Getting Out of Neverland: Peter and the Starcatcher and Why We’re All Wendys

03/16/2011 1:48 PM |

The author wearing his Peter Pan costume in his childhood homes living room.
  • The author wearing his Peter Pan costume in his childhood home’s living room.

It was big news in my world when I learned about Peter and the Starcatcher, the Peter Pan prequel currently showing at New York Theatre Workshop (through April 17), just as it was big news when I first heard of the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson that inspired the show, and just as it was in 2003 when the most recent and best cinematic adaptation of the original story was released. I attended that movie opening night, tripped out on painkillers from having my wisdom teeth removed, wearing my old Peter Pan hat until a mean second grader laughed at me and I, embarrassed, slid it over to a friend.

“Are you going to be to be able to be objective with this?” my dad asked when I announced I would be reviewing Starcatcher.

“Absolutely,” I said. Of course criticism is by its nature subjective, but I knew what he meant. Could I—who from the ages of five to seven was never seen out of my costume (see archival photo), and who once tried to popularize “Hook” as a term of profanity—possibly view the show fairly, on its own terms?

I thought so. Not because I would be dispassionate about the production, but because I figured any negative extremism on my part would be offset by an equal avidity on the positive side. Truth is, it goes both ways when it comes to whether hardcore fans are the easiest or hardest to please. I liked the Star Wars prequels well enough when they came out, but then I’m just a casual admirer of the original trilogy. My friend Sandeep, who grew up marinated in Episodes IV-VI, felt differently.

Even without the Jar Jar-ian goofiness, he was simply too into the series to accept anything other than perfection. The flip side is how I, a longtime Woody Allen fan (we’re called “apologists” now), enjoy his annual output for its familiar pleasures—the dialogue, cinematography and pet themes. Those are real pleasures for me, but casual viewers won’t find them sufficient to compensate the perceived poor quality of the work.

When it comes to Peter Pan, however, I’m worse than Sandeep on Star Wars. For how that character is treated, to quote someone I overheard on the subway, I’ll give points for cojones, chutzpah and moxie, but I draw the line at malarkey. Hook, which tramples on everything that is meaningful about the Peter Pan story, is malarkey. The mere thought of it pulses venom through my veins.

As it happened I had little to worry about; Starcatcher is a delightful show, funny and inventive, “the rare origin story that does right by both its source and its audience,” I wrote in my review. While the show’s success of course belongs to the production—the nimble direction of Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, Rick Elice’s hilarious and quietly touching script, the heroic energy of the phenomenally gifted cast—there was another, more obscure reason I could enjoy myself without knee-jerk fits of rage at any deviation from the cannon, which is something to which I cannot cotton.

Here’s how serious my fandom is: From where I sit I can look up to the wall above my desk to my framed copy of the Disney soundtrack, or over to my bookshelf, where no less than three Peter Pan books sit in places of honor, including a 100-year-old version of Peter and Wendy and a copy of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens “retold for little people.” I keep a lucky action figure in my bag—know what’s creepy? Finding a severed Peter Pan head when you’re looking for a pen—and for that matter as I type this I’m listening to the 2003 film’s score while drinking milk out of a Peter Pan-branded glass and eating a sandwich with, yes, Peter Pan peanut butter. (I don’t ride Peter Pan buses though. Sometimes dignity must trump nostalgia.)

There is no fictional person who means as much to me as Peter Pan and few non-fiction ones. I don’t remember when the fixation began, but the character and I have always been inseparable, to my embarrassment as I aged. (Perhaps needlessly—a friend writes to say she never found my interest out of the ordinary in high school, “unlike American Psycho, Woody Allen and plaid, which are obsessions that I still don’t really understand.”)

Until I was eight I played an endless game of pretend where I flew around the house and backyard, sometimes enlisting my family for supporting roles but usually just sword-fighting with tree trunks. (No one would play Hook or his cohorts; for safety reasons mine was a peaceful Neverland.) For three years I wore little but a costume my mother made for me, and while my friends grew interested in sports and cartoons I largely stayed by myself, hoisting a Jolly Roger flag from my tree house and using the sandbox filling as fairy dust. The Life-Changing Event that was the subject of my college entrance essay was the day I learned Peter was a fictional character. “This was different than Santa Claus,” I wrote. “This was important.”

In hindsight it’s surprising that, even though Peter Pan is one of the few stories everyone has at least a passing familiarity with, there aren’t other superfans around. For kids playing pretend, there’s a hero who can fly and battles pirates in a world with mermaids and Indians—a world designed specifically to appeal to kids. Why was I the only kid who wanted to live there? The only one who waited at the window each night for Peter to arrive, not realizing his thing was pubescent British girls?

While I’m usually hesitant to draw too much of a connection from pop culture depictions to real-world situations, I wonder if the mostly-underwhelming representations of the story have stunted more independent popularity of my sort. Though it dwarfs other children’s entertainment in thematic profundity, Peter Pan lacks the thrilling narrative elements that helped make the Harry Potters of the world such phenomena. Most film adaptations—I have seen them all—are lukewarm interpretations of the famous story. The Disney version is limp and uncomfortably racist, and Peter himself is rarely a dynamic character—though he’s always a narcissistic one. The musicals don’t boast catchy tunes and—curse those child labor laws!—historically cast adult women in the lead, a turn-off to both genders of childhood viewers wanting to make the role their own (though the story is the rare one with girls who are just as capable as the boys, a trend that continues with Starcatcher). Despite the swashbuckling aspects, the story isn’t known for being especially thrilling or suspenseful.

