For many years I had a love-hate relationship with the movie Peter Pan. We grew up on the Mary Martin film of the Broadway show (while the Disney version was familiar too, I don’t think we owned it). The movie hews fairly close to Barrie’s original text (which, like the dutiful homeschooler I was, I had also read), including the ending—which I hated with the passion of a thousand flaming suns. Peter Pan, come back after many years’ absence, finds that Wendy’s daughter is ready for an adventure and that Wendy, now “old, ever so much more than twenty,” has forgotten how to fly. After some back-and-forth, it is agreed that Wendy Jr. will gallivant off with Peter for a limited period of time, just “to do his spring cleaning.” Wendy expresses a wistful wish that she could go too. Peter (and it was Mary Martin’s smirk that made the lines truly unbearable) replies: “No, Wendy. You’re too old now.”
I was still a kid, and it still stung.
Of course, James Barrie would probably say that it was supposed to sting. His Peter Pan is a lovely adventure story, but filled with winking irony intended for adult readers speaking to their children. There is the occasional dash of social criticism (the Darlings worry that their unconventional dog-nanny Nana will lead to raised eyebrows), and plenty of wry commentary on the differences between male and female perceptiveness, especially in affairs of the heart.
Thus we learn, for example, that Wendy’s mother
… was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner. (Ch.1)
It’s a kiss that Mr. Darling can’t get either (and he is not aware of the innermost box, says Barrie); and Barrie adds that not even Napoleon could have gotten that kiss. Who does get the kiss in the end? Why, Peter Pan of course.
That’s what is so frustrating about Peter. He’s not fair.
I am aware, of course, that I am speaking Hookishly here. But Peter really is so much of a brat that one is forced occasionally into feeling that even Hook had a point.
To be fair to Peter, it must be admitted that the grownups in Peter Pan have an inconvenient way of interfering in their children’s lives. For example:
Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on. (Ch.1)
Peter, if he is not exactly an evil passion, is certainly a naughty one. But so irresistible is he that, troublemaker though he is, Mrs. Darling forgives him. Indeed, even after he has stolen away her children, she cannot bring herself to say a word against him.
“That fiend!” Mr. Darling would cry, and Nana’s bark was the echo of it, but Mrs. Darling never upbraided Peter; there was something in the right-hand corner of her mouth that wanted her not to call Peter names.
Something in the right hand corner of her mouth, perhaps, that wasn’t quite grown up.
* * *
Not long ago I watched Hook for the first time, and recently I rewatched it. For those who haven’t seen the movie (which I suppose is getting a little old now, as grownup things are wont to do): it is a cheerful, scary (for children at least) flick with a lot of “heart” and the occasional unfortunate moments of vulgarity and salaciousness that are for some reason obscure to me considered de rigor in comedy. The conceit is that Peter Pan—now “Peter Banning,” played with delightful goofiness by Robin Williams—has indeed grown up, and not only grown up but forgotten his past, and not only forgotten his past but become a small-souled lawyer who is so absorbed by his work that his relationship with his wife and two children suffers. Worse yet, he is afraid of heights (as his scornful and resentful son discovers on a transatlantic jaunt). Worst of all, as his aged “granny” Wendy discerns, he has become “a pirate.”
In the immediate context, Wendy is referring to Peter’s activities with his firm: he is the tough negotiator who swoops in and defeats the small companies struggling against absorption by their larger competitors. But the judgment has further implications. Peter is physically cowardly, self-absorbed, and incapable of recognizing the reality of anything remotely fanciful or imaginative. Little children, one suspects, are not fond of him—certainly he has alienated his son Jack, though his younger child Maggie remains loyal. He does not tolerate fooling or teasing or play. And he does not recognize the reality of time. Though living in a world bound and governed by time—unlike the world he inhabited for ages as a child—he acts as if its rules do not apply to him. He can delay attendance at a baseball game or while away the hours of a rare vacation on his phone—indeed, can while away the years of his children’s childhood—without repercussions. He is master of his time. At least, he acts as if he thinks this way. Probably, he doesn’t think about it at all.
Interestingly, all these qualities—the anti-time attitude, the intolerance of jokes, the antipathy of children, the lack of imagination, the egotism, and the cowardice—are qualities of Capt. Jas. Hook.
Of which, and of what Barrie might think of all this, more anon.