Johnny Depp plays the author of “Peter Pan” (Q&A following the film’s premiere in San Diego)
In December 2004, the San Diego Cinema Society arranged a special preview of “Finding Neverland,” Miramax’s new film where Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.” Because I have written about Barrie, I was asked to respond to audience questions in the after-film discussion. This is an edited transcript of that discussion.
How did you like the film?
I am interested in why “Peter Pan” is the story that fascinates us these days and not some other story–say, “Tom Sawyer” or “Little Women.” If you’ll excuse the pun, “Peter Pan” is in the air. A year ago, Universal released their live-action film “Peter Pan” and a few years before that, Spielberg did his movie “Hook.” On stage, we’ve had Alan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” (upon which “Finding Neverland” is based), and for the month of November a 51-year-old Cathy Rigby went aerial again in the play at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. Dave Barry (the humorist) and Ridley Pearson (the mystery writer) have also just published a new book, a prequel to “Peter Pan,” called “Peter and the Starcatchers.” So, I wonder: Why is “Peter Pan” our story du jour?
Of course, I certainly came to see heart-throb Johnny Depp because there have been rumors he is certain to receive an Academy Award nomination for his work in this film. If he does, it will be because he has demonstrated his versatility as an actor. What is interesting in this film is how he underplays his role. Depp is coming from “Pirates of the Caribbean” where he gave a terrific over-the-top performance as the mincing Captain Jack; here he is much more understated.
How close is the film to the facts?
That’s like asking how much “Jesus Christ, Superstar” resembles the original story; at the end of the opening credits, you will recall the message that the movie was “inspired” by a true story. But here’s one difference and something I missed in the film. In “Finding Neverland,” Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Kate Winslet) is a widow and Barrie befriends her sons. She did become a widow but much later. When her sons were at the age they are shown in the film, their father, Arthur, was still very much alive and always resented Barrie as an interloper who had fastened on to his family and spent so much time with his sons. By deleting him from the film, we miss out on important “father” issues which are central in “Peter Pan.”
Barrie did not have a high opinion of — or was jealous of — the father of the Llewelyn Davies boys; and you will notice that the father in “Peter Pan,” Mr. Darling, does not appear in a very favorable light. It’s also interesting that when the story is staged, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are often played by the same actor: I wonder what a child psychologist would say about that. Then, too, the crux of Spielberg’s “Hook” is that the villain (played by Dustin Hoffman) is an interloper who lays claim to the children of the hero and asks them to think of him as their father.
There’s another difference, too. In the film, Barrie’s wife is having an affair. She did have an affair, but much later in her life and their marriage. Here are the facts.
Barrie married actress Mary Ansell, but there were rumors that the marriage was never consummated and there were speculations that Barrie was impotent. But I think a better explanation can be found in his thinly disguised autobiography “Tommy and Grizell” where Barrie writes: “He was a boy only. Is it not cruel to ask a boy to love? He was a boy who could not grow up.”
Sexlessness was something of a hallmark of Barrie’s life and work. Walt Disney may have told his animators to keep in mind Marilyn Monroe when they were creating Tinkerbell and Spielberg cast a fetching Julia Roberts in that role in “Hook,” but in Barrie’s story you will notice that Peter Pan is deeply puzzled by both Wendy’s marital hopes and Tinkerbell’s jealousy. And as part of that sexlessness, you might also note the impossibility of having an affair with Tinkerbell, given the complications of getting it on with a diminutive sprite.
Barrie’s essential sexlessness, incidentally, is the reason no one raised a suspicious eyebrow about his spending so much time playing with the Llewelyn Davies boys; I have in mind the fact that Michael Jackson named his ranch “Neverland.” In any event, Barrie’s wife had an affair but much later in her life and marriage–no doubt, out of curiosity.
What connection do you see between Johnny Depp in this film and “Pirates of the Caribbean”?
In the earlier film, Depp played a pirate, but in this film he plays an author who wrote about pirates. Barrie’s Captain Hook is one of the great villains of children’s books and very much over-the-top in the way Captain Jack Sparrow is over-the-top in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
In truth, Depp’s role here reminds me more of “Edward Scissorhands.” The most touching moment in that film occurs when Kim (played by Winona Ryder) realizes she loves Edward and asks him to hold her. He looks down at his scissor hands, the Captain-Hook-like appliances at the ends of his arms, lets out a (pre-Viagra) sigh, and says, “I can’t.” Perhaps you can see the connection with Barrie’s biography, its sexlessness.
