Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Peter Pan Myth 1: Finding Neverland (2004).

There are some ideas that a critic would like to tackle because of the potential that can, or could, exist in them.  The trouble with these ideas is that if they are left alone, they tend to grow big in the critic's mind.  Sometimes, it seems, if the critic is not careful, the weight of these ideas tends to make them not just grow, but tower long enough to cast a kind of shadow over the mind.  It's what can happen when you know you have a pretty good idea not just for an article, but for an actual series touching on the same subject.  It is possible because sometimes certain books are able to get big enough to warrant such a treatment.  These are the tomes that have become standards.  They're the kind of stories that are familiar even if you've never read them.  They are the texts, in short, that have had a shaping influence on the nature and direction of the culture, even if the great majority are never able to realize it.  The philosophical texts of Aristotle fits into this category; Middle Earth and the tall tales of Mark Twain are another.  I think something Stephen King once said about this kind of work applies here.

He spoke of them while describing a certain category or type of author in his how-to autobiography On Writing.  I'd argue what fits these writers into such a high place on the great chain is precisely their ability to write such definitive texts.  "These are the really good writers," according to King.  They are "the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys.  They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.  Shit, most geniuses aren't able to understand themselves, and many of them lead miserable lives, realizing (at least on some level) that they are nothing but fortunate freaks...who just happen to...fit the image of an age (136)".

Peter Pan is one text that sometimes gets fitted into that category.  Everyone knows the characters, and the outline of the story, even if they've never read the book, seen the play, or watched a single of its adaptations.  The dirty little secret here is that perhaps not many have paid much more than a tangential form of attention to the whole thing.  The demands of life are too many, and any genuine interest in the arts in general, or the Pan mythos in particular, is too minuscule to be anything other than a coterie affair.  It's the kind of thing only a few nerds tucked away into a corner ever seem to really bother with.  It's awkward, considering literacy is one of the many requirement most folk will need to get on with reality.  You might even make a paradox of it.  You can't earn a living until you learn make-believe, it's history, and its environs.  It's a perfect natural, perhaps inevitable, state between a rock and a hard place.  The rock itself is the same reality that confronts you one day after another, the hard place are all the facts you need to learn to even use the whole damn thing properly.  Perhaps its the tension between these two facts that generates the quality we humans have decided on calling drama.  There seems to have been no other decent enough word lying around, really.

The story of the boy who could fly makes up part of the toolkit most folk will need to get ahead in life.  Like the billboard in The Great Gatsby, its always there, flashing its sign for anyone who cares to pay attention.  Even those who have never stopped to look into the story know its basic outlines.  There's the Darling Family, a pirate ship, Hook, everyone's favorite, Smee, and then there's The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up himself.  Where did they all com from, however?  Even if there is a sense in which story's just emerge out of thin air (though I suppose its proper term is just Imagination) there's always got to be "the person" around in order to make it work.  This "person" can be anything from a conscious inventor to little more than a glorified secretary taking down lists of names and make-believe incidents as they emerge from whatever the imagination is.

In the case of Neverland and its environs, the person was named James Micheal Barrie.  He was the one responsible for penning the story and cast of characters that premiered on the London stage on December 27th, 1904.  The play was enough of a success that the demand for a novelization soon took place.  After a long time of indecision, Barrie wrote and published Peter and Wendy.  Both play and story seem to be the original impetus for everything that most audiences have ever known about the Pan mythos.  The question is how did it all come about?  What were Barrie's inspirations?  Where did he get his ideas?  These are all very good questions, therefore it never occurs to the vast majority of the world to even bother asking them.  However, a few intrepid souls have made the effort to discover where the stories come from.  Some of them, like Alan Knee came away determined to try and dramatize the creative process that led to the birth of the Boy Who Could Fly.

Here's where things get just a bit a complicated.  It's obvious enough that at some point Knee, the original playwright was inspired to write the play that later turned into the film under discussion here.  The trouble I can't find a single scrap of backstage info that would tell anyone how his inspiration came about and what fascinated him about the subject matter in the first place.  I can't even tell whether or not we're talking about inspiration when it comes to the events not just at the heart of this play, but also the story that made it possible.  All I know is that at some point Knee's play was adapted into a movie by Marc Forster with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet as the two leads.  The film received a critical lauding at the time.  However, the question is whether or not it holds up after all this time?

The Story.

Mr. J.M. Barrie (Depp) is in a predicament.  His greatest claim to fame so far is as a celebrated playwright of the London stage.  However his latest effort, The Little Minister, has opened to a spate of lukewarm reviews and more or less tepid reception.  This has left his manager George Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) and the theater they are working at in something of a financial straight.  The only cure for a bad play in show business is to counter it with a very good one.  It sounds logical enough, for the stage at any rate.  The trouble is James has little to no idea of what comes next, or how to bail his career out its current slump.  To make matters worse, he's going through some marital difficulties with his wife Mary (Radha Mitchell).

It's difficult to tell if the family James meets one day is a good or a bad thing.  The whole affair occurred one day in Kensington Park.  Mr. Barrie had settled in for a good morning's loaf and mope when he noticed the child lying underneath the bench he was sitting on.  The young lad (Luke Spill) explains that he's been sentenced to the dungeon by his older brother George (Nick Roud).  In due course this informal introduction leads James to meeting not only George, but also his other brother Peter (Freddie Highmore).  In particular, Mr. Barrie is able to meet the boy's mother, Sylvia (Winslet).  As was said, it's difficult to know whether their introduction was a good or bad thing.  What can't be denied is that it all formed the setting for a kind of inspiration which resulted in the exploration of an undiscovered country, "second to the right, and straight on till morning".

An Unsuccessful Riff on a Genre.

