The stage version of Peter Pan

Storytelling can be dated back as far as 2000 - 13000BC (Pellowski, 1991). It could be argued that there is never a new story when it comes to novels, plays, or films, as recurring traits and themes are repeated becoming recognised formats through time, (Uther, 2004). Stories are usually told as if in they are in the here and now, with different aspects added to the original tale ensuring they are not repeated verbatim. Zipes observes that storytelling that of the Neo-traditional kind, should be both magical and subversive enabling children the opportunity of exploration of both, themselves and the world (Zipes, 2001).

As a narrator reading the text of a book or magazine, we can remember the text, but rarely remember the detail of a scene. However, if we watch a film, or are a member of an audience watching a stage play, we are able visually to recall scenes later. Peter Pan started as a stage play and has migrated to book, statue, animation, and live film over decades. Storytellers rely on a variety of semiotic resources in their approach to literature using shared conventions and codes such as vocal characteristics, body language, and even music. For communicative systems, they are additional resources: such as cinema, and advertising. Bearing these criteria in mind, this essay will compare the stage version of Peter Pan (1904) with the film version (2003).

First, let us consider the lifestyle of the author of Peter Pan the literary immortal. James Matthew Barrie was born in the Scottish mill town of Kirriemuir in 1860. Up to the age of six, Barrie led a reasonably normal life, albeit in the shadow of his older brother David whom, his mother adored.

David was killed on the eve of his fourteenth birthday in an ice-skating accident leaving his mother devastated. David's death had a profound impact on the young James's physical development. It is thought that Barrie might have suffered physically from what is known as psychogenic dwarfism (Wikipedia, 2009), which can be brought on by extreme emotional deprivation or stress. Psychologically, the outcome of this traumatic period in James's life left him in an emotional limbo, trapped in an improbable world torn between childhood and maturity.

Setting the scene: Peter Pan is set in Victorian times. The children of the time had strict upbringings. Punctuality, diligence, and deportment were the order of the day. That being said children where doted on by their parents. Authors of the day wrote stories in which they idealised childhood, providing children with a place of retreat through storytelling. Most towns during Victorian times had a theatre. At Christmas, if their parents were wealthy enough children were treated to a Pantomime, which is where they may have come across Peter Pan for the first time. The role of Peter Pan in Victorian times was cast as an androgynous third gender being (child like). In general, today it is played by a female of popularity.

Reading for Victorian children at home was an accepted leisure activity as was performing in plays. However, in the 21st century, because there are many leisure activities for children to partake in, reading for some is seen as valuable time wasted. In general Victorian boys learned management skills and girls home making.

The inspiration for Peter Pan was from Barrie's elder brother David, The persona of Peter is an amalgamation of the Llewelyn Davies boys, a family Barrie befriended in 1897. The play addresses the boundaries connecting childhood and adulthood. Adults watching Peter Pan become nostalgic about the loss of their childhood. Children become entranced about crossing into adult roles - with the added security of a safety net for their return. Moreover, the play crosses societies and generations. Peter Pan is a fairy; he is fashioned on the god Pan. His impish character makes him very endearing. However, there is also a tragic side to Peter, and that is of him refusing to mature.

Observing changing constructions: The Nursery in Peter Pan can be described as a staging post; it is where the story starts and where it ends. In 1982, the actor Miles Anderson, in the Royal Shakespeare Company's adaptation of the play, broke with the 'Peter-less' tradition which up until then had always been a female role, (EA300, Act 1, DVD1). When both Wendy and Peter speak in this adaptation, even though they try to disguise their voices by talking in a childlike manner, they use perfect diction. Therefore, without the use of visual aids this adaptation would generally appeal more to a mature audience.

The adaptation ends as the original play - that is, at the end of the play some twenty years have passed. We witness Peter's return; he has not aged, but it is clear that Wendy has. Peter tries to encourage Wendy to return Never Land with him. Wendy points out to Peter she is now married and that the sleeping child lying in the bed is hers. Peter is clearly upset by the turn of events, and feels betrayed by her growing up (EA300, Act 6. DVD1). This adaptations ending adds realism for today's audiences which, were missing in others.

