So, it’s been kind of a ridiculously long time since I’ve written a book review. This is largely due to the fact that moving and working two jobs leaves little to no time to actually sit down and read a book. However, I tried my best, and finally managed to work my way through J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy.
When I was still in elementary school, I tried to read this book. I bought a copy at Target as part of a larger goal to read all the books and stories that Disney movies were based on. However, to put it bluntly, I was bored, and put it down. So here it is over a decade later when I finally put it on my Kindle, determined to push through. As it turns out, the second time around I was much more intrigued.
I would like to preface this by saying that the book is almost nothing like the Disney movie most of the way through. Essentially the movie takes the basic parts of the first couple of chapters, abridges a scene or two in the middle, and then comes back for the climactic end.
For anyone who by some unfathomable turn of events has no idea what this story is about, here’s the short version. JM Barrie wrote a play about a little boy named Peter Pan who never grows up, due in equal parts to pure will and his residence in a place called Neverland. He meets three siblings, Wendy, John, and Michael, and decides to take them home with him. His biggest motivator is the bizarrely contradictory desire to have Wendy be a mother to his comrades, the Lost Boys. This is contradictory because every other sentence out of his mouth is about how terrible mothers are. Wendy won’t go without her brothers, and their adventures begin. Neverland boasts a range of dangers from wild beasts to Indians to mermaids to pirates, the latter of which are led by Pan’s arch nemesis, Captain James Hook. Though there are many, smaller adventures, the overarching conflict is the literal one between Pan and Hook; Hook is pissed at Pan for cutting off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile (let’s face it, who wouldn’t be?), but what really fuels his hatred is Peter Pan’s bottomless cockiness.
This play was enormously popular, and as a result, Barrie adapted it into a book. Now, I have never seen the play, but my mom saw an old filmed version of it from, like, the 30s or something, and says the book is pretty much exactly the same, which makes sense.
Now, I always loved the Disney version, but this was in spite of the fact that I had several issues with it. These are issues that I feel equally towards the book. Firstly are the characters, the only one of which I actually like being Captain Hook. We have Peter Pan, who’s an egocentric little snot in dire need of a time out; Wendy, who thinks Peter is the salt of the earth even as he makes it perfectly obvious that he doesn’t give a crap about anyone, including her; Michael and John, who can’t decide how they feel about Neverland, being one minute excited by an adventure and the next feeling guilty about being away from home (while they still remember); the Lost Boys, who are wildly unhappy being ruled by a boy who enforces dictatorial rules; and Tinker Bell, who never does anything but sleep and try to kill Wendy. Granted there are some other minor characters who seem a little more interesting, but they are hardly present. Take Tiger Lily, who is not at all like her animated counterpart. Barrie describes her as what basically boils down to a Native American Xena, stating that she “staves off the altar with a hatchet.” However, the character that he spends the most time developing is Hook. Most characters are either summed up in a pair of sentences or elaborated on through their actions throughout the narrative. But Barrie devotes an entire (respectably-lengthed) paragraph to the captain, pointing out his fears, motivations, as well as providing a physical description and insights into his background. Though nothing is overly specific, you come to find in this section that Hook came from a nice family, and that, had he not become a pirate, he might very well have been a mild-mannered, if somewhat melancholy, man. It is pointed out that this melancholy is what most often crosses his face, except when his temper flares, at which point everything but ruthlessness leaves him. Barrie also offers details about Hook’s fear of the crocodile that ate his hand; it apparently follows him not just through Neverland, but any other realms the crew travels to, and that this have instilled in him a fear so great that it keeps him awake at night and literally paralyzes him when the crocodile comes near.
As to the story itself, I have to say that I was ultimately underwhelmed. Barrie’s narrative begins so ominously, making allusions to the guilt the parents and nurse (who is a beautifully anthropomorphized dog) feel once the children disappear. He describes in an absolutely petrifying way the moment when Mr. and Mrs. Darling rush home to keep their children from being taken away, knowing time is short when they see the shadows of their flying children on the nursery drapes from the street, only to make the 5-second rush upstairs and find the room empty. It’s just so tense and tragic, because the whole time they knew he would be back (after leaving his shadow behind) and not wanting to leave the children alone, but fearing the implications to their precarious social status if they stayed home from a work party. The Darlings are very successfully portrayed as complex adults with very real troubles relevant to their time, as well as some that are timeless, and only too late do they realize what their solutions to those problems will ultimately cost them—their children. The whole story is peppered with scenes back home, where the distraught parents are driven nearly mad by their guilt, with the father choosing to live in Nana’s doghouse until they come home, and the mother refusing to close the nursery window no matter the weather.
This darkness is also present when the children first arrive in Neverland. As they prepare to land, the whole island grows dark and ominous, and this happens:
“They don’t want us to land,” [Peter] explained. “Who are they?” Wendy whispered, shuddering. But he could not or would not say.
I mean, seriously, what is this, Lost? Personally, this moment, combined with the Pied Piper-like descriptions of Peter Pan, had me curled up in a ball chewing on my nails with discomfort.
The disappointment comes when about halfway through the story, all of this creepiness just ends. The random moments where the island grows dark cease, the unnamed entity is never again mentioned, and Pan’s decidedly creepy undertone vanishes to make way for pure egotism and arrogance. The result is jarring, and left me feeling like I’d switched stories, or at least that the story I was reading had switched authors. I’m not a fan of unanswered questions, and I am still bugged by Barrie’s failure to answer Wendy’s question. And overall, seeing Neverland and its inhabitants portrayed in a darker, more realistic (for lack of a better word) way only to have it give way to something sugary by comparison was kind of a bummer.
Although, once I thought about it, it made a weird kind of sense. Here are these children who have only known the ‘real’ world. They are whisked away by a stranger so carefree and enveloped in his childhood that he forgets he has people following him to Neverland. They arrive in a place they had only previously visited in their dreams, and the reality of it, of this world with ferocious beasts and bloodthirsty enemies with no nightlight and mother’s arms to run to, is very surreal and understandably terrifying. But the longer they stay, the more time they spend chasing Indians and swimming with mermaids, the more they begin to forget their lives here. They can no longer remember their parents’ faces, or think of them as more than an abstract idea. The island becomes more welcoming to them. And when you think about that, and when you realize that he is reflecting that in his writing style, so that you as the reader, without realizing it, begin to feel the same way as the children, it becomes genius. He does it so subtly, even going so far as to only jump over to the parents within a few pages of Wendy actively remembering them and forcing her brothers to do the same. He is able to recreate the proximity to parental figures. When they leave, you worry with them how they’ll ever get home again, and feel their fear at seeing a place they thought was make-believe. But then you see the fun adventures and the welcoming attitude of the Lost Boys, and slowly you think, “Oh, this isn’t as bad as it seemed when we first got here.” And when those children land in their bedroom again, there’s a weird, surreal feel to the whole thing, until they see their mother again, and then everything feels as though they never left, even to the person holding the book in their hands, with the exception that they now have near a dozen Lost Boys as adopted siblings (who, as it turns out, all become extremely successful).
And so, while I found the majority of the characters obnoxious, and while this source material disenchanted me with the Disney version (largely due to its inability to so much as retain simple details, like which hand Hook lost; seriously, Disney Wendy actually corrects her brother about which hand it was, and if you want to follow the book, he was actually correct), the subtlety that Barrie employs in the actual writing to create a mood that is much more easily portrayed in the original format, and how successfully he employs it, made it absolutely worth the read.