Forever young: Peter Pan turns 100

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.

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.

Barrie was determined to "bring a smile back to her face," says psychologist Daniel Ogilvie, even going so far as to dress up in the older brother's clothes. More to the point, he wanted to keep the older brother, now forever 12 years old, alive in his mother's mind.

"Peter Pan rose from the rubble of Barrie's attempts to express his longing to be next to the bedside of his mother," says Dr. Ogilvie, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The author of "Fantasies of Flight" says that the book's flight imagery is directly related to Barrie's inability to replace his dead brother or revive his depressed mother. "Images of flight are partially spawned by desires to recover feelings associated with harmonious, uplifting relationships of early childhood," he adds.

There has even been speculation by some that the emotional trauma of his early life stunted his physical growth. As an adult, Barrie was barely five feet tall and unable to grow a beard. By his own admission, he never fully matured into an adult. Although he married, he never had children and the marriage ended in divorce. At the time, Barrie reportedly said to his wife: "Boys cannot love."

But he did develop a lifelong relationship with a family of five boys, whose mother and father both died. Barrie adopted them, and the Peter Pan stories emerged from their lively storytelling sessions. "They wrote the play together," says Hogan, "so it speaks directly to the children. He knew kids are interested in pirates and kids and adventure and playing mother and father. He never talked down to them. It was always on their level."

The best children's entertainment has always dealt with complicated themes, says producer Lucy Fisher, who read up on Bruno Bettelheim's theories about the importance of adult themes in classic children's stories to prepare for the film.

"It has always been about assuming adulthood," she says, which, given the world children see around them today, is a scary thing. The great stories help children understand how to handle their fears. "This is about going into the lair and coming out again. People say the great old stories are too scary now," she says, adding, "but we have faith in the human race and we have faith in this story as well."

Just as classic fantasies such as "Lord of the Rings" have had to wait for the technology to make a serious film possible, live-action renditions of flying and fighting in Neverland have never really been possible until now, says producer Doug Wick. "There have always been serious practical issues with bringing Barrie's vision to life," he says.

Until now London had largely forgotten J.M. Barrie. True, there is a bronze statue of Peter Pan playing his pipes that sits near the west bank of the Serpentine. But according to actress Lynn Redgrave, who stars in the new movie, British theater royalty frequently takes great talent for granted.

She compares the oversight of Barrie to that of Noel Coward. "Coward was completely overlooked and then, suddenly, he had this great revival and people realized he was amazing and that what he did was great."

Perhaps, now that technology has caught up with imagination, Barrie's work will be reevaluated. "Maybe," she adds, "all this will spark a reinterpretation."

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