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.


  1. Ms Webb, I have just now seen your website while doing a picture search on the Captain. I hope The Stowaway is progressing well, because I will be eager to read it!

    1. Thank you! It's turning out to be a lot of work...but I shall prevail.

  2. I know that feeling! But the Captain will support you ...

  3. He's a gentleman like that. :)

    Perfect timing - I was reading a Hook fanfic when this message came through. (I do read other stuff, really.)

  4. This was an interesting perspective to read. You're definitely on to something about Peter's excesses. It's probably what makes Wendy such a necessary figure.

    In terms of relevance, the cultural adoption of the various symbols proves that Barrie created something timeless. But as you mention, most attempts at adapting the story have been disappointing so far (Spielberg's Hook came close imo but had some obvious plot issues). Still waiting for a film producer to come along and make a true classic out of it. If they can have such success adapting Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc; why not Peter Pan?