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Thursday Treasures

September 5, 2013

If you're familiar with the end to J.M. Barrie's immortal play and novel Peter Pan, you'll know that at the end of it, the title character makes a promise to return to Wendy, the story's heroine, for spring cleaning. Due to the nature of Neverland, he loses track of time, and by the time he remembers, Wendy has grown into an adult woman with a child of her own. It's fitting, therefore, that the Thursday Treasure intended for Brent Week arrives 3 weeks late. As far as I know, Brent hasn't matured into a mother, so the similarities end there, but the tardiness does very much seem in the spirit of the boy who won't grow up (and that can mean either Peter or Brent).

Peter Pan:

One Story, Three Interpretations

By Kelvin Cede'o

Prologue: 'When there's a smile in your heart, there's no better time to start.'

Peter Pan title

Few novels have transcended time the way Peter Pan has. While it's true that many works of literature are widely-read classics, J.M. Barrie's play-turned-book is part of an elite category I like to call 'honorary fairy tale.' Honorary fairy tales are fantasy novels that have resonated with the world to such a degree that people often pass around simplified versions of them orally the way genuine fairy tales have been passed down. These books often do get lumped together with fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault. They include Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and, of course, Peter Pan.

With the title of honorary fairy tale comes the film adaptation, and like the other three novels mentioned above, Peter Pan has been interpreted many times in many different ways. Sometimes they're direct adaptations (such as the most popular version, Walt Disney's 1953 animated feature), other times they're 'What if?' sequels (1991's Hook directed by Steven Spielberg). That's not even counting television series (Fox's 'Peter Pan and the Pirates'), miniseries prequels (Syfy's Neverland) and even Broadway musicals (most famously starring Mary Martin). For this article, I'll be comparing three theatrical features that set out to tell the same story: the 1924 silent film by Paramount, the 1953 animated film by Disney, and the 2003 live-action film by Universal.

Act One: 'All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.'

Peter Pan

The reason I've chosen to highlight these three features is because, while Barrie's novel has clearly influenced all sorts of interpretations, these three are the only domestic theatrical releases based directly on his work. The 1924 film starring Betty Bronson was the first, and it's important to note that Barrie himself had a hand in it. One would think that if that's the case, then this is the version to most accurately reflect his vision. However, Barrie had a very specific idea of how to translate Peter Pan into a film, and wrote a detailed treatment for it that Paramount lifted only a few ideas from. Instead, they opted for the safer route of re-enacting the stage play on a broader canvas. It's a bit of a shame as Barrie was quite ahead of his time and had fascinating ideas that would've taken advantage of the cinematic medium, not to mention added scenes that are neither in the play or book. He did, however, have final say over casting and personally contacted Bronson to tell her the news that she was Peter before Paramount could even do so. Another reason the 1923 film is so important is that it influenced a young boy who would later go on to make his own version of the story: Walt Disney.

Peter Pan Act 1

The 1953 animated feature is perhaps the most iconic interpretation of Barrie's work, arguably even eclipsing it in terms of familiarity. The visual translations of both Neverland (spelled by Disney as 'Never Land') and its residents have become the definitive take for many people, especially in the case of Tinker Bell. It has spawned a sequel, a spin-off franchise, classic theme park attractions, and a slew of merchandise. Besides what came after it, Disney's Peter Pan is important because it was the first time a boy, Academy Award winner Bobby Driscoll in this case, had been cast as Peter (stage versions cast females in the lead as they could glide more gracefully on wires). Disney in general is a company ingrained into all of our consciousness, and we're all exposed to it at a very early age. As such, Disney's film more often than not serves as a child's first exposure to the story. That's just as well as the picture proves animation can accomplish many fantastical things that are difficult to achieve in live-action.

Peter Pan

That didn't stop Universal, however, from releasing an ambitious live-action film in 2003. This version would take advantage of computer-generated imagery prevalent in high-profile releases today. Unfortunately, it didn't fare as well at the box office the way Paramount's and Disney's did due to coming on the heels of Best Picture Winner The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Regardless, it has since found an audience and is worth mentioning as it'll likely be the last feature film adaptation of the book for quite some time. Not counting the flashbacks in Hook, this was the first time a live boy was seen on film in the title role, and the use of modern technology meant more freedom in regards to things like animals and flying. Just as Disney was inspired by Paramount's, Universal was obviously inspired by Disney's, and this chain reaction makes the comparisons all the more fascinating.

