Exploring the Many Worlds of Transmedia

The Peter Pan Mythos; Never Growing Up Means Never Standing Still

The Peter Pan Mythos; Never Growing Up Means Never Standing Still

By on Dec 5, 2013 in Featured |

The “Jolly Peter” from Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)

            Flying effortlessly onto TIME 100’s List of The 100 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, Peter Pan has carved out a slice of History. Generally speaking, the average college student of 2013 is probably most familiar with the Disney’s 1953 animated film Peter Pan, but that is certainly not the original appearance of the Peter Pan character. Peter Pan’s very first appearance was a side note in J.M Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, which was conceived as a partly whimsical fantasy story and partly comedic social commentary, both with extraordinarily dark undertones. Peter Pan’s story started out as a just a few short chapters (Chapter XIV – XVIII) in the Little White Bird, a section which was later adapted into its own novel (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, 1906). The Peter Pan story was transmedia from its very beginning as the very first authorized adaption of the story was Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter and Wendy (which was adapted to take the story back into novel format in 1911, Peter and Wendy).

“Peter and Wendy” Original Cover 1911

          Peter and Wendy is the origin of most of what is considered canon today, though it is Peter’s second appearance in literature and vastly different from his characterization in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. That Peter doesn’t age, that he can fly without fairy dust, that he lives in Neverland (that Neverland is a world wholly separate from this one); all of it comes from Peter and Wendy rather than from the original character conception. In his original incarnation, Peter is a half-bird infant (as supposedly all infants are half bird), and just barely 7 days old when he flies away (after hearing, and perfectly understanding, a discussion about his adult life) to escape the horrors of growing up by hiding out in Kensington Gardens, where a crow named Solomon tells him he is much more boy than bird and Peter learns that he cannot actually fly. With his belief in his flying abilities dispersed, he finds himself stranded in Kensington Gardens. He befriends the fairies of Kensington by promising to play reed panpipes at their balls (a perfectly natural skill for a seven day old baby to have). The original Peter would have liked to go home, but when he convinces the fairies to help him, he discovers that his mother has given birth to a new baby boy and feels that his mother has moved on and no longer misses him. He returns to Kensington Gardens brokenhearted and proceeds to live on forever as an infant, protecting the children that wander into the park after ‘Lock-Out Time’ (the point at which the garden gates are closed and the park is locked to public access for the night), or had fallen asleep while playing in late afternoon and then found themselves locked in for the night. Almost none of that is remembered in the current canon, particularly Peter’s female companion: Maimie Mannering was replaced by Wendy Darling in the Peter and Wendy play and no one has considered Maimie canon since.

Disney’s Peter Pan 1993 VHS Cover Art Reissue

          The canon established by Peter and Wendy lasted for nearly half a century before Disney came out with the most well known edition of the Peter Pan story (Peter Pan 1953). In it the character of Princess Tiger Lily gains significance she never had in Peter and Wendy; being kidnapped by the pirates and then saved by Peter in a much more dramatic fanfare of events than the 1911 novel. In the Disney movie, the idea that Tiger Lily holds romantic feelings for Peter (an idea only hinted at in Peter and Wendy) is confirmed and broadened to create a contrast for the feelings that Wendy holds for him (The 2003 film starring Jeremy Sumpter as Peter complicates these feelings by transferring Tiger Lily’s affections to John Darling). Peter Pan (1953) was intended to be Disney’s second feature length animated film, set for pre-production immediately following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Disney however, could not obtain the rights to the story until 1939, when he came to an arrangement with the Great Ormond Street Hospital (to which J.M. Barrie bequeathed the entirety of the rights to the characters and original writings of the Peter Pan story in 1929). Four years after obtaining the go-ahead from the Great Ormond Street Hospital, Disney’s studios were taken over by the American Government’s flood of non-optional commissions for propaganda films to sway public opinion on the matters concerning December 7th 1941, namely the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entrance into WWII.

