affects not to care tuppence for the manuscripts of the play. "Cold they are to me now," he writes, "as that laughter of yours in which Peter came into being, long before he was caught and written down. There is Peter still, but to me he lies sunk in the gay Black Lake." There's no evidence to point to any sexual charge he derived from his fantasy life with the boys; their adventures were simply more real to him than anything else.

Peter Pan remains a potent myth because it cross-breeds two of its author's most passionate wishes: first, that his dead brother should be introduced to a place where childhood goes on for ever; and second, that his fantasy life with the Llewellyn Davies boys should not have to end with their becoming adults, or dying in a war, or (like Michael, his favourite) drowning in a lake at 20. His own mothering and protecting instincts supplied the supremely ambiguous figure of Captain Hook, so masterful and threatening, yet always doomed to be defeated by the ghostly 12-year-old.

And underneath it all was his sentimental love for the family, the children he couldn't have himself, for the unborn son as well as the undead brother. It was these unconquerable absences that Peter Pan arrived to fill, one summer afternoon in Kensington Gardens, London W2.