“Hook” & the Real Peter Pan
Throughout much of Steven Spielberg’s new movie “Hook,” my 12-year-old son and I found ourselves in the same state as the character played by Robin Williams: struggling to remember. At one point, having returned to Never-Never Land as a middle-aged adult, Spielberg’s Peter Banning (a.k.a. Peter Pan) finds himself in the now-ruined home of the Lost Boys and begins dimly to recall that Michael’s bed was over there and John’s was there. My son and I were agreeing with him but trying to recall whether that was the configuration in the Disney version or the one with Mary Martin.
Clocks are the real enemies in the story of Peter Pan. Growing up is something undesirable, if it means forgetting childhood and who you were. Maturity is like a ticking crocodile sneaking up to steal a part of you (if not your arm, then your memory), leaving you a maimed adult. So my son and I resolved that before we go see “Hook” again, we would remember and find out all we can. You can rent, as we did, the Disney and Mary Martin versions, and if you bother to find out more about J. M. Barrie and his story, this is what you’ll discover . . .
When he was a boy, Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860–1927) loved “penny dreadfuls” (the swashbuckling comic books of yesteryear), the novels of James Fenimore Cooper (with their Red Indians) and Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (a story of castaway boys that has inspired numerous other British works, from Peter Pan to Lord of the Flies). Barrie’s mother often told him about her late son David (who died when he was young and was therefore always 13 in her memory), and of losing her own mother early in life so that she was obliged, like Wendy, to become a girl-mother to her brother. Across from their home was a brick wash house where the young Barrie would stage impromptu theatricals and which was, he later said, the original inspiration for the home the Lost Boys built for Wendy.
In his twenties, Barrie moved to London, began to write, and befriended Robert Louis Stevenson (in whose Treasure Island appears Long John Silver, another pirate villain and amputee) and Kenneth Grahame (in whose Wind and the Willows appears Pan, the Roman god of nature). In London, Barrie also met and…