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How the fantasy of Peter Pan turned sinister

Disney’s Peter Pan Disney
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

“All children, except one, grow up.”

When J.M. Barrie wrote that line about Peter Pan in 1911, it was generally taken as the expression of a beautiful and melancholy fantasy: Children are so lovely and so innocent that it seems a shame that they have to stop being children eventually. Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, is the expression of the dream that they may not have to, and as such he is both beautiful and tragic.

But in our own era, the idea of a child who never grows up has a decidedly sinister bent to it.

Since Peter Pan’s EU copyright expired in 2008, reimaginings and remixes of the story have flourished, including most recently Christina Henry’s Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook. And most of those reimaginings, Lost Boy included, have tended to transform the eternally innocent Peter into a villain.

It’s true that we live in an era that’s particularly prone to giving dark-and-gritty reboots to beloved children’s properties (see Anne of Green Gables but with PTSD and sex-and-murder-filled Archie Comics), but Peter Pan seems to lend itself particularly well to this kind of transformation. It’s remarkably easy to recast Barrie’s “gay and innocent and heartless” Peter as a villain, and just as easy to reimagine Captain Hook — the former Eton student who is obsessed with “good form” — as a hero (see Once Upon a Time, The Child Thief, Hook and Jill, and dozens of other recent Peter Pan retellings).

You don’t even need to change the mythology of Neverland all that much — you just need to turn the setting of Neverland from a game, with game logic, into the literal truth. Then all of the darkness and creepiness that lurks beneath the surface of Barrie’s fantasy island, and all the sinister tragedy that wound through Barrie’s life, suddenly becomes legible. Because since the character’s inception, Peter Pan has been both fantasy and nightmare, both for Barrie himself and for the family of little boys who inspired him throughout their short, bleak lives.

Peter Pan’s two origin stories — both fictional and real — are immensely dark and sad

J. M. Barrie (as Hook) and Michael Llewelyn Davies (as Peter Pan)
J. M. Barrie (as Hook) and Michael Llewelyn Davies (as Peter Pan)
Wikimedia Commons | Asch jr.

J.M. Barrie began the story of Peter Pan in his 1902 novel The Little White Bird. It’s the semi-autobiographical tale of a man becoming enamored of a little boy who he wants to steal away from his mother; in order to befriend the child, he makes up the story of Peter Pan, the fairy/bird/baby who lives in London’s Kensington Gardens.

Peter Pan is a week-old baby when he leaves home, and he never ages past that marker. He believes that his mother will always leave the window open for him, so he plays gleefully with the fairies and the birds without fear of losing her affection, but when he finally makes up his mind to go back to her, he finds that it’s too late: The windows are barred, and his mother is cuddling another baby. Her love was conditional after all, and now she’s replaced him. It’s a portrait of Peter Pan that’s much more tragic than the iconic portrait to come.

The whole thing was based on Barrie’s own relationship with George Llewelyn Davies, a 5-year-old boy he met in Kensington Gardens when he was 37 (Barrie’s dog, the basis for Nana, ran right up to him), and for whom he nursed a deep affection. Barrie was soon to develop a similarly deep and jealous friendship with George’s four little brothers: John, Michael, Nicholas, and Peter, the last of whom would ultimately share his name with Peter Pan.

Critics and biographers have been arguing for decades about whether or not there was anything sexual about Barrie’s affection for the boys, and the question has never been settled to anyone’s satisfaction. Most of Barrie’s contemporaries described him as asexual, although he was married twice (he never fathered any children of his own). “I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone — man, woman, adult or child,” Nicholas, the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies children, remarked as an adult. “He was an innocent."

Sexual or not, the affection was certainly proprietary: After the death of the Llewelyn Davies children’s mother in 1910 (their father had died in 1907), Barrie, then 50 years old, altered her will to suggest that she meant for him to take on guardianship of her sons, rather than their nanny, and so fulfilled the dream of the narrator of The Little White Bird. The Llewelyn Davies children would live with Barrie for years.

But before he became their guardian, Barrie was merely the faithful friend of the Llewelyn Davies boys. He and his wife vacationed with the Llewelyn Davies family, and Barrie played with the children around the lake, creating endless tales of pirates and Indians and fairies. Those stories would become a book of photographs, ostensibly authored by Peter Llewelyn Davies and published by Barrie just for the family, and then the beginnings of the Peter Pan story in The Little White Bird.

In 1904, the story became a play: Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. And in 1911, Barrie turned the play into a book, originally titled Peter and Wendy but soon to become known as Peter Pan. That’s the book we usually think of when we talk about “the original book of Peter Pan,” although it’s several steps removed from “original.”

The Peter Pan of both book and play retains the tragic backstory of the Peter Pan of The Little White Bird, but he is no longer confined to Kensington Gardens. Now, he has all of Neverland to play in, and pirates to fight, and Lost Boys to play with, and Wendy Darling and all of her descendants to transform into mothers to replace his original, inferior mother. He is no longer a tragic week-old baby left to fend for himself, but a gleeful, delighted school-aged sprite, forever crowing, “Oh, the cleverness of me!”

