Peter Pan Through the Years
“All children, except one, grow up.” These words open the novel Peter Pan, by J. M. Barrie. The story was published in and takes place in Edwardian England (after the death of Queen Victoria and slightly before World War I). Its pages are full of adventure, playfulness, terror, and levity. The novel was one of several versions of the story by author J. M. Barrie, and dozens of versions by others followed and continue to be made through the generations. Why do we keep retelling this story?
J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, was famous during his lifetime for his books and plays even prior to Peter Pan. Barrie liked to take his dog to Kensington Park for walks. There, in 1897, he befriended boys George and Jack Llewelyn Davies. Barrie and the boys’ mother, Sylvia, became close friends. Their father, Arthur, was more ambivalent about Barrie’s incessant presence in their lives but tolerated the friendships. The Barrie and Llewelyn Davies families soon became inseparable, seeing each other almost daily and going on vacations together.
The first appearance of Peter Pan came in a book for adults called The Little White Bird, published in 1902. Barrie loosely based the book on his relationship with George Llewelyn Davies. In the book, the narrator tells a child a story about an infant Peter Pan who lived in Kensington Gardens. This was a story that Barrie told George about George’s baby brother, Peter. Later, Barrie expanded the character to become the Peter Pan modern readers recognize. He told the boys:
“I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. I am sometimes asked who and what Peter is, but that is all he is, the spark I got from you.”
In The Little White Bird, Peter, who, like all babies, is part bird, flew out the window. He is only “seven days old” and spends his time in the park, where nannies often bring their charges. Eventually he goes home only to discover that his mother has had another baby and forgotten him. Heartbroken, he returns to the gardens where he lives with birds and fairies.
While the book was written for adults, the chapters about Peter were rereleased as a children’s book called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. After the popularity of The Little White Bird, Barrie changed and expanded the character of Peter Pan into an older child who lives in Neverland. In 1904, Barrie wrote a play called Peter Pan: or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and he rewrote the story again for the play Peter Pan and Wendy. A novel, Peter and Wendy (sometimes published as Peter Pan), was published in 1911.
Countless stage productions followed through the decades. From the very first productions, Peter has traditionally been played by a woman, and the same actor plays both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling. In 1954, Jerome Robbins produced and directed a musical version, starring Mary Martin as Peter. This version has been presented on television and on both large stages and tiny community theaters countless times since. In testimony to the lasting appeal of the 1954 musical, a slightly updated version of the same musical was performed live on television in 2014. The musical has endured as a favorite production among schools and community theaters not only because of its energy and catchy music, but also because it contains a large ensemble cast including many roles for children and, other than the flying apparatus, can be produced cheaply, a perfect marriage of practicality and artistic merit.
In addition to the stage plays and musicals, Peter Pan has been made into or inspired numerous movies. The first film version was a silent film, released in 1924. Disney released its animated musical in 1953, cementing specific images of Peter Pan, Hook, and Tinkerbell in the imagination of modern audiences. Recent film adaptations include Pan, released in 2015, and Wendy, released in 2020. Additionally, many versions that either retell the story or are inspired by elements from the story have been made for television or have been produced directly for the home viewing market, including the Disney Fairies franchise.
For J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan had different meanings depending on which version he was writing. Starting with the 1904 play, the plot was always the same, but different lines were added or cut. For instance, when he discovered that children kept hurting themselves by trying to fly with the power of Happy Thoughts, he added fairy dust to the list of requirements for flight. When WWI was underway, the line “To die will be an awfully great adventure” was cut by many theaters, as the idea of a gallant death in battle was replaced in the public eye by images of poison gas and trenches.
Reading the 1911 novel Peter Pan today can be a jarring experience by today’s expectations. The gender roles are ironclad. Wendy offers to return to Neverland with Peter yearly, not for adventures, but “to do his spring-cleaning.” Adults and children are killed off willy-nilly. The Native Americans are described exactly the way an Edwardian English child would picture them, which is to say, not in ways or with terms that would be remotely acceptable today. The Darlings employ Liza the maid, who is sometimes allowed to participate in family “romps.” Liza is assumed to be around ten years old. Liza does not get to go to Neverland.
The fact that there are so many characters in the book and the fact that the story is deliberately made simple and open-ended means that writers can approach the story through many characters’ eyes and through many viewpoints, emphasizing, or exploring different aspects of the deceptively simple plot, sometimes through a more modern lens. For instance, in Wendy, a film from 2020, a modern-day Wendy and her brothers follow Peter Pan in a story that focuses on Wendy’s viewpoint and allows Wendy to be just as rough and tumble as the boys while also addressing the specific challenges that girls face in adulthood. In 2020’s Come Away, Peter and Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland) are siblings who use fantasy to cope with real-world loss. The movie contrasts coping skills that Alice and Peter possess with each other (Alice is happy to go back and forth between reality and fantasy, but Peter is not), and with the coping skills of their parents.
