J.M. Barrie & ‘Peter Pan’ inspiration: ‘Finding Neverland’ crowd-pleasing myths vs. reality
A Miramax release directed by Marc Forster and adapted by David Magee from Allan Knee’s 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the award-winning period drama Finding Neverland is a Fantasyland account of how Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie found the inspiration to write his most famous work, the 1904 play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
This two-part post offers a (relatively) brief overview of the discrepancies between the known facts and the crowd-pleasing Finding Neverland (some of those by way of The Man Who Was Peter Pan), in addition to bits of information about Peter Pan and its literary and stage origins, and the fate of the Llewelyn Davies boys.
‘Finding Neverland’ cast of characters
For starters, the Finding Neverland principals are the following:
- Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie (a.k.a. James M. Barrie; born James Matthew Barrie on May 9, 1860, in Kirriemuir, Angus). Whether in life or in Marc Forster’s movie, the Academy Award-nominated Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl actor looks nothing like the real-life Barrie (see image at the top of this post), whose works also include Sentimental Tommy, Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, The Little Minister, and Mary Rose.
- Three-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris) as the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (née du Maurier, 1866–1910), the ailing mother of the four boys to whom Johnny Depp’s goofy/dashing J.M. Barrie becomes a surrogate father figure/playmate. Like Depp/Barrie, Winslet looks nothing like Sylvia; besides, as explained further below, there were actually five Llewelyn Davies boys – and Sylvia’s husband, Arthur, was still around when Barrie came into their lives. Sylvia would die of lung cancer – her illness isn’t specified in the film – at age 43 in August 1910.
- Eleven-year-old Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies (born in 1897), Barrie’s inspiration for both the name and, according to Finding Neverland, the character Peter Pan. In reality – especially in the 1911 novelization of the play, Peter and Wendy – the “spirit” of Neverland’s perennially youthful denizen is supposed to have more closely resembled Michael Llewelyn Davies (born in 1900), played by Luke Spill in the film. The other two brothers seen on screen are George (born in 1893) and John (“Jack,” born in 1894); they’re played by, respectively, Nick Roud and Joe Prospero.
- Melinda and Melinda and Man on Fire actress Radha Mitchell as J.M. Barrie’s neglected wife, Mary Ansell (1861–1945), an actress whom Barrie met while doing the casting of his 1891 play Walker, London. (This particular Mary Ansell is not to be confused with the notorious London housemaid hanged in 1899 for having poisoned her sister.) The Barrie-Ansell marriage, “apparently unconsummated,” lasted from 1894 to 1909, the year after she began a romantic liaison with novelist/dramatist Gilbert Cannan (Pugs and Peacocks, House of Prophecy). Barrie’s 1900 novel Tommy and Grizel offers a glimpse into their stunted relationship, e.g., “Grizel, I seem to be different from all other men. There seems to be some curse upon me that makes me unable to love as they do. I want to love you, dear one; you are the only woman I ever wanted to love; but apparently I can’t.”
- Veteran Best Actress Oscar winner Julie Christie (Darling, 1965) as Emma du Maurier (née Emma Wightwick; 1841–1915), Sylvia’s mother and the widow of cartoonist/novelist George du Maurier (1834–1896). In Finding Neverland, the du Maurier matriarch is depicted as a rigidly upper-class dowager appalled at having the peculiar J.M. Barrie as an unofficial family member. As reported by David Smith in The Guardian, Emma’s great-granddaughter, Tessa Montgomery (granddaughter of actor Gerald du Maurier; daughter of Rebecca author Daphne du Maurier), takes issue with the portrayal, explaining that in letters Emma wrote to Gerald, she comes across as “a very affectionate and kind mother.” Montgomery, who hadn’t seen the film, adds that the scene in which Barrie gets the idea for Captain Hook after witnessing Julie Christie’s Emma furiously waving a coat hanger sounds “really rather ridiculous. She might well be spinning in her grave.” In the same The Guardian piece, screenwriter David Magee justifies his choices: “The character of Emma du Maurier totally has my sympathy and I hope she is beautifully redeemed in the end scenes. I never intended any character to be a villain in any way.”
- Two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Rain Man, 1988) as American theatrical impresario Charles Frohman (1856–1915), whose stage hits on Broadway and/or in London’s West End include Barrie’s Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, and Peter Pan, plus Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, A.M. Willner and Fritz Grünbaum’s The Dollar Princess, and Oscar Straus’ A Waltz Dream.