This can be a difficult subject to talk about.  On the one hand, all I have to do is say or discover whether a simple movie is good or not.  The trouble is its one of those films that are mixed up with a whole lot of other historical facts.  It's even got questions of literary inspiration thrown in for good measure.  Where do you start with all that, exactly?  The best place I can find to begin is to remind everyone that this film engages in a genre that we've covered before.  Finding Neverland bills itself as a biopic.  It's a film genre that's relatively recent, thought perhaps it goes as far back as James Stewart trying to portray the likes of Glenn Miller or (for better and/or worse) Charles Lindbergh.  Anyway, the pitfalls of the genre remain the same.  The filmmakers run the risk of spreading the narrative too thin if they try to take in the entire life of their subject.  The best strategy remains the ability to focus in on those single defining moments that cement the main character's place in history.

That's the basic approach Forster adapts in telling his story.  In that sense he makes the wise choice of limiting the scope of his narrative to the subject of how J.M. Barrie met the Llewellyn-Davies family and how they in turn sort of helped him write Peter Pan.  However, there is a sense in which not all is as cut and dried as you might like it.  Films like Selma benefit from the fact that you can say that all we're dealing with a is just a swath of historical fact.  What Forster and his scriptwriter David Magee have done is introduce a variation into the formula.  There is a way in which the story they have to tell is not, in the strictest sense, grounded in any historical reality.  All you have to do is turn to either a basic history text, or any of the decent biographies of J.M. Barrie to realize that the events of Neverland are not at all accurate.  For instance, the real life version of Peter Davies, the young boy who shares the focal point with Barrie in the movie, was little more than an infant when the real life author began to make preliminary sketches for the play that would cement his name in history.

There are other instances in which real life history has stubborn way of not conforming to Forster's dramatic needs.  Perhaps the most glaring is that the Davies boys' father was in fact very much alive for a majority of his sons lives, fading away only when they were either at or near their teen years.  This is important for no other reason than that it places the budding romance between Barrie and Sylvia in the most ironic possible light.  If anything like that had happened in real life the most logical result would be a major scandal, and Barrie would go down instead as just a footnote in a long line of philanderers. All of which is to repeat that Forster and Magee have introduced a variation into the very concept of a biographical film.  Forster himself even admits to this.  On the DVD commentary Track, Forster and Magee get into a discussion of the "fact versus fiction" that underpins the entire movie.  What they have to say is very revealing about how they approached the whole material.

As Magee explains, "Our intention in making the film was not to make a biopic about J.M. Barrie, but to use the events of his life, and the critical emotional events, and events with his play.  Use those as a foundation from which to tell a story, as inspired by these true events.  (However) it was not necessarily accurate to every detail of his life.  Because that would have deprived us, as filmmakers, the sort of liberty of using our own imagination and our own inspiration.  And you're making a film about inspiration.  To be deprived of your own would seem a crime".  To which Forster adds: "Exactly.  And you could make an entire film about the break-up a marriage in this situation.  You could focus on this relationship and go through all the trauma of that.  It's dealt with in a few scenes because this is not the focal point of the movie.  It's not what we were trying to tell.  You know, what's funny is when I first read the script I thought okay.  And then I did all my research on the biography and his (Barrie's) real life, and all the details and so on.  I thought, you know, I personally wasn't interested in making a biography.  It was important for me to sort of capture the spirit.  How he was inspired to write Peter Pan.  As the film deals with imagination, I always felt that one should take that liberty.  Because I felt the film would probably be unwatchable if you really would stick to Barrie's true life story from beginning to end as a biography.  I wouldn't be interested in making it".  

There's a bit of irony involved here.  I can understand the viewers in the audience who want to just throw up their hands and declare themselves "done" with the whole thing.  The reason I don't lob a similar automatic criticism is because I'll swear I've seen another example of this kind of creative license in a film about a real life personality.  It was Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love.  It came out a while back, and was lauded quite a bit.  It's reputation seems to be on a downward slope at the moment, and part of the reason why might stem from the the film's basic premise.  There's just no historical evidence that Shakespeare was inspired to write Romeo and Juliet based on a brief midsummer fling with a young Gwyneth Paltrow.  However, I'm willing to go up to bat for it on the grounds that what matters in this kind of genre riff is the thematic truth such films are able to reveal about their subject matter.

While I'm willing to concede that Stoppard's main premise with his film is pure fancy, what makes it work is because of the way it lets us understand some of the dramatic aspects of the kind of writing Shakespeare was famous for.  Shakespeare was a writer of many facets.  He could be a comic, a tragedian, historian, and even, as they say, an epic Bard.  The aspect that Stoppard chooses to highlight belongs to that of Shakespeare the Romantic.  The reasons for this choice are pretty obvious when you realize that these are the aspects most pleasing to a modern audience.  They have the chance to a watch a neat distillation of all the best crowd-pleasing concepts of a writer everyone knows and, for the most part, loves.  The fact that Stoppard is able to place these ideas in such a satisfying dramatic package is, to my mind, a testament to both his skill as an author, and his knowledge as a student of Shakespeare.  In other words, there is proof out there that a thematic, and not literal biopic can work.  The trouble is I'm not sure Forster was able to pull it off as well as Stoppard.

I think there's a fundamental reason for the film's short-comings, and the fault rests not in the film's stars, but the subject matter it has to work with.  In order to understand the handicap Forster and Magee are operating under, the reader has to know a bit more about the artist who stands at the center of all the action.  The trouble is once you've got to know the real life author behind the entire story, you'll almost wish your paths had never crossed.

Nothing but Trouble.

