“Not My Mother”: SyFy’s Neverland and J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan, Part Two
December 14, 2011 § 11 Comments
In Part One of my response to SyFy Channel’s latest offering, Neverland, I left you with one of my favorite quotes from J.M. Barrie’s original novel, Peter and Wendy. Need a refresher? Here:
“You are so queer,” [Peter] said [to Wendy], 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 there are those who think children’s literature is sweet and uncomplicated.
In my last post, I wrote a ton (I know, these posts are getting long…) about the stakes for each character in Peter Pan: what they want, what they have to lose. Creative Writing 101. In SyFy’s Neverland, I concluded, the stakes for both Peter and Hook are never clearly defined, though they have much to do with power, pixie dust, and proving oneself. But if you were to look back at Barrie’s novel, you’d find that the stakes are, as I said last time, more personal and emotional, and no one has more defined stakes than Wendy—even if the most apt words used to describe them are “something…but not my mother.”
In a little-known but beautiful musical version (not the one Mary Martin made famous, I mean less known, musical theatre trivia fans) composed by Leonard Bernstein, he of West Side Story and Candide, Peter is, as is traditional, played by a girl, but that doesn’t stop Wendy from coming right out with it, in the catchiest little way:
Peter, Peter, you’ve got a smudge on your face/
Allow me, Peter, Peter, to wipe it away/
I know it’s just an old excuse to feel your touch/
But I want to feel your touch!
Make no mistake: Wendy’s experiencing her first love. Her adoration of Peter vascillates between that of a wannabe mother and a wannabe wife, but her basic desire to be close to Peter, to be recognized by him as someone important and life-changing, never alters. Strangely, in Bernstein’s musical, it’s Peter who gets to croon the comforting words to the audience that no, he will not forget Wendy, as she fears:
The kiss we never dared/
We’ll dare in dreaming
The love we never shared/
Can still have meaning.
A little sappy, especially given that Peter’s hamartia, were he a tragic hero (which, sure, I guess we might consider him that), might be that he cannot actually say things like this. His man-boy mind would probably explode if he were made to 1. Recognize those kinds of feelings in himself and 2. Adequately express them to Wendy, or any female. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, at least in the production I’ve seen, Peter sings this heartfelt confession while Wendy and her brothers are asleep, and it comes off as an invitation as much to the audience as to Wendy. Thus, we are invited in, succumbing to our own nostalgia as an audience, as we watch a communication gap between two characters stay steadfastly wide while one of those characters sleeps—ironic, isn’t it? That as a world-wide audience, we are entranced by a host of characters who are unable to act on or express their feelings for each other, for reasons of age, inexperience, or just basic flawed humanity, and we call it an adequate communication of the feelings of childhood.
And perhaps that’s true, that childhood is just one communication gap after another: Peter and Wendy, or just Peter Pan, as we’ve come to call Barrie’s novel, begins by describing a certain thing that Wendy perceives about her mother, but that she can never obtain: the kiss at the corner of her mother’s mouth. It’s a special kiss, one that no one, not even Mr. Darling, has earned yet, and it doesn’t take Bruno Bettelheim to infer that the kiss symbolizes that secret part of a woman, a mother, that can’t belong to her children—call it her sexuality, call it her waning youth. Wendy can see the kiss, but can’t have it. A communication gap.
Peter and Wendy have a similar gap between them, in which Wendy’s desire to care for Peter the way her mother cares for her, and Peter’s professed hatred of mothers (no joke, an early draft of Barrie’s was titled Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Hated Mothers) butt heads again and again, complicated by the fact that Wendy wants Peter to be a man as much as she wants him to be a child. In the scene quoted above, she asks Peter what his exact feelings for her are, but in all likelihood, wouldn’t be able to explain hers for him either.
One gets the sense, reading this relatively quiet scene in the midst of all the poison-drinking, pirate-killing, and croc-hunting, that Barrie was trying to work something out between bouts of adventure. Barrie was known for unabashedly inserting his private life into his writing—you’d only have to read a list of character names from his plays and novels to have completed a list of his friends and family—and though Peter Pan has become best known as a charming fantasy for children, full of escape and derring-do, it did not escape the somewhat autobiographical treatment. In between the lines of scenes like this lie the bones of Barrie’s own relationships with women, both his romantic interests, and the woman whom Peter surely hates and longs for most of all: Barrie’s own mother, Margaret Ogilvy.
