SyFy’s Neverland and My Own Obsession with the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, Part One: Bad Form
December 7, 2011 § 2 Comments
I’m pretty surprised that I have not written about Peter Pan yet. Granted, this blog is still young. But I have a lot to say. So much, in fact, that this post has to be split in two, for sanity’s sake. Here in Part One, I give an overview of SyFy’s “prequel” to Peter Pan, Neverland, and some background into my own love for all things Peter Pan. In Part Two, to be posted later, I’ll look more closely at the character of Peter himself, J.M. Barrie’s quest for his own lost childhood, and I will make A SHOCKING CONFESSION. So stay tuned.
Several years ago, I was sitting on a plane with an issue of The New Yorker that I had stolen from my dad’s bathroom (where all the good reading material goes). Inside was an article about the playwright and author J.M. Barrie—probably because the release of Finding Neverland was imminent—and the lamentable personal life that in all likelihood led to the writing of the play Peter Pan, or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. I had loved Peter Pan—as a book, as a concept—for a long time, in part because my version is illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, who is my fave, and more so because it’s just so delightfully sad.
Yes, I said sad. Cathartically, brilliantly full of child-sadness, something that most of my favorite authors seem to have in common. Peter Pan: sad, strange, and endlessly interpretable.
But reading this New Yorker article was a horse of a different color, turning what was, in my mind, a sweetly sad book into a diatribe on loss and frustration and futile escapism. James Barrie himself was such a strange man, stunted as a child because of the death of his brother David, who would never get to grow up, and the subsequent depression of his mother Margaret, who, in her grief, seemed to almost forget who James was. I became so choked up that I had to wash my face in the tiny plane bathroom—and this was very soon after 9-11, when anyone oddly emotional or out of their seat was subject to several suspicious and slightly nasty looks by their fellow travelers. I cried in the airplane bathroom for a good five minutes after reading that, over thirty years after Barrie’s own tragedy-ridden life had ended, in 1960, just before the 50th anniversary of Barrie’s book Peter and Wendy, Peter Llewelyn-Davies, the character’s namesake, threw himself in front of a train pulling into a London platform. He called the book “that terrible masterpiece.”
I’ve never gotten over it.
Flash forward several years: here I am, ten minutes away from the blessed end of SyFy Channel’s Neverland, wishing I were experiencing the same emotional gut reaction to seeing one of my most beloved stories reinterpreted. But instead I am, as anyone who’s just spent the last two nights trying to work out the inner machinations of Rhys Ifan’s Hook character (or four hours, if you’re like me and fell asleep during Sunday night football before Neverland‘s premiere last night and have sat through a marathon catch-up session [no? just me?]), mightily confused. What is going on here? I can’t for the life of me figure out how we got..wait, ooh, pretty trees. Ok, what’s happening? So, Peter and “Jimmy” Hook are best buds in jolly old London, but they are magically transported by way of a magic orb, with the rest of the lost boys, to Neverland. Hook wants to get laid by the sexy pirate queen, but then he’s just trying to protect Peter. No, wait his goal is to go back to London, oops, no, he wants to stay and rule Neverland, no wait, ooh,he hates Peter now for something that happened years ago even though they were best buds? Oh, look at Anna Friel’s pretty hair.
It’s been an awfully big adventure, one that I’m not sure I’m glad I had.
Neverland, a two-night miniseries event, is SyFy’s contribution to the expanding TV library of literary adaptations with their roots in deeply beloved children’s literature, and because I am really such a softie under all this pretension and snobbery, I gave it the benefit of a healthy doubt. I do love Rhys Ifans, Neverland‘s brooding “Jimmy” Hook.
