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Interesting facts about J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Neverland
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A scene from "Pan." - photo by Jeff Peterson
Scottish author J.M. Barries Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldnt Grow Up is now more than 100 years old. Over the decades, it has entered popular culture on a level that few literary works ever do, influencing everything from movies and TV to the English language itself (as in, for instance, the term Wendy house).

The background of Barries story, though, is far more complex and far stranger than many realize.

So, just in time for this weekends release of Pan, here are some interesting facts about Barrie and his timeless creation that even diehard Peter Pan fans might not know:

  • For a childrens story, Peter Pan's" origins are surprisingly morbid. Many have theorized that Barries fascination with the idea of a boy who wouldnt grow up began with the accidental death of his golden-child older brother, David, when Barrie was just 6 years old. Barries mother took the death particularly hard, but found some comfort in the thought that David would remain a boy forever.
  • Death seemed to plague all of Barries close relationships. Writing in 1921, D.H. Lawrence said of his friend (via Biography.com), J.M. (Barrie) has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die. This included the Llewelyn Davies boys, the direct inspiration for Peter Pan and the Darling children (as was made famous in the movie Finding Neverland). George, the oldest boy, was killed in World War I; Michael, Barries favorite, drowned in what many theorize may have been part of a suicide pact; and Peter, after whom Barries character was named, jumped in front of a train in 1960 after decades of resentment at being identified as the original Peter Pan.
  • Death is also a major component of the Peter Pan story itself. In the first chapter of Barries 1911 book Peter and Wendy, its essentially stated that Peter Pan is a psychopomp a term, usually found in mythology, that refers to any kind of guide that escorts the souls of the dead into the afterlife. As Barrie wrote, After thinking back into her childhood she (Mrs. Darling) remembered a Peter Pan who was said to live with the fairies. There were odd stories about him, as that when children died he went part of the way with them, so that they should not be frightened. This detail puts a potentially very dark spin on what the Darling childrens adventures in Neverland might have actually been.
  • Barrie revisited the idea of a child that wouldnt grow up in later efforts, including his plays "Mary Rose" and "Dear Brutus."
  • Presumably before becoming a pirate, Captain Hook attended Eton College, the same school as Prince William, Prince Harry and current British Prime Minister David Cameron (and, also, the same school to which Barrie sent all but one of the Llewelyn Davies children). In Barries 1904 play, Hooks dying words are, in fact, the schools motto, Floreat Etona or May Eton flourish. Not only that, but, as Barrie revealed in a 1927 lecture given at the school itself, Hook was a Pop, a member of Etons most exclusive club.
  • Captain Hook was not the original villain of the story. He was written into a later draft of the play for purely practical reasons: The stage hands needed more time to change sets, so Barrie devised an interstitial scene involving a pirate ship. In the first version of the play, the villain was actually none other than Peter Pan, according to Barrie himself, who described the character as a demon boy and depicted him kidnapping children from their beds in the dead of night. Although Peters image definitely softened once Hook was added to the story, he is still not an altogether heroic hero. As Allison Kavey, co-author of Second Star to the Right: Peter Pan in the Popular Imagination, told The Week, "He is selfish, devoted to his own entertainment, and except in battle scenes, incapable of taking care of himself. He also loves like a child, without thought to the effect his love has or what it will mean if he forgets for a while."
  • In 1929, Barrie donated all the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital with the stipulation that the amount of money they receive through royalties should never be revealed.
  • Some of Peter Pans early popularity might have had to with timing: In the early 20th century, as Mike Albo describes on Refinery 29, a growing paranoia that boys were becoming soft led to an obsession with the concept of boyhood and what it means to be a boy. Peter Pan, along with other literary boy heroes like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, was a perfect example of the wildness and inner freedom that characterizes a man in the making, according to William Henry Gibsons trendy pseudo-scientific guidebook Boyology, published in 1922. Not coincidentally, it was during this same movement that several organizations designed to foster a proper sense of boyhood among youngsters were founded, including the Boy Scouts of America (1910).
  • Even today, its standard for Peter to be played by an adult woman in stage productions of Peter Pan, as with the recent Peter Pan Live! starring Allison Williams. This originated with Victorian laws that prohibited children under 14 from working after a certain hour, and has since become tradition. However, according to Andrew Birkin, author of J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan, Barrie himself dreamed of one day seeing Peter played by a real boy. It never happened, even though, at one point, he almost convinced Charlie Chaplin to direct and star in a version of the story.
  • In the original stories, Peter Pan doesnt live in Neverland. He lives in the far more pedestrian environment of Kensington Gardens, where Barrie first met the Llewellyn Davies kids.
  • Among the actors to have played Peter Pan over the decades was Walt Disney in a school production. Years later, Peter Pan was set to be Disneys follow-up to his first animated feature, 1937s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Difficulties negotiating the rights with Great Ormond Street Hospital followed by the outbreak of World War II delayed the film until 1953. Ultimately, Disney wasnt satisfied with his version of the character, saying that he thought he came off cold and unlikable. Peter Pan experts, however, say this is in keeping with Barries own characterization of Peter.
  • Contrary to popular myth, Tinker Bell in the Disney movie was based on actress Margaret Kerry, not Marilyn Monroe. Stills of Kerry modeling Tinker Bell poses (including with giant prop scissors and other objects from the movie) can easily be found with a quick Google search.
  • Adding even more fuel to the superstitious notion of Barrie's "fatal touch," Bobby Driscoll, the 15-year-old actor who voiced and served as the model for Peter Pan in Disney's animated version of the story, tragically died just 16 years later due to drug abuse. His body was buried in an unmarked grave and his family only found out a year later after contacting the FBI. "Peter Pan" was his last major role, according to moviepilot.com.
  • Working titles for the 1904 stage production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldnt Grow Up included The Great White Father, referencing his nickname among Tiger Lilys tribe, and Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Hated Mothers. The latter version also would have seen Mrs. Darling not Mr. Darling playing the role of Captain Hook. "There is the touch of the feminine in Hook, as in all the greatest pirates, as Barrie once said.
  • A lesser-known literary inspiration behind Peter Pan was fellow Scotsman R.M. Ballantynes The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. A precursor to the modern young adult novel, it featured a cast of juvenile characters stranded on a Pacific island a la Robinson Crusoe. The Coral Island was also a primary inspiration for another classic: Lord of the Flies.
  • Barrie was friends with some of the most important writers of the time many of whom played on an amateur cricket team he started including Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton and Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, not only were Stevenson and Barrie well acquainted, so were their respective pirates Captain Hook, wrote Barrie, was the only man ever feared by Long John Silver, the iconic villain from Stevensons Treasure Island.