        Disney’s Peter Pan, not only added importance for Tiger Lily to the accepted canon, it took out some of the most significant thematic undertones that J.M. Barrie’s original had included. In Disney’s version, Peter is the undisputed good guy (kind of a jerk, maybe, but still thoroughly good), as he is in most versions of the story. The 1954 play edition (later made into a 1955 color-television live broadcast event, and even later filmed for 1960 color VHS, both starring Mary Martin) takes the character of Peter Pan and turns him into a symbol for all that is good and innocent about childhood. This is approximately as far away as it is possible to get from the Peter Pan represented in Peter and Wendy, as that Peter is conceptualized as a genuine villain in his own right: Peter Pan kidnaps the children of London, largely against their will and entirely against their best interests, stealing them away to Neverland to become his playmates. Peter is the only one who never ages, the Lost Boys continue to grow normally and when they reach adolescence Peter kills them off. The Pirates are therefore shown in a very different light, as ex-Lost Boys who’d escaped Peter’s purgings. Barrie’s canonized Peter Pan is not a good guy; he has some idealized features of childish innocence but as a whole he stands to show that behaving like a child is not something to be desired or admired. In the chapter titled ‘An Afterthought’ in Peter and Wendy, Barrie explains that Peter returned to London eventually to find Wendy all grown up with a daughter of her own. He then coaxes this new little girl, Jane, to come with him to Neverland (this scene was first written for a 1908 adaption of the original play, though it has only been rarely included in subsequent productions). The novel closes with Jane’s having grown up and delivered a daughter into the world, stating that the cycle will go on endlessly so long as children are “innocent and heartless”, which is certainly not the uplifting sense of child-like wonderment with the world the Peter Pan idea typically invokes.

Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006) Cover Art

        Officially speaking, there is the only authorized literary continuation of the canon J.M. Barrie himself created. Published in 2006, Peter Pan in Scarlet is a direct sequel to Peter and Wendy, with events in the plot beginning perhaps a decade or so after the ending of the original with Wendy, her brothers, and the Lost Boys all grown up with families of their own. The sequel, written by Geraldine McCaughrean was selected by the Great Ormond Street Hospital in a 2004 in which novelists were invited to submit a sample chapter and plot outline. Peter Pan in Scarlet explores the idea of “the clothes making the man”, requiring the grown-up Darlings to dress in their children’s clothing, leading to them magically becoming children again, in order to return to Neverland. The idea is continued throughout the novel, getting thematically at the idea that growing older on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean growing up on the inside (creating an idea of child-like innocence and wonderment as important to maintain into adulthood, entirely counter to the original canon’s theme). Peter Pan in Scarlet also exposes the fact that growing up isn’t the terrible thing it’s often thought of as being. The child-version of Curly chooses to return to being a grown up so he can save Peter’s life as the doctor he grew up to be in London, proving that sometimes grown-ups are helpful and desirable things to become. In this way, Peter Pan in Scarlet opens up the transition to adulthood as something acceptable in the Peter Pan universe. In the original canon of Peter and Wendy, adolescence is something that Peter utterly refuses to accept. He is incredibly bitter and grudging as he allows the Darlings to return home in Peter and Wendy, but in Peter Pan in Scarlet, he almost willingly waves the Darlings and his Lost Boys off as they depart once again for London.

Peter and Wendy (1953)

         Peter’s reluctance to let his friends go is further complicated in canon by the various film versions. Starting with Disney’s 1953 version, Peter seems more than willing to let Wendy and the others go, personally flying the Jolly Peter (the rechristened pirate ship of Captain Hook, now in Peter’s possession) back to London to deliver the Darlings home. Peter’s reluctance to let Wendy go in the Disney edition is explored in the romantic relationship between them. The 2003 version starring Jeremy Sumpter ties to the original petty possessiveness of Peter’s decision to let the Darlings leave neverland, via his bitter shouts of “as you wish it” in response to the children’s desires to go home, and also expands upon Peter’s struggle with his feelings for Wendy as leading both to his possessiveness and to his willingness to eventually let her go. The 2003 movie is

Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy and Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan (2003)

Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy and Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan (2003)

the most well known and accepted film edition to have been released post-Disney-version. Jeremy Sumpter’s Peter is extraordinarily childish at the start and proceeds to display emotional development that nearly upends the ‘eternal child’ mentality associated with Pan’s legend. It is authorized by the Great Ormond Street Hospital, and it is therefore considered entirely canon. Jeremy Sumpter’s Peter complicates the idea of childhood as an emotionally limited and expands the role of a child into that of a ‘mini-grown-up’. Barrie’s original story gets at that idea vaguely, having Wendy act as the Lost Boy’s mother in Neverland, but only in terms of playing pretend.

Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan (2003)

The Jeremy Sumpter Peter also complicates the idea of ‘playing pretend’ into being a vital method of understanding the real world, of learning through practice. Playing pretend is a version of trial and error without dire consequences, and for Peter Pan it’s the closest he can get to growing up without having to face adulthood. In the 2003 film, as in the real world, there are real-world results that come from playing pretend; lessons are learned about life, about one’s self and others, and about the nature of interpersonal relationships. When Peter lets Wendy go in the 2003 film it is the closest he comes in authorized canon to deciding to leave Neverland, citing that “to live would be an awfully big adventure”.

