I am an unabashed lover of all things Peter Pan. Aside from the sheer brilliance of the story itself, a tale that speaks to both children and adults, I have always been fascinated by the many permutations and iterations the J.M. Barrie’s convention-breaking stage play about a flying child. It is a mark of great literature that many readers over multiple generations can find new and interesting angles from which to approach an old story, and Peter Pan may have more retellings and alternate approaches than just about any other story. Through these retellings, a story stands the test of time. And time, in the form of threatening adulthood and the deadly Tic-Toc Croc, is the principal antagonist in the story of the Boy Who Never Grew Up.
Finding Neverland is one of the most interesting incarnations of the beloved story. Based on a play by Allan Knee, the 2004 film presents the story of how the Scottish playwright Barrie dramatically altered his life, challenged London’s strict social norms, befriended a family of young boys who inspired him, and ultimately penned this enduring classic in the face of deep resistance. It’s a lovely, touching movie.
In 2015, the story hit Broadway as a stage musical. Music is a powerful way to touch at your heart, and the show pounds its way into your senses near the end of the first act and never lets go.
If you know the movie, then you know that the London theater establishment resisted Barrie’s fantastical idea of a children’s play not necessarily for children. A nanny dog, flying children, and non-verbal fairies seemed like a terrible stretch to the minds of straight laced Edwardian England. They were right, to an extent. In the show, Barrie gets called out on his over-exuberant fantasy at the cost of anything interesting:
“You don’t even have a villain,” Barrie is told. From there, he suffers the loss of all that is important to him. He is alone. In his outcast mind, struggling with how to achieve this play that will eventually make history, he is confronted by the darkest part of himself. James Barrie comes face to face with his shadow self and his iconic villain: James Hook. Barrie’s alter ego tells him:
“No need to be afraid
Every little shackle deserves it’s praise
Time to unshackle all your chains
Don’t be so cowardly I’ll change”
In a dark and scary moment for both Barrie and the audience, Captain Hook tells his creator
“You have to look in your heart in your soul
You must find a hook in your heart in your soul
ANd search every nook in your heart in your soul
Don’t live by the book in your heart in your soul
We live by the hook!”
It was the conflict that was necessary to make a classic. With the darkness, the conflict, Peter Pan blossomed from a limp fairy tale into a robust and enduring classic. Peter Pan is made what it has become not by its fun and frolic, but by the creeping crocodile threat that contrasts with Peter’s playful denial:
- Peter Pan almost dies to end the first act. We go to intermission with our hero proclaiming, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
- Tinkerbell sacrifices herself for Pan and her light fades toward death.
- The Darling children are captured by pirates and threatened with their lives.
- The Darling parents spend the entire story sick to death at the loss of their children.
Tic Toc. Tic Toc.
Our lives and our magical practice are the same. We may prefer the easy moments, the fun and frolic of living in a state of Neverland-ish denial, but on its own that has no meaning. We must face the Hooks in our own heart and soul, for it is our struggles and painful moments – and perhaps ultimately our victory over them – that give our lives greater meaning. They create the awfully big adventure. Barrie needed his hook. Peter needed his shadow reattached. We need our pains to know how we’ve triumphed. They help us define ourselves and learn how to be, in the words of the first act finale, Stronger:
“I can run now so much faster
Now defeat won’t be my master
I will conquer the demons
I won’t have to wait any longer
I’ve got to be stronger”
There will always be difficult times ahead, but if classics can be written under adversity, we can also become stronger from that which does not kill us. Our Hooks give our lives meaning if we can find them.