To know the life and writings of J.M. Barrie is to get caught in a conundrum.  The sad truth is that it may be an endemic problem in the arts.  Author Stephen King expressed the nature of the trouble in a background note to his short story anthology Nightmares and Dreamscapes.  In that collection, King makes a telling admission as to where at least one of his stories came from.  "For years, since I first met and was appalled by a now-dead famous writer, whom I will not name here, I have been troubled by the question of why some enormously talented people turn out to be such utter shits in person - woman-pawing sexists, racists, sneering elitists, or cruel practical jokers.  I'm not saying that most talented or famous people are this way, but I have met enough who are - including that one undeniably great writer - to wonder why.  This story was written as an effort to answer that question to my own satisfaction.  The effort failed, but I was at least able to articulate my own unease, and in this case, it seemed enough (881)".  This is at least a fragment of an idea of the kind of story that Forster begged off having to make.

The conundrum of artistic talent or inspiration residing in a mind that is unworthy of it may not be a congenial subject.  However, it is the unfortunate context in which one has to talk about authors like J.M. Barrie.  The real trouble with a story like Peter Pan is that if anyone desires to know where all the characters and ideas came from, one soon has to make acquaintance with a very emotionally stunted and unpleasant personality.  The key to J.M. Barrie lies with his relationship with both his mother Margaret Oglivey, and his brother David.  It's an important factor in Barrie's history and personality.  The subject is briefly touched on in Neverland.  It's the one moment in the action where Forster allows real life to intrude on the film's secondary world.  At a crucial moment, Forster allows Depp to give the audience a crucial piece of information: "I lost my older brother David when I was Peter's age.  And it nearly destroyed my mother...She didn't get out of bed for months.  She wouldn't eat.  I tried everything to make her happy, but, she only wanted David.  So, one day, I dressed myself in David's clothing, and I went to her...I think it was the first time she ever actually looked at me.  And that was the end of the boy James".

One of the replies he gets for sharing all this is that he must have frightened his mother to death.  It's a logical enough response.  It makes a great deal more sense than the actions Barrie himself took in real life.  There's something about an admission like that.  It strikes an uneasy chord in the mind.  You get the sense of looking in on a scene from a very odd household.  What on earth could make a family act out like that?  There have been a number of biographies that have attempted to figure out the literary puzzle that is J.M. Barrie.  In pretty much everyone I've read, each biographer keeps having to come back to the same series of conclusions.  The real Barrie seems to have been a middle child in a crowded family.  Of all the Barrie children, the one his mother Margaret Ogilvy was the most psychologically attached to was this same brother David.

It's a mental phenomena that can happen in a lot of households.  The parent can sometimes form a psychological attachment to one offspring out of all the of all the others in the family unit.  This attachment is often more personal than objective, and it is just possible that the absorption itself is perhaps less than healthy for either child or parent.  The problem is that the fixation itself can often stem less from a genuine concern with the welfare of the actual child, and more with some private, self-interested goal of the parent.  In these circumstances, raising the child is not, in the strictest sense, the parent's main concern.  Instead any number of neurotic goals are substituted for common sense.  The challenges and demands of reality are set aside for the unreal world of the neurosis itself.  In Barrie's case, his mother seems to have been intent to push her own wish fulfillments onto her son David.  The fact that Barrie records no objections on his older brother's part leads one to conclude that a neurotic relationship was being established between mother and both sons.  David was content to be molded by Margaret, while James felt left out and neglected.  This is an overall unwholesome position for a family to be in.

It's a problem that must have been compounded by the unexpected death of David from a skating accident in 1867.  Barrie records that his mother took to bed and refused to be consoled by anything or anyone until he started to allow her to pretend that he was his own dead brother.  These are all descriptions of a highly unbalanced behavior.  If Margaret Barrie really was determined to live out her wishes through and at the expense of her son, then his death would have been viewed through her own disordered lens as a sign that life had determined to cheat her of her every wish.  If any of this was the case, then it's clear enough that now was the time in which professional help of some kind should have stepped in and begun the process of sorting heads out.  Instead, while the science of mental health and help were making inroads, none of them led to the Barrie's doorstep.  Instead, Magaret had to be coaxed into accepting a variation of her neurotic fantasies, this time using James as a substitute.  It may have pulled her away from an irrecoverable breakdown, yet it did nothing to addres and heal the fundamental problem.  The natural logical-illogical enough result was that young James had to suffer for it.

As Lisa Chaney observes in her biography of Barrie.  "All the evidence suggests that the heart of the whole matter does not in fact lie with David's death, but somewhere else.  Margaret's traumatic grief , her turning inward, away from all of her children including her youngest son, is best understood when we recognize that is was not, as James Barrie believed, through David's death that his mother's attention was wrested from him.  The terrible, unbearable truth for Jamie was that it had always been absent.  Margaret Barrie had never really seen her youngest son.  Her eyes were befogged with her image of David.  As a result, although the adult James Barrie found it too painful to admit, the little Jamie had always felt himself inferior, essentially rejected by his mother; the one person whose attention he craved above all else (21)".

Magee claims on the DVD that "This story is true about his older brother, and dressing up in his clothing".  He then goes on to call it a "horrifying moment".  When prompted a bit further to go into the "fact vs. fiction", and how he created the whole screenplay , Magee makes a telling comment about how James's childhood sort of warped him. "Well, in this sequence we are dealing with an actual part of J.M. Barrie's real backstory, his real life...I do think that moment had a tremendous effect on James Barrie as a child.  It is almost as though, at that moment, he stopped growing up, physically and emotionally.  He was a very small man".  Forster chimes in at this point: "I think he stopped growing physically when he reached his brother's age.  The exact age when his brother sort of died.  That's when he actually, physically stopped growing"

Barrie scholar Peter Hollindale is able to back up what the filmmakers are saying.  In his introduction to the Oxford Classics edition of Peter and Wendy, Hollindale observes, "There is general agreement that Barrie was a man who could not fully grow up, and with characteristic authorial detachment (something akin to the 'cold displeasure' of his dream) he came to this conclusion himself.  Barrie habitually converted himself into literature, bringing to bear a dispassionate and ruthless judgment, and his most callous act of self-portraiture is Tommy Sandys, the youthful 'hero' of Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel.  Tommy is a 'sentimentalist', in Barrie's particular meaning of the term - he is a human chameleon, able at will to shape-shift and inhabit other people's feelings.  His own feelings, however, are hollow and flawed.  Tommy is unable to love, unable to experience sexual feeling, unable to grow up.  He manages to become a popular and successful author, while remaining helplessly immature.  In Barrie's portrait of Tommy there is a strange mixture of yearning and detached, contemptuous judgment...One of the bitterest moments of this bitter novel occurs when Barrie endows Tommy's sentimental intelligence with knowledge of a truth which Tommy is utterly incapable of experiencing as knowledge: 'The only tragedy is not to have known love (xiv-xv)".

