The boy who refused to grow up

December 15th, 2008 by The Administrator

What follows is a January 25, 2007 review of Peter Pan, posted to the long-gone BL blog known as Paiderastia.

“I always forget them after I kill them”.

Thus speaks Peter Pan of his opponents in the eponymous novel by J.M. Barrie, and in those words lies all the difference between the original novel and popularized images of it.

Like just about everyone, I grew up more or less knowing who Peter Pan is, but for some reason, I never read any version of the story at the time, and neither, to the best of my ability to recall, did I see any film version. I do remember seeing pictures and models of Peter, and thinking that he was immensely handsome and impressive-looking. And I knew he could fly, which fired my imagination.But I retained a weird gap in my cultural education, and it was not until I saw the 2003 film version of the book that I obtained any clear idea of what the story was really about. I found the film disappointing. As sexy as Jeremy Sumpter was in the lead role, I thought the film rather boring. I got the impression of a perfectly wholesome movie for children under ten, but not something that an adult could take seriously.And so I ended up writing off one of the great classics of children’s literature. I should have known better. We all know what Hollywood tends to do to classic stories. Some committee of politically correct bureaucrats get together, and before you can say ‘Little Mermaid,’ they have transformed a masterpiece of literature into some syrupy, inoffensive piece of fluff that you see, enjoy and then forget.Fortunately, I had the good luck to stumble upon Barrie’s original in the library a week or two ago, and on a whim decided to give it another go.

It was a revelation. I simply could not believe just how different the book was from the film I saw. What made this even more striking is the fact that the film actually stays very close to the main events outlined in the book. And yet it seemed like two completely different stories. In short, the film version, as we have come to expect of Hollywood, is a sentimental, bowdlerized version of Barrie’s original great – and often dark and disturbing – masterpiece.

What made the whole thing even more laughable is that so many critics thought the film version was actually quite daring, since it shows Peter and Wendy kissing. As if such innocent kisses amount to a sort of implied child pornography. In my opinion, the most disturbing thing about the film is just how utterly undisturbing it is. How the hell do they manage to do this, one has to wonder, and why?

The good news is that unexpurgated versions of the book are still, thankfully, available, despite all the efforts of the politically correct. Yes, indeed, Barrie lived in different times, and it shows. Violent battles (the sheer carnage is quite beyond belief!), boys wearing the skins of bears that they themselves dispatched, and a main character who is, to put it mildly, something of a psychopath. Even better, just as with all real psychos, Peter Pan manages to be both creepy and inexpressibly sad at the same time. For all his exuberance and love of adventure, there is also an embittered loneliness and alienation about him, and his tendency to quickly forget even very notable things makes for a confused, fragmented and almost schizophrenic personality.

That all of this was, at the time when it was written, considered perfectly suitable literature for children, tells us something about changing attitudes. I was also struck by how much more mature and even downright ‘difficult’ the writing is, compared to so much of modern children’s literature.

Whole encyclopedias have been written about what the story might tell us about J.M. Barrie himself. Was he a pedophile, or was he really completely uninterested in sex, as many who knew him reported? Does something of his presumed sexual self-repression surface in the novel? There is not really anything overtly sexual about the story, but I have to say I seemed to perceive a sort of vague, half-formed sexuality seething just below the surface, that you cannot quite put your finger on, but seems to be there all the time. But perhaps that says more about me than about the book! This is the ever-present danger in interpreting all texts. One has to wonder though, about a male character in Barrie’s time, in puritanical Britain of all places, who goes about clad only in leaf skeletons and tree sap, and visits sleeping girls in their bedrooms that way.

Many other enigmatic passages are found in the book. What are we to make of Peter’s reply to Hook’s question about what exactly he is? “I am youth, I am joy,” says Peter, and then proceeds to feed Hook to a crocodile. What exactly does Barrie mean by the ‘riddle of his existence?’ Is Barrie just whimsically making all this up as he goes along, or is he hinting at something deeper, or perhaps even doing a bit of both? Did he deeply think through the implications of what it would mean for a child to really never grow up, or is he just having a bit of fun?

Perhaps I am the one who is reading too much into all of this, but I found the character of Peter to be fascinating and disturbing at the same time. His cavalier attitude towards even extreme violence, his egocentrism, the way in which he quickly forgets friends, including even Tinker Bell, and claims ownership of other people’s ideas all make for an altogether frightening and unlikeable character, a sort of clownish but thoroughly terrifying Stalin in drag.

And yet, we end up liking him, and I found myself feeling sorry for him too, when he forgets all about Wendy, and years later visits her only to find that she has gone and grown up. For all the joys of remaining a child forever, there is also a terrible price to pay for it, and his confusion about just who and what he is, and his terrifying nightmares, the content of which are never disclosed in the book, strike a chord that is perhaps more relevant in these times than ever before. I found his world of arbitrary make-believe to be simultaneously magically attractive and repulsively terrifying.

The book has generated some controversy, but for all the wrong reasons. Mostly, modern reviewers are concerned about the somewhat blatant racism and misogyny here and there in the story, but Barrie after all lived in different times, and this is an aspect of the book that should really neither surprise nor offend anyone. I am much more fascinated by Barrie’s portrayal of a child character that is in some respects so empowered and emancipated, but in others still vulnerable and in need of emotional nurturing. Peter and his gang of Lost Boys are indeed very thoroughly lost. That Wendy so quickly becomes their source of strength is actually something of a feminist statement way ahead of its time!

But most of all, what I liked was the sheer complexity of the themes. No simple moral or moralistic little lessons here for young readers. Barrie’s novel confronts them head-on with a confused, fragmented, magical, beautiful, terrifying kaleidoscope of themes and characters, and they have to make of it whatever they can. What a far cry it is from the insipid, sentimental, propagandistic slush that passes for so much of children’s literature today. Peter Pan is great children’s literature not despite its content, but because of it. It is through confronting issues in fiction that we learn to deal with them in real life.

For those who have not read it (and I mean specifically the version written by Barrie himself, not the many expurgated versions that are constantly floating around), I can heartily recommend it.

One Response to “The boy who refused to grow up”

  1. ExclusivelyPedo Says:

    You know, if someone were to go around and ask the people around me about my sexual interests, they would probably report that I too was not interested in sex. That would be wrong however, it’s just that I could never tell them about the interest I do have. He may or may not have been a pedophile, but if he one was I doubt he would have told anyone, and I wonder if there was anyone who knew J.M Berrie as good as they thought they did?

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