historical background on James Barrie
praising Depp and the film
All the King's Men
The Great Raid
Kingdom of Heaven
Master and Commander
Memoirs of a Geisha
Passion of the Christ
Pirates of the Caribbean
Pride and Prejudice
Walk the Line
Director Marc Forster's follow-up to Monster's Ball is Finding
Neverland,a tale of inspriration and fantasy inspired by the
life of James Barrie (played by Johnny Depp), the author of Peter
Finding Neverland got excellent reviews, and two
key Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and Best Actor (Johnny Depp.)
Here's my column, appearing in newspapers in November, 2004.
"Inspired by True Events" reads the statement that opens
Finding Neverland. An ordinary enough caption, but in this
case, wonderfully apt. The film depicts playwright J. M. Barrie's
inspired creation of "Peter Pan" in turn of the century
London. Finding Neverland tries to show something often too
intangible to be caught and dissected in the historical record -the
mysterious, meandering paths of creative imagination.
Don't look for absolute historical truth about Barrie's life in
Finding Neverland. Chronology gets shifted, people go missing,
facts are changed. But the film offers insights into Barrie's creative
process in ways that a more historically faithful film might not.
In one scene, a dog transforms into a dancing bear. Young boys leap
off their beds to soar out nursery windows. Staid rooms melt away
to reveal lush parks. Magic happens.
"Ok, ok," I hear people saying, "but you're an historian.
What's true here and what's false?" So let me take leave of
imaginary Neverland and step into historical London, circa 1900.
Q. Is Johnny Depp's characterization much like the real James
A. Depp is a whole lot prettier. Barrie was a wee little Scotsman,
standing barely five feet tall, with a receding hairline and a persistent
cough. But Depp manages a gorgeous Scottish accent, and successfully
captures the diffident quietness of the man, and his essentially
gentle and childlike nature.
Q. Barrie's friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family--how
accurately was that depicted?
A. The film shows Barrie striking up a deep friendship with the
four young Davies brothers-George, Jack, Peter, and Michael-and
their widowed mother, Sylvia. Barrie fires their imaginations, and
in turn revels in the simple joys of the children and their warm
home life, a contrast to his own chilly (and childless) marriage.
But the film compresses about thirteen years into one, thereby
significantly revising history. One Davies boy-the fifth, Nico-was
dropped from the story altogether. But the biggest departure from
reality is the absence of the boys' father. Arthur Davies was very
much alive when Barrie befriended his wife and children, and though
he died before his boys were grown, his death didn't occur until
ten years after his family met Barrie.
Q. Haven't there been accusations that Barrie's friendship with
the boys might have involved something darker--like pedophilia?
A. In this era of heightened sensitivity to child abuse, any affectionate
relationship between an adult and a child can raise eyebrows. But
Andrew Birkin, Barrie's biographer, dismisses any suggestion of
that with Barrie. The Davies boys themselves insisted in later years
that Barrie never displayed any sexual interest in them. He was
essentially childlike, an innocent, they maintained.
The movie alludes briefly to the controversy, showing a friend
of Barrie's informing him that some people had questioned his closeness
to the boys. Barrie looks perplexed, then saddened, and dismisses
the rumors as "sick." Indeed. And fortunately, untrue.
Q. Was Barrie's producer, Charles Frohman (played by Dustin
Hoffman,) really so skeptical about the chances for the play's success?
A. Actually, no. Frohman was passionate about the play from the
first, and never skimped on the enormously expensive production.
But there's truth there nonetheless, for many others, including
the performers, feared a huge flop. Sophisticated London theater
patrons expected serious social criticism in their plays, not fanciful
creations with actors portraying animals, pirates, and fairies.
Barrie himself panicked before opening night. Imagining stony silence
at the climactic scene when Peter Pan exhorts the audience to save
Tinker Bell by clapping if they believe in fairies, Barrie instructed
the orchestra to be ready to put down their instruments to clap,
Q. Did Barrie really set aside seats for children on opening
A. It's a wonderful addition to the story, but never happened. But
again, there's a deeper truth represented in the scene. While adults
appreciated Peter Pan, children embraced it with fervor, flocking
to it in huge numbers during its long runs in London and America.
Q. Did the Davies boys inspire the character of Peter Pan?
A. The essence of this is true. But unlike the film, seven years
passed from their first meeting with Barrie to the play's debut
in 1904. The story can be traced to 1898, in fanciful stories Barrie
told the two oldest boys about the exploits of their baby brother,
Peter (hence the character's name.) Over the course of years, the
stories were mixed with adventures--real and imaginary--the boys
shared with Barrie to create the play.
But ultimately, perhaps the best historic answer (and the film's
for that matter) is that Barrie himself was the Boy Who Never Grew
Up. Confronted quite young with a brother's death and a mother's
inconsolable grief, Barrie left childhood far too early, and spent
much of his adult life regretting it. Only by unbinding our imagination,
he believed, could we return to the carefree, magical world of childhood,
where griefs are forgotten, and death becomes merely an
"awfully big adventure." This is the central theme of
Barrie's work and life, and historical inaccuracies aside, Finding
Neverland captures it.
Q. Where to read more about the real J.M. Barrie?
A. The best biography is Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie and the
By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., November
Is it just me, or does this poster make anyone else think of Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?