The Power of the Untold Story

by Samuel Marlow. Published 22nd March 2015

A few weeks ago, while at the cinema, I saw a trailer for Joe Wright's Peter Pan prequel Pan. While the production looks fantastic, and Hugh Jackman makes a fantastically camp Blackbeard, telling the origin story of such a character bothers me in a number of ways.

Origin stories have a long and proud tradition. Some of the very earliest and best narratives we have are our own origin stories, some are so epic and have been told so many times they are famous and synonymous with their nations or religions.

It was arguably comic books that brought the term "origin story" into the public consciousness, though. Who doesn't know the origins of Batman and Spider-Man? Bruce Wayne's parents were killed when he was a child, and he created the persona of Batman to take revenge on criminals. Meek nerd Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, and learned to use his powers for good as Spider-Man when he failed to prevent the death of his Uncle Ben.

That these stories are so famous has something to do with their archetypal power, the frequency with which they have been retold, and the coverage their adaptations get. More than that, though, origin stories are just great drama. Where else in the character's story do we see such a great transition from the character's mundane world to an extraordinary world?

Anakin Skywalker

There are occasions, however, where knowing too much can backfire. Though I'm sure he wasn't the first, it was poor misguided George Lucas and his Star Wars prequels that really opened this can of worms. Though there was obviously a deep history, as we discovered to our cost, it was a history that remained more interesting in abstract terms. Yes, seeing Darth Vader's fall may have been interesting if handled in a more subtle way. As it is the single line "A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father," along with the subsequent revision that Anakin "ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader" is infintely more exciting and interesting than three movies and hundreds of millions of dollars.

The worst crimes of the prequels, though, is expanding on the back stories of characters whose back stories should never be expanded upon. When we see him in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi the Emperor is such a potent symbol of evil, that I don't want to imagine him brushing his teeth and combing his hair in the morning. He is a representation of a psychic construct, who doesn't even have a name, only the title of Emperor. To show his normal life as a Senator before the events of the original films normalises the character and takes away much of his power. Other characters, such as fan-favourite Boba Fett, draw power from their mystique. At least in the newer films we were presented with a decent mysterious villain in Darth Maul, though from what I have seen of the Clone Wars his back story is told to death in that series.

In more recent years the fashion for "rebooting" film series has taken hold. Commercially and critically successful films such as Casino Royale and Batman Begins have turned such drastic rewritings from the exception into the norm. Spider-Man, for example, will have not one but two reboots in less than a decade. While I felt this yielded worthwhile results in The Amazing Spider-Man, and I also enjoyed its sequel, it is hard to see what of worth could be mined by telling the story again for a generation not yet old enough to have forgotten the two previous attempts.

Batman Begins

But the merit of reboots is for another time...

This year's Pan will, of course, not be the first time Peter Pan's origin will have been told. In 2011, Syfy produced and aired a similar outing. Called Neverland the two-part miniseries written and directed by Nick Willing, featured the bizarre conceit that Neverland was, in fact, another planet populated by aliens that look like small silver fairies. Travel to and from this planet was facilitated by a magical orb, and most of plot mechanics revolve around possession of a mineral the fairy aliens mine that would give the bad guys god-like powers back on Earth.

The series did a few things right, primarily treating the now-contentious Plains Indian tribe with more respect and dignity than I have seen in any previous adaptation, and Rhys Ifans' as a self-important James Hook was a good choice of casting. The notion that he and Peter had once been friends might also have had strong story-telling possibilities.

In the end though, an ugly CGI and polystyrene Neverland (not helped by bizarre Foley on a presumably silent set), flat characters, histrionic performances and frankly horrible, expository dialogue that feels plagiarised from the earliest drafts of a Harry Potter screenplay killed any magic not already sucked out by the sci-fi plot. Whether the result of bad directing, the actors, editing, trying to perform against a green-screen, or simply not having time to hone the performances, the performances and pacing makes it feel as if no one is really sure why they're there or what they're supposed to be doing.

Neverland 2011

Charlie Rowe as Peter Pan in Nick Willing's Neverland for SyFy.

Though the script contains several overly lampshaded nods to the source material, the mini-series' biggest crime is that it actually contradicts what we are told in other sources. In this version it seems that no one ages in Neverland, making the notion of the "boy who wouldn't grow up " somewhat redundant. Furthermore, the series seems to end right before the characters' adventure with the Darling children starts, further undermining the logic of the character's defining feature.

While I can't talk about the production of Pan, what I see from the trailer seems to repeat so many of these story elements it's a wonder it wasn't the subject of legal action.

From what I can gather, Peter grows up in a Dickensian workhouse before being transported to a Neverland already populated by pirates, "Natives", where he meets a young James Hook and appears to develop a friendship with him.

Again the timelines seem skewed from what we know. The sainted Mrs Darling seems to have had adventures with him when she was a child. We are also told that Neverland appears different to everyone who goes there, and that it enters a kind of hibernation when Peter Pan is away.