He is, in short, no longer a sentimental Victorian tragedy, but an ageless fantasy, and the only true tragedy is that Wendy will inevitably grow up and thus cannot play with him and be his mother forever. Peter kills pirates and Lost Boys alike without remorse, but these are play deaths that carry no emotional weight with them: You get the sense that his victims will get up smiling and be ready to play again as soon as Peter turns his back.

The emotional weight all comes at the end, when Peter meets the adult Wendy, who is “helpless and guilty, a big woman” with “something inside her … crying, ‘Woman, woman, let go of me!’” because she feels so strongly that she should remain a child for Peter’s sake and for the sake of the child she used to be. By growing up, she’s abandoned Peter just as his first mother did, and this causes Peter to cry — but not for long, because there’s a replacement waiting for him: Wendy’s daughter Jane, and then Jane’s daughter after that. There are always more children to play with, and always more mothers.

Peter Pan became an icon, but the Llewelyn Davies children lived short and tragic lives. George died at 21 as a soldier during World War I in 1915. Michael was just shy of his 21st birthday when he drowned in 1921, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. John died of lung disease in 1959, at age 65. Peter, who called Peter Pan "that terrible masterpiece,” died of suicide in 1960, at age 63. Only Nicholas, the one who called Barrie “an innocent,” survived until he died of natural causes in 1980, at age 77.

Barrie himself died of pneumonia at age 77, in 1937. But he had been devastated by George and Michael’s deaths years earlier. He had come to think of Peter Pan less as a celebration of the childhood innocence of his young friends and more as a referendum on himself. “It is as if long after writing ‘P. Pan’ its true meaning came to me,” he wrote in a notebook. “Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t.”

Literalizing Neverland turns Peter Pan into a villain very quickly

Robbie Kay as Peter Pan on Once Upon a Time
LOL, remember when Peter Pan turned out to be the father of Rumpelstiltskin, who was also the Crocodile? Once Upon a Time doesn’t get enough credit for how nuts it is.

Perhaps because the circumstances surrounding Peter Pan were so very sad and dark, once you decide you’re interested in turning Peter into a villain, it’s quite easy to do so.

In both book and play, Peter murders pirates easily, without a care. In the book, we learn that Peter kills the Lost Boys too, either to “thin the herd” or because they are growing up, which is against the rules. He also periodically alters the Lost Boys’ bodies so that they can fit through the tree-holes that lead to their underground lair — and because he cannot tell the difference between pretend and real life, he will sometimes give them pretend meals and refuse to believe that they are still hungry.

The Lost Boys and the Darlings face profound danger throughout both book and play, but Peter tends to find the danger entertaining rather than frightening. He always saves them, but less because he wants to help them and more because it will give him another opportunity to celebrate his own cleverness.

If Neverland is an arena for games — which is how it began, with Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies children inventing wildly around a lake in the countryside — this is fun and silly adventuring and the deaths and mutilation and starvation don’t feel real. But if you begin to take Neverland literally, and to treat the characters who aren’t Peter and the Darlings as real people and not as props to have adventures around, it becomes extremely disturbing.

So in Christina Henry’s Lost Boy, the latest revisionist Peter Pan story, bloodthirsty Peter Pan isn’t so much the spirit of eternal youth, but rather a sinister cult leader. He lures young boys away from their families, periodically starves them, and then drives them to murder each other in a game he always calls “Battle.” The boys adore and hate and fear Peter in equal measure, but because they are alone on the island of Neverland and have no way of returning home, they have to follow him. He is their only protector.

None of that is particularly inconsistent with the characterization of Barrie’s Peter, but Barrie would never care to look at Peter from the perspective of a Lost Boy, because he didn’t create the Lost Boys to be characters with their own perspectives. He created them to be objects in a game. That’s how both book and play treat them. It’s also how Peter treats them, because Peter is a child.

The ability to think of other people as people, and not just as objects in the game of your life, is a characteristic of adulthood. For Peter the eternal child, thinking of other people as people is utterly impossible, and both book and play make that abundantly clear: Peter, who represents youth, is “gay and innocent and heartless,” and no one truly matters to him beyond himself.

It seems that when Barrie first conceived of Peter Pan, he found the fantasy of living as heartlessly as Peter to be immensely appealing, which is why he was able to turn it into a sentimental fairy tale. Later, he found it appalling: He wanted to grow up, to develop true empathy, but felt that he could not.

But both sides of the ideal of the selfish child — the fantasy and the nightmare — live on in Peter Pan. And that’s what makes it exceptionally easy to turn Peter Pan from hero to villain, and to see his author alternately as a beloved genius and as a twisted man who ruins children’s lives.