Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What keeps a retelling true?

I love classic story and fairy tale retellings as a category. (Given that I write them, I would hope so.) Jane Yolen and Robin McKinley and even James Thurber give wonderful new shadings to well-known stories and bring forward themes and characters with dimension and creativity that show me new meanings in familiar things.

Lost boys, "Once Upon a Time" style. What are you doing, Disney? What?

But reading books like Peter and the Starcatchers and Midnight in Neverland, and watching shows like my favorite scapegoat "Once Upon a Time" has given me cause to examine what I like and what I object to in retellings of classic stories. (Admittedly, OUaT has thrown the original Peter Pan so far out the window that I've started enjoying the show again.)

At first, I thought I don't mind someone reworking the story if the characters are true to the originals. But that leaves out how much I love the Wicked series, and how much Gregory Maguire's characters diverge from L. Frank Baum's, making it a new narrative but one I can embrace.

So then I thought maybe I require either the plot or the character to be true to the original. But ultimately I decided what it comes down to, for me, is respect. If a retelling shows respect for the vision as it was initially created, I can appreciate it even if there are aspects I don't agree with or don't enjoy. But without respect, an author might as well create new characters. Maybe it would make it harder for him or her to get their book published, but I think that says something in itself.

Knowing the source material shows respect. Even when the OUaT writers drive me bats, I can tell there's some real knowledge of Barrie's original as well as Walt Disney's film among the writing staff. Half-done research doesn't show respect. And if one truly loves a work, it's generally clear whether a plot departure is an intentional departure or is a merely half-understood aspect plucked from the original. And I don't have time for that, or respect of my own for the retelling.

I suspect there's more here to be mined, but for now, I leave you with another problem in fairy tale retellings--the temptation to fall back on tropes, even new ones, rather than explore new ideas. has taken note of a few of those in fairy tale movies.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Defending the Captain

Sort of a Part II to this post from last Friday, although I suppose technically it may be Part III or IV by now. Regardless. Onward!

Even if I were less of a purist about Peter Pan, there was no way I could appreciate the "Peter and the Starcatchers" book after its description of Hook, who at the time of the book is known as Black Stache.  And even if I weren't so deeply immersed in the world of James Hook as originated by J. M. Barrie for my work on The Stowaway, I would be insulted by the recasting of this character I have been fascinated by for so long.

And to think I was offended that the Disney film made Captain Hook comedic and inept. I have yet to figure out why he would have his desk outside on the ship's deck.

The Stache of the Barry/Pearson books is depicted as repellent and pathetic, and he is made a figure of mockery until I feel like I'm watching school kids bullying the child who comes to school with dirty clothes and poor social skills. I end up thinking I may be glad I didn't grow up with Dave Barry (which is disappointing, as I read his columns happily for years) and Ridley Pearson, which is not a pleasant way to feel about the authors of a book one is reading.

This captain's crew call him Rat Breath. He eats raw meat from the depths of his hideously filthy cabin. He feels pride in nothing but his foot-wide moustache.
"He was a strikingly unpleasant figure, with a pock-marked face and a large red nose, like a prize turnip, glued to his face. His long black hair, greasy from years without washing, stained the shoulders of the red uniform coat he'd stolen from a Navy sailor on the high seas..." 

Black 'Stache from Peter and the Starcatchers, by Greg Call, 2004

James Hook was never like this, not even in the very first productions of the play.

Robb Harwood, 1906 play production. Note the Charles II hair. Also, no moustache.

Gone are the original Hook's Eton origin, elegant bearing, and presumably tragic past. He is no longer even allowed his original appearance. As J. M. Barrie describes him:
"In person he was cadaverous and blackavized [dark faced], and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly....He was never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding; and the elegance of his diction, even when he was swearing, no less than the distinction of his demeanour, showed him one of a different cast from his crew."