Levi Miller as Peter

Levi Miller as Peter in Joe Wright's Pan (2015) by Jason Fuchs.

Peter Pan himself also gives us a clue into his origin, telling Wendy that he ran away as a baby when he heard his parents talking about what he should be when he grows up.

It would seem that Peter Pan has been visiting nurseries for at least a generation, and the way Mrs Darling talks makes it seem as though it was already an old story. Pan's version of events makes it seem as though it all took place within that brief Edwardian era.

This is hardly surprising as children have a poor perception of time in anything other than a very immediate frame, and that, with the exception of deep time, the world is unchanging. While working on a production of A Christmas Carol one of the young cast, brandishing a 2p coin asked me if 1996 was the Victorian Era. I politely pointed out that I was alive in 1996. While it later transpired that the date on the coin was 1969, I explained that the Victorian Era was a long time before then.

If we take Pan's account as fact, this raises the possibility that he has lost track of the timing of his own abandonment.

The inclusion of the highly ambivalent epilogue An Afterthought, in which Pan returns to Wendy and is distraught to find she is now grown up, is consoled when he takes Wendy's own daughter, Jane. We are then told that Pan returns to find Jane is grown with a daughter of her own, and that this cycle will continue "for as long as children are innocent and heartless".

Herein is the clue to Pan's true origin. For he is not a mortal child made magical. He has existed as long as childhood has existed.

Furthermore, each of the Darling children experiences Neverland subjectively, though it is always more or less an island that is compact enough to allow a short distance of time and space between adventures, that it can be made with a tablecloth and chairs but "in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very real".

Neverland 2003

The small, perfectly formed Neverland as it appears in PJ Hogan's Peter Pan (2003).

The much-criticised depiction of Indians are not real Native Americans. They, like the pirates and mermaids, are the storybook characters that populate the Darling children's imaginations. Because they are in the children's imagination, they are in Neverland.

While working on a production of Peter Pan two years ago, there was much discussion among the cast and crew as to whether Neverland and the events that happen there was real or imaginary. I said I though it was both real and imaginary, or rather that it became real in the imagining of it.

Barrie's genius as a story-teller seems to stem from his understanding of the way children, and particularly young children think. Since it is relatively late (by some estimates as old as seven or eight) that we really understand the difference between internal thought and external reality, the Neverlands are manifest in the collusional play of their dreamers.

And so Peter Pan is a personification of that liminal hinterland where the imaginary and material worlds brush up against each other. He becomes the Spirit of Childhood (or possibly of Childishness). We are told that his perennial youth is the product of his failing to remember the events of the past so that, while Barrie clearly had a great affinity with childhood and childishness, he also understood when it should be put away.

Wendy, through her maturation, to an extent, outgrows Peter Pan. What is often presented as a wrenching farewell at the end of the story seems, in fact, to be the right time for Wendy. Mr and Mrs Darling, both experience a wistful nostalgia, but it is passing.

Captain Hook and Peter Pan

Jeremy Sumpter (left) as Peter Pan and Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook in Peter Pan (2003).

The two characters who are stuck are Hook and Pan. These characters need each other. Pan needs an unyielding, authoritarian adult to rail against, while Hook is tormented by the eternal youth who threatens order. The tragedy of Hook is that he is haunted by Pan, which stops him, in his own way from growing up. Hook's body ages, but he is unable to let go of the childhood Peter Pan symbolises and, in the end, it destroys him.

What we see in the Captain Hook/Mr Darling dichotomy are two halves of a person that need to be combined. The kind but weak Mr Darling, and the powerful but cruel Captain Hook. At the end, with the death of Hook, we see both characters' better qualities resolved in a kind and strong Mr Darling.

For all its brilliant symbolism and deft imagery, the fundamentally unresolved (and unresolvable) narrative makes me think that, despite his undeniable genius, Barrie did not fully understand what he was creating. His own letters and notes on the creation of the story show how organically it evolved and his constant self-reflection on what it might mean, and how much it was informed by his experiences with the Llewelyn Davies boys, some of whom (John, Michael and Peter) lent their names to the characters.

JM Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies

J.M. Barrie playing with Michael Llewelyn Davies, who served as the model for Peter Pan.

All of which further hammers home the point that Peter Pan is an eternal character. He arrived fully-formed as all good archetypes do. Much like Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan's Joker in The Dark Knight, he may tell tales of his origin, but there will be inconsistencies because it may or may not have happened. He, like his mythic namesake, is a demigod, a symbolic representation of an abstract concept who has defied final analysis for well over a hundred years.

To tell a satisfactory origin story that will not inevitably confine the character seems doomed to failure, in part because I don't think Pan and Hook can exist without Wendy to give them life as it is she who is the true hero of the story, much as this is often overlooked.

Of course, just because I can't think of how to do it, or feel that it shouldn't be done, doesn't mean no one else can or shouldn't try.

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