Story of Peter Pan Author Touched By Fairy Dust
Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, stirs debate about nature of troubled author JM Barrie.
By Brian Pendreigh
In his day JM Barrie was Britain's top playwright, but ironically only Peter Pan has survived the test of time, with most of Barrie's other works virtually forgotten. And it is not just Barrie's literary reputation that has taken a battering. In recent years detractors have suggested that behind his one enduring hit lay an unhealthy obsession with young boys.
But this most awkward of Scottish period celebrities is about to benefit from a major Hollywood makeover. Johnny Depp plays him in a new film that has just premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is already being tipped by film industry press as a front-runner for the Oscars.
Todd McCarthy, Variety's influential reviewer, described Finding Neverland as "an impeccably made and genuinely moving account of how Scottish author JM Barrie came to write Peter Pan".
"Depp takes a cue from the soft lilt of his beautifully rendered Scottish accent to create a gently nuanced portrayal of an artist who at least this once found a way to transform troubled reality into an imaginative work for the ages."
Mike Goodridge of Screen International called the film a "finely-crafted period tearjerker, which will have women especially clamouring to see it" and reckoned Depp was a certainty for an Oscar nomination.
However he also predicted a bumpy ride from "historical purists" alarmed by the dramatic licence the film takes in its portrayal of the playwright's friendship with the Llewelyn Davies boys, who inspired Peter Pan and whom he adopted after the death of their parents.
In Finding Neverland their father Arthur is conveniently dead by the time they meet, allowing the film to suggest the possibility of romance between Barrie and their mother Sylvia. But she dies, just as his play opens. In reality Peter Pan opened in 1904, Arthur died in 1908 and Sylvia in 1910, both of cancer.
There was fierce controversy over the liberties Mel Gibson took with ancient Scottish history in Braveheart, but it seems on this occasion the experts are happy to have Hollywood rewrite the past.
"I personally wouldn't get wound up by literal freedoms," said Professor Ronald Jack, author of the book The Road to Never Land. "When you're dealing with an author who is not terribly interested in things literalistic and realistic, I think you have possibly greater scope to change history in order to bring the message across."
Andrew Birkin, author of the book JM Barrie and the Lost Boys, which was adapted as a BBC mini-series, said: "I don't think it matters. Provided they don't portray him as a paedophile, I would think it would be good."
Ingrid Turner, custodian of Barrie's Birthplace museum in Kirriemuir in Angus, said: "I don't really feel they've distorted anything. I think it's fantastic that Johnny Depp is the person to represent Barrie. I think he's absolutely perfect and he's going to make Barrie's image more positive, which is a great thing."
The son of a weaver, Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, Angus, in 1860, and worked as a journalist before moving to London and becoming a successful novelist, with A Window on Thrums and The Little Minister, sentimental tales set in Scotland.
Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, Peter Pan and What Every Woman Knows made him the foremost playwright of the age and a millionaire, with Hollywood churning out film adaptations by the dozen. There were at least four silent versions of The Little Minister before the Katharine Hepburn talkie in 1934.
But his literary reputation fell into almost immediate decline following his death in 1937. Most of his works were virtually forgotten, with the notable exception of Peter Pan, the story of a boy who never grows up and lives in a magical place called Neverland, populated by orphans, pirates and Red Indians.
More recently, critics, researchers and even psychologists have been dissecting the text and digging into Barrie's life, including his relationship with the tragic Llewelyn Davies boys. One died in the First World War, one drowned himself, while Peter, who gave his name to Barrie's greatest creation, eventually killed himself as well.
Birkin, who had access to surviving family members and to personal papers, raised the question of Barrie's sexuality in his book in 1979.
Barrie's wife's correspondence seemed to confirm long-standing rumours of impotence, though Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest boy, who was now an old man, told Birkin he "never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or paedophilia... He was innocent - which is why he could write Peter Pan."
But the floodgates of analysis and speculation were open. Much more recently theatre critic Lyn Gardner called Peter Pan one of the most "darkly disturbing" plays ever written. "It is the story of a strange, dysfunctional boy who refuses to grow up, who hangs around at a nursery window and lures its children away," she wrote.
"There is no evidence that J. M. Barrie ever acted on any of his impulses and most contemporary reports describe him as distinctly asexual, but his predilection for hanging around Kensington Gardens making friends with small children would today set alarm bells ringing and send social workers running to take protective action."
It did not help that Michael Jackson declared himself a Barrie fan, claimed he identified with Peter Pan, called his theme-park home Neverland and invited children to share his passion.
There are some dubious episodes in Barrie's writing, including what seems like a bath-time fantasy, but no evidence he acted improperly towards any children by the standards of the time and probably not even by today's stricter standards.
Turner said: "Barrie has this image of being a strange little man with various quirks and Johnny Depp plays to that, but in a positive way, whereas if someone else played it, it could come off negatively."
Attendance figures at Barrie's Birthplace have been running at a modest 4,500 annually, but are up this year, probably as a result of the Peter Pan centenary and the recent live-action film, even though it did poorly at the box office. Turner is hoping a successful film could have the sort of effect Braveheart had at the Wallace Monument, where visitor numbers more than doubled.
"I think it's just overall good news," she said. "I've seen the trailer for the film and I'm certainly impressed. I thought it was fantastic."
Peter Pan is now Barrie's most popular story by far and a favourite at pantomime season. The character first appeared in 1902 in a book called The Little White Bird, a fictionalised account of Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys. The play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, was first staged in 1904 and Barrie later adapted it into the novel Peter and Wendy, subsequently reissued as Peter Pan.
Disney's animated feature came out in 1953 and delighted later generations on television and video, prompting a sequel Return to Never Land in 2002. It was intended primarily for video, but was a surprise hit in cinemas too. Steven Spielberg offered his take on the story in Hook (1991), with Robin Williams as Peter and Dustin Hoffman as Hook, and there was another live-action version last year, with Jason Isaacs.
Barrie donated the rights to Peter Pan to London's Great Ormond Street Hospital, but the copyright expires in Europe in 2007 and last month the hospital announced it was looking for an author to write a sequel to ensure Peter continued to sprinkle fairy dust on hospital funds.