Saturday, December 16, 2006

Peter Pan in Scarlet

In 1902, Peter Pan first appeared as a character in J. M. Barries "The White Bird." "The White Bird" is mostly about a child, Mamie, who gets lost in Kensington Gardens at night and interacts with the fairies; Peter is merely a minor character, However, this is truly his first appearance. Coincidentally, the confusion between Thimbles and Kisses also appears in this work.

In 1904, Barrie wrote a play entitled "Peter Pan, or the Boy who Wouldn't Grow Up". It was a hit, and the first appearance of the Darling children, Captain James Hook, and the first major appearance of Peter.

In 1911, Barrie wrote a novel version of the play, entitled "Peter and Wendy".

In 1929, Barrie gave the copyright on his novel to his favorite charity - The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. They have prospered from numerous movie, stage-play, and musical versions since then, although the strict amount of money that the copyright has earned for the hospital is kept a secret, as per Barrie's wishes.

In 2004, Peter Pan turned 100, and, in honor of this prestigious anniversary, the hospital held a series of celebrations and charities. Among these was a competition for authors to write an official sequel to Peter Pan. The rules stipulated that it must include all the original characters: Peter, Wendy, Hook, Tink, and so on. The winner was Geraldine McCaughrean, and the book is called "Peter Pan in Scarlet".

From a purely personal perspective, I was bothered by the premise of a sequel with the original characters; Wendy, Tink, and Hook are all dead at the end of the novel "Peter and Wendy". At the very least, Hook has been eaten by a crocodile, Wendy has grown up, and Tink has died. Why have another adventure with them in the Neverland when rightfully, it should be Wendy's descendants and some other villian, with some other fairy sidekick or none at all?

However, as you might have guessed, I was given the book yesterday and read it today. So; spoiler alert!

Mrs. McCaughrean's premise makes up for the folly of the contest. Wendy is, indeed, grown up, as are John and the Lost Boys. Tootles is a judge, Nibs a Baronet, and Curly a doctor (all as they should be). It was a refreshing start. McCaughrean has certainly done her research, except for a few apparent but minor mistakes (Girl fairies are white, boys are pink, and the silly little ones who don't know what they are are yellow; you can certainly fly without a shadow or Peter would have died in the beginning of the original novel). She even references the very first appearance in "The White Bird".

The tone, admittedly, is a far cry from Barrie's hands-on narrative style. In fact, I think that the author of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" comes closer to matching Barrie in tone (although in those books I find that often it comes across a little more heavy-handed). One of my favorite things about the original book, and indeed other things I have read by Barrie, is the very real presence of a narratorial character. In "Peter and Wendy", the narrator is as important a character as Peter himself, and reveals a darker, more adult side to the story that is sadly missing in the sequel. The delightful monologues about Mrs. Darling's love for her children, Mr. Darling's pathetic guilt over the loss of his children, and the hints and clues towards Hook's links with the author - these make Peter Pan something that an adult can enjoy as much as a child. Such things are regretfully absent from McCaughrean's sequel.

Indeed, much of the darker side of the original Peter Pan myth has been sadly lost in the sequel. This is something that has certainly happened over the course of time - think of the Disney movie and the modern musicals as compared to the book. Today, even when we try to make a "darker" envisioning of the Pan myth, we come out with the drivel that was the latest attempt at a movie version; sexed up, violent but without purpose, and not emotionally dark at all. Still a children's tale at heart, although admittedly not the kind of children's tale that you would want to tell your children. At least this sequel doesn't do that - it is thoroughly a children's book. Certainly, about halfway through, there is a transformation in Peter towards Jas Hook which might be due to Peter's mercurial, flighty nature and his inability to differentiate between make-believe and reality - but, surprise surprise, that too turns out to be all the doing of Hook and not Peter's own fault at all.

Another thing that we modern readers always seem to be doing is changing Wendy. A particular sentence in the sequel bothered me: "Without the right upbringing, girls can be so... domestic." The original Wendy was nothing if not domestic. Remember the temptation scene, when Peter gets her to run away to the Neverland. He does so by tempting her with, of all things: darning socks, making pockets, tucking children in at night, and telling them stories. "How we should all respect you," he says. And then her introduction to the Lost Boys, in which they ask for a "Nice, motherly sort of person" and she says she fits the bill perfectly? Remember the rather disgusting Father/Mother game that Wendy forces upon Peter, to his dismay? Who is Wendy to be complaining about girls being domestic?

Then again, this is another common problem for modern readers. It is thought, I suppose, that modern little girls would not be able to identify with a female lead who wanted nothing more than to be a mother. At least, that to give them only the example of someone who wanted to be a mother would not be fair to their personalities or would trap them into cultural stereotypes of a woman's place being the kitchen or the nursery. You have only to recall the butchering known as the 2003 movie to know of a Wendy even more distant from her domestic roots. So perhaps I shouldn't be complaining about a grown Wendy who is a motherly sort of person, as she shows herself to be, but has her illusions about not being domestic.

Certainly, in the end, Wendy decides that the thing she wants more than anything is to see her daughter and be a real mother. She mothers everyone throughout the story -- from the grown-up lost boys to Peter to Hook and Smee. She shortens the sleeves on Hook's jacket to give to Peter (although, by rights, she had already made him an outfit out of Hook's old clothing at the end of Barrie's novel) and does other such domestic tasks.

Another thing that McCaughrean does is add to Barrie's universe. It is no longer just the Neverland but instead also a whole other realm; a maze of lost mothers, a sea of a thousand islands, and so on and so forth. It brings to mind the adventuring in "Last of the Great Whangdoodles" rather than Barrie's sort.

I have a whole rant about Hook and what she did to Hook, BUT that can be saved for later.

The most important thing, something which supersedes all of the stylistic differences and choices that were made, is that she kept the joy and adventure of the Neverland alive. McCaughrean turned the Neverland into a place where adults can grow young again, rather than just a place for children to go and never grow old. For that, I thank her. She has done it in the style of Roald Dahl, JK Rowling, and other modern children's writers. This book is a fitting sequel to Peter Pan, but just as much a product of its time that Peter Pan originally was. My heart will always be with the original, which I will probably now start reading again. But this one may deserve another read, when I'm looking for a lighthearted romp through second-childhood.