If you put all these pieces together, what emerges is the troubling picture of an emotionally stunted, and distant neurotic with at least some awareness of his predicament, yet also with very little desire to better his situation.  In doing so, Barrie conforms to a specific psychological type.  This type is often referred to in clinical texts as a neglected child.  "Such a child has never known what love and cooperation can be: he makes up an interpretation of life which does not include these friendly forces.  It will be understood that when he faces the problems of life he will overrate their difficulty and underrate his own capacity to meet them with the aid and good will of others.  He has found society cold to him and he will expect it always to be cold.  Especially he will not see that he can win affection and esteem by actions which are useful to others.  He will thus be suspicious of others and unable to trust himself.  There really is no experience which can take the place of disinterested affection (17)".

Looked at from this perspective, the problem and matter of J.M. Barrie is that he conforms to a very specific neurotic type.  Now, to be as fair as possible, it should be noted that the frontier and relation between mental health and the arts does not, by nature or necessity, have to be antagonistic.  Sometimes it is even possible for the Imagination to act as a rehabilitative vehicle for one's own mind.  I'm even willing to go a bit further and admit that I have read books, poems, or seen films where it was clear enough to me, at any rate, that this psychological curative function was at work.  Sometimes it can cause a good story to fire on all cylinders.  In order to do this, however, it seems like one condition or personal caveat always has to be in place for the vehicle to work properly.  Two things are needed from the artist, and both have a more than artistic use.  The poet must (a) acknowledge that there is a problem, (b) realize that only he can change or improve it, and above all, (c) the individual artist must have a clear mental desire to improve the personal circumstances in place.  Barrie may have been aware of the first and second part.  However, he was always reluctant to take the final step.  This desire to hang on to his own neurosis seems to have had a crippling effect on his artistic output.  He could have a good idea, and yet he could never quite deliver on a finished product.  The unfortunate fact is that this includes and extends to the play that made him famous.  It's a topic that needs to be examined on its own.  For now, it is enough to say that there are reasons for regarding Barrie's efforts as a particular kind of artistic failure.  I think it is this aspect, quality, or lack thereof in his works which also serves to cripple Magee and Forster's own attempts to invoke the author and his works. 

A Mixed Inspiration.

As Forster stated above, he was always leery of going near the facts of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan.  Part of it comes from the way Barrie interacted with the Llewellyn-Davies family, in particular his time spent with the Davies children.  There is an ironic form of good news involved in all this.  All the evidence says there is no real Nabokovian Lolita style situation going on at any point.  The trouble is you don't have to be along the lines of the troubled Mr. Humbert in order to be both a loser and abuser.  Forster and Magee never come right out and say it.  However it does seem they were aware of the fact that Barrie used the family in an exploitative way in order to compose his play.  It's an uncomfortable fact of history that seems to have factored into the way the filmmakers decided to sidestep history in the way they made the movie.

As Forster admits, the figures on the screen really aren't meant to be seen as their real life counterparts.  Instead they are more like ciphers for how the audience has come to view the play, it's themes, and the people connected with the making and writing of it over the passage of time.  The movie's version of Barrie serves in this case as a kind of stand-in for the sort of childlike sense of innocence and wonder that most audiences, and even a few critics, tend to attach to the material.  The script portrays Barrie as someone who comes off as having his head in the clouds to the average observer on the street, while also offering us inside glimpses of the vast imaginative worlds in his head, and the supposed wisdom contained within.  I  think most are familiar with this type of trope.  We've even seen it once before, in Milos Forman's similar themed docupic about Andy Kaufman, Man on the Moon.

The trouble with that film, however, was that in trying to play up the misunderstood wunderkind trope, the filmmakers robbed their audience of any sense of identification.  It could almost be said that they took a flesh and blood human being and somehow devolved him to the level of a Marty Stu.  I'm pretty sure that's the last sort of thing Kaufman would have wanted.  In Barrie's case there's a sort of double-disservice done.  The screenplay doesn't just make Barrie a uninteresting trope, it also does the same to the Davies family, in particular the figures of Sylvia and Peter.  The the first major issue of the film is that it's content to not let the characters be three dimensional figures that you can find at least some reason to care about.  Instead, all the major players are left to be nothing more than tropes placed on the barest skeleton of a thematic idea.  If Barrie is the visionary innocent, then Sylvia is the tragic love interest, and Peter is little more than the gloomy lost boy whose goal is to be moved from a sense of cynicism to hope.  It's a trajectory which is sort of puzzling as the ending of the film serves to undercut and counteract its own stated sense of purpose.

The natural result of all this is a kind of flattening effect.  When the characters are never allowed to grow and develop in any meaningful, crowd-pleasing sense, then the viewer is not left with much of a reason to care about what happens to them.  This makes sitting through the entire runtime something of a chore.  I can even remember at one point almost wanting to ask the character of Peter something like, "Don't you think it's a shame?  Wouldn't you rather go off and do something creative rather than be stuck have to play the dramatic stick in the mud?  At the very least you could have asked them to give you an arch that was more satisfying on a dramatic level".  I think that sums up my main criticism of the film as a whole.  The filmmakers couldn't find the right way into their subject, and hence there was a lack of inspiration that had to be made up for with a lot of cliched invention.  It's the shortcoming that's most noticeable on a surface level.  However I also said it was just the first part of what's wrong with this picture.

