The Themes in ‘Finding Neverland’
Inspired by J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
The film ‘Finding Neverland’ is a portrait of James M. Barrie and his muse. It is far from a factual account and rightly claims only to be inspired by true events. True to the nature of Peter Pan’s author, screenplay writer David Magee has allowed the line between fact and fiction to be drawn sketchily, with rose buds, skulls and mermaids doodled in between. It explains how deep understanding of children can be masked can be silliness. Man and play have achieved full circle.
P.J. Hogan’s 'Peter Pan' (film, 2003) was a fitting tribute to Barrie’s text, which was written for the stage anyway, bringing to the audience what could never be achieved by the stage. Previous Barrie-inspired storytellers have not fared so well. Though ‘Hook’ (directed by Steven Spielberg, 1991) provided a continuation to the original story, the transition is unnatural to Barrie’s original themes. Pan accepts the female as a sexual figure and becomes fatherly. The state of childhood is no longer characterised by the boy. Thus, Never Land replaces Pan as the constant to which we can escape to. The dynamics of this film is more of an America attacks Kensington Gardens.
In 'Finding Neverland' these themes are dealt with from a different perspective - they are illustrated by Barrie's interaction with the rest of the characters. Thus, every character in the film shares likenesses with one or more characters in the book. Lets have a look at the personalities of some of the supporting characters.
Finding Neverland - supporting characters
The character Mary Barrie
Mary Barrie, an ex-actress, is J.M. Barrie's wife at the start of the movie. We have no doubt that she was in love with James but she is wrought by jealousy for his passion for his work. Disney fans will draw a parallel between Tinker Bell’s betrayal and Mary’s stint with…well shame on you anyway - Disney added that part! Forget that. Immaculately dressed in leafy green outfits, she is consistent in exhibiting one strong emotion – be it anger, confusion, jealousy, spite or regret. In the original text, Wendy sees her as a romantic figure, with a beautiful face although often distressed. Here, Mary Barrie is the ultimate real-life Tink.
‘Fairies have to be one thing or the other, because being so small they unfortunately have room for one feeling only at a time.’
The character Sylvia Lllewelyn Davies
Mrs Davies Barrie's image of the perfect mother. There’s a little bit of Mrs Darling to start off with, although, by the end I believe she reveals herself to be the inspiration for Wendy. If this is the case, the film draws from the Disney portrayal of Wendy and dresses Sylvia mostly in night dresses and other white frilly frocks. In the book, Wendy sexual awakening spurs her to be a good mother and a wife to Peter. Her feelings towards him are real, but Peter is the one to continuously remind her she might be taking this too seriously. In the film, a scene where Sylvia is huddled in a cloak, unwilling to deal with her illness reminds of Wendy’s reluctance to show Peter she was not a little girl anymore. She too yearns for Neverland.
‘He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.’
Arthur Llewelyn Davies - An error of omission?
Although there are others, I feel that I should mention the following disparity with the truth - Arthur Llewelyn-Davies was still alive when Barrie met Sylvia and her sons. Also, there were five boys instead of four. In fact, Arthur fathered his youngest, Nico, after Barrie had entered the family. He attended Peter Pan’s opening night. When James compiled a book of photographs taken of the boys during one of their summers together, he made an extra copy for Arthur - who promptly left it on a train. Why is Arthur killed off so quickly? I tend to believe that by completely omitting fathers, Magee avoided having Barrie explain his relation to his own. This says something in itself. In an Oedipal relationship, the father is only a pollutant. On stage. Hook and Mr Darling are traditionally played by the same character. Both have strong negative characteristics. While Hook is vain and cowardly, Mr Darling likes to keep up appearances and must take great measures to assert his authority in the house. Such further complexities would have added too much to a one hundred minute story. Perhaps this is why an authoritative personality have been assigned to Emma du Maurier - in one scene where she reprimands one of the children, Barrie imagines her shaking a hook.
George, Jack, Peter and Michael
J.M. Barrie is known to have based the character Peter on Peter Davies. Jack was only a nickname for John. And of course, Michael is Michael.
Whilst the latter is sombre and the other joyous, both Peters are splashed with occasional fury. The Peter Davies character is far from possessing a Peter Pan ‘heartlessness’, which, aided by a frequent loss of memory, blocks Pan from emotional pain. Peter Davies demands to be told the truth about his mother’s illness and to be treated like an adult. Like the book, where there are no conclusive morals to be learnt, the James M. Barrie character is never condescending. He is frank with the boy and explains that he is just as lost about the situation.
The film, like the book is characterised by a quirky mixture of horror and wonder.
An interesting addition is George’s refusal to be treated for an accident. He wishes for his mother Sylvia to be inspected by Doctor’s first. Throughout the film one does gather that a child fears emotional loss, or death, more strongly than personal physical pain. Perhaps, the concept of self-sacrifice is not new. In the original work, Tinker Bell drinks Pan’s poisoned medicine because she feared he would not believe her warnings and beat her to it. Also, a new explanation of Barrie’s text with regards to death, or rather its ever-increasing proximity may also be found. Towards the end of the film, a comment is made about Hook and the crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly. An elderly lady, presumably a fan of Barrie’s works, remarks "It is all the work of the ticking crocodile. Time is chasing after us all." Thus, one is shown that every reader can find his own interpretation. It is fitting that Barrie never explains much about his work during the film because that was his real attitude.
“I’m not Peter Pan!” “He is.”
Once again, I will not judge the film’s likeness based on the true course of events, but rather to its adherence to the original themes. The film, as one might expect, fancies a poignant ending, yet the future seems to yield calm waters. Barrie is Pan because he seems to have saved the Davies family by offering a break from the sombre realities of life – something that would be continued by his co-guardianship. Has a Barrie-inspired movie once again made the error of placing the real Pan in a fatherly role? Andrew Birkin, author of J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys offers a more interesting perspective. His eventual guardianship was closer to acting as an eternal playmate. He adds that perhaps Barrie was just another Lost Boy himself… not unwilling to grow up, but rather, unable to.