How Peter Pan and Wendy captures the essence of story
I had the immense pleasure of watching Peter Pan and Wendy the other Friday when it debuted on Disney+. I wasn’t expecting to like it much, considering it’s far from the first adaptation of the beloved (yet admittedly problematic) animated classic, and the other recent live-action Disney remakes have been a little lackluster. But boy did I.
And it wasn’t the gorgeous cinematography or the incredible CGI special effects or the daring action—though all of that was fabulous—that captured my heart.
It was the character change and backstory that gripped me tight.
I read the J.M. Barrie book back in grad school in 2012 or 2013, and I was surprised by the dark themes and the incredibly unlikeable character of Peter Pan, all of which were mildly danced over in the 1953 animated Disney version.
Peter Pan is, quite honestly, a giant jerk. He regularly belittles and banishes his so-called friends, the Lost Boys, even once or twice putting people in positions that could lead to death. He’s arrogant, snarky, rude, and just not very redeemable.
Captain Hook, in the animated version, is more caricature than character. He’s single-mindedly focused on killing Peter, based on the need for revenge since Peter cut off his hand and fed it to the crocodile.
And Wendy doesn’t want to grow up. She wants to stay a kid and have fun, playing games and telling stories forever. For her, the arc of change is really about learning what it means to grow up and why it’s necessary.
What this movie version did was give each of these three characters fleshed out arcs of change and/or backstory…particularly for Captain Hook and Peter Pan. Below is a deep dive of my findings as I was “watching like a writer.”
[SPOLIER ALERT BELOW]
Arc of change: Acceptance/Coming of Age
Issue/Flaw to overcome: Doesn’t want things to change, doesn’t want to grow up
As I mentioned above, her issue to overcome was her fear of growing up and/or things changing. When we first meet her, she’s a girl of maybe 14 who is still living in the nursery with her brothers, playing pirates, and reading stories. But, her mom reminds her that tomorrow she’ll be leaving for school, that it’s time to grow up.
“Perhaps I don’t want to grow up.” She tells Mrs. Darling. To which Mrs. Darling replies: “You can’t stop time, Wendy. It’ll march on whether you like it or not. Just imagine all the things you would miss out on if you didn’t see where it took you. And all the things the world would miss if you weren’t there to do them.”
Notice how clearly that’s laid out! Right in the movie dialogue. We get what Wendy wants, and we get the whole point/theme of the movie in two lines.
BUT when she goes on a true adventure she quickly realizes that acting like children isn’t getting the Lost Boys or Peter Pan anywhere. In fact, they find themselves constantly in danger. Peter Pan isn’t who she thought he’d be either and they argue, especially as she values her mother—which is a problem for Peter.
By the end of the movie, because she’s forced to lead in numerous occasions, and forced to grow up and take control of the situations in order to save her brother and the Lost Boys (the children), she finally sees everything she might be if she grows up.
There’s a moving sequence as she’s forced to walk the plank, in which we catch glimpses of her imagining her future in school, and with friends and family, and finally as an old woman curled up on a couch—a beatific smile on her face as she makes peace with the idea of growing up.
Wendy accepts the idea of growing up because she’s forced to by the events of the story, but also because of the two Shadow characters, or antagonists, of the story. In the Hero’s Journey, the Shadow is an archetypal character who challenges the Hero, and is usually a reflection of the Hero’s negative qualities. In this case, the Shadows are Captain Hook and Peter Pan. The former shows her what could happen “when you grow up wrong,” and the latter shows her what could happen when you don’t grow up at all. And, quite frankly, neither option is particularly appealing.
And so, she chooses growing up: “I think that to grow up, why, it might just be the biggest adventure of all."
Arc of change: Static? Slight forgiveness? Realization that he’s an unhappy old man?
Issue/Flaw: He has been deeply, deeply wounded by Peter
Yes, we all know Peter cut off his hand and fed it to the crocodile. But, Wendy asks, what made them start fighting in the first place? From Peter we learn that Captain Hook was the first Lost Boy, a boy named James, who was Peter’s best friend. Yet, when Wendy asks what happened between them Peter doesn’t give a clear answer.
Instead, we learn what happened from Captain Hook himself: They were best friends until James began to miss his mother. At that point, Peter banished him from Neverland. James left, seeking his mother but never made it home. Instead, he was lost at sea, found by Mr. Smee and raised by pirates. “And by and by” he became Captain.
When Wendy asks why he returned to Neverland, he implies that he missed his friend. That he had fond memories of their time together. Until the crocodile incident occurred.
By the end of the movie, there’s an attempt at a reconciliation, but Captain Hook doesn’t quite bite. Instead, he realizes who and what he has become as a result of the anger and wounds festering inside him, and is defeated by Peter (for now).
What I took away from Captain Hook’s character arc was that feeling of empathy. Even though I haven’t suffered through the things he did, I can at least understand what was driving his actions. And that is, at the very least, what you must strive for when you’re crafting fiction. A character with a deep, emotional backstory. It made for a much more compelling and nuanced story.
Arc of change: Acceptance of change and growing up; atonement; the power of friendship
Issue/Flaw to overcome: His poor behavior toward others as a result of loneliness.
When we first meet Peter, he’s cocky, confident, and is that seemingly-perfect answer to Wendy’s “I don’t want to grow up” dilemma. In fact, he admits that he finally came inside their home when he heard Wendy utter those words to her mother. You see, he collects kids that don’t want to grow up.
He quips about how he always heard Mrs. Darling telling the kids only that it was “time for school” or “time for bath” or time for bed” etc. and implies that mothers are little more than nags that prevent fun from happening. So he convinces Wendy, John, and Michael to head out on a grand adventure.
But as the cracks begin to show in the glittering façade of Neverland, he and Wendy begin to bicker, especially since she challenges Peter’s edict not to talk about mothers, lest the speaker be banished from Neverland, as James was.
Why though? Why does Peter get so put-off when people miss their mothers? Well, we learn by the end that he missed his mother. Long ago, he used to live in the same house the Darling family now lives, and he would visit her and watch. He’d run away one day after a few too many nags and then couldn’t face the pain of missing her. Easier to command everyone forget their mothers than to face that pain. (Hello fabulous backstory!)
But what else does he learn from this adventure with Wendy? Well, when Captain Hook slashes him through the heart, his shadow disconnects from him and rushes off to find his friend Tiger Lily to get help. He awakes from the brink of death to her healing him with herbal medicine. Then, he must rely on her to carry him horseback to fight Captain Hook and rescue the Lost Boys. During this confrontation, he tries to make amends with his old buddy James. He apologizes for being a poor friend, and for hurting him.
He's forced to reconcile his poor behavior, which of course stemmed from his deep-seated wound of loneliness and missing his family. He realizes how much he needs his friends, like the Lost Boys and Tinker Bell, and even Wendy and James.
The whole thing is actually pretty powerful, and I recommend watching it if you enjoy remakes of classics. But again, I think this one worked especially well since they nailed the story—aka the internal character arcs. This movie was, without a doubt, about the characters first and foremost. Their issues, their wounds, the way they overcame the obstacles and became better people than before (even if just a sliver better, as in the case with Captain Hook).
So, what can we take away from Peter Pan and Wendy? Well, to put it simply, these screenwriters took a point (It’s okay to grow up) and ran with it by creating three compelling characters with complicated emotions and backstories, forced them to learn their lessons, in order to drive that point home. This is what you should be striving to do when you’re crafting a work of fiction.