Peter Pan is what I like to call a prodigal character—he escaped his author and the boundaries of text and has gone flitting about popular culture, becoming something of a modern-day mythical character. This is in part because of the character’s origins–there are three separate J.M. Barrie texts that give us Peter’s story:
- Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a story first included in The Little White Bird, a novel published in 1902;
- Peter Pan: Or, The Boy who Would not Grow Up, a play first performed in 1904 but not published as a text until 1928; and
- Peter and Wendy, a novelization of the play, published in 1911.
Complicated, right? Add to that all of the remakes and rewrites that have been released since then, especially Peter was added to the Disney franchise, and there’s a fantastic maze of things involving Peter Pan.
Traditionally, Peter lives in Neverland, where he leads the Lost Boys, fights the Red Skins and pirates, and plays with Tinker Bell. But at night, he flies to the Darling house to hear stories and look in the window of the happy home. Wendy Darling is the oldest of the Darling children, and it is she who Peter Pan wants to take away to Neverland, hoping she’ll be his mother and tell him stories; John and Michael only go because Wendy wakes them and insists that Peter Pan take the whole family. The show ends with a return to the nursery and normality for all except Peter, who cannot and will not grow up.
The primary inspiration for re-tellings has been Peter as he appeared in the stage play. This has been especially true of cinematic versions, some of which are productions of the play itself and some of which are adaptations of the script.
It may have been the desire to create a play for children that was less silly than the pantos and harlequinades of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. that prompted Barrie to make heavy revisions to the play between its opening run in 1904 and his own published edition of the script in 1928. There were certainly many revisions in the intervening time, including the addition of the afterword, “When Wendy Grew Up,” staged at the end of the first London production of the play. It has since accompanied other elements of the play’s initial London run to become traditional parts of the Peter Pan mythos.
Tinker Bell’s almost-death presents a unique moment of intimacy between Barrie and playgoers, and it is a scene that is often preserved in film translations. In Peter Pan, playgoers are asked to clap if they believe in fairies when Tinker Bell drinks the cup of poison that Captain Hook left for Peter. Barrie was so unsure of what the audience’s reaction would be that he made sure there would not be an awkward silence by arranging for the orchestra to put down their instruments and clap if no one in the audience did. As it turned out, however, Barrie had little to worry about. The audience responded wonderfully to the request to save Tinker Bell–so wonderfully, in fact, that Nina Bouicault, the first actress to play Peter on stage, burst into tears upon hearing their reaction.
Another stage convention, having the actor who plays Mr. Darling double as the actor who plays
Nin Boucicault as Peter
Captain Hook, has also worked its way into film versions of the play. Less common in film versions, but still the rule for stage productions, is the convention that Peter be played by a woman rather than a young boy. Some adaptations place Wendy as pubescent and some a bit younger, which naturally changes the ages of her younger siblings (and of Peter
Maude Adams as Peter
Pan himself). The tradition of casting Peter as a woman can mostly be traced to stage conventions of the early twentieth century, complex English labor laws, and to Charles Frohman, the American producer of the play, who insisted that Maude Adams play the part in the American version. The tradition has mostly stood, though, with few live-action versions casting an adolescent male in the part.
Mia Farrow as Peter
It’s difficult to choose a favorite, as there are so many version with so much to recommend them. I’ve narrowed it down a bit, though, and here are my top 5 film adaptations of the play:
- Peter Pan (1924). This silent film version starring Betty Bronson is the first film to be produced, and it uses the script from Barrie’s original play.
- Peter Pan (1953). This Disney version bears little resemblance to the original play, especially in regards to Neverland itself. It certainly captivated audiences, though, and it still does.
- Peter Pan (1976). This version starred Mia Farrow and was a musical version broadcast for Hallmark, and though it has since become a bit difficult to find, it is well-worth looking for.
- Peter Pan (2003). P.J. Hogan directed this live-action film, and it is fantastic. Jeremy
Betty Bronson as Peter
Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs are a formidable trio.
- Neverland: Never Grow Up, Never Grow Old (2003). An odd bird of an adaptation, it moves the setting of the play to an old amusement park, and the characters are grittier versions than we see in many other adaptations. It doesn’t completely work, but it works well enough to be fascinating.
And I have other favorite versions, to be sure. There are the spin-offs, the re-imaginings, and the re-tellings: Jake and the Neverland Pirates, a Disney Junior show set in Neverland but generally not involving Peter; Once Upon a Time‘s version (another Disney) of the character and island; NBC’s 1955 version of the play starring Mary Martin; a 2011 TV mini-series, Neverland, that functions as a prequel.
Still from the 1953 Disney film version
There are too many to list, really, and that’s one of the things I love about Peter Pan—no matter how much you find of the story, there’s always more. In fact, there are at least two new versions due out soon, a reproduction of Peter Pan Live! on NBC starring Christopher Walken and Allison Williams, and Pan, a live action film starring Rooney Mara and Amanda Seyfriend due out in 2015.
Allison Williams as Peter
(This entry is part of the Stage-to-Screen Blogathon, sponsored by The Rosebud Cinema and Rachel’s Theatre Reviews. Go check out the other entries!)