In fact, I am still, even after four hours of awkward blue screen flying and dialogue that wasn’t even interesting enough for me to critique, impressed (to a point) by writer/director Nick Willing’s odd Sci/Fi take on the world of Neverland, its implications and possibilities. I mean this both visually and philosophically: when the CGI effects were well done, they were very well done (and when they were bad they were horrid, but that mostly involved the flying), though I’m sure there are hundreds of gamers out there decrying the series for stealing the ice forest or the tree city from some online fantasy game, without a doubt. As a non-gamer, I was free to be impressed by the giant corkscrew trees shooting up out ice ravines, and a cathedral formed entirely of twigs, made by a man who taught the forest to grow that way he commanded it to. This brings me to the philosophical part, the second hour out of four, in which the creator of that cathedral, Dr. Richard Fludd (whose life was all too shortly lived in this series) meets Peter and shares his ponderings about Neverland’s possibilities. In a world in which no one grows old or dies, Dr. Fludd imagines that the greatest minds of the age could be given the chance to create and research without limit, without government, without end. His plan is to ferry these great minds back and forth from our world to Neverland as time on Earth marches forward, so that they will never die and the Earth can benefit from their unending ideas and creations.
Interesting. Not exactly J.M. Barrie’s major thematic focus—the pursuit of a Utopian society on a planet other than Earth, straight on from the second star to the left, sounds like a far cry from a portrait of a confused man-boy stuck in puberty—but very interesting nonetheless. I can appreciate when someone sees an implicit possibility in a book I love that I hadn’t seen. I’m cool with someone taking a beloved masterpiece about a man-boy and inserting inter-planetary time travel into it–I’m serious, really–if the shoe fits, which, oddly enough, it does. Peter Pan and the Space-Time Continuum. Huh, I said to myself (and the two cats and a dog who were lolling around the TV with me). Cool. That makes sense.
But then the sexy pirate queen shot the philosophical idealist, and the twig city burnt down for no reason and we were back to such nuanced exchanges as “you lied to me! I thought you were on our side,” which might as well have been repeated on a loop over whatever else the characters said to each other, that’s how low and uninteresting the stakes were for the majority of this thing.
The stakes, that’s what’s gotten me so confused here. What does everyone want, what do they stand to lose?
In Peter and Wendy, the novel on which most adaptations of Peter Pan’s story are based (and which has thus come to be referred to simply as Peter Pan), the stakes are personal. Peter wants a mother, but he also hates them, and doesn’t want to be tied to one. Wendy wants an adventure–she wants Peter, let’s make no bones about it–but she’s terrified that she’ll forget her home and who she is. Everyone wants the love of someone else, but won’t get it, because they’re children and don’t understand what love means. Hook wants vengeance, but does not want the quest for it to end. The surrounding Neverland is a means for all of these characters to get what they want, and also what they fear. It fuels the personal conflicts and embodies the personal fantasies of the characters, a playground of their own invention which can, in a moment, turn against them.
So what are the stakes in SyFy’s Neverland? Well, after Professor Utopia bites the dust, I can’t say for certain that I know. There’s certainly no more philosophical pondering of what Neverland does to one’s memory, or the implications of staying a twelve-year-old forever, which was disappointing. Hook wants to be powerful, a general desire that devolves into all sorts of confusion, but I’ll get to that. Peter wants…? There’s some babble about him wanting to know about his parents, but it comes so late in the game that I don’t buy it for a second. Whatever Peter may seem to want, however, he tries to achieve by either hanging onto his buddy Hook’s coattails or trying to thwart his next move, his loyalties switching as often as Hook’s himself.
This was an interesting idea to me—the coattails, the doomed mentor/mentee friendship–after all, Hook is traditionally the stand-in for the father. Most theatrical productions double the role of Mr. Darling (Wendy’s father) and Captain Hook, establishing from the get-go a parental struggle between he and the children, rather than simply a struggle between villain and hero. And I was thrilled—thrilled!—to see that P.J. Hogan did the same in the 2003 film with Jason Isaacs in the double role.
