Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Peter Pan still matters

It may seem ridiculous to wonder if the story of Peter Pan is still relevant, given how thoroughly it's woven into pop culture. References to its characters are dropped into TV conversations and movie scenes and newspaper articles, used to describe personalities and psychological tendencies. Over and over, retellings of the story appear, often updated and/or "dark." Tinker Bell is the Walt Disney Studios mascot (though I'm sure she'd prefer the term "spokesfairy").

But the original story is frequently lost in the cultural shorthand. Far more people know it through the 1953 Walt Disney animated film than from the original book or even the original play. And Disney, along with the 1954 Broadway musical, took liberties with the story that did it no favors--note the songs about the Indians which are so blatantly cringe-worthy today. The retellings often take the story so far from its roots than only its outlines are left.

So why is James Matthew Barrie's original Peter Pan still important today?

Gwynedd M. Hudson, 1931

❧ Because Peter Pan has value as a work of literature, as well as a source of enduring fantasy images. It's written with style and whimsy and wit, with characters who contain both good and bad qualities. It doesn't talk down to children, but instead presents them with challenging ideas and an ending that is not altogether happy. And thus it's a book that unfolds with further meaning when read by adults, one which takes us back to a time when the possible was not so circumscribed by experience and failure, yet which doesn't altogether dismiss the realities of the world.

❧ Because we all need to grow up. This idea is watered down--if not absent altogether--in many versions of Peter Pan (Disney being perhaps the worst offender here).  But the 1911 book is rife with examples of how Peter's youth makes him heartless and negligent. And children who refuse to grow up have given us climate change and the garbage gyre and poisoned water supplies. They leave the wreckage of their relationships behind them and have no idea how to look to the future. Even Peter Pan himself has some inkling of the truth of this, when nightmares bring him to tears in his sleep.

Flora White, 1913

❧ Because other eras have something to teach us, in both positive and negative aspects. It's important to understand how people lived and thought in the not-actually-so-distant past, in order to understand what we're doing here and now.

Any work of art from the past will contain ideas and attitudes we find jarring now. I've been catching up on books written ten years ago and I'm surprised how much what is acceptable to say has changed in just that short period of time. Edwardian Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie had little reason to study the history of the American Indian when he wrote a fantasy play for children. We in the modern world have no excuse not to examine these attitudes and realize what is accurate and fair. And perhaps seeing that other eras were not all as consumer-focused and cynical as ours can show us an alternative, or at least be a comfort.

❧ Because there are women--and men--who treasure the idea of being parents, though it may not be fashionable to say so. Wendy does not have to be seen as an anti-feminist icon.

Scott Gustafson, 1991

❧ Because families still lose children, to illness or tragedy. It's not as common as it was in the past and it's rarely talked about outside of support groups and immediate families. But there are parents who ache as much for their lost ones as Mrs. Darling does. Perhaps there is some solace for them in literature like Peter Pan, especially if one knows that Barrie's own childhood was marked by the death of his older brother, and that this loss resonates throughout the book.

The enduring power of an image

❧ Because dismissing literature from the past is like refusing to listen to our grandparents. Our elders have something to teach us. Yes, some of their attitudes may seem unforgivable. But they have knowledge and experience and wisdom we should consider as well.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tales of innocence and experience

How a Peter Pan-related film starring Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant escaped my attention when it was released, I don't know. It was only when my research for The Stowaway led me to the original version of the story--Beryl Bainbridge's 1989 novel An Awfully Big Adventure--that I found there was a 1995 movie version as well.

Directed by Mike Newell in a sharp turn away from the levity of his 1994 Four Weddings and a Funeral, it's the story of 16-year-old Stella Bradshaw, who, having no other career interests or aptitude, goes to work for a struggling Liverpool theater company. Stella is romantically inclined toward Meredith Potter, the theater's director (Hugh Grant), never seeing that his interests are otherwise inclined. It's the attention of another actor altogether that she attracts, and reciprocates to some extent. Stella is obtuse, self-interested, stubborn, and often hilarious. She's also confident and calculating in a way that ensures her survival in this group of other self-interested and highly dramatic people.

"The best Captain Hook there has ever been," one of the troupe says of P.L. O'Hara (Alan Rickman), the famous actor who returns to Liverpool to take the place of an injured troupe member--and also for reasons of his own. While I'm personally partial to Jason Isaacs' 2003 movie Hook, and would never be able to forget I was watching Rickman, I can't deny his Shakespearian appropriate for the character in J.M. Barrie's play. And I can certainly see O'Hara's appeal to various members of the theater company. As well, there's a gravitas to Rickman's O'Hara that brings across the bittersweet nature of the text.

The movie makes reference to O'Hara playing Richard II on stage, which dovetails with Rickman's character Alexander Dane in 1999's Galaxy Quest, an actor bitter that his success comes from his time on a TV space adventure rather than because of his stage portrayals of Richard III. Rickman himself studied Shakespeare with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And it was with the Royal Shakespeare Company that he played the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaison Dangereuses in 1985, which led to a Broadway run and a Tony Award nomination.  While Rickman may be best known as a film actor, he also enjoyed great success on the theatrical stage--not unlike P.L. O'Hara.

In some ways this story is better suited for the book, which received a Man Booker Prize nomination. Some of the important plot developments become Hollywood-ized in the movie in a way that robs them of their full impact and emotion, and Bainbridge's black humor is sometimes lost to sentimentality. It's one of the few short novels that I don't think skimps on character development--in fact, I think Bainbridge's sometimes acid approach works to flesh them out in a way the film does not. Stella, in particular, is calculating in a way I don't think comes across fully. But the cinematic version has the performances, and they're worth seeing. Hugh Grant plays against his loveable romantic lead persona, and I took notice of Prunella Scales, otherwise  known as Basil Fawlty's wife Sybil in Fawlty Towers, as actress Rose.

Clare Woodgate is a lovely Stella with an interesting story of her own: After being turned down for the role after her first audition, the 20-year-old, middle-class, Essex actress returned in the persona of a 17-year-old redhead from working-class Liverpool named Georgina Cates and read for the part again. Not only did she get the part, she received an Actress of the Year nomination for her performance from the London Critics Circle Film Awards in 1996.

Rickman, director Newell said, wasn't pleased with Cates's dissembling. "He treated Georgina very tactfully, presuming that she was sexually inexperienced and could get upset by the scene. Well, who knows, maybe she was."

I was surprised to realize I'd seen Cates before, in the 1998 movie Clay Pigeons, which I've always thought is underrated and which features a couple of my favorite songs from the band Old 97s. Proving once again that everything in my life seems to circle back around to Peter Pan and Captain Hook and The Stowaway.

An Awfully Big Adventure is also available as an audiobook read by Paul McGann, whom I think would be an excellent Hook actor in his own right, if only he were as tall as the character as described by J.M. Barrie.