Flora White, 1921

Or for that matter,  the descriptiong given by "Old Etonian Mr. G.F.T. Jasparin":
 "I do not merely mean that Etonian was written all over him; there was something even more than that, as if (may I venture) he was two Etonians rolled by the magnanimous Gods into one. In a word the handsomest man I have ever seen, though, at the same time, perhaps slightly disgusting." ("Hook at Eton," 1927 speech by Sir J.M. Barrie)

I can work with this (and I do). Even with the "slightly disgusting" part, because opinions vary.

The elegant, compelling Hook, in this case as drawn by Maxim Mitrafanov. If you see a copy of this book for sale anywhere, be a dear and let me know. I've been looking for this one for months.

Really, for Disney books, this depiction has little to do with the Disney Villain version of Hook. The play version of Black 'Stache, at least, could segue into the Captain Hook of the 1953 Disney animated film without too much of a stretch.

John Sanders as 'Stache with Joey deBettencourt as Boy

But not the Black 'Stache of the books, who just makes me sad.

Friday, November 15, 2013

An unpopular opinion, and the reasons why

I discovered in looking for images for this post that every reviewer in the world loves the Peter and the Starcatchers books. Well, I do not. And I'm going to say why with spoilers, and many words, so you are hereby warned.

 I came home from Peter and the Starcatcher, the play, so wanting to spend more time with the characters that I cracked open Peter and the Shadow Thieves, the second in the Barry/Pearson series, and then went on number three, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon. And thus I remembered why I almost didn't give the play a chance.

First off, I freely admit to being put off by the complete departure from canon, from the character of Peter to the reason why Neverland exists. I have to accept here that one of my personal peeves is the reduction of the wondrous to something easily explained by a prosaic element. Starstuff is not prosaic in itself, but it's the single cause of literally all life in the universe and the reason for the cosmic battle between good and evil, life and the void. (How the diabolical Lord Ombra can be an ambassador for the void, yet exist, is not explained.)

Starstuff is the reason as well for why Peter doesn't age and can fly, the presence of mermaids (who began as fish exposed to starstuff--an explanation which the play turns into an Edwardian music hall number to great success), the menace of the crocodile, even Tinker Bell--a bird shaken up with starstuff to create a fairy. So there are no other fairies, no actual magic on the island, no ability to fly that doesn't come without assistance from--for all intents and purposes--aliens. A trope that is another pet peeve of mine. And Peter is not merely a boy who refuses to grow up, but a boy from a Very Important Family with a Purpose.

The play, doing it right.

Starcatchers the play takes such elements and magnified them to a silliness that nearly redeems them--the tribal chief was held captive in English kitchens, and sprinkles his phrases with cooking terms, thus making him drolly individual. Nods to the pantomime and vaudeville traditions tie the play in with decades of theatrical performances of Peter Pan. And references throughout to the source material, British history, and current events--often from the mouth of Black 'Stache--make it feel like part of the tradition. I don't feel this way about the books, which seem barely connected to the original source at all. Dave Barry admits to not having been a real Peter Pan fan growing up, and I suppose we see here the result of taking on a beloved classic without the heart attachment to it than others have.

Writing advice frequently encourages writers to keep upping the stakes, upping the stakes. Starcatchers the book series shows the danger in that, when the stakes become so universal as to rob them of any personal resonance. The stakes in the series become so abstract that the mythic quality of Barrie's story is lost. Peter Pan is a mythic presence because he expresses personal truths--the desire to stay young, the sacrifices involved in doing so, the nature of loss and forgetfulness. Another battle between the forces of good and evil in the universe simply does not resonate with me in the same way. I've read that/heard it/seen it so many times now, it's simply another flavor of something that has nothing to do with my own experience. Yes, the annihilation of the universe is a frightening thought. So is the annihilation and loss of many other things that I am more likely to experience for myself.