So why is the story still ubiquitous more than a century later? Why is it still, you know, youthful, while other stories have faded from memory?

Just as James M. Barrie calculated the world of Neverland to thrill children, so the themes of the story are piercing in a way that no child can ignore. Everything that can be said about childhood or growing up can be found in its pages; perhaps only The Wizard of Oz or Pinocchio can compare in how adeptly they address the darkest of prepubescent concerns. But where Pinocchio dramatized the ramifications of mischief (I’m sure I’m not the only one who believed acting out would transform me into a donkey) and Wizard is a primer for facing one’s fears, Peter Pan is an elegy, a hand to guide boys and girls into adulthood.

The original play’s novelisation, Peter and Wendy, has the most apt name for the story since it recognizes the actual protagonist. It is Wendy who changes. Hesitant on the cusp of adulthood, she’s pushed into accepting maturity after Peter’s perpetual arrested development repels her. (The inspired premise to the Disney sequel is an interesting mirror to this; Wendy’s Blitz-hardened daughter learns from Peter’s innocence she must not grow up too fast.) Peter refuses to change; one of the principle themes is that he has no narrative arc. Most adaptations don’t grapple with this, thus very few resonate.

The exception is the brilliant and devastating 2003 film Peter Pan, directed by P.J. Hogan, which I cannot discuss without lapsing into hyperbole. The best family film of the decade, it restores Wendy to her rightful place as the story’s focus. Faced with the prospect of “growing up” she escapes to Neverland, where she falls in love with Peter and begins to nurture fantasies about returning to London with him. When Peter refuses to leave Neverland, she calls him ungallant and deficient.

“How am I deficient?” he hisses.

“You’re just a boy,” she says.

And how. But the film isn’t without sympathy. It sees him for what he is: the most tragic character in children’s entertainment. As everyone knows, he and the Lost Boys are orphans, but where the rest of his crew has a more sanguine view towards adulthood, Peter’s heart is irrevocably hardened. Details of his origins differ from version to version, but we do know he was abandoned as a child and never got over it. Peter Pan in Scarlet, the sanctioned sequel to the original story, has him essentially morph into Captain Hook, a dark fate that is probably the only emotionally honest end for a character who reacts so viciously to any threat of change.

Starcatcher, which charts Peter’s trip from the orphanage to what becomes Neverland, rightly expounds on his toxic origins by surrounding him with cruel caregivers who whip him at the slightest provocation. Years of ill treatment so wound Peter that not even Wendy’s love can overcome them, and he refuses to mature not just in body but also in mind. Just try and name another children’s film that could not only make a double bill with Mysterious Skin but would seem the less optimistic of the two.

Most versions of the story skirt its nihilistic depths, perhaps understandably. Hook scoffs at them and is a very bad movie indeed (though casual viewers may have the reaction I did to Phantom Menace). Given its place on the timeline, Starcatcher doesn’t have to deal with those issues, and that is the sneaky reason I was free to enjoy the play as much as I did, save for one objection.

But before I get to that it’s worth noting the difference between events and themes in a story. I was fine when Starcatcher deviated from the events in the cannon (in the play Neverland is an island, not the second star to the right, and Hook—known here as Black Stache—loses his hand, but to a punch line, not a crocodile), but I wish the ending had been adjusted to better align itself with the crucial themes of the original.

The plot in Starcatcher revolves around a chest filled with “star stuff,” a material of incredible power—fairy dust, essentially. The good guys are trying to dispose of it while the baddies, led by Stache, want it for nefarious purposes. In the struggle the crate arrives at the island that will become Neverland and breaks. Leaking star stuff turns fish to mermaids and creates a fairy (hiya, Tink!). At one point—spoiler—Peter is exposed to a blast of it, which gives him the power of flight but results in his not being able to age. He stays on the island, quarantined, and there’s the difference: in Starcatcher Peter has no choice but to remain a boy, a major change from the original, which was subtitled “The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.” The “would” implies the degree of choice that is crucial to the tragedy of the character.

Since this was a minor point at the very end of Starcatcher it by no means derailed my enjoyment. I understand I’m splitting hairs. But there’s a reason shampoos are marketed to this end: sometimes split hairs have outsized importance.

As I’ve aged I’ve found my own point of entry to the story shifts. First I was a Lost Boy; my games of pretend echoed their idolization of Peter. A quick jaunt through the ol’ high school journal confirms that for a time I aligned myself with Peter, believing the world so cruel and heartless that the thing to do would be to disappear forever because that’ll show ‘em. I don’t want to feign insight into something I know nothing about, but given the man’s abnormal childhood and the tragedies of his adult life (not to absolve him of responsibility), I don’t find anything inconsistent between my theories and Michael Jackson’s famous connection to the character. In a way, he’s someone who never graduated from identifying with Peter; his aging warped him beyond an ordinary moral perspective.

I escaped that, most everyone does. And as adults we essentially become Wendys, remembering the fun of childhood while embracing adulthood, which is harder but more rewarding than the salad days could ever be. Now when I think about the boy who would not grow up there’s a new note in my feelings, one of pity. I’ve moved out of Neverland, into the slings and arrows of maturity, but Peter’s still there. And he’s suffering.

(Photo: Charlotte Vlastelica)