I think the greatest dilemma of the film is with the trouble in displays in how to tackle the very story that made Barrie famous.  In handling Peter Pan itself, the film often comes off as unfocused and not quite sure where to go.  It's almost as if the source material acts as a kind of stumbling block for Magee and Forster.  It keeps slipping from their grasp.  I've read some scholars argue that this is what they find so enchanting about the story for some reason.  For me, it just serves as an annoyance that ought to have been solved with some good old fashioned dramatic revisions.  The fact that Magee never bothered to do this is a I think down to several reasons.  On the one hand, he wanted to be respectful of the original Pan play itself, and so he made the dramatic decision to leave everything in its place.  The irony is that it was this very desire to do the play justice that acts as a hindrance to any artistic development of the premise.  Nor do I think this is entirely the writer's fault.  It is just possible that there are flaws in the Pan play that act as a stumbling block to some of the artists who try to tackle it.  It may even be these faults that ultimately trip up both Forster and Magee.  

I suppose the main problem of Finding Neverland is that in trying to capture what enchants us about the Pan myth, it accidentally telegraphs how confused and mixed our reception of the source material really is.  We know we like the story, yet we seem uneasy with it.  There is a form of entertainment to be had, yet our endorsement is also tempered and somewhat reluctant.  Perhaps the reason for this hesitation is because on some basement level of the mind we grasp a number of unspoken facts.  We know we enjoy what we see or read, yet for some reason it doesn't go much further, or not as far as it perhaps could or should.  There is entertainment to be found in Barrie's outline, yet some of us just can't shake the conviction that something is missing.  A vital piece of the puzzle isn't where it should be, and the work is lessened because of it.  Why is that?  I believe there are answers to these misgivings.  However, each part of the puzzle will have to be addressed in turn.  For now, I'm forced to focus in on the shortcomings of Finding Neverland, and what kind of constructive criticisms could be offered for anyone who might try to tackle the material in the future.

An Alternative Critical Scenario.

David Magee reveals on the commentary track that there was an original scene in his screenplay that never got used.  It involves the theater manager Charles Frohman.  He's walking around backstage and examining all the props that are going to be used for this new Pan play.  As he's sorting through all these oddments with a puzzled look on his face, he come across a copy of the script.  He opens it to the lines of Captain Hook.  He starts to read.  Then he looks around and spots Hook's wardrobe hanging on a coat rack.  He tries it on and begins to recite one of Hook's speeches.  It sounds like a rare bit of charm poking out from a sea of mediocrity.  The fact that Dustin Hoffman is in the film just sort of makes it all the better, and its  a shame Hoffman said he couldn't do Hook again.  That would have been sort of awesome.  However, this anecdote does sort of help one understand how a better alternate version of Magee's script could have gone. 


My major suggestion is that you need to start almost from scratch and present things in a similar yet different light, one that acknowledges the presence of artistic talent, while also knowing how to criticize the artist.  It's one of the few ideas I've had where I can imagine the opening sequence.  It would be just one big pull back tracking shot.  The first image you'd look at was the sea.  From there, we pull away until the coast is left behind for the green hills and farmlands that have made England as a whole its own literary spot on the map of history.  As we move away from the countryside, the towns start to become more numerous.  First their just quaint little English villages like Sarehole Mill or the Lake District, then the towns begin to grow a larger until we are in bustling business areas.  We pull away from these areas to be brought up short by what at first appears to be more wilderness.  It's a place with plenty of trees, foliage, and even a water course.  However, the illusion is shattered once we come upon a set trail or path across which nannies push infants in prams, and bicyclers and children run up and down the path of a lane in Kensington Gardens.  We pull away from the public park to find ourselves in London, and come to a halt outside the Duke of York's Theater.  Let this be the main setting for the story.   

Once we get inside the theater we begin to meet our main cast.  Barrie is very much a part of this alternate narrative, yet in some ways he's not entirely the main character.  That role would almost have to go to a figure known as Nina.  She's an actor with the theater company.  Mr. Barrie has just announced that he's writing a new play, and he may have a starring role for Nina in it.  Alongside Nina would be at least two other supporting characters, one of whom is called Gerald, while the other is the aforementioned producer, Charles Frohman.  The reason for focusing on these two actors stems in part from history.  Nina Boucicault and Gerald du Maurier were the first ever actors to portray Peter and Hook on stage, respectively.  In reducing the story's two leads to their first names, the same gambit as that employed by Forster and Magee is in play.  These are not the historical figures, but rather characters meant to dramatize themes and ideas suggested by the history of Pan's composition.

The basic course of the action could start out with Nina, Gerald, and the rest of the company cast being summoned to the Duke's with the news that Barrie is working on a new play.  When James arrives and outlines his basic concept for the players, everyone is sort of confused, and doesn't really understand what he means.  There is a scene in the movie in which all this is conveyed in shorthand.  It wouldn't take much to expand on that one moment just enough to give the audience an opening in which all this information is used as a basic setup for the story's entire premise.  The added kicker could be that after Barrie announces his grand idea for a fantasy play, when Gerald, Charles, or maybe some other member of the cast asks to see the script for this whole concept, Barrie claims it isn't written yet.  This admission leaves the whole company dumbfounded.  What makes it even stranger is the curious note of triumph with which Barrie makes his declaration.  It is just possible to include a scene from Magee's screenplay as an immediate  follow-up.  There's a sequence in Neverland where Depp's Barrie is trying to explain the nature of his ideas Hoffman's Frohman.  Charles has a real difficulty in grasping the nature of Tink's character.