In the original story, Peter can fly without the aid of 'fairy dust' as he is a fairy. The invisible theatre-prop of fairy dust-first used for Peter Pan had its downside. Theatre owners became worried that children might open windows, and try to fly through them like Peter. The London Ambulance Service of the day requested Barrie add a line to the play, which he obliged...'so many children having gone home and tried it from their beds and needing surgical attention,' (Birkin, p.162, 1979). In today's health and safety conscious society, this prop would have had far more safety issues - for one a child would never be allowed near a high, open window. Additionally, the nursery and Neverland are inexplicably linked via the open window, which is why the window must never be shut when the children go missing.

Sometimes a children's drama will supply a narrator to explain the plot to younger children. However, Barrie was one of the first to break the cardinal rule that the audience is always invisible. He gets Peter Pan to interact with the audience by saying... 'Do you believe in fairies? Say quick; that you believe! If you believe, clap your hands!' (Act 4, Scene 1, 279-80). In both the stage play text, and the radio text Peter is untouchable. For example, in BBC Radio play, Peter says ... 'You mustn't touch me,' ... Wendy: 'Why?'... Peter: 'No one must ever touch me'... Again, Wendy asks why... Peter: 'I don't know.' (EA300, DVD 1). Yet, in the film of Peter Pan, Peter is often touched, bringing it more into the consciousness of today's 21st Century children.

The film is a respectable adaptation of the play and is relatively true to it. The modified script and the combination of Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan, which is the first live-action of a young boy playing the role, and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy Darling proved to be good casting. As Peter Hollindale points out, Wendy is no longer dominated by motherhood and the notion of surrogate-shared parenthood bringing the film up-to-date crossing the boundaries that make it more appealing for 21st century audiences (Reader 2, p. 163). Throughout the film Peter Pan exhibits heartlessness, tinged with childish innocence. Wendy's involvement in Peter Pan albeit, book, play or film, is a Bildungsroman charting her journey from childhood, to motherhood, and culminating in her becoming an independent woman.

In the film, although it is still set in Victorian times Wendy is portrayed as being a girl who has a fertile imagination; she aspires to become a writer, and excitedly declares to her aunt... 'My unfulfilled ambition is to write a great novel in three parts about my adventures,' (Peter Pan, Scene 1, 2003). Wendy is emotionally torn about leaving her parents to go to Never Land with Peter, but yearns for adventure. Peter has stirred something inside her and she feels excited by the unknown. Wendy knows from her aunt that one of the joys of adulthood is to know the pleasure of a powerful kiss. According to her aunt...'the greatest adventure of all...they that find it have slipped in and out of heaven,' (Peter Pan, Scene 2, 2003). The sexual tension between Wendy and Peter is neutered in the book and play but is very much highlighted in the film. Here, Wendy has crossed unseen boundaries and become empowered at the thought of adulthood.

In Barrie's day, young girls were domesticated with mothers pre-training them for motherhood. However, the 21st century Wendy finds when she reaches the Utopian world of Never Land there are no restraints, and she is free of adult restrictions. Additionally, a surprising feeling is re-awakened in her - that of a rebel and she finds the thought of being a pirate dangerously attractive.

In Never Land, Wendy is enchanted by the naivet of the lost boys (lost from their parents - caught by fairies). She eagerly plays the role of mother figure to them. The three females in the film are archetypical. First, there is Wendy acting as a nurturing mother (but with a darker side). Secondly, Tiger Lilly who is perceived as being strong and independent, and finally Tinker Bell, as being mischievous, spirited, and jealous child.

