Boy who never grows up turns 100 this year

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2004

LONDON Peter Pan has outlived generations of children, but the boy who would not grow up remains as youthful as ever.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of J.M. Barrie's Never Land fantasy about fairies, pirates and staying forever young, a magical tale that still captivates children and adults around the world.

''It's always held some strange fascination,'' says Anthony Head, the ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' star who plays Captain Hook in a London revival of Barrie's original play, ''Peter Pan.''

''It's the only thing I've ever seen that gets into the minds of kids, the adventures, the games they play.'' Although the Peter Pan character first appeared in a 1902 novel, ''The Little White Bird,'' the play that made him famous premiered at the Duke of York's theater in London on Dec. 24, 1904. Barrie turned the story into a children's book in 1911.

Hollywood is marking the play's upcoming centenary with two movies, a live action ''Peter Pan'' released last month and ''Neverland,'' a film biography of Barrie starring Johnny Depp as the Scottish author that comes out Oct. 22.

In Britain, the adventures of Peter, Wendy and the Lost Boys appear on stage hundreds of times a year in pantomimes traditional Christmas season plays for children featuring music, gaudy costumes and hammy acting.

''All the kids want to be Peter Pan,'' veteran pantomime producer Paul Elliott says. ''We can all identify with that cheeky lad who doesn't want to grow up and fights battles which he always wins.

''We don't think we're old. We still think, 'What shall I do when I grow up?' That's what Peter Pan is.''

Flying with fairies and battling pirates may be what draws younger audiences to the story, but for adults it's the references to death and lost youth that shine through Barrie's tale.

''Until you read the play, you don't realize quite how weird it is,'' Head says. ''It's very dark.''

Peter Pan is often compared to death, because he takes Wendy and her brothers from the Darling family nursery; the Lost Boys in Never Land suggest dead children. The ticking clock in the crocodile that stalks Captain Hook hints at time passing and human mortality.

For modern audiences, there is also something unsettling about the relationship that gave birth to Peter Pan: Barrie's intense friendship with five young brothers from the Llewelyn Davies family. He met three of them in London's Kensington Gardens in 1897, and adopted all five after their parents died of cancer.

''I suppose I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame,'' Barrie wrote in his play's dedication. ''That is all Peter is the spark I got from you.''

Barrie, who was born in 1860, befriended many children as an adult, including a young girl called Margaret Henley, who called him ''my friendy'' which she lisped as ''fwendy'' or ''wendy.''

His fascination with childhood likely stemmed from the death of his older brother, David, who was fatally injured in a skating accident shortly before his 14th birthday.

''I don't actually think he (Barrie) was a pedophile,'' Head says. ''It's more about the fact that his brother died at age 13 and he wanted to fulfill that role for his mother.''

Barrie, who never grew beyond five feet in height, married actress Mary Ansell, but the relationship ended in divorce and produced no children.

The melancholy aura surrounding ''Peter Pan'' grew after three of the Llewelyn Davies boys died in tragic circumstances. One was killed in World War I while another drowned a month short of his 21st birthday. A third committed suicide by throwing himself under a train in 1960.

But much good has also come from ''Peter Pan.'' In 1929, Barrie donated the copyright to the story and characters to London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, which used the royalties to pay for research and equipment. Barrie's will prevents the hospital from disclosing how much it earns from ''Peter Pan'' royalties.

In 2002, however, Canadian author Emily Somma filed a lawsuit in San Francisco claiming the hospital's ''Peter Pan'' copyright had expired in the United States. She sued preemptively after the hospital warned her to halt publication of her book, ''After the Rain, a New Adventure for Peter Pan.''

''We're expecting the legal proceedings to take a while,'' hospital spokesperson Stephen Cox said. Somma's lawyers say the case is about artistic freedom, not money.

U.S. copyright protection for Barrie's works featuring Peter Pan normally would have expired in 1987, a half-century after the author's death. Lawyers acting for the hospital contend that a 1976 U.S. law extended the copyright protection for ''Peter Pan'' until the year 2023, but Somma's legal team disputes this.

Whatever the outcome of the suit, it's unlikely to have much effect on the tale's century-old appeal to children and grown ups.

''It's fascinating, it's full of really powerful characters,'' said Kimberley Reynolds, director of the National Center for Research in Children's Literature at the University of Surrey in southern England. ''They don't just stay in the mind, they mean things. Growing up, it's a terrible, a disastrous thing.''

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