Either way, the good news is Barrie does at least this much, he is able to deliver pages to his cast.  The bad news is everyone soon realizes they are little more than rough sketches, with not much to go on.  Barrie claims he knows this, and asks everyone to be patient, as the ideas are still forming in his head.  This does little to either excite or calm the nerves of the company.  What's puzzling for Nina is that she's been given the role of a boy with the ability to fly.  Another cast member is unfortunate enough to land the role of a dog, while also being part of a pirate crew further on.  Gerald seems to be the luckiest out of the bunch.  He gets to play a villain with a hook for a hand.  The confusing part is how is he also meant to play the father of the main protagonists?  This is another scene in which bits and pieces can be used from Magee's script, as it does go into the hassles of finding ways to realize Barrie's ideas on the London stage.

There are also a handful of scenes in Forster's movie that can be reworked in a more revealing light.  These are the moments when Barrie lets the Davies children tour the Duke of York's theater.  In the movie the children are allowed to play with whatever props the theater keeps in storage, and even manage to befriend some of the cast and crew.  There are just handful of scenes where this happens, however in the version I'm thinking of, these would almost become the main focus of the narrative.  Barrie does take the Davies boys to the Duke of York, however all they do in the film is just lounge around playing with the props in the background while Barrie has one of those conversations that are meant to forward the plot along.  I think a great of potential was lost in those scenes.  The single bright idea was to bring Barrie and his inspirations right into the middle of what was essentially his workplace.  However the filmmakers never did much of anything with the setup.

In this alternate version, the same plot point happens.  We see Barrie as he brings the Davies children to visit the theater as the play is being written and the actors are learning their characters.  The difference is this time Barrie is not the viewpoint character.  Instead, all that transpires is seen through Nina's eyes, with Gerald sometimes being an occasional second eyewitness.  These moments would have to be sort of pivotal, as it is here that the audience should be given hints of information about certain aspects of Barrie's character, and how it relates to his art.  At first everything seems harmless and innocent.  The biggest complaint Nina can have at the moment is that her character seems a bit ill-defined, with little to motivate her in the way of an actual performance.  All the while, Barrie keeps handing in revisions that often serve to confuse the cast, thought there are times when moments of inspiration will shine through on the page.  It is this, more than anything else that will allow Nina and the cast to move forward.

At some point, however, Nina will notice that something is bugging Gerald.  As a professional, she'll approach him and ask what's wrong, and is there anything she can do to help?  It is then that Gerald would reveal the piece of information that acts as kind of a big motivating factor in the rest of the action.  Gerald complains that he's worried about the way Barrie has been spending so much time with his sister's family.  Gerald is the uncle of the Davies boys (as was his real life counterpart), and lately their interactions with "Uncle Jim" have begun to raise eyebrows.  He's been getting complaints from Arthur, the boy's father, about how sometimes it almost seems as if Barrie is trying to usurp Arthur's role in his own family.  This has gotten Gerald a bit worried for his relatives, and he shares it all with Nina.  This is the first she's ever heard of it, and the revelation sort of acts as catalyst for her character.

At first she doesn't know what to think, or even how much of a concern this she be.  However, a seed of unease has been planted in her mind.  From this point on her interactions with Barrie begin to show the first signs of strain.  The irony is that even the play is starting to come together in some rough way, even as her respect for James starts to decline.  Nina is starting to get her own handle on the nature of Peter's character while Gerald is bringing a lot of his best ideas to the shaping of the figure of Hook.  Still, that note of unease remains  This is compounded when the Davies boys are brought back to the theater and are given the opportunity to interact with the cast.  At first it's all fun and games.  Then Nina takes it upon herself to ask the boy's how they like "Uncle Jim".  They put to rest certain of her worst fears, while raising more mundane concerns that are still just as important.

Nina begins to realize that the play she is in comes from the exploits Barrie has had with the kids.  She begins to watch him more closely, in particular every time he brings the boys to the set.  The more she studies him, the more it becomes apparent that while he does have a talent, there is something wrong it it.  This is because something is wrong with the writer.  His creative skills are somewhat corrupted, betraying a sense of indifference mixed with scorn.  It explains the difficulties Nina and the other have been having with the play.  It also explains Mr. Barrie's slapdash approach to the material.  The worst part of it for her remains the way he interacts with the Davies family.  Barrie shows no real respect for the mother and father.  The worst of all though boils down to one simple fact.  Mr. Barrie doesn't really care about his young charges, not deep down where it matter most.

This realization leads to what would be the pivotal scene in this alternate version of Finding Neverland.  It's scene in which Nina and Gerald are rehearsing the dramatic showdown between Peter and Hook.  The moment is in its rough draft stages, and both actors are having trouble making the scene come together.  By this point, Nina has a better idea of who Peter is as a character, yet there's still some blank space on the map that she's missing.  Gerald, meanwhile has managed to get a read on Hook, yet a lot of his motivation eludes him.  All of this is due for the most part to Barrie's insistent reluctance to commit to a final draft.  The action that helps all the pieces come together for Nina and Gerald is when Barrie brings the Davies boys backstage on final time.  He seems to be playing with them, yet as Nina watches she soon realizes that he is somehow able to dominate their time and attention without giving anything substantial in return.  This realization infuriates her.  Gerald, meanwhile is quietly disgusted by the whole thing, and more than just worried for his nephews.  Bad influences are in the air.

However, some good is able to come out of this observation of one man's neglect.  Nina is able to find in her anger the motivation that her character was lacking all this time.  She now knows who Peter is better than his own author.  It's a pity he'll never be able to realize her insight on a dramatic level, but who cares.  All that matters now is to set things right.  Her plan is so simple that all she needs to do is put it in action.  She interrupts Barrie's "management" with the boys by bringing up Gerald's problems with Hook's motivation.  She then announces that she might have a way out of this dilemma.  It's just an idea of hers, though maybe its best to act it out, rather than just talk about.  She wonders, however, if Mr Barrie would mind volunteering as a stand in just this once?  At first Barrie is puzzled, maybe even a little suspicious.  However all doubts are set aside when Nina suggests it might be educational for the boys.  Barrie then says he'd be delighted.