More specifically, there are aspects of Pearson/Barry's Starcatchers that would bother me in any context. Characters who are not well-educated and well-bred are fair game for mockery, such as the pirates. The evil land of Rundoon is set in a desert, where the people wear robes and turbans and ride camels--can we tell it the book was written post 9/11? (Published in 2007, to be precise). The problematic Indians of the original story are transformed into nearly-as-problematic Pacific islanders called the Mollusk Tribe, led by Fighting Prawn--not exactly dignified. While Pearson/Barry occasionally seem to realize the consequences of colonialism, the play actually calls attention to them with jokes, and don't approach the story from the books' viewpoint of aristocratic natural leaders, which among other things, leaves any number of interesting stories untold and viewpoints unexpressed.

Lovely art by Greg Call, as always,
but why has Molly become inexplicably blonde?

I like the character of Molly, but I find little in these books as a whole to identify with, and I'm sure there are young adults reading these books who feel the same way. It's the authors' choice to approach their subject this way, of course, but it does seem to me that it adds to a large collection of the same, rather than breaking the new ground they surely intended. And while the books are lauded for their imagination, I find too much I've seen before. Molly and Teacher the mermaid are both unusually beautiful. (I miss Hermione Granger.) Tubby Ted is obsessed with food. Battle between good and evil. Right. Got it.

Examining my responses to the books as opposed to the play has been interesting, and you can look forward to more on this. (Sorry. No, wait, I'm not.) Specifically, I've had to analyze what types of fairy tale retelling I like and which I don't, and why. And then there's the Starcatchers books' treatment of Captain Hook, which merits its own post. (That you probably knew to expect.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Oh, ambivalence

So apparently Warner Bros. is planning a new Peter Pan movie . In talks with the studio is Joe Wright, the director behind Atonement, The Soloist, and Hanna, and who directed Keira  Knightley in Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina.

Good director, yes...but I have to agree with the critics who think it may be too soon to do this again after the 2003 adaptation, which got so much of it right. Still, this film wouldn't be finished for several years, and after all the dark Peter Pan adaptations (I include you, "Once Upon a Time"), a portrayal of the original Peter might be welcome.

And I'm unnerved at the thought of the casting. I have yet to think of an actor I would cast as Captain Hook, so I'm prepared to be disappointed already.

Of course I can't think about any of these without wondering how they might affect receipt of The Stowaway (realizing, of course, all that must take place first to get it into people's hands to begin with). There's part of me that that thinks every departure from the original will make people less likely to accept my retelling of Barrie's work. And part of me that worries the entire world will be burned out on Peter Pan altogether before The Stowaway is even in finished form. And yet there's the small hopeful voice I usually try to keep squashed says that retelling the original will make readers more receptive to my version, because they'll have the background that makes it all the more relevant.

It's best not to think about any of this too much, I generally decide, which is hard to do when I feel like I have to keep up with all of these developments so I don't accidentally crib from anyone else's work. Really, you're glad you don't live inside my head.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Yep, still fun

Tonight I was looking for examples of naughty slang to determine if an Edwardian English pirate might find the word "aspic" funny for the same reasons a modern American would. (The answer seems to be yes--although naturally he would pronounce it "arse-pic" as he snickered, at least before the Captain raises his hook and Vivian Drew steps deliberately on his instep with the slender heel of her boot.)

And I was lucky enough to find A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English on Google Books, and even luckier to find a used two-volume hardback set of the actual book on This looks like the best source on slang I've ever seen. It's full of everything. I think I could read this for hours and be entertained the entire time.

At the risk of turning this into a promotional post (too late! the audience cries), AbeBooks has been my best friend for both collecting and research and it deserves to be recognized. They've had almost everything I've looked for, and with a range of conditions and prices. I can find an illustrated Peter Pan in near-perfect condition, or a beat-up paperback to write notes in or a former library book for nostalgia purposes. And I can find recreational reading there too (for the little I get to do of that these days).


The Neverland map we're familiar with was not drawn by J. M. Barrie, but rather Walt Disney studios and many artists thereafter. There's no map in the original book, and given Barrie's description of Neverland, it's no wonder.