Some versions are clearly aimed at young children and attempt to reflect a more ethnically diverse and feminist worldview. These include TV shows (Jake and the Never Land Pirates, the Disney Fairies franchise), movies (Hook, from 1991, and Pan, from 2015), as well as novels, such as the Peter and the Starcatchers series by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. These are stories that try to maintain the adventurous tone of the original while being more in tune with the social mores of today—more feminist and less stereotypical in the portrayal of Native Americans. While they may not succeed in achieving their goals (Pan, for instance, became notorious for casting a white actress as Tiger Lily), they are clearly trying to resonate with modern children, or at least modern parents. Such versions for children emphasize the “carefree, magical land of adventure” aspect of the Peter Pan story.
Meanwhile, today’s sense of unease regarding issues like sexuality, the darker implications of “never growing up,” and a fascination with villains has led to some horror-based homages and experiments in role reversal, usually intended for adult audiences and readers. The novel Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry portrays Peter Pan as a sociopath and Neverland as a violent world. Another novel, The Child Thief by Gerald Brom, depicts Peter Pan as a kidnapper who turns children into child soldiers. The graphic novel Lost Girls by Alan Moore uses the idea of Wendy following a charismatic boy to a secret destination as a way to explore female sexuality. The television show Once Upon a Time casts Peter Pan as the antagonist, focusing on his selfish, arrogant, and sadistic qualities, and depicting Hook as an (eventual) hero.
The plot of Peter Pan can be summed up in simple, broad strokes: Peter takes the Darling children to Neverland, they have adventures, and although they return home, Peter stays in Neverland, vowing to “never grow up.” However, thematically Peter Pan is complex, which is part of why it endures. It works as adventure, as fantasy, as allegory, and as horror in different hands because the original story contains elements of all these things.
Superficially, the novel Peter Pan promises eternal youth with no consequences (to Peter). For Peter, no grief is lasting because he forgets events right after they happen, not to mention the fact that he is relentlessly self-centered. Peter forgets his adventures soon after they take place, so he never knows grief, or nostalgia, or boredom, and he can’t learn and thus mature. He’s not an old soul in a young body, like a vampire. He’s truly forever physically and mentally young, and he still has “all his first teeth.” He has no empathy and therefore he does not understand suffering. The other children understand concepts of death and of cause and effect, but Peter does not. He lives in an eternal Now and sees only himself.
Even the children who run off with Peter don’t worry much about the consequences of their actions. They are sure that the mothers on the Mainland are always waiting with the window open—all but Peter’s, and Peter finds an unending chain of replacement mothers when he wants them, by befriending Wendy and her generations of daughters. The narrator of the book, who talks directly to the reader, is often wishing the children would face real consequences, but they never do:
Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked.
And yet, despite the superficial appearance of a lack of consequences, Peter Pan does suggest that life on Neverland comes with a cost. Peter suffers from terrible nightmares. Hook lives in a constant state of agonized terror, with a desperate sense of inadequacy. The Lost Boys are often hungry and have to worry that Peter will “alter” them or “thin them out.” A startling number of people die bloody, violent deaths in the original book’s pages.
When Wendy is reunited with her mother, Peter cannot join in: “He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred.” This hints at an underlying emptiness within Peter. His relationships are (to him) without the threat of lasting pain (because of forgetfulness and lack of empathy). But that also means that all of his relationships must, on his side, be shallow ones. One cannot know real love if one is not willing to experience real pain.
Because the novel presents a world of adventure and fun with a total lack of consequences on one level and a nightmarish, violent world of terrible consequences on another, Peter Pan can be read in many different ways. The novel itself alludes to the contradictory nature of Neverland:
Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact . . . When you play at it by day with the chairs and tablecloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are nightlights.
Just as Neverland is at once utopian and terrifying, “never growing up” carries promise and menace. Growing up can be scary. It is unknown territory. To some, it sounds restrictive and dull. Puberty can be miserable, and junior high school even worse. Old age can seem horrifying. Modern versions of Peter Pan are able to continue to explore the fear of growing up because for many that fear has never gone away. For instance, in Wendy, the children are afraid that they will have to give up their dreams and be blue collar workers and parents, like their mother, just as Peter Pan, in the original novel, dreads having to one day work in an office.
By the same token, a lot of children never grow up. For instance, we can use that term to describe children who, like the Lost Boys, go missing and are never found or those who die young. We might use that description for people who age physically, but remain narcissistic and profoundly emotionally immature, as in the nonfiction book The Peter Pan Syndrome. In fiction, the movie The Lost Boys (1987) uses the phrase as its title to apply the sense of mystery and disappearance to missing children who become vampires. In two tragic real-world examples, “the Lost Boys” has been used to refer to the boys kicked out of a polygamous sect in Utah to make more girls available for the older men to marry. Robert Kolker also evokes this sense of unresolved loss by titling his nonfiction book about murdered sex workers Lost Girls (later made into a movie of the same name).
Why do we keep retelling the story? Because every generation of adults includes those who fear losing their children and every generation of children has those who fear losing their childhood. Every generation also includes people who see the darker side of never growing up, and what that actually entails. Peter Pan serves every audience because, in its different characters and the voice of the narrator, it is written to appeal to our most primal instincts—the desire to be free from all responsibilities, the desire for adventure, the desire to have a purpose in life, the desire to be respected, the desire to be taken care of or to take care of others, the desire to live and grow. Neverland can be scary, or it can be fun, depending on whether the night-lights are off or on. The story goes on, “as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”