Thursday, August 22, 2013

Defending the boy

I can't believe I've been driven to this (and I'm sorry, Captain, sir, I honestly am), but I have lost my tolerance for depictions of Peter Pan as a villain.

I've seen Peter portrayed as a vampire in one than one interpretation, as a fighter who uses foundlings and runaways as his soldiers in his war (Brom's The Child Thief), as a brutal young man who uses children to fuel his immortality (Zenescope's Neverland comics), as a mysterious being whose exact evil nature we will soon learn (the TV series "Once Upon a Time"). Just this morning I discovered a web comic called "The Assassin of Neverland." Only 30 pages so far, but I think the intent is clear.

These versions don't necessarily involve casting Captain Hook as a hero, although sometimes they do--frequently everyone in the story is equally dismal and/or morally defunct, leaving me nothing to enjoy in the telling. I have encountered so much unrelenting grimness in these stories that Disney's Peter Pan begins to come as a relief. Even versions of the character that fly (heh) even further against the original in their portrayal of Peter's origin or age--the Starcatchers series, the SyFy miniseries "Neverland"--shine brighter to me than they did formerly, in the face of such bleakness. The concept of Peter Pan has long provided an escape for children (if not adults) in need of one, and even if my heart lies with the purported villain of the original, I find this one of the story's signal virtues.

Disney Peter had his less-than-benevolent moments, but at least they were transient.

In his recent book, "I Wear the Black Hat," New York Times ethics writer Chuck Klosterman analyzes what makes a person the villain (noting that the same traits would garner different reactions in fiction and in real life--e.g. Batman). One of his characteristics is "knows the most and cares the least," and another is "super-human self-assurance." Looked at through that lens, it's easy to see Peter Pan as the villain. But perhaps because it is so easy to flip the narrative, doing so no longer holds any meaning it might have originally.

Yes, Peter can be seen as a thief of children and a real threat,and Barrie acknowledges the fact. But keep in mind that the Darling children returned home safely once they chose to. And before meeting Wendy, Peter only took boys to Neverland who fell out of their perambulators and weren't claimed by their parents--not children from loving homes. (Girls, he says, are too smart to fall out of their prams.) Remember also that Barrie describes Peter Pan as a psychopomp who meets children after their deaths to escort them partway. And yes, Peter kills blithely, but out of the innocence and ignorance of being an eternal child, not from malice.

It's the ambiguity in the original story which lends it resonance and continued relevance. A cardboard villain is easy to fight against. But a character who isn't quite a hero and isn't quite a villain, who forces you to consider why he does what he does and the effects his actions have upon him, who causes the reader or viewer to give genuine consideration to him and to the story--this character's complexity adds depth to the story, as opposed to eliciting knee-jerk, unquestioned responses. And takes away none of the magic.

Certainly I enjoy dark retellings of classic tales, but only if they're not too easy. Only if they give me some insight the original did not (see Gregory Maguire's "Wicked" series for how to do it right).I won't go so far as to call a moratorium on Evil Peter portrayals--as if that would even work, ha. Occasionally one still entertains me--I admit I enjoy the Zenescope comics more than I probably should. I'm even looking forward to OUaT, if mainly for ranting purposes. But it may be time to put Evil Peter into context.

I really want the shadow to have split apart from Peter into its own evil entity, but OUaT has not been known for listening to me.

As I noted in my review of Midnight in Neverland, I am finding that these interpretations have been written almost entirely after September 11, 2001. (And I hedge my statement only to cover any that I might find in the future, as so far everything I've read or seen along these lines is from this era.) This seems to me a surprising place for Americans' altered sensibilities about their safety in the world to come to rest, but certainly current YA fiction is rife with these themes.

Is is possible that stories for young people now contain enough looming threats and evildoers that we can return to allowing children--and adults--to see Peter Pan as more than yet another bad guy? After the outside threats are acknowledged and guarded against, we still have human nature to contemplate, and that is a mystery we have been unable to conquer, or even fully understand, for many and many a year. Longer, for certain, than there has been a Peter Pan. Even if he is a vampire.

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