The Actress and the Author take their places.  Barrie even obliges by donning Hook's coat.  Nina tells Gerald and the boys to pay careful attention.  She then demonstrates her ideas by having Barrie choreograph the final duel between Peter and Hook.  At first everything starts out fine, the paces and hits are restrained and stagey.  Then, ask they continue their play fight, Nina asks how Barrie thinks the play should end?  Barrie thinks it should end on a note of heartlessness.  Nina asks why, to which  he replies with another question of what else is there?  Nina asks are the boys heartless?  Barrie starts to reply no, of course not.  Then hesitates.  Nina asks is something wrong, and then goes for a fencing jab with a bit more force than normal in it.  Barrie blocks this, and explains that it's just a shame they have to be adults.  "I thought you said it was children who were heartless".  "Well, yes, of course," Barrie replies, and then realizes he's stumbled into a trap.  "Don't you like children, or people for that matter?" Nina asks.  Barrie announces that he's had enough pretend for one day.  At which point Nina goes total def-con 5 and launches an all out attack on Barrie.

This is no mere stage fight.  This is an actress giving it her all.  At first Barrie is caught off guard.  Nina is able to to get under his skin where he lives by asking the question: "What's a matter James?  Don't you like to play let's pretend?  Isn't that what you're good at?"  The meaning of her words couldn't be more clear.  At that point something either snaps or clicks in Barrie.  It should be something you can see in a turn of the eyes.  An invisilbe mask gets tossed aside and all that's left is what's underneath.  This causes Barrie to show his own true colors by trying to fight back for real.  In that moment, he sort of epitomizes all that Hook stands for (a fact which is not lost on Gerald as he watches the match unfold).  There's a bit of irony involved in that both swords are props, yet the malice behind at least one of the characters is all too genuine.  From there its a simple question of how long to let the fight drag on.  It can be as simple as a few minor hacks and slashes, or you can go full swashbuckler and even let the characters duel all the way up to the theater rafters.

Either way, two things should become clear pretty fast.  The first is that Barrie is exposed for all the witnesses to see.  The second is that while he might put up a good game, Nina (and perhaps Peter?) is the better fighter and player in this instance.  For one thing she knows to keep her distance while constantly pressing her advantage.  For another, she's got all the drive and power that can only come from a sense of wrongs needing to be righted.  It's this sense of not being able to quit until the truth is out that sooner or later begins to sink in for Barrie.  He starts to realize this is no mere Drury Lane actress he's up against.  It's some fiend that's fighting him; a flying devil!  At last Nina is able to disarm Barrie and beat him down.  In desperation he asks Nina what's gotten into her.  Here Nina stops the charade and offers, by way of an answer, youth, joy, innocence, experience, wisdom.  She then leans in close to whisper just for him: "You know, all the things you'll never be".

There's a brief pause, and then George Davies tugs on the sleeve of Gerald, who's been watching the whole thing in fascination.  He's an actor whose found all the motivation he could ask for in that moment.  George says he'd rather leave now.  It's telling that he doesn't ask "Uncle Jim", but their genuine relative to take them home.  Gerald is all too happy to oblige.  When Barrie and Nina are left alone in the theater she quickly removes her costume and announces she uncertain if she's right for this play.  She apologizes for the inconvenience this will cause.  However, there's just too many false notes to her liking.  She'll tender her resignation sometime tomorrow.  She leaves Barrie alone with his jury-rigged world lying all around him.

The next morning Nina is at her flat, when there's a knock on the door.  It's Mr. Barrie.  He's come to ask her if she'll reconsider and still take the part?  Nina, of course, is very reluctant.  Barrie asks her why?  Nina tells him flat out that it's difficult to work for someone who doesn't show or have much in the way of respect for others, least of all himself.  It is here that it is possible to use another aspect of Magee's script.  This is the plot point where Barrie can reveal the story between David, his mother, and himself.  It can be the one other moment where he displays an emotion that is genuine.  The difference is that in this version the listener, while sympathetic to a degree, is not about to let him off the hook (in a manner of speaking).  Nina upbraids him for using that as an excuse to run from, not adulthood, so much as just real life in general.

Barrie asks if there's any way he can make it up to her?  Nina is very skeptical that he is capable of offering much in the way of anything.  In her experience, guys like him are often made of not else except a long string of empty and broken promises.  Barrie asks if she would at least look at the script?  He's written the ending, and would like to know what she thinks of it.  At first Nina is hesitant.  Then curiosity gets the better of her.  She picks up the pages and begins to read.  As she goes through the lines, she begins to ask questions.  What made Barrie decide to go in this direction?  Why this choice of dialogue?  How does this line reading sound?  Together, they begin to make corrections and start to flesh the script out.

Whether its anti-climactic or not, it's the best note I could find to end on.  Taken altogether, it sort of places a different spin on the concept behind Forster's production.  It tells a fictional story while also managing, with any luck, to get closer at the truth.  Whether or not its any good in itself is something reader will have to judge.  This is merely an idea or suggestion of what we could have been given.  My own ideas about the film we are stuck with in real life are pretty cut and dried.

Conclusion: An Intriguing Premise with not enough Development.

This film was something of a big hit when it came out way back when.  I have to admit I'm not sure why, after repeated viewings of it.  It think it might be on account of its catering to whatever critical sensibilities were in vogue at the time.  If that's the case, then its success has got to be chalked up to its being the correct flavor of the month at the right time.  Looking at it now, it's not that the film shows any kind of age.  It's more like it has a good, or at least somewhat interesting idea on its hands, and it almost has nothing to talk about.

