When Barrie commissioned the Peter Pan stature by Sir George Frampton that stands in Kensington Gardens to this day, he hoped it would allow Peter to be remembered long after his play was forgotten. But one hundred years later, Peter is just as popular as ever, and there are few children who don’t know his story — through picture books, through the Disney animation, and through the recent live-action film, if not directly from Barrie’s play or the pages of Peter and Wendy. Peter’s story has inspired several other works of fiction for both children and adults, and Barrie’s life has inspired two dramatic productions: the excellent BBC television series The Lost Boys, and the new film Finding Neverland.
Finding Neverland is a charming but heavily fictionalized concoction, playing fast-and-loose with the facts of Barrie’s life in order to tell a simpler, more romantic story. Here, Arthur is conveniently dead before Barrie meets Sylvia, and Sylvia’s mother is turned into a villain, attempting to keep Barrie and Sylvia apart. The boys are reduced from five in number to four, and are portrayed as older when they first meet Barrie. (In real life, Peter was just a baby.) In the film, it’s Peter (not the eldest, George) who is portrayed Barrie’s special friend; and Peter again, not the middle boy, Michael, who shares Barrie’s dreamy temperament and interest in writing. The biggest change is that handsome, charismatic Johnny Depp plays the part of the Scottish playwright, depicting him as a gentle, fey dreamer, rather than the odd little sharp-edged man that he actually was. But the movie has moments of magic, the period sets and costumes are lovely, and overall it is worth seeing, provided it’s taken with many grains of salt.
Andrew Birkin’s The Lost Boys on the other hand, is specifically based on the known facts of J.M. Barrie’s life, drawn from a vast array of surviving journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with those had known James Barrie. The last of the Lost Boys, Nico Llewelyn Davies, read and advised on Birkin’s script — and when the final production was broadcast, Llewelyn Davies phoned up Birkin in tears, “undone,” he said, by the way actor Ian Holm had turned into his Uncle Jim. (The series is available in the U.K. on DVD, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Birkin’s web site, where he generously makes a treasure trove of Barrie material — journals, letters, story notes, photographs, etc. — freely available to fans and scholars.)
James M. Barrie was a boy who couldn’t grow up, and out of this conundrum he gave us Peter, the boy who wouldn’t grow up — a character so vivid, so universal, and so emotionally true that he seems to belong to folklore now, not to one author’s imagination. One hundred years later, children still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they’ll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to grow up. A few years ago I knew a little boy who referred to adults, like me, as “human beings”. “Aren’t you a human being too?” I asked. With a look of scorn for the stupidity of my question, he answered, “I’m not a human, I’m a child.” When I pointed out that one day he would grow up to be a human too, he shook his head and insisted, “No. I’m going to stay a boy.” J.M. Barrie would have perfectly understood the desire to stay a boy forever and advised him to keep his window open, so that Peter Pan could find him.