The story of Peter Pan is a children’s fantasy on the surface but it resonates with people of all ages because the conflict of staying a child forever vs. growing up is both universal and timeless, which speaks to an enduring popularity that has lasted over a century. The original story serves as a cautionary tale for people who choose to ignore the reality of adulthood, but the world of Neverland and the cast who populate it have enough appeal to bring this to life as a pure Wizard of Oz-like escapist fantasy adventure as well, and there are many different versions of the story with various takes on these themes throughout pop culture history.
The origin of Peter Pan comes from a man named James Matthew (J.M.) Barrie who was born in Angus, Scotland in 1860, one of ten children in the Barrie household and someone with an active imagination from a young age. He and his mother often told each other stories to entertain one another, and especially to cheer her up after Barrie’s older brother David died in an ice-skating accident at the age of 13. Barrie and his mother bonded even more strongly following that tragedy, and his mother would eventually come to find comfort in the fact that David would remain a boy in her memory forever, never to grow up and leave her.
As someone who loved to read, J.M. Barrie was well-versed in the works of famous authors like Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Walter Scott (Ivanhoe) and James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) and as a student he even produced his own similarly adventurous plays, but Barrie’s ultimate goal was to become an author, and after enrolling in the University of Edinburgh, he wrote drama reviews for the Edinburgh Evening Courant before graduating with an MA in 1882, later becoming a professional journalist but submitting fictional stories on the side. After submitting one of his mother’s stories to the St. James Gazette, that paper’s editor liked it so much that he let Barrie write a series of stories for the Gazette, stories which would eventually serve as the basis for Barrie’s first few published novels and would help establish Barrie as a successful writer.
Barrie later turned to playwriting, which led to back-to-back success on stage with Quality Street (1901) and the comic play The Admirable Crichton (1902), both acclaimed by British theater critics. At the same time, Barrie’s most popular character Peter Pan made his public debut in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird, which was basically a series of short stories about the narrator’s daily activities in contemporary London as well as a fanciful set of tales within a tale set in London’s Kensington Gardens, where the fairies come out at night (In Barrie’s story, not in the real Kensington Gardens… as far as I know). This leads to the introduction of an infant boy named Peter Pan who escaped from being human and comes out at night to play with the fairies.
Peter Pan was actually created by Barrie earlier, in the stories he told to the children of his friend Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, children who Barrie would later look after and unofficially adopt after Davies died from cancer a few years after her husband died. The name “Peter” was derived from one of those children, Peter Davies, and the name “Pan” was derived from the mischievous Greek god of the same name.
Barrie would later write a play about the boy called Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up which premiered in London in 1904 and starred the English actress Nina Boucicault as Peter, beginning a tradition in which female actors would portray Peter Pan on stage (regulations at the time prevented children from being on stage but an adult woman was seen as more believable as a little boy than an adult man). This play introduced many elements that would become classic parts of the Peter Pan story, including the pirate Captain Hook (Gerald du Maurier), Wendy Darling (Hilda Trevelyan), Tiger Lily (Miriam Nesbitt), the fairy Tinker Bell (represented on stage by a circle of light) as well as the Lost Boys, the Mermaids, the Crocodile who swallowed Captain Hook’s hand and the other inhabitants of Neverland, the magical island where the story takes place.
This play was such a huge success and pop-cultural phenomenon that it would run for decades, long after Barrie’s death in 1937, with Maude Adams taking over the role of Peter Pan when the play came to Broadway in 1905, and a 1954 musical version starring Mary Martin as Peter Pan and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook that surpassed the popularity of the original play and won both Martin and Ritchard Tony Awards for their roles. That version gained popularity largely from NBC’s telecasts in 1955, 1956 and 1960 and several rebroadcasts of the 1960 telecast in 1963, 1966 and 1973 as well as a few times during the 1990s on The Disney Channel. A&E would later broadcast a new version in 2000 starring Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan and in 2014, NBC did the same with Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams of Girls and Get Out fame as Peter Pan and memorably starring a singing and dancing Christopher Walken as Captain Hook.
Following J.M. Barrie’s novelization of the story in 1911 with Peter and Wendy, the story of the boy who wouldn’t grow up has been adapted countless times in various ways in literature, on stage, on film and on television.
The first film adaptation was the 1924 silent film Peter Pan directed by Herbert Brenon and starring Betty Bronson. The film was well loved by both audiences and critics for its innovative special effects and it’s a classic now. In fact Walt Disney also loved the film and it inspired him to create his own animated version in 1953, which would become one of the most famous versions of the story.
Disney’s Peter Pan starred Bobby Driscoll as the voice of Peter and it took a lot of creative license with Barrie’s writing to fit better with Disney’s more lighthearted and comedy-focused storytelling sensibilities, but it was a huge hit and continues to have a lot of fans to this day. Disney would keep its version alive with the 2002 sequel Return to Neverland, a spin-off series of direct-to-DVD films starring Tinker Bell, and the Disney Junior preschool series Jake and the Never Land Pirates (2011-16), but it would also be adapted into animation by other studios, including anime by Nippon Animation in the Fuji Television series known as Peter Pan: The Animated Series (1989), the Fox Kids series Peter Pan and the Pirates (1990-91) and DQ Entertainment and Method Animation’s CGI series The New Adventures of Peter Pan (2012-16) which aired in Australia.
Steven Spielberg would also get a chance to visit Neverland when he directed Hook (1991) starring Robin Williams as an adult Peter Pan (sounds like perfect casting to me) who goes back to Neverland and finds his inner child again, and Australian director P.J. Hogan would direct a film adaptation in 2003 starring Jeremy Sumpter in the role of Peter. That film got decent reviews and was reasonably entertaining but it was mostly ignored at the box office.
Ever since then, most attempts to adapt the story into live action have been met with poor reactions. A Syfy miniseries called Neverland (2011) came and went with no impact, Joe Wright directed Pan (2015) starring Levi Miller, which was an even bigger box office bomb than P.J. Hogan’s film and a critical failure, Behn Zeitlin directed a reimagining called Wendy (2020) told through a different perspective but not a particularly interesting one, and Brenda Chapman went in an even more imaginative direction with her film Come Away (2020) in which Peter Pan is now the brother of Alice from Alice in Wonderland. Plus Disney, who never fails to think of a way to capitalize on Peter Pan, is releasing a live-action reboot directed by David Lowery that is headed straight to Disney+ in 2023, and I don’t know about you but I see the fact that it is skipping theaters as a bad sign. I would love to be wrong about that, but for now it does seem like Peter Pan’s golden age of cultural relevance is behind us. That’s what happens when you grow up, I guess.