There is something really disturbing about Peter Pan. Not the one portrayed on Broadway by Sandy Duncan, and not the creamy-toned Disney extravaganza, but the dark, ambivalent text written by J.M. Barrie in 1904. I think others have already taken note of this. A couple recent films scrape away at Barrie’s enduring myth. There’s the live action remake in 2003, and the semi-biographical “Finding Neverland.”
At first glance, Peter, with his shirking of responsibility and love of make believe, is simply the embodiment of the irrepressible spirit of childhood. That the boy oozes sex appeal complicates the analysis. We’ve seen this before: the tousled hair, the bravado, the twinkling eyes. The guy who lights up the room, quickens your pulse, and is inevitably unconcerned with anything outside the present moment. The fact that in this case he’s roughly 13 years old is no cause for alarm. For in all his scorching sex-appeal, there’s no danger of Peter Pan having anything to do with the sex act itself. Until now.
The 2003 film adaptation (directed by P.J. Hogan) is the first to cast the roles of Peter and Wendy with real, live, preteen actors. With this move, all that Edwardian England and Walt Disney did to dampen their sexual tension completely flies out the window. A lithe, shirt-less hottie whisks you away from your annoying parents and asks you to play house in the jungle? This is the stuff of pre-pubescent fantasies. The Wendy in this film can hardly hide her titillation, but like any decent heartbreaker, Peter plays hard to get. Finally, near the end, she manages to trick him into a kiss that simultaneously thrills him and freaks him out (complete with a glowing red face). But I contend that Barrie’s protagonist is more then just a raging commitment-phobe. His aversion to sexuality is essential if he is to fulfill his destinyto remain a child forever. Barrie wrote in his notebook as he dreamed up the play; “P in loveyet tragic horror of matrimony.” The tragedy and horror come from the fact that (as much as we try) we can’t have sex without some of the other stuffcarnal knowledge, emotion, attachment. To sum it up: Maturity. And maturity is the one thing that could kill the nearly invincible Peter Pan. Love between children is pure and timeless, but adult love reeks of mortality. As charming as Wendy is, Peter knows on some level that she is his own personal kryptonite. After all, no immortality comes without a price.
At the end of the original play, Peter Pan shifts his attention from the now grown-up Wendy to her daughter, Jane. They fly off to Neverland together, continuing the cycle of flirtation, temptation, and heartbreak. As Barrie writes, “Thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”