It would be foolish of me, or any more well-researched scholar, to claim that all of Peter Pan was born of one incident in Barrie’s youth. Just as it would be foolish for me to claim that Peter Pan is only about pubertal lust, or only about Freudian blame-it-on-the-mother finger-wagging. Not so. Maybe we can never know all of the secret things that make a man or a masterpiece, but we do know that Barrie had about as hard a time as Peter does communicating with women, and that his obsession with children as children—that is, never growing up—can be pretty inextricably linked, thanks to Barrie’s nonfiction writings, to the death of his brother David.
Margaret, Barrie’s mother, took the death of 13-year-old David, one of eight living children, incredibly hard, at least from Barrie’s point of view. And as it shall be for the mother, so shall it be for the son, for David shows up in a great deal of Barrie’s writing, sometimes with his own name, sometimes not. Barrie was apparently obsessed with the idea of a child not growing up, since David never would, and if we can read Peter as an incarnation of a stalled David in a compromised paradise, then what can we infer about the links between Margaret, the grieving mother, and the mothers that make up the collective non-memory of Neverland?
In Margaret Ogilvy, Barrie’s nonfiction biography of his mother, he writes about the weeks following David’s death, when he would go to his mother’s room to comfort her:
The room was dark, and when I heard the door shut and no sound come from the bed I was afraid, and I stood still. I suppose I was breathing hard, or perhaps I was crying, for after a time I heard a listless voice that had never been listless before say, “Is that you?” I think the tone hurt me, for I made no answer, and then the voice said more anxiously “Is that you?” again. I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little lonely voice, “No, it’s no’ him, it’s just me.” Then I heard a cry, and my mother turned in bed, and though it was dark I knew that she was holding out her arms.
Afterwards, young Barrie did everything he could to make his mother laugh, and describes how he would mark on a piece of paper every time she laughed at him standing on his head, whistling, ect., to show the doctor in the morning. Barrie mixes pathos with quirky child-humor, and inserts it into the examination of his mother’s life just as easily as we might talk about what happened to us on the subway.
And if you assume that this kind of pathos, mixed with an oddly sad humor, has no place in Peter Pan, you’d be dead wrong—as dead as the seventeen pirates that the boys kill on board the ship, which Slightly duly notes by crowing the number each time one falls. When the last pirate—Hook himself—is gone to Davy Jones’ Locker, Peter strolls the deck as the boys sleep, finally coming to rest himself. But even triumph over “that not wholly unheroic figure,” Hook, comes with emotional complications: “[Peter] had one of his dreams that night, and cried in his sleep for a long time, and Wendy held him tight.”
Perhaps Peter is dreaming of the moment in his own, pre-Neverland childhood, in which he felt hurt or ignored by his mother, enough to withdraw from her completely. He is part fantasy and part child’s nightmare: who hasn’t felt ignored or overwhelmed by their parents, and vows to run away, only to end up returning from the backyard as soon as the mosquitoes come out? Peter has succeeded in running away, but we are told that, when he decided he’d had enough and wanted to come home, the bars were locked, and he’d been forgotten. In revenge, he declares hatred for mothers. He acts out, he overcompensates, he forgets and forgets and forgets again while those who briefly enter his world are hurt by his resulting carelessness. Peter Pan, my friends, is a book about the loneliness of a child’s world, in which all fantasies are available, but there is no home to return to at the end of the adventure, and those who would have willingly made themselves that home are pushed away, because Peter himself feels pushed away first. Unlike Maurice Sendak’s famous Max, Peter has no still-hot supper waiting for him when the rumpus is done.
Wendy is not spared a moment of her own longing, either, and Anthony Lane makes an interesting connection between the image of the grieving Margaret Ogilvy and grown-up Wendy at the end of the novel, seeing Peter return to her window like a ghost–like a child long dead–not realizing how much time has passed:
He was exactly the same as ever, and Wendy saw at once that he still had all his first teeth.
He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.
“Hullo, Wendy,” he said, not noticing any difference, for he was thinking chiefly of himself; and in the dim light her white dress might have been the nightgown in which he had seen her first.
