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Some historical background on James Barrie

Review praising Depp and the film

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The Alamo
Alexander
All the King's Men
The Aviator
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DaVinci Code
Finding Neverland
The Great Raid
Hidalgo
Jarhead
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Memoirs of a Geisha
Motorcycle Diaries
National Treasure
The New World
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Passion of the Christ
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Ray
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Vanity Fair
Walk the Line

 

FINDING NEVERLAND

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 Pan.

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.


Finding Neverland Imagines History

"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 Barrie?
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, if necessary.

Q. Did Barrie really set aside seats for children on opening night?
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 Lost Boys.

By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., November 12, 2004




Is it just me, or does this poster make anyone else think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?


© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu