Thursday, March 20, 2014

Taking on Tiger Lily

With the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan movie (as if I didn't have enough issues with that already, starting with the fact that it's inexplicably set in WWII), I can't not address the problematic portrayal of the character and how I hope to address it.

Anna Mae Wong as Tiger Lily with Betty Bronson'
 Peter Pan in the 1924 silent film.

Complaints about Mara's casting center around the white-washing of Tiger Lily, which has been a problem with the casting since the story was first filmed. (That said, Q'orianka Kilcher, having already played Pocahontas and Aaya in SyFy's Neverland, might want to play someone besides an iconic Indian princess for a change.)

Rooney  Mara

J. M. Barrie himself,I'm sorry to say, made no real stab at accuracy when he wrote his Indian characters to appeal to young boys in Edwardian England. 

On the trail of the pirates, stealing noiselessly down the war-path, which is not visible to inexperienced eyes, come the redskins, every one of them with his eyes peeled. They carry tomahawks and knives, and their naked bodies gleam with paint and oil. Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons...

Bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger, comes Tiger Lily, proudly erect, a princess in her own right. She is the most beautiful of dusky Dianas and the belle of the Piccaninnies, coquettish, cold and amorous by turns; there is not a brave who would not have the wayward thing to wife, but she staves off the altar with a hatchet. 

The single worst section in the book, to my mind:

They called Peter the Great White Father, prostrating themselves before him; and he liked this tremendously, so that it was not really good for him. 

"The great white father," he would say to them in a very lordly manner, as they grovelled at his feet, "is glad to see the Piccaninny warriors protecting his wigwam from the pirates."

"Me Tiger Lily," that lovely creature would reply. "Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him."

She was far too pretty to cringe in this way, but Peter thought it his due, and he would answer condescendingly, "It is good. Peter Pan has spoken."

I didn't even want to include this, but it's the elephant
in the living room of Neverland.

Barrie at least made Tiger Lily a warrior and foil to Wendy's domestic aspirations. The 1953 Disney film was pretty much entirely offensive in its depiction of the Indiands--it's as if the writers were not even writing about human beings. "What Makes the Red Man Red?" indeed.

(And yet my personal favorite rendition of Tiger Lily comes from a Disney "My Side of the Story" book, in which she's a real estate agent who gets in over her head when trying to find a property for Hook to buy.)

Given that I'm generally so concerned with being true to J.M. Barrie's original story, it's valid to ask how I'm addressing the portrayal of the Indians. It's a problem without a good solution. As I see it, these characters have never been done right (I think SyFy's Neverland miniseries came the closest, but I realize there are issues there as well, no doubt many I haven't even caught). The premise of The Stowaway is that Peter Pan told his story to Mr. Barrie with a plethora of wish fulfillment fantasies and misunderstandings--if not outright lies. And that includes his descriptions of the other people who live on the island.

After reading many bloggers' opinion, I went with the approach that since this tale is fantasy already, why not use a lost civilization as the "tribe" in Neverland? Research turned up the City of Caesars: a civilization founded in Patagonia by shipwrecked Spaniards who built a city of gold and diamonds. Spanish doubloons and sailors. Aha! 

As Hook says to his companion Vivian in The Stowaway,
"[The Trapalanda] are neither of Asia nor the Americas. Peter calls them Indians because he has nothing else in his vernacular that fits...Have you heard of the City of Caesars or the Wandering Town? It's a lost civilization, like Atlantis, except that here it is very much found."

I realize this approach can be seen as erasing the Indians altogether, as the movie Hook did. Tiger Lily is one of the few well-known Indian characters in literature, after all. But I would rather be guilty of that than adding to inaccurate and offensive stereotypes that I am not informed enough to avoid. I am not qualified to write an Indian tribe with the accuracy and respect it demands, nor do I believe research would be adequate to resolve my ignorance. As I said, it's a problem with no good solution. I am making this decision because it seems likely to cause the least harm.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Defending Mr. Smee

I didn't realize when I began writing The Stowaway that I would become protective of characters I had formerly not been overly concerned about. Such as poor Mr. Smee, being seen by the world today as an ineffective bumbler when he was originally nothing of the sort.

The first Smee, as acted by
George Shelton in the 1904 theater
production of Peter Pan.