“Hullo, Peter,” she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. Something inside her was crying, “Woman, woman, let go of me.”
So much longing, so much grief!
I am telling you, I could write an entire book about how much Peter Pan breaks my heart.
Last week’s Neverland, presented by the SyFy channel, eschewed any heart-breaking, alas, in the favor of special effects. All will undoubtedly be well in SyFy’s Neverland, once the bad guys have been vanquished, which is too bad, considering the ever-present knowledge one has when reading the book, the mild dread, that Peter will wake up the day Wendy is gone and hardly remember her. Heartless boy. A story that sticks, for the sheer universality of that fear, that one will be forgotten forever by the ones you loved most, or that one will grow old and forget what it meant to fly. The only cure for this lack of dread in Neverland might have been Hook, were it not for the barren dearth of motivational consistency in the writing of his character. Ah well.
After watching Neverland, and thinking of all the material from the original book and play that could have been used to save it, I am a sad Cate–but not brilliantly, cathartically sad. Just disappointed.
What would cheer me up is a little trivia! Ready?
What would a critique from me be without mention of the fact that, while SyFy touted its miniseries as a prequel, an origin-story, one already exists. It’s called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which was first published (in a slightly different version) in Barrie’s book The Little White Bird, a novel about the relationship between an older man and a young boy who–aha–bears the name of David, Barrie’s death brother. In the few chapters that later became Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, the protagonist–a childless man who invents a story about a dead son to gain David’s favor and lure him away from his mother–is telling young David about the marvelous boy Peter Pan, who was taken by the fairies to live with them in Kensington Gardens. There he becomes a sort of infant saint of lost children, befriending them until they find their way home, and digging them tiny graves in the park if they don’t.
But whatever, SyFy, guess a baby riding an imaginary goat around in a park is not cool enough for you—and I get it, sure. No eight-legged dinosaur-sized crocodiles in Kensington Gardens. Much less for your designers to do.
Here’s where I make that SHOCKING CONFESSION I’ve mentioned.
It may seem to you, my readers, that I loathe all adaptations of literary material. But it’s just not true.
I loathe the lazy ones.
Cate, isn’t there an adaptation out there that you do approve of? You are very critical, missy.
Absolutely there is—YOU MAY BE SHOCKED, but yes, there is.
Wait, did they stick to the book?
Of course not, it was a made-up sequel.
But don’t you hate those?
With a passion! But there is something reverent about Hook, which I understand and enjoy now as an adult, even if my favorite part of watching the movie when I was eight was hiding in my mom’s closet when the children were kidnapped. Fun game. Now that I’m older, it’s about recognizing how much of the spirit of Barrie’s original story was poured into the film.
The writers understood the touchstones of Barrie’s sad, sweet saga: the fear of being forgotten by your family, the frustration of not being able to understand what others around you want from you, and the joy of having a home to fly to after the adventures are over. The writers paid homage to the language of the book, its catch phrases and its humor, and emulated the moments of well-the-grown-ups-will-get-this-even-if-the-kids-don’t that Barrie scattered his pages with. And if there’s anything more satisfying than the scene in which the children sneak back into their beds and Moira Darling, Wendy’s granddaughter, thinks she only imagines that they’re there one minute and just about hyperventilates from joy the next, then I don’t want to know what it is.
Spielberg allows Peter’s love life to get a little messy around the edges when Tink basically shoves her tongue down his throat, echoing those same (less explicit) strains in Barrie’s book: there is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother. And when Tink’s there on the arm of the Kensington Garden statue at the end of the whole shebang and she says “You know that place between sleep and awake? That place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you, Peter Pan. That’s where I’ll be waiting,” this coldly over-analytical academic bawls like a baby EVERY TIME. And I probably don’t even have to admit that I just typed that from memory. THAT, my friends, is a GOOD MOVIE. I don’t care what anyone says. Bangarang.
I have to say, though, now that the last ten minutes of SyFy’s Neverland, which started this 20-page rant, have long passed, that a giant crocodile with eight legs, carrying in its belly a still-ticking pocket-watch with a miniature portrait of the woman Hook once loved and lost, is pretty badass.
I give you that.