In fact, my favorite moment in that 2003 film laid bare Hook’s vulnerability, and his complicated love/hate relationship with Peter in the land of chronic forgetfulness: he and Tinkerbell, in a quick truce, sadly watch Peter showing Wendy how to fly. “Ah, evil day,” he murmurs, full of melancholy. “So Hook is all alone.” Ah! Peter Pan. So sad, so strange. To see the villain needing to be remembered by his heartless counterpart. High stakes indeed, for an existential villain. (I had a terrible time trying to find this clip on youtube—skip to 7:30 to see the scene I’m referring to.):
Rhys Ifans did his best, as Peter’s adopted father-figure in Neverland, to hone in on this odd connection between them, but the writers didn’t set him up well for the same kind of sincerity that paints Jason Isaacs’s face—so Hook is all alone… No, Rhys’s stakes are muddled and shifting throughout, which left me wondering constantly why he would do the things he did and say the things he said–what was his game now? Ifans is scraggly and hound-doggish in Neverland, the definition of a tortured scallywag, yet what tortures him changes from one scene to the next—in one scene it’s his loyalty to “the boys,” whom he’s raised from the workhouse; in another, it’s the loss of his place in London society and the club memberships that that place entailed—and explanations for these various shifts in motivation are easily brushed aside, just as Peter is, in favor of another one: his lust for Captain Liz Bonny, played by the somewhat convincing Anna Friel. Maybe I’m too used to thinking of her as the Pie Maker’s adorable dead girlfriend to completely buy her turn as a bloodthirsty pirate queen, but gosh if she isn’t pretty. Who cares, I said to the dog eventually. She looks good in the costumes.
But back to Hook: really? Sex and a club membership? When there are deep-seated father-son, hero-villain issues to be mined? I am all for a character having various conflicting motivations, but the man didn’t even seem upset when, first, Pirate Bonny runs Peter through with a sword and drops him down a chasm, or two, when Bonny herself explodes like a homemade firecracker of fairy dust. He was apparently, for all his tortured looks and badly written affirmations, loyal to no one. So what is he doing there at all? We didn’t even get a “bad form!” out of the man, so the humor’s gone, too. And there’s plenty of room in Hook’s menacing character for existential humor:
(Too much? You know you love it.)
But back to “bad form,” or the lack thereof:
Even Hook had room for a “the little children love me!” line, among many others. But we get none from SyFy. For that matter, we didn’t get a crow out of Peter, either. We didn’t get to clap a fairy back to life (or have anyone make a bad joke out of it, even when an entire colony of fairies was dying—the perfect opportunity, methinks), there were no references to death being any kind of adventure at all, least of all an awfully big one. Though the miniseries was high on swashbuckling and visual spectacle, I found myself missing–in addition to motivational coherence–all the happy thoughts that make up, well, Peter Pan.
And not just the literary bones one would expect to be thrown to a waiting crowd of Pan-fans (the twins weren’t even really twins!), but Peter himself. Charlie Rowe’s Peter Pan was too smart, too worldly, and above all, too compassionate to be the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up that I know. Because let’s face it, the literary Peter Pan is a wretched, tragic brat of a character. With good reason—Barrie says straightforwardly that he’s barred from the joy of unconditional love. He’s surrounded by women and girls and good buddies who want his attention, but he’s never going to reach the age of enough maturity to understand their strange demands, much less live up to them. That’s a frustrating place to be—ask any twelve-year-old. He’s cocky because he gets to live the constant fantasy every child dreams of and everyone who encounters him loves him for it (even Hook, in his dastardly way), but he’s vulnerable because their love is complicated, rife with unmet expectations: not like a mother’s love, which Peter’s never experienced, and thus is dead set against. Barrie’s play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and his novel Peter and Wendy, were charming adventures on the surface, but underneath were preoccupied with the idea of the man-child, the boy who cannot love or be loved. Peter Pan can be loyal and affectionate in the moment, but in the end, he is heartless, because he doesn’t know any better, and never will. Barrie gives himself room in his character’s immaturity to explore any number of painful situations, which, without the presence of adults, the children must interpret on their own, turning into little adults themselves. One of my favorite passages from the novel, when Peter and Wendy have been playing house with the Lost Boys, goes thusly:
“I was just thinking,” he said, a little scared. “It is only make-believe, isn’t it, that I am their father?”
“Oh yes,” Wendy said primly.
“You see,” he continued apologetically, “it would make me seem so old to be their real father.”
“But they are ours, Peter, yours and mine.”
“But not really, Wendy?” he asked anxiously.
“Those of a devoted son, Wendy.”
“I thought so,” she said, and went and sat by herself at the extreme end of the room.
“You are so queer,” he said, frankly puzzled, “and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.”
“No, indeed, it is not,” Wendy replied with frightful emphasis.
And with that odd exchange to dwell on, I leave you to wait for Part Two, when I draw this all to a close.
Update: Part Two is up! Take a look.