J.M. Barrie describes Smee as Irish and a Nonconformist--e.g., not a member of a state religion like the Church of England. He does not mention his first name, allowing that detail to be guessed at by numerous tellers of the Peter Pan story, not always in ways of which I approve. For example, "He was called Smee because he looked like a Smee."--Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry. Really? Must we be that disrespectful to the original? (I confess to having a little fun with Mr. Smee's first name in The Stowaway, but I do my best to be respectful otherwise. In fact, it's hard for me to refer to him without the honorific of "Mr." after so long writing about the crew with the formality with which their captain addresses him.) 

In Barrie's Peter Pan, we first see Mr. Smee as "an oddly genial man who stabbed, so to speak, without offence." Make no mistake, he has no compunctions about killing, taking lost boys hostage, and other acts of piracy.

Smee had pleasant names for everything, and his cutlass was Johnny Corkscrew, because he wriggled it in the wound. One could mention many lovable traits in Smee. For instance, after killing, it was his spectacles he wiped instead of his weapon.

Bob Hoskins, who plays Mr. Smee in the movie Hook in 1991 and reprises the role in Syfy's 2011 Neverland, touches upon the quality the original Mr. Smee possesses of being a genial sociopath, in that the women of Neverland fear him. But even Hoskins does not portray him with characteristics that he would be required to have in his role of bo'sun of the Jolly Roger (not first mate, another common mistake).

Barrie does describe Smee as "rather stupid," and indeed he is less educated than the erudite Jas. Hook, with little understanding of his captain. But as bo'sun, Mr. Smee must have some degree of intelligence and a great deal of common sense. The bo'sun (or boatswain) is responsible for the maintenance of all the equipment on a ship, from rigging to anchors, and supervises the crew who work on the deck. Mr. Smee has a working knowledge of every aspect of sailing the Jolly Roger. And while it is popular to depict the crew of the Roger as a pack of dunderheads, if that were so, there wouldn't have been a ship around long enough to present worthy foes to Peter Pan.


Also, a bo'sun's whistle looks like this.

ABC's Once Upon a Time takes regular liberties with its characters, and amusingly has created a William Smee closer to Barrie's character than Disney's, a competent and decent man--perhaps more decent than Mr. Barrie would have liked. Christopher Gauthier's interpretation could expand to include a trait which Barrie does describe as native to Mr. Smee--a curious quality of unknowingly inciting pity from others. Perhaps other portrayals confuse this quality with idiocy?

Christopher Gauthier in Once Upon a Time

There was little sound, and none agreeable save the whir of the ship's sewing machine at which Smee sat, ever industrious and obliging, the essence of the commonplace, pathetic Smee. I know not why he was so infinitely pathetic, unless it were because he was so pathetically unaware of it; but even strong men had to turn hastily from looking at him, and more than once on summer evenings he had touched the fount of Hook's tears and made it flow. Of this, as of almost everything else, Smee was quite unconscious.

[Pg 202] 

Most striking of all, Mr. Smee possesses traits which Hook himself hopes to embody:
For long he muttered to himself, staring at Smee, who was hemming placidly, under the conviction that all children feared him...Feared him! Feared Smee! There was not a child on board the brig that night who did not already love him. He had said horrid things to them and hit them with the palm of his hand, because he could not hit with his fist; but they had only clung to him the more. Michael had tried on his spectacles.

To tell poor Smee that they thought him lovable! Hook itched to do it, but it seemed too brutal. Instead, he revolved this mystery in his mind: why do they find Smee lovable?

Richard Briers--also known for playing Tom Good
 in  BBC's"Good Neighbors"--as Mr. Smee
in the 2003 Peter Pan film.
[Pg 206]

He pursued the problem like the sleuth-hound that he was. If Smee was lovable, what was it that made him so? A terrible answer suddenly presented itself: 'Good form?'
Had the bo'sun good form without knowing it, which is the best form of all?
This Mr. Smee is far from the man seen in so many books and films who regularly trips over his own feet, who doesn't seem like anyone a ship captain would rely on for anything. Yes, the common depiction of Mr. Smee provides ample comic relief, but at the expense of a character who originally possessed depth and even a bit of mystery.