Again, I think this is down to how the filmmakers felt about approaching the material.  J.M. Barrie presents a troubled, if not outright unsavory character for anyone who would like to tackle his story on film.  Forster and Magee's hesitance is a good indication that they were more than aware of the more problematic aspects of the story.  They tried to compensate by taking the cast of history and putting a fictional spin on things.  It's a valiant effort, so far as it goes.  However, I'm not real sure it comes off to any great effect.  The main reason for this is pretty simple once you get right down to it.  The filmmakers could never bring themselves to warm up to their main character.  They tried to give Barrie the benefit of the doubt.  However, the facts of history just kept getting in the way.  They knew they had a troubled soul on their hands, and not a very likable one.

This left them in one hell of a quandary.  They had already signed on to shooting a script based on the life of the writer of Peter Pan.  However, there's just no warming up to this guy.  Neither felt they could make a good film unless they found a way into the character enough to make them care about what happens to him.  This is a kiss of death for any dramatic undertaking.  It also left the writer and director with the question of how to make a biopic when the real life of the author just wouldn't do.  It's a disconcerting problem for any creative person to find himself in.  In the end, the best they could do was to cook up the film we got left with as a the best form of compromise.  It is neither history, nor is it entirely make-believe.  It's not this blending of the genres that's the problem.  The trouble is that even when they tried their best it was still impossible to either identify with Barrie, even as a fictional character, or the basic scenario of how he came to write the story of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up.

This to me is somewhat unique.  One of the reasons for this blog's existence is to examine where the stories come from.  My own experience is that in 9 times out of 10, trying to find the answers to these questions is just as exciting (if not more so) as discovering the original texts for the first time.  In some ways, Barrie is the first real anomaly I've encountered on this particular voyage.  It's like reading a standard story of how a great text came to be, only somethings off.  All the essential players for a great how-it-was-written story are in place, yet the action and the characterization just seem wrong.  They're off somehow.  It doesn't help that this can also color one's reception of the text.  The worst thing that could happen is for the reader to go back to the source text, and discover it's just not all it's cracked up to be.  That's been my unfortunate experience.  It sounds very much like Forster and Magee had a similar run-in with the author and the text.

This all comes together to make for a very disappointing film.  I don't doubt the filmmakers hearts where in the right place.  It's just too bad the same can't be said for their material.  In the end, Finding Neverland is a film constricted by the faults of real life.  This is a shame, as there still could have been ways of presenting the material that was both entertaining while also capturing a truth about the real life events behind the making of Peter Pan.  Then again, it is an open question in my mind about whether audiences would care to stomach such affairs?  It is just possible that the answer is very much no.  That's a shame, however there is at least some good news to be had.  This series is far from over.  In time, there will be more to discuss about this particular myth and how it has evolved over the years.  With any luck, there will be something worth preserving.  As for the film, it is there for anyone to watch.  However, I wouldn't expect much going in.  Until next time, don't stop dreaming.  

2 comments:

  1. (1) I went to see this when it came out, and thought it was alright. I don't remember much of anything about it, though, which is par for the course.

    (2) The comparison with "Shakespeare in Love" is a good one. My memory of that one has faded as well, but in that case I remember liking the movie quite a bit. As I've said before, I also hold on to a grudge against it for winning the Oscar that ought to have gone to "Saving Private Ryan," but that's not something to hold against the movie itself.

    I think that the key is inspiration. Sure, you can approach these stories and storytellers which are in the pantheon of greats, but if you do then you had better bring a damn strong level of talent with you, and even that will only get you so far; if there's no actual inspiration at hand, you're dead in the water.

    It is inevitable, by the way, that King himself will eventually be subjected to this kind of artistic reimagining of his process. I can only hope that a King-level talent will be the one to take it on.

    (3) I'd forgotten all of that about Barrie's brother. I guess that'd mess a fellow up, especially if (as is likely the case) he was already a little bit off. Then again, who isn't at least a little bit off? Nobody I know.

    (4) "The filmmakers couldn't find the right way into their subject, and hence there was a lack of inspiration that had to be made up for with a lot of cliched invention. It's the shortcoming that's most noticeable on a surface level." -- That's a recipe for mediocrity, alright.

    (5) "In handling Peter Pan itself, the film often comes off as unfocused and not quite sure where to go. It's almost as if the source material acts as a kind of stumbling block for Magee and Forster. It keeps slipping from their grasp." -- That rings a bell in my memory; I remember feeling the same. And it makes me wonder, why would you not ensure that you'd cracked that code before making this movie? It might come down to their thinking they had cracked it, in which case they had no business being allowed to make the movie.

    Ah, well! They can't all be timeless classics. Very few can be, actually.

    (6) Man, I just had an idea. A pointless one, but still. What if Dustin Hoffman had played Barrie rather than Depp?

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    1. (1) I first heard of this movie from a review by Roger Ebert back when it first came out. I filed it away and didn't come back to it till ages later. In retrospect, I guess I was right to simply make a note of it and dismiss all the hype.

      (2) Wow. Good gosh, I never even considered that King would get a similar treatment some day. I think that's down to the fact that I just have such a difficult time believing he's the kind of author who can lend himself to that type of story. If I had to say, I'd guess that Rom Com about the King inspired director you brought up once is as close as you can get without falling from the safety net.

      (4)(5)Like I say, though. It's the rare case where I'm mostly inclined to go easier than usual on the filmmakers themselves. I think it's correct that they didn't "crack the code", however I still say its less for a lack of trying more than it is the source material wouldn't allow them to do so without going to some pretty family unfriendly places. Hence they just had to back off and settle for second best.

      (6) That does sound like an interesting idea. Hoffman himself appears to be a very big "Pan" fan, himself. Which may explain why he was in both "Hook" and this film. I suppose I can kind of see him working in that role. Though I also wonder how he can play it in a way that doesn't up the creepy factor in any way. All I know is I'm just sorry he wouldn't agree to play Hook one last time, even if only for less than a minute.

      ChrisC

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