Robbin Williams as Peter Banning (Hook, 1991)

                 Peter Banning, from Spielberg’s Hook (1991), is the only version of a grown-up Peter brought forth in the media of popular culture. Hook is an unauthorized creation, made shortly after the  majority of copyrights on Barrie’s original writings expired (the state of the copyright in several countries, including Mexico, Colombia, and Spain, is still in contention as differing terminologies and copyright conventions have lead to prolonged copyright holdings as well as term-extensions. For most of the world, the ideas contained in the Peter Pan canon are almost entirely public domain). Banning is largely ignored by the ‘Pandom’ (the Peter Pan fandom) but whether this is out of respect to authorization technicalities or simply out of the incongruity that Banning presents to the Peter Pan canon is debatable. The line “to live would be an awfully big adventure” is fully accepted as canon, and has made several appearances since it’s first popular appearance in Hook, most notably in the 2003 film.

Robbie Kay as Peter Pan (Once Upon a Time S3, 2013)

           Another popular, but questionably canonizable depiction of Peter Pan comes from the 2013 season on the American Drama Once Upon A Time (OUAT). The reimagined-fairy-tale-character inhabitants of Storybrooke travel to Neverland after Peter Pan kidnaps the child at the center of the show’s story. The OUAT character is entirely unauthorized and is overtly disparate from the typical image attributed to the leader of the Lost Boys. OUAT has crafted a Peter Pan that is much more bad-guy than good, connecting him to legends of the Pied Piper to fully insinuate him as a villain for the season. The Peter Pan and Pied Piper myths have significant commonalities being that both Peter and the Piper lead children away from home. Peter Pan’s original version is actually more sinister in some way as Peter steals his children straight from their beds, often without or with very murky consent. However, even while portraying Peter Pan as the season’s main villain, OUAT is beginning to link his evils to an underlying good. Less than half of the season has aired so far (as of Oct 2013) and in it Peter has done nothing but harm to the other characters. However, it has been stated that he only leads away children that feel “lost and unloved,” citing that he “can be their family”. It’s also been hinted that Peter is only acting as the villain of OUAT, kidnapping Henry to obtain the heart of the “truest believer” to restore good magic to Neverland as it “used to be a place where new dreams were born” and made real, whereas now it’s dark and dismal. This is the dichotomy of Peter Pan’s good and evil natures as viewed from the side opposite the one typical to canonized works, but it is a view that is still entirely canon compatible. Whether or not it will be fully accepted into canon is currently being debated in various Pandom forums and social media outlets.

Disneyland Cast Member Andrew Ducote as Peter Pan near the Fantasyland ride “Peter Pan’s Flight” in California.

              The Boy who would not grow up has lent his name, image, and fictional universe to countless real-world mediums over the years, all of which have added to or altered elements of the canon. In making the story into what we know it as today, the Peter Pan legend has been worked though no less than 25 books, five comic books (including one by Marvel that stars the Avengers), a manga series, five live-action television programs, an anime, six video games, two radio programs, a dozen distinct stage productions and musicals (each with numerous performances), 14 movies and spin-off movies (with more in production every year, including a rumored 2014 film starring Emma Watson & Rupert Grint, which is most likely just a fantasy of the Pandom), two race horses, various food products (including peanut butter), dozens of different companies (from Peter Pan Seafood and Peter Pan Bus Lines), several rides and features at Disney Parks world wide, several celebrity homes, and even a psychological disorder. There are countless references to the Peter Pan universe in music, from American bands like the Lost Boys and lyrical references in every genre (from Disney’s pretty boy popstars like Jesse McCartney {Second Star to the Right} to Alt Rock heros like All Time Low {Somewhere in Neverland} and countless more), to production and distribution companies like Neverland Music UK, and even to visual and thematic concepts that have been borrowed by various South Korean bands (like U-Kiss’s Neverland (2011), and T-Ara’s YaYaYa).

               Peter never grows up, but his story is always changing, which is just as things should be in Neverland. The manner in which the canon evolves, the matter of fact truth that there is no fully original legend in the Peter Pan Mythos and that each version is exactly as true as the versions prior to is is best expressed by an oft-forgot quote from an early version of the legend itself:

If you ask your mother whether she knew about Peter Pan when she was a little girl she will say, “Why, of course, I did, child,” and if you ask her whether he rode on a goat in those days she will say, “What a foolish question to ask; certainly he did.” Then if you ask your grandmother whether she knew about Peter Pan when she was a girl, she also says, “Why, of course, I did, child,” but if you ask her whether he rode on a goat in those days, she says she never heard of his having a goat. Perhaps she has forgotten, just as she sometimes forgets your name and calls you Mildred, which is your mother’s name. Still, she could hardly forget such an important thing as the goat. Therefore there was no goat when your grandmother was a little girl. This shows that, in telling the story of Peter Pan, to begin with the goat (as most people do) is as silly as to put on your jacket before your vest.

Neverland, as depicted in Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)