"...the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.

Of course the Neverlands vary a good deal. John's, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it at which John was shooting, while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it. ...on the whole the Neverlands have a family resemblance, and if they stood still in a row you could say of them that they have each other's nose, and so forth......Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact, not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed."

The only locations Barrie mentions specifically in Peter Pan are the Neverwood, Mermaid Lagoon, and Marooner's Rock. So some of the locations we think of now as part of Neverland--Skull Rock, Cannibal Cove, Crocodile Creek--are Disney creations. This sent me off to do a bit of fact-checking when I first began The Stowaway so I wouldn't inadvertently crib from Disney. Now it's a handy reference point for me as to whether artists and writers are using Barrie or Disney as their starting point.

According to KStirling, contributor to the message board (now mostly inactive, which is unfortunate for my research), a scenario Barrie wrote for a proposed silent film of his book was reprinted in a book called Fifty Years of Peter Pan by Roger Lancelyn Green. (I've found copies of the book online, but haven't committed yet to spending what it would cost to have one.) In his screenplay, Barrie wrote:

"We see the island all glorious and peaceful in a warm sun. We see the whole of it as in a map, not a modern map but the old-fashioned kind with quaintly exaggerated details. I have a map of the Never, Never Land, in this style which should be reproduced." The Beinecke Library at Yale has Barrie's actual film typescript, but I haven't been able to find out if it contains the map.

Wikipedia tells me users of Colgate-Palmolive's "Peter Pan Beauty Bar with Chlorophyll" received a copy of this promo map for the Disney film by sending in three wrappers with fifteen cents. I want one.

So, as it stands, the only maps of Neverland are from the Walt Disney film or are based on it. In The Stowaway, the Captain has a map of the island on his wall, useful as he makes excursions to and from and around it--but I make no claims as to the map's veracity, or how often its features may change.

Ultimately, I suppose the best description of Neverland's location is from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: "It is not down on any map: true places never are."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Starcatcher vs. Starcatchers

I almost avoided the play because I don't care much for the book it's based on--but I'm glad I didn't let that keep me away in the end. I thoroughly enjoyed the production I saw at the Moore Theater in Seattle on Saturday, and there were a number of ways in which I thought it improved on the book.

For one, it benefited greatly from compressing the exposition-heavy plot of the book, streamlining the original antics of three groups of sailors chasing each other's ships and each other along the high seas and around an island. The simplification made the action cleaner and easier to follow, and condensing the cast of characters allowed more development in the ones who remain. Peter, in particular, traveled an arc far from that of the natural leader he is in the books, with more emotional resonance. And parts of the book that annoyed me for various reasons were easier to take when handled briefly and with the sense of fun the cast brought to the show.

The theatrical production.especially benefits from the revision of  Black Stache--the future Captain Hook--a confident and flamboyant pirate who brings his fate upon himself and faces it with aplomb. He's not Barrie's Hook, but neither is he the Black Stache of the book, who had none of the elegance and education of the original Captain, and whose depiction I honestly don't enjoy. Instead he is his own character, and as such I could appreciate the role on its own merits, adding to rather than detracting from the play. Also, I liked the performance by the actor at the Moore, John Sanders, even more than what I've seen of Tony-winner Christian Borle's performance, because Sanders added a touch of Groucho Marx to the character that I found delicious.

Starcatcher the play also makes more clever references to the Peter Pans of Barrie and Disney, and makes the whole more of a recognizable prequel. I realize that's not what most audience members may be there for, but the passing allusions and wordplay made me think the playwright cared as much about the original source as I do. Aside fromthat, the stagecraft, especially the clever use of simple props, and the few songs there are (why are there not more songs?  she cried) helped make this a show I enjoyed far more than I expected to.

My quibbles with the books, I'll save for another post. There are lots of those left to come this month, after all.

And yet more Tink

My new favorite Tinker Bell story comes from an episode of "This American Life" I heard on NPR over the weekend. While a lot about the disaster performance of Peter Pan it described entertained me--from the Captain accidentally flinging his hook into the audience, to the flying apparatus dumping the children on the stage and dragging them through a field of papier-maché mushrooms, to the fire department response to one of the Indians spraining both ankles descending a rope ladder--my favorite part was an actual choice by the stage director. She chose to represent Tinker Bell with a light bulb on an extension cord, which would descend from above to be addressed by the cast. I still laugh every time I picture it.

And now here's Mindy Johnson's new book, "Tinker Bell: An Evolution," which explores in depth how Disney's version of the character came to be. Apparently everyone really is interested in the pixie. Surely Tink would be gratified at the attention.

A question I've had, which has been answered by the book: Tinker Bell was originally named Tippytoe and had speaking lines, but J.M. Barrie decided chimes would provide a better voice for her. One of the bells that traveling tinkers used to call customers to their wagons was used for this purpose in an early stage production, which led to her name and presumably to her trade in Barrie's book Peter and Wendy. I find it hard to imagine her now as anything other than a pots and pans fairy.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why Manaus?

When I first came across mention of Manaus, Brazil, in J.M. Barrie's "Hook at Eton" speech, I wondered why Captain James Hook would travel there. It took only a bit of research for me to understand the draw.

Manaus, Brazil, at the juncture of the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões--the Amazon River--was one of the finest cities in the world in 1908,when The Stowaway takes place. The rubber trade had brought incredible amounts of riches to the city, plain to see in the houses and storefronts and cultural icons like the Teatro Amazonas Opera House. I was lucky enough to find some photos from that very year on a Portuguese website.


While the heady days of the rubber trade have passed, Manaus is still a vibrant modern city with a population of two million, making it the eighth largest city in Brazil. It's a draw for tourists who want to experience both the urban life of Brazil and the nearby landscape of the Amazon.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Glad I went: Peter and the Starcatcher

Quick impression of Peter and the Starcatcher: I enjoyed it considerably more than the book it's based on, and I'm glad I put aside my misgivings and gave it a chance.

I liked the play's Black Stache considerably more than the book version, the stagecraft was clever and fun, and the songs strong (if not numerous). I have quibbles in general with the origin stories presented in the book, but even those didn't bother me as much in the context of the play.

More later when I'm not in "finish today's blog post quick!" mode.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Off to Brazil

If I were to do this blog-post-a-day through November (NaBloPoMo--good grief), it would probably contain a lot of posts like this:

Using  J. M. Barrie's "Hook at Eton" speech as a source of inspiration has led me some directions I likely wouldn't have gone by on my own, most particularly to Brazil. Barrie describes an event that takes place off Manaus whichI was going to allude to only briefly in passing, until I realized about a month ago that I need a freshwater setting for piranhas--and it makes more sense in all ways to use it as the setting of a critical plot turn, thereby being far truer to both Barrie and literary consistency. My original reservations turn out to be invalid--it would take the ship only about a week to travel to Belem and then another week up the Amazon River from the Windward Islands, and events that take place aboard the ship can happen on the river just as easily as on the open sea. The additional research is, well, research. I'm up to the task. I'll stop here lest I give too much away, as I always think I'm close to doing.

 The Rio Negro meets the Amazon just west of Manaus, Brazil.

I hadn't originally intended to use "Hook at Eton" as the source material it's turning out to be, but once I'd read it, going against Barrie's history of Hook was too jarring for me to consider for long. I still maintain that he didn't get all the facts right, but of course he wouldn't have, Peter Pan being less than a reliable source and the media being what they are.

Assuming I do this--what was it? NaBloPoMo--thing, this blog will be filled with research bits about Manaus in 1908 and the Amazon River and such, no doubt written in more haste than normal, for a bit. Stick around for the excursion, if you're so inclined. I plan to continue with my normal Thursday "strange things I have discovered or considered" posts as well.