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Forever young: Peter Pan turns 100

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2003


Walk along the Broad Walk of Kensington Gardens or stroll beside the languid lake known as the Serpentine and it's easy to leave London behind.

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This is precisely what a seven-day-old baby boy named Peter Pan did when he flew from his nursery window in the story "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," and launched a legend.

He was, of course, the creation of Scottish journalist J.M. Barrie, popular in his lifetime for his plays and novels, but known to history for his stories about the boy who wouldn't grow up.

Now, on the eve of the play's 100th anniversary, interest in the plucky hero with the elusive shadow remains as buoyant as Tinkerbell's fairy dust.

A new version of the play, starring Anthony Head ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") as Captain Hook, debuted In London's West End this week. New anniversary versions of the book are sitting next to the Harry Potter section in bookstores, and a coming movie, "J.M. Barrie's Neverland," starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Dustin Hoffman, will depict the life of the book's author.

More immediately, the famous story has been redone as a live-action movie. The film, "Peter Pan," out on Christmas day, is the first faithful film adaptation of the story, say the producers.

For starters, it is the first cast headed by an actual 12-year-old boy (Jeremy Sumpter).

Traditionally, from its earliest incarnations as a Christmas pantomime production, all the way through versions starring Mary Martin and skater Cathy Rigby, Peter has been played by a woman. The film also takes Wendy's point of view on the story and emphasizes all the coming-of-age issues that the director believes Barrie intended.

"I wanted to do justice to one of the greatest English plays ever written," says director P.J. Hogan, who says his goal was to recapture the story as Barrie wrote it. "It has gone through years of dumbing down, and I wanted to return the complexity and magic and darkness of the original play and book."

He blames the 1953 animated version for what he calls "this Disneyfication." Which he believes is not what Barrie intended. "The stories that are just sweetness and light are quickly forgotten," he says.

Accordingly, the mermaids of Neverland are snarling harridans, and Hook's menacing rages will surely keep young and old audiences awake long after the closing credits. In perhaps the biggest break with the traditional retellings of the story, Peter and Wendy share the frisson of first love: a kiss. It's only on the cheek, but it's enough to make Peter blush and break Wendy's young heart when Peter cannot return the feeling.

"Barrie was aware of the tragedy and ... the beauty in Peter and Wendy's relationship," says Hogan, who read up extensively on the author. "It's a relationship that cannot be. Peter cannot grow up and Wendy must. Peter lets her go and so the movie is also a farewell, which I love."

The sadness at the heart of the story comes straight from the life-defining tragedies of Barrie's family. Barrie was the ninth of 10 children. His 12-year-old brother - and his mother's favorite - died in a skating accident. His mother fell into a deep depression from which she did not emerge, although she lived for nearly 30 more years.