A number of years ago, myself and a friend directed a version of Peter Pan for a local AmDram group and, despite everyone’s best efforts, it was not our greatest moment. What became apparent was that it was extremely difficult to take something as well known as Peter Pan and do “something with it” to make it fresh and current. We had a great cast (particularly those playing Peter, Wendy and the Darling children), some ideas we thought would work well, but somehow it just didn’t gel in the way it should.
This appears to be the problem with any production or adaptation of Peter Pan, going back nearly a hundred years. I’m a great lover of silent movies, but someone would have to pay me to sit again through the interminable bore that is the 1924 movie version starring Betty Bronson as the title character. Part of this is because I can never get my head around an adult woman playing Peter Pan who, by his very nature, is neither an adult or a woman. The whole characterisation rests on the fact that he is a boy (both in age and gender), and to change that seems to lose much of the poignancy of the production. That said, I am fully aware that even the first production of the play saw Peter played by a female. Since then, there have been many film and TV adaptations, perhaps most famous of which are the 1953 Disney animation and the 2003 live-action film starring Jeremy Sumpter, and it has probably been the Sumpter version that has been most successful up until this point.
What we found in our own attempt at Peter Pan was that trying to do something new with it was irrelevant if there wasn’t a point to what you were trying to do. Considering all the versions there have been on film and television over the years, it could certainly seem that all variations on Peter Pan had been done and that the story should perhaps take a well-earned break from our screens. And then came along Peter and Wendy on Boxing Day on ITV1, which not only gave Peter Pan something of a makeover and novel twist, it also worked, and may well be the best screen adaptation to date. The two hour television film merged the “real world” story of a teenaged girl, Lucy, awaiting a heart operation at Great Ormond Street hospital with the fantasy world of the story of Peter Pan – prompted by her reading the book to other children in the hospital.
True, there were moments when the framing device became a little too dominant, and the opening section before the story of Peter Pan itself actually started was perhaps too long, but these were minor issues. The key thing is that the switching back and forth worked remarkably well, and even added a somewhat darker side to the narrative. Also well done was the way in which the two worlds often merged as the stories reached their climax, with the hospital ward itself barely disguised during some of the sequences on Hook’s ship – and, of course, how people from one world appeared as another character in the other. But the framing device also added a somewhat more sombre tone to the film, and thus removing some of the saccharine elements of the story that all too often are brought to the fore. Some even took to the internet to complain that the ending was unsuitable for kids – but that depends if you want your kids wrapped in cotton wool and sheltered from the realities of life. The framing device was clever, but the success of Peter and Wendy didn’t rest on this alone.
No, the greatest success of Peter and Wendy lay in the brilliant casting of Hazel Doupe as Lucy/Wendy and of Zac Sutcliffe (in what appears to be his first screen role) as Peter. Casting slightly older actors in these two roles allowed for the more poignant aspects of Barrie’s original story to be at the fore, with them both on the cusp of adulthood. Some Twitter users seemed to be frightened to death that Peter Pan should have a Yorkshire accent – it was like reading the comments of middle England had the BBC introduced regional accents into news bulletins in the 1950s. Quite what the same viewers make of Sumpter’s American accent in the 2003 version, I’m not quite sure. It no doubt caused fainting fits in cinemas as it was being shown. While there was still some of the middle class elements of the original story retained, what made the performances of the two central characters work so well was that both Lucy/Wendy and Peter came across as normal kids from 2015, and not perfect children from a Walt Disney-style land of make-believe. Here’s hoping we see much more of both performers in the years to come.
As Christmas television gets duller and more predictable by the year, it was great to see Peter and Wendy as an unexpected delight – and hopefully it will be one of the ITV dramas that will be repeated every year (if they can fit it in between re-runs of Lewis, Inspector Morse, and Foyle’s War). One has to wonder quite why it was scheduled to finish at 10pm, when many of the intended audience would have been in bed (especially when Jekyll and Hyde is on at teatime!), but I guess you can’t have everything.
Peter and Wendy certainly shows that there is still something magical about Peter Pan, and also something remarkably poignant. Perhaps it’s the kids watching who literally don’t like the idea of growing up (and who can blame them). Or it’s the adults who realise that life was much simpler when they were kids. Or perhaps it’s those adults who now look back with the fact suddenly dawning on them that, for whatever reason, their own childhood was wasted or taken from them, and that they’d do anything to get it back.