Peter Pan and Wendy

Inventing Wonderland by Jackie WullschlagerClassic children’s authors tend to acquire a mythic reputation, often a sort of shadow image of their most famous creation. Lewis Carroll and his desperate need for the friendship of little girls is the most obvious example, but J M Barrie comes a close second, being depicted as a man who couldn’t grow up, who turned his back on his own failed marriage to inveigle himself into a household already equipped with a gang of boys, thus allowing himself to both be, and not be, a sort of father without responsibilities and boys’ gang-leader — a view backed up by such books as Jackie Wullschlager’s (mostly disapproving) Inventing Wonderland, Humphrey Carpenter’s Secret Gardens, and the film Finding Neverland.

Loaded with these preconceptions, I expected Peter Pan and Wendy, Barrie’s 1928 novelisation of his 1904 stage play, to be a sort of manifesto of eternal boyhood, but it turned out to be a slightly more honest and self-aware examination of that inability/unwillingness to grow up. Peter Pan, though a hero at times, is also seen as a distant, strange figure, more like a fairy changeling than a human boy, several times being described as heartless, and quite capable of forgetting Wendy (and Tinker Bell) as soon as they’re out of his sight. But as Barrie doesn’t seem to have sufficient sympathy or understanding of the other character in his book’s title (the only other really interesting character is Hook), we don’t get a proper examination of the alternative to Peter Pan-ism, i.e., growing up. Wendy, though she does grow up in the book, is made to feel guilty for the fact, even though (I’d say) she gets the better part of the deal.

Peter Pan and Wendy - Penguin Classics

Peter Pan and Wendy is a strange reading experience (to me as an adult, anyway). There’s a feeling that this isn’t supposed to be your introduction to the story — at the time it was written, Barrie could be pretty sure of your having seen the hugely successful play first — and we’re not really introduced to the characters (Wendy and the other Darling children have already heard of Peter Pan at the start, and aren’t surprised when he flies into their bedroom looking for his shadow), nor are we at any point being convinced of the logic (or illogic) of the story. It all just happens, and it’s the fun in telling it that is the main point. The story itself doesn’t have much weight — it’s so full of playful make-believe, there’s no sense of it going anywhere, nor of its having any logic to adhere to — but Barrie keeps things alive by the occasional bit of storytelling brio, such as when, after introducing the pirates and Captain Hook’s way of keeping them in check, Barrie says, “Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method,” making the story seem a much more live, active experience than most books. Barrie also has his moments in dramatising what’s going on in his character’s heads — the scene where Hook, thinking Peter Pan to be dead, is unable to feel triumph because of hangups from his schooldays, really adds an unexpected dimension of character.

The bizarre thing about Wendy being made to feel guilty for having grown up, at the end of the novel, is that, while she was in Never Never Land, she did nothing but play at being a mother to the Lost Boys. Peter Pan, on the other hand, has no need to grow up, as he lives constantly in a make-believe world of instant gratification, with adventures (in which he always wins) in constant supply. He is not so much the image of eternal boyhood as an ideal of a non-existent sort of boyhood (though one that boys may wish they had) which doesn’t have any emotional attachments. No mothers, no fathers, and no need of friends. (The Lost Boys are a constantly renewing bunch; Tinker Bell, devoted to Peter Pan, dies of old age after a couple of years and Peter forgets she ever existed.) The Darling children, including Wendy, take on this heartlessness while they’re in Never Never Land, not caring how miserable they’ve made their parents by disappearing suddenly in the night. On returning, they’re instantly forgiven, and herein lies the book’s main need for its fantasy element. The best fantasies, though they start out as escapes, end up having to face the thing they escaped from. Never Never Land is an escape from emotional consequences, but this continues into the real world after the children return, making you feel you haven’t really returned, and that this isn’t a truly satisfying ending.

J M BarrieBut although Peter Pan and Wendy only works because it ignores its own emotional implications, it can’t be because Barrie himself was unaware of them. His 1920 play Mary Rose could be seen as Wendy’s story with a more realistic twist, told from the point of view of those she left behind. In the play, Mary Rose is a woman who is twice in her life lost to a faraway fairyland, disappearing for years then returning having not aged, while those around her have. The second time, she disappears shortly after having given birth; when she returns, she pines for the baby she hadn’t finished nursing, but the boy is now a grown-up man, his mother all but forgotten. Here, then, the lack of emotional connection between a child and its parent which was, in Peter Pan, a result of a quite natural boyish retreat into imagination, is seen as the result of bereavement and loss, and so is perhaps that much more an honest expression of whatever it was that caused Barrie’s retreat from his own adulthood.