See below the Finding Neverland trailer with Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman, and Freddie Highmore.
Arthur Llewelyn Davies & son Nico + Mary Hodgson
Contrary to a key narrative element in Finding Neverland, barrister Arthur Llewelyn Davies was very much alive when J.M. Barrie, then in his mid-30s, became acquainted with the Llewelyn Davies family in 1897. The lawyer and the author/playwright weren’t exactly buddies; as found in the Guardian article, “according to some accounts” the former (like Emma du Maurier in the film) viewed the latter with suspicion.
In 1907, Arthur died at age 44 of cancer of the jaw. Barrie, who was to replace him as the boys’ paternal figure, paid for his medical treatment.
Also missing from Finding Neverland is the youngest Llewelyn Davies boy, Nicholas (Nico; born in 1903). Curiously, his daughter, Laura Duguid, has a bit in the film, as the theater patron who asks Peter whether he is Peter Pan.
Tim Pigott-Smith played Arthur Llewelyn Davies in the Rodney Bennett-directed BBC miniseries The Lost Boys (1978), written by J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan author Andrew Birkin.
Also in the cast: Ann Bell as Sylvia, Ian Holm as (a more accurate-looking) J.M. Barrie, Maureen O’Brien as Mary Ansell, William Hootkins as Charles Frohman, and Anna Cropper as Mary Hodgson, the Llewelyn Davies boys’ nurse – a crucial character in their lives and one who is completely absent from Finding Neverland. The boys were each played by several child actors of different ages.
J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan origins
Peter Pan first appeared – as a seven-day-old baby – in J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. The boy who never grows up is supposed to have been originally inspired by Barrie’s brother David, who died at age 13 in an ice-skating accident.
As mentioned further up in this post, the final character, especially as found in Peter and Wendy, is closer to one of the Llewelyn Davies’ boys: Michael – who, in fact, was to have been the model for sculptor George Frampton’s 14-foot Peter Pan statue erected in 1912 in London’s Kensington Gardens, in the vicinity of Barrie’s old home on Bayswater Road.
Frampton, however, chose another boy model. As found in J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys, that left Barrie disappointed with the final product, complaining, “It doesn’t show the Devil in Peter.”
Even so, Barrie himself was the one who placed an enthusiastic ad in The Times announcing the – otherwise unpublicized – erection of the statue:
“There is a surprise in store for the children who go to Kensington Gardens to feed the ducks in the Serpentine this morning. Down by the little bay on the south-western side of the tail of the Serpentine they will find a May-day gift by Mr J.M. Barrie, a figure of Peter Pan blowing his pipe on the stump of a tree, with fairies and mice and squirrels all around. It is the work of Sir George Frampton, and the bronze figure of the boy who would never grow up is delightfully conceived.”
‘Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’
The Charles Frohman-produced play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first presented in December 1904 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. Thirty-seven-year-old Nina Boucicault played Peter (Kelly Macdonald in Finding Neverland), thus beginning the tradition of having small adult women cast as the flying, satyr-like boy.
Gerald du Maurier, Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’ brother and a supporting player in Barrie’s 1903 stage hit The Admirable Crichton, was cast as both George Darling (named after George Llewelyn Davies) and Captain Hook (instead of original choice Seymour Hicks).
Fearing that the sophisticated first-night London audience would be unresponsive, Barrie told the orchestra to put down their instruments and clap their hands at the moment when Peter Pan, in an attempt to save Tinkerbell’s life, asks the audience, “Do you believe in fairies? … If you believe, clap your hands!”
As the story goes, when Nina Boucicault’s Peter begged for the life of Tinkerbell, the audience response was so overwhelming that the actress burst into tears.
Another notable actor in the original production of Peter Pan was animal impersonator Arthur Lupino, cast as the dog Nana. Lupino was the great-uncle of future Warner Bros. star Ida Lupino (High Sierra, The Hard Way).
‘Peter Pan’ & the adult women in his life
In November 1905, Maude Adams starred as Peter Pan at Broadway’s Empire Theatre. Also produced by Charles Frohman, the play ran for 223 performances. As quoted in Phyllis Robbins’ Maude Adams: An Intimate Portrait, an impressed Mark Twain wrote the star, “It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and that the next best play is a long way behind it.”
