Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
There is nothing like going to a movie, and seeing a story that you had once had the idea and the inspiration to write yourself. When I was in college, I had the good fortune to star in a version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s revival script of Peter Pan, as the storyteller (who was, for all intents and purposes, J.M. Barrie). I learned an awful lot about Barrie and the genesis of his masterpiece. It is a stunning, heartbreaking story, and for years I have thought that it would make a great movie. When I sat down recently to watch Finding Neverland, I wondered what would happen: was I going to be able to enjoy what looked to be a quality film, well acted and directed, depicting a great story; or was I rather going to nitpick and complain about all of the things they got wrong, or outright changed? The answer, as it turns out, is yes.
First and foremost, it must be said that Finding Neverland is a joy to watch; a movie in which all involved are clearly in love with the project at hand. Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, a successful playwright who has fallen on hard times of late, both professionally and personally. His last play has bombed utterly, and his marriage is falling apart. Things begin to turn the corner for him when he comes upon a family of boys in the park, where he goes each day to write. He becomes a friend and regular playmate of these boys, as well as their mother, Kate Winslet. Through them, Barrie is able to unleash his inner child and allow his imagination to run rampant, and through him, the boys are able to see that adulthood does not have to be boring, and have a man in their lives missing since the death of their father. It is as a group, the movie states, that the story of Peter Pan was formed.
However, things are not all simply pirates and fairies. The town begins gossiping about the reasons for Barrie’s attention to a widow and several small boys. Mrs. Barrie begins an affair with another man in their circle. The theater community, and especially Barrie’s benefactor Dustin Hoffman (who, great actor he may be, sports the worst British accent I have ever heard, with the possible exception of a certain Prince of Thieves I could mention…), think that his new play in progress is an unmitigated disaster in the making. And then there’s the matter of the boys’ mother’s cough …
Obviously, in a movie such as this, the viewer knows the end to every single plotline almost as soon as it’s introduced. That’s not why you go to see a movie like this. The joy in the Finding Neverlands of the cinematic world is not the plot, but rather how the director goes about taking us there. In this case, Marc Forster shows us two different worlds at once; the adult world, and the one ruled by children and imagination. Back yards become pirate ships, sticks become swords, actors become dogs, and a stage can become another world, where people young and old can escape whenever they need respite. Forster does a wonderful job of contrasting these two realities; staid and plodding for the one, vibrant and frenetic for the other. Even as the inevitable sob scenes come at the end, you still leave the theater smiling, and wondering if you shouldn’t try flying home.
And yet, having said all this, I still maintain that the filmmakers missed the boat with this movie. The story they tell in Finding Neverland is a beautiful one, but it is largely fictional. (It even starts off with the phrase “Inspired by a true story” (italics mine), which is the kiss of death for biopics). This could be my own pretension talking here, but I think that fictionalizing should be reserved for those stories that are boring. Like, if they were to make a movie of yours or my life, then it would be okay. In Barrie’s case, I don’t think I can forgive it.
Here are a few quick details, to illustrate what I’m talking about:
• When J.M. Barrie was six years old, his older brother died; a tragedy from which he and his family never recovered. His mother was especially heartbroken, and Barrie one day dressed up as his dead brother and did a pantomime to cheer up his mother, to predictably less-than-happy results. (This was mentioned in the film, but as a passing explanation for how Barrie used to dream as a boy of a place called Neverland, and so on. It’s really just a chance to let Depp and Winslet act.)
• As an adult, Barrie was impotent, and would refer to himself as a boy even then. (The movie hints that the Barries have not been intimate for a long time, even having them sleep in separate rooms, and he gets jealous when she begins to entertain the company of other men.)
• When he met the Llewellyn-Davies children, both parents were alive, and Peter was just a baby. In his first play sessions with the children, Barrie told them that all children can fly, until they grow old enough to know they can’t. He told them that their baby brother Peter could fly, and their parents put bars on his crib to prevent him from escaping. This story continued, until Peter grew too old for it; at that point, he became a fictional character, and Barrie used the Greek God of the forest to give him a last name. (In this one, Peter is already a fully-formed boy, played by a child actor, and is given all the best parts. The story of the play is created off-screen, and Barrie asks this Peter if he can use his name for a character for a play he’s working on.)
• Barrie did take possession of the children upon the death of both parents. In subsequent years, two of the children die in strange and unusual ways (not supernatural, just unlikely). Barrie is forever haunted by this. (The kids resist the fact that Barrie seems to be trying to usurp the place of their father. However, when they are given to him, all seems to go well, though the movie ends there.)
• Peter Llewellyn-Davies, as an adult, commits suicide out of his despair at only being known in the world as Peter Pan. (This is an understandably dark part, and I did not expect them to play with it. However, in the movie, after the play has premiered, Peter has a scene with Barrie, when he guesses that the play was about their summer together. When Barrie agrees, someone overhears them and exclaims that “This is Peter Pan!” Peter gets the dark expression that this child actor has taken many times already, and says “No, I’m not!” I wondered if they were going to hint at this underbelly of this story, and if they did, I was going to be impressed. However, after a requisite moment of silence, he delivers the second half of the line, “He is.” And points at Barrie. So much for honesty.)
As if to sum this all up, Barrie wrote himself, in a program for a 1908 version of his play: “Of Peter himself you must make what you will. Perhaps he was a little boy who died young, and this is how the author conceived his subsequent adventures. Perhaps his was a boy who was never born at all – a boy whom some people longed for, but who never came. It may be that those people hear him at the window more clearly than children do.” Read this, and you realize that, whimsical children’s story though it is, it is also a type of tragedy. Barrie was writing about his dead brother, the children he would never be able to have, and himself all at once. He hates Peter Pan with the same ferocity that he loves him. If you don’t believe me, here is one of the last lines that the Storyteller says in the version I was in, which he speaks right after he describes how Peter brings Wendy’s daughter, and then her daughter’s daughter, to Neverland. “When Margaret grew up she had a daughter who was Peter’s mother in turn, and she will have a daughter too, and thus it will go on, so long as children are young, and innocent … and heartless.”
The next time you see this play, especially the undeniably tragic ending, try to see the unending layers of depth and pathos that can be added to the story. Some might say that this makes it less magical; I say it makes it more so. To me, knowing these details allows you to see not just Mary Martin swinging around on cables, but it also lets you see the soul that went into it. Finding Neverland aspires to do this, but in this attempt it fails. It sacrifices reality for sentimentality, and settles for tears when it could get gasps. Don’t get me wrong: the movie is not bad. Far from it. It’s just not the movie I wanted to see on this topic.
In conclusion, if you think of Peter Pan as the story you love as a child with hook hands and alligators, and you want to see a very well made, if somewhat sentimental, rendering of this classic story, then by all means see Finding Neverland. You will not be sorry. On the other hand, if you really want to know what went into that story; if you look past the fantasy and see the drama; if you feel that connecting with Peter’s creators will give you a greater understanding of the story, then read a book and join me in my camp. Together, we’ll play on and on, until we wake up.