Jacob’s Ladder

Jacobs Ladder posterIn a perfect world, I’d never listen to, or read, film reviews. One of the best cinema-going experiences I ever had came as a result of an impulse decision to go and see a film I knew nothing about. It was, I think, 1991, I had a Wednesday afternoon off, and I just happened to overhear one person saying to another “…this film called Jacob’s Ladder…” Right, I thought, I’ll go and see this film called Jacob’s Ladder. Somehow, I even managed to walk into the cinema without seeing the poster, so I really had no idea what sort of film it was going to be.

Jacobs Ladder 01

I sat down (in a mostly empty theatre — a circumstance which added a certain efficacy to some of the film’s early scenes) and at first thought, “Oh dear, it’s about Vietnam.” I’m not a great one for war films, generally. But then it changed from being about Vietnam to Tim Robbins waking up on a subway train thinking he’s missed his stop, getting up and going into the next carriage to ask a starey-eyed woman if he’s missed it (and she just stares at him), and then noticing a drunk lying on a seat by the door. As he gets off the train at the next stop, Tim Robbins notices that the drunk seems to have a tail. I thought, “What the hell’s going on?” But, in a good way. And, partly because Tim Robbins’ character was also obviously thinking, “What the hell’s going on?” (though, for him, in more of a bad way), it soon became obvious that this film, Jacob’s Ladder, was the perfect film for me to go and see without knowing anything about it, because it was a film all about finding out what the film itself was about. And, as it was full of weird, unsettling, spooky, or even horrific moments (faceless men leering from a car that’s almost run you over, a heaving party at which Tim Robbins’ girlfriend seems to be dancing — or more than dancing — with a demon, a nightmare gurney-journey into the nether bowels of a rather unhealthy hospital, Macauley Culkin), it was, as luck would have it, just the sort of thing I liked anyway. Jacob’s Ladder has since become a favourite film, one that works just as well now I know what it’s about, but I always remember, whenever I watch it, how much I enjoyed that initial viewing for never having seen a trailer, or heard a review.

Jacobs Ladder 02

Ever since, although I do listen to and read film reviews (Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo’s podcast is a Saturday afternoon after-work fixture), I initially only pay attention as far as finding out the bare basics of what a new film is about, then, if I decide it’s the sort of thing I’d like to see, I add it to my LoveFilm list and don’t concentrate much on the details, unless it sounds like a real stinker. (And Mark Kermode tends to let you know if it’s a real stinker. Vociferously.)

Pan's Labyrinth posterA case in point is Pan’s Labyrinth. I remember seeing the mere mention of the title of this film in Empire magazine about a year before it came out, and instantly knew I was going to have to see it. After that, I avoided, as much as possible, any mention of what it was going to be about, and was deeply rewarded. Pan’s Labyrinth was, amazingly, so much more than I could have ever hoped it would be.

But with Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth I was lucky. Because I also thought, from a brief summary, that Sucker Punch might be a film I’d like. After all, it seemed to mix the escape-into-fantasy-worlds and psychodrama strands of Jacob’s Ladder and Pan’s Labyrinth, so how could it fail? Well, by being a loose anthology of sub-adolescent pop video fight-outs with no plot, sensibility, emotion or meaning, is how. I should have listened to Dr Kermode. He hated it from the start. I didn’t watch this film, I endured it.

In a perfect world, some benevolent, perhaps web-based, vendor of books, films and music would somehow, perhaps through analysing my copious purchase history, get to know exactly what books, films and music I like, and issue increasingly spot-on recommendations, so I could repeat that Jacob’s Ladder/Pan’s Labyrinth experience on a daily basis. But though I’ve been dutifully rating my purchases from Amazon, and plugging my reading habits into Goodreads for some time now, still, whenever I look at the sort of thing they recommend I find myself thinking, “On what planet is this what I might like..?” I mean, they haven’t even worked out the basics, yet. (For instance, that though I buy Doctor Who DVDs, I don’t buy the new series. Guh! And my buying a Woody Allen box-set may mean I’m interested in the man’s films, but that doesn’t mean I like them so much I’d want to buy them again individually. And why, oh why, can’t LoveFilm let me forget last year’s foray into Carry On films? It’s practically all they’ve been recommending since!)

Perhaps it’s that, if even I can’t define the thing I’m looking for in films, books, and music, in each of my many moods & wants — the best way I can think of describing it is “humanity, and magic” — how can I expect a computer (devoid of humanity and magic as it is) to understand?

Or perhaps it’s that adjective, benevolent, I got wrong?