“Edwards Scissorhands” ends, you recall, with a sudden rush of time as we move from the 1950s to the present. We are to understand that Edward has retreated to the mansion on top of the hill where, over the decades and like Peter Pan, has never aged or grown up. “Finding Neverland” ends with Depp as an aged Barrie sitting on a park bench wistfully contemplating a place unlike our own: where childhood still exists, innocent and evergreen.
It used to be that to call someone a “Peter Pan” (someone who wouldn’t grow up) was meant as a criticism. With this film aren’t we to see Peter Pan in a more favorable light?
I sometimes teach “Peter Pan” in my classes and begin discussion by asking students if they liked the book. I remember one woman’s response because it was obviously so personal; quite clearly she was talking about her own circumstances and her boyfriend. She said: “I hate the book! Look at Peter. All he wants to do is hang out with the Lost Boys and have fun. Does he want to grow up? No! Does he want to commit to Wendy? No!” In that regard, you might recall a popular pop-psych book of a few years ago, “The Peter Pan Syndrome,” where Dan Kiley talks about certain men who never grow up and remain boys forever.
And yes, I think with this film we are now to see “Peter Pan” in a more favorable light and J.M. Barrie as someone who kept alive the idea of childhood. Where does that come from? I have my own ideas.
In films of yesteryear, you will remember wide-eyed Jackie Coogan and the curtseying Shirley Temple; they were almost emphatically children. But today that has all given way to a vision of the child as a mini-adult: Bart Simpson is worldly wise beyond his years and Britney Spears in an earlier incarnation–around the time her hit song was “I’m Not That Innocent”–played the juvenile trollop. Lolita is the opposite of Shirley Temple. So, I think childhood, as we knew it, is disappearing and I think that films like “Finding Neverland” speak to our nostalgia about that loss. These ideas cluster around Barrie and his works, and that’s also why I think “Peter Pan” is our story du jour.
The film makes reference to Barrie’s other plays. What do you know about them?
What’s relevant here, in terms of what I have been saying, is Barrie’s last theatrical success, “Dear Brutus,” where a few adults are given a second chance to relive their lives after they have gone wrong. This seems to me the story behind Spielberg’s “Hook.”
You will recall that in Spielberg’s imagined sequel, Peter Pan has grown up and become a forty-year-old workaholic tied to his cell phone. Over the course of the film, to redeem himself, Robin William’s character must–as the current cliche has it–get in touch with his “inner child” and he does so by becoming more childlike, even engaging in a food fight. “Hook” can be seen as a film about the anxiety of being middle-aged. But as I have been suggesting, I think it is very much like “Finding Neverland” and that the concern that lies behind it is the disappearance of childhood in our own times.
Wasn’t Peter Pan often played by females?
There’s been a long tradition of actresses playing Peter Pan–think of Mary Martin and now Cathy Rigby. But I think too much can be made of this gender bending.
After their father died and later their mother, Barrie became the legal guardian of the Llewelyn Davies boys (though they were much older than the youngsters seen in the film). That put Barrie in a quandary. Over the years, he had been more of a companion to the boys–for example, playing pirates with them in boats on a lake and making each other walk the plank. In that sense, Barrie (the boy who didn’t want to grow up) was too young to ever become their father or mother. But here he was, being expected to become their legal guardian.
At that very moment, Barrie was writing “Peter and Wendy,” the book version of his immensely successful play. There we read how:
[The Lost Boys] went on their knees, and holding out their arms cried, “O Wendy lady, be our mother.”
“Ought I?” Wendy said, all shining. “Of course it’s frightfully fascinating, but you see, I have no real experience.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Peter. “What we need is just a nice motherly person.”
“Oh dear!’ Wendy said, ‘you see I feel that is exactly what I am. Very well. I will do my best.”
That was the best Barrie could do. And the best he could do was “play house,” as Wendy does.
Whatever happened to the Llewelyn Davies boys?
This may a situation where knowing the facts may ruin any pleasure you found in the film because, unlike the situation in “Peter Pan,” they could not remain young forever but inevitably grew up. George was killed in Flanders during World War I. Michael died in drowning accident at Oxford. Peter committed suicide in 1960.
Peter Llewelyn Davies always resented that throughout his life he would be associated with Barrie’s character Peter Pan. There’s a great moment in the film, in that regard. Just after the premiere of the play, audience members are hovering around the little boy and say, “So, this is Peter Pan.” Peter Llewelyn Davies (played by Freddie Highmore) looks at Depp-playing-Barrie and says, “I’m not Peter Pan. He is.”
For a related essay on Spielberg’s “Hook” and the Real Peter Pan, click here.
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