Maude Adams would be followed by, among others, Marilyn Miller (1924), Eva Le Gallienne (1928), Jean Arthur (1950), Mary Martin (1954), Sandy Duncan (1979), and Cathy Rigby (1990, 1998). On television, a filmed version of Mary Martin’s musicalized stage production (music by Mark Charlap; lyrics by Carolyn Leigh*) was frequently broadcast, while Mia Farrow took a stab at J.M. Barrie’s brat/antihero in 1976.
On the big screen, Betty Bronson was a pretty and girlishly perky Peter Pan in Herbert Brenon’s 1924 silent version. Bobby Driscoll – a male actor for a change – provided Peter’s voice in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated version. Half a century later, Jeremy Sumpter brought to life the title character in P.J. Hogan’s lavish, $130 million-budget Peter Pan.
* Following a less-than-satisfying pre-Broadway West Coast tour, director Jerome Robbins (Best Director Oscar co-winner with Robert Wise for West Side Story, 1961) hired composer Jule Styne, and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green to add several new songs to the production.
J.M. Barrie & the Llewelyn Davies boys: Unusual ‘paternal’ relationship
In Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie comes across as a boyishly avuncular chap – a contradiction in terms, but an apt description of Depp’s scrupulously PG-rated characterization of the Peter Pan author.
In fact, Depp, director Marc Forster, screenwriter David Magee, and producers Richard N. Gladstein and Nellie Bellflower – with the likely addition of Miramax’s Bob and Harvey Weinstein (both listed as executive producers) – make it evident that no Finding Neverland audience member should dare to as much as wonder about any “darker” reasons for Barrie’s attachment to the Llewelyn Davies boys.
Allan Knee’s original play apparently took a similar approach. D.J.R. Bruckner’s New York Times review begins with the following: “In The Man Who Was Peter Pan … Knee has performed an extraordinary act of imagination: he has removed Freud from the world, and it is an astonishingly different place for that.”
In the real world, however, no one should be at all astonished to learn that some have speculated that J.M. Barrie had more than a “fatherly interest” in the boys.
But is there any evidence pointing in that direction?
J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys author Andrew Birkin, who read much of Barrie’s correspondence and who interviewed Nico Llewelyn Davies, thinks not. He believes that Barrie was “essentially asexual, clearly impotent. He was a lover of children, yes, but not sexually.”
Nico felt the same way. In the 1979 edition of Birkin’s book, he is quoted as saying, “Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex.”
In a written reply to Birkin about the issue, Nico had added the following:
I never heard one word or saw one glimmer of anything approaching homosexuality or pedophilia: had he had any of those leanings in however slight a symptom I would have been aware. He was an innocent – which is why he could write Peter Pan.”
Of course, much remains unknown. For instance, the more than 2,000 letters exchanged between Barrie and his favorite, Michael, were burned by Peter in 1952.
But as things stand, there is no evidence that Barrie was either gay or sexually attracted to young boys.
J.M. Barrie & his rebellious ‘sons’: Saved by the ‘interloper’
After Sylvia Lewellyn Davies’ death at age 43 in 1910, J.M. Barrie, 50 years old at the time, became one of the legal guardians of her five sons.
Never as idyllic as what’s seen in Finding Neverland, his relationship with the brothers – the oldest, George, was already 17; the youngest, Nico, was only 6 – would become less congenial as, unlike Peter Pan, they went on growing older.
As discussed in Denis Mackail’s Barrie biography, The Story of J.M.B., Jack, for one, resented Barrie’s surrogate father role, as the young Llewelyn Davies – 12 at the time of his father’s death and nearly 16 when his mother passed away – had “a deep-down notion that it was an interloper who was saving them all from ruin.”
While serving as a signal officer in France during World War I, Peter rebelled when Barrie expressed strong disapproval of the 20-year-old’s involvement with illustrator Vera Willoughby (1870–1939) – 27 years his senior, the wife of writer/actor Lewis Willoughby, and the mother of a teenage daughter, Althea Willoughby, who would later follow in her mother’s artistic footsteps.
In spite of Barrie’s objections, Peter’s liaison with Vera would continue for another couple of years.
Yet the most complex relationship was undoubtedly the one between the Peter Pan author and his most significant Peter Pan muse.
“J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan Origins: Finding Neverland Crowd-Pleasing Myths vs. Reality” follow-up post:
Finding Neverland trailer with Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Freddie Highmore: Miramax Films.
Image of Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies and Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland: Miramax Films.
“J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan Origins: Finding Neverland Crowd-Pleasing Myths vs. Reality” last updated in July 2019.