Act Two: 'Oh, Peter, it's just as I've always dreamed it would be!'

NeverLand

All films take on a specifically different approach to Barrie's material. As previously stated, the 1924 Paramount feature is essentially the play. That isn't to say it's made up of 3-sided sets the way, say, the Mary Martin musical is. While some sets like the Darling nursery and the Lost Boys' hideout feel like they merely plus the show's production design, there's quite a bit of location filming, as well, that helps avoid claustrophobia. Virtually all of the dialogue is Barrie's, but bizarrely, the Darling children are American and make that very clear several times. Outside of a few moments added for embellishment (some of which from Barrie's elaborate treatment), this follows the play virtually scene for scene. In a curious move, the entire rescue of Tiger Lily is not included. The lack of this robs the story of some meat and also gives the Pan and Hook dynamic a different flavor as they spend the entire film apart from each other until the climax. That climax, however, is most impressive and stands up well today. It's obvious the third act is what Paramount was most looking forward to when they acquired the rights as that takes up a larger chunk of this adaptation than it does Disney's and Universal's.

Never Land

Disney's 1953 film, in comparison, is a bit looser with the material. It still follows the events of the play and book, but the details surrounding those events are what change. While Paramount's version is notable for depicting Tinker Bell for the first time as something other than a ball of light on a stage, Disney clearly had more flexibility due to the animation medium. Tinker Bell is tied closer to the plot in that she's the one who reveals Pan's hideout in a fit of jealousy towards Wendy (in the book, Hook discovers it when sitting on a mushroom that acts as a chimney). The Lost Boys are given a little parallel adventure of their own with the Indians while Peter and Wendy interact with mermaids and subsequently rescue Tiger Lily. While Paramount kept the audience participation aspect of Tinker Bell's resurrection intact, Disney knew it would be awkward. Instead, they leave the circumstances surrounding Tink's injury vague (she's caught in a bomb rather than drinking poison). Wendy is given a clearer arc than she is in the novel which will be discussed later.

NeverLand

The 2003 Universal film essentially has its cake and eats it, too. It takes more creative license than Paramount, but adheres closer to Barrie's work than Disney. The most notable change is the introduction of Aunt Millicent, a character who serves as the catalyst for the change at the Darling household and thus makes George appear far more sympathetic than in other versions. Perhaps to better appeal to modern audiences, Wendy is far more involved with how the plot unfolds. After a squabble with Peter, she briefly considers the idea of joining Hook's crew as Red-Handed Jill. Her lack of discretion (mingled with the carried-over Disney plot point of Tink's betrayal) leads Hook to the hideout. The Tiger Lily rescue is moved from Marooner's Rock to the Black Castle, allowing Wendy and her brothers to participate in the fight. She also prominently fights during the Jolly Roger climax, and a love's-first-kiss fairy tale motif ends up playing a part in Peter's victory.

In terms of tone, Universal's captures J.M. Barrie's sense of wit and whimsy most accurately. That may seem odd given the fidelity of Paramount's, but that version is hindered by its silent film quality, thus relegating its title card dialogue to fewer lines than what was in the play. Disney's highlights the sense of adventure the most as the Peter and Hook dynamic is front in center. Their feud fuels the storyline whereas in Universal's, it's the Wendy and Peter relationship that does that. Despite being the shortest, Disney's may have the most pacing. Paramount's looks to the play as its source and as such, scenes can go on for quite a while longer than expected. Universal's looks to the book as its source, but it's so determined to cram in as much as possible (plus its own added material) that it can be a bit too fast paced. Disney, in contrast, whittles down the basic storyline to the essentials and works on fleshing out those pinpoints. On the counter side to that, it also means it ends up being rather lightweight in the adaptation department.

One stage tradition the Paramount film does away with is casting the same actor as both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. It's funny it should make that distinction when both Disney and Universal would decide to uphold that tradition. All three, though, portray Tinker Bell as a person rather than just a flashlight darting around a stage. We see her only in a few brief shots in 1924, though. 1953 portrays her as the sassy and hot-tempered pixie that the general public has fully embraced, while 2003 retains that quality but also adds more pantomime and silliness to help make her seem less spiteful. Funnily enough, J.M. Barrie in his script treatment requested that while Tink be shown as a person rather a ball of light, she should not receive any close-ups so that the audience always remembers how tiny she is.