When Tinker Bell drinks Hook's potion she becomes sick prompting Peter to cry and declare...'I do believe in fairies...I do...I do,' (Peter Pan, Scene 19, 2003). Peter chants the words repeatedly; first Wendy hears his words, her brothers hear them until all, but Hook is chanting them. The scene goes on for several minutes providing a seminal moment in the film when both children and adults join in a shared belief - a true pantomime moment and one of the best scenes in the film. While in Never Land Wendy starts to talk about her life back home, Peter interrupts saying that they will never return home, this upsets the Darlings, and they become determined to return home to the nursery.

Although the film and play texts appeal to both sexes, and cross child and adult boundaries, the film version is far more appealing to girls. As it crosses, the feminist boundaries between motherhood and the tomboy act of wishing to be a pirate making it more suitable for modern times. Wendy is a far stronger character in the film in comparison to the play she has become sexually aware and is sure of her own mind. She wants a career as a writer and takes part in sword fighting with pirates.

Peter Pan is an immortal, whereas Hook is mortal; indeed, Hook went to Eton. He is related to 'Long John Silver' of Treasure Island fame. Being mortal Hook understands the quirk's of human nature, which is how he tries to manipulate Wendy into becoming a pirate. Peter Pan and his arch-nemesis Captain James Hook are always fighting and is yet another aspect of youth vs. Adulthood.

If we consider Peter Pan as being concentric with the nursery as the middle, we can see how the circle is completed when Peter returns the children from their fantasy and domestic adventure - returning them to the self same scenario back in the nursery - the movement continuing through Wendy's daughter and Peter - but that is another story.

There is a relevancy here in asking why J. M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan as he did in relation to childhood and adulthood. Freudian's who have psychoanalyzed the play espouse the theory that if Peter should grow into adulthood he may well turn into Hook, by means of an oedipal connection, Peter Pan is often been examined against this schema, (Watson, p.142, 2009).

One theory is that if Peter Pan should kill Hook, he would then turn into him, and become the father to Wendy's mother. Indeed Barrie himself concedes in Act 5, Scene 1: 'The curtain must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook's hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw.' Might Peter, if he grew up, turn into Hook? Might the (cocky) boy, the doodle doo, turn eventually into the man? (Barrie, p.146, 2008)

In conclusion transforming the original text of Peter Pan, gives the author of the transformation a certain amount of licence; however, a truism has to be applied for it be recognisable to the original text. The migrations and adaptations of text should be closely connected to the recurring themes desirable in children's literature. If Peter Pan is to remain in the consciousness of the populace, it will have to be constantly adapted while staying true to the original text.

References:

  • Pellowski, A. (1991), 2nd edn 'The World of Storytelling.' New York. H. W. Wilson.
  • Uther, H-J (2004). 'The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography.' Parts I-III Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica.
  • Zipes, J. (2001) Sticks and Stones. The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter New York and London, Routledge.
  • Barrie, J, M, (1904). 'Peter Pan: or, The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up,' London, Duke of York's Theatre Production
  • PeterPan, (2003) film, directed by P.J. Hogan, USA, Universal Pictures.
  • Birkin, A. (1979) J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, London, Constable, p.162
  • Psychogenic Dwarfism: from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, [online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychogenic_dwarfism (Accessed 15 January 2010)
  • The Open University (2009) EA300 Children's Literature, 'DVD 1: Peter Pan,' BBC Radio Production, Milton Keynes, Open University.
  • The Oxford Companion, (2005): to Fairy tales, Peter Pan, Oxford University Press, [online] Available from: http://www.mywire.com/a/Oxford-Companion-Fairy-Tales/Peter-Pan/9534770/?&pbl=105 (Accessed 5 January 2010)
  • Llewelyn Davies boys, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, [online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Llewelyn_Davies_boys (Accessed 15 January 2010)
  • Watson. N. J. (2009). J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1904), Montgomery, Heather, and Watson, Nicola, Ed's, (2009), Children's literature: classic texts and contemporary trends. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p.142.
  • Barrie. J. M. (2008) 'Peter Pan and Other Plays,' Oxford, Oxford University Press, United Kingdom, p.146

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