It's worth noting that while the play didn't originally end with this, the novel concludes with a flash forward in which Peter returns to discover Wendy has grown up. All three films avoid this epilogue. That ending was filmed for the 2003 version, but test audiences reacted negatively to it and thus it was cut. Leaving that ending off does leave the viewer with a better sense of euphoria, but it also robs Peter himself of some depth.

Act Three: 'My name is Wendy. Wendy Moira Angela Darling.'

Wendy Darling

While the novel is known as Peter Pan, its original title is, in fact, Peter Pan and Wendy. That's fitting as it's clear when reading J.M. Barrie's tale that this is just as much Wendy's story as it is Peter's, if not more so. Each film highlights her in a different manner and as such, shifts in the tone and focus arise. Due to its slavish nature to the original play, the Paramount film is most focused on Wendy's role as a mother to the others. It's all Peter sees her as even though she clearly has feelings for him. She has very maternal instincts which accurately reflect the way Barrie wrote the character, always preoccupied for others before herself. Unfortunately, because the film adheres so closely to the play, many of Barrie's embellishments that made their way into the book don't make it in here. This affects Wendy most of all as she feels more of a dominant character in the book than she does in the show. There's little for her to do once she arrives at Neverland other than care for all the children and pine over Peter. Of the three Wendys, highlighted in this article, Mary Brian is the most nurturing and mature (fitting as she was 18, making her the oldest of the trio).

Wendy Darliong

Kathryn Beaumont would play the role in Disney's version both physically and vocally as she also performed the role via live-action reference footage for the animators. Wendy is given more to do here than in Paramount's thanks to several factors. First, the London bookends add a scenario where George Darling feels Wendy is too old for the nursery and must grow up. This immediately puts her into focus as opposed to Paramount (and, conversely, the play) which make the Darling family one big ensemble before Peter's arrival. It also adds a sense of urgency to the story that wasn't already there. Secondly, the centerpiece in Never Land is presented in a manner in that we're always seeing Wendy's reaction to a given situation, even if she isn't proactively participating. Even when it seems like the focus is becoming more on Peter, which happens often, the filmmakers try to remind us that Wendy is still present. Of three Wendys, Beaumont's is the most understated and refined. Her interpretation of the character shows us a girl who thinks she wants to cling to childhood but frequently finds her sensibilities are already tuned towards adulthood.

Wendy Darling

Universal's film actually goes further than Barrie's novel and makes it very clear this is Wendy's story, an interesting contrast to the supporting player in Paramount's and the co-star in Disney's. Here, writer Michael Goldenberg shows his Disney influence in that Wendy is once again being forcibly pushed into adulthood just before Pan's arrival. The character development for her in this film is the most fascinating in that Wendy seeks adventure but eventually realizes an adult life has its own adventure that neither Peter nor Neverland can give her. There's a level of, dare I say, sexual confusion in the character that lends itself to all sorts of psychosis. She has romantic feelings for Peter who is unable to return them, and when she realizes this, she seems to momentarily be drawn to Captain Hook's elegant facade. Of the three Wendys, Rachel Hurd-Wood's most seeks out a relationship with the title character. She's treated by Pan not just as a mother, but as an equal who fights alongside him. The motherly aspect is treated as make-believe Wendy engages in, so instead of her maturity arising from motherly instincts like in other interpretations, it arises from a need to discover love with someone. It's a complex characterization, and Hurd-Wood manages to capture all of its nuances. Both she and the other Wendys act as a reflection for the adaptation approach they find themselves in.

Epilogue: 'I have the strangest feeling that I've seen that ship before. A long time ago when I was very young''

sHIP FLYING

Peter Pan means something different to everyone, and a lot of that can be attributed to how you were introduced to the story. Whether it was via the Disney film, the play, the book, or the many other interpretations, it's clear that this story isn't going anywhere soon. It resonates with people ' people who love adventures with pirates and Indians, people who love fantasies with flight, fairies and mermaids, and people who are still in touch with their childhoods enough to appreciate all that J.M. Barrie had to say. It's clear that the 1924 Paramount, the 1953 Disney, and the 2003 Universal films were all made with love. They each bring a unique perspective to the tale, and just like the character himself, they each will continue to bring children with them to the island of dreams known as Neverland.

 

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