Home TheaterPlaywrights J.M. Barrie + Peter Pan Origins: Crowd-Pleasing Finding Neverland Myths vs. Unsettling Reality

J.M. Barrie + Peter Pan Origins: Crowd-Pleasing Finding Neverland Myths vs. Unsettling Reality

J.M. Barrie: Peter Pan author and playwright. Who was the inspiration for Peter Pan, the satyr-like boy who wouldn’t grow up? Candidates include J.M. Barrie’s brother David, who died at age 13; the five Llewelyn Davies boys (particularly Michael); and none other than Barrie himself.
  • When confronted with the complex facts about the relationship between Peter Pan author/playwright J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, the makers of the well-received period drama Finding Neverland opted to feed viewers the usual crowd-pleasing Hollywood pap.
  • Who was the actual inspiration for Peter Pan?
  • Ironically, on stage “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” has been played by grown women.

J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan facts vs. fiction: Well-received Miramax release Finding Neverland opts for crowd-pleasing myths

“There never was a simpler and happier family until the coming of Peter Pan,” J.M. Barrie writes in Peter and Wendy. In the 1911 novel, the Scottish author and playwright is referring to the fictional Darlings, but he might as well be alluding to his entrance into the lives of the Llewelyn Davies family in the late 1890s.

That singular relationship is the focus of Miramax’s Marc Forster-directed 2004 release Finding Neverland. Written by newcomer David Magee, adapting Allan Knee’s 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, the award-winning period drama offers a Fantasyland account of how J.M. Barrie found the inspiration for his most famous work, the 1904 play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.

This updated three-part post presents a brief overview of the discrepancies between the known facts and Miramax’s crowd-pleasing movie (partly by way of Knee’s play), in addition to bits of information about Peter Pan’s literary and stage origins, and the fate of the five Llewelyn Davies boys.

For starters, below is a list of the Finding Neverland principals.

Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie

Garbed and made up to look as elegant and dashing as an Old Hollywood matinée idol, Johnny Depp brings to movie-movie life J.M. Barrie (a.k.a. James M. Barrie; born James Matthew Barrie on May 9, 1860, in Kirriemuir, Angus), whose works also include Sentimental Tommy, Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, The Little Minister, and Mary Rose.

Clearly, the Finding Neverland creators want viewers to accept the Peter Pan author as a goofier – but surely inoffensive – Tyrone Power type, lest any “impure” thoughts cross their minds.

In reality, the Academy Award-nominated Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl actor, whether off screen or in Marc Forster’s film, looks nothing like the mousy, diffident real-life Barrie.

Kate Winslet as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies

Three-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility, Titanic, Iris) plays the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (née du Maurier, 1866–1910), the ailing mother of the four boys to whom Johnny Depp’s J.M. Barrie becomes a surrogate father figure/playmate.

Like Depp vis-à-vis Barrie, Winslet looks nothing like Sylvia. Moreover, as explained further below, Sylvia’s husband, Arthur, was still around when Barrie came into their lives. And there were actually a total of five, not four, Llewelyn Davies boys.

Sylvia would die of lung cancer (her illness is not specified in the film) at age 43 in August 1910.

Julie Christie as Emma du Maurier

Veteran Best Actress Oscar winner Julie Christie (Darling, 1965) was cast 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 appears to have been “a very affectionate and kind mother.”

Montgomery, who hasn’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.”

Johnny Depp as Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland, based on Allan Knee’s – seemingly less uplifting – 1998 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan.

Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies

Eleven-year-old Freddie Highmore is Peter Llewelyn Davies (born in 1897), Barrie’s inspiration for 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.

More details about the Llewelyn Davies boys can be found in the follow-up article. (See link at the bottom of this post.)

Radha Mitchell as Mary Ansell

Melinda and Melinda and Man on Fire actress Radha Mitchell plays J.M. Barrie’s neglected wife, Mary Ansell (1861–1945), an actress Barrie had 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 “apparently unconsummated” Barrie-Ansell marriage lasted from 1894 to 1909, the year after she began a romantic liaison with novelist/dramatist Gilbert Cannan (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.”

Dustin Hoffman as Charles Frohman

In what amounts to an extended cameo, two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Rain Man, 1988) is seen as American theatrical impresario Charles Frohman (1856–1915).

Frohman’s 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.

Among his stars were Maude Adams (Broadway’s first Peter Pan), Ethel Barrymore, Billie Burke, E.H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, and William Gillette.

Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp as “interloper” J.M. Barrie, plus Kate Winslet, Freddie Highmore, Luke Spill, Nick Roud, and Joe Prospero as the Llewelyn Davies family. Missing from the image/movie: the boys’ father, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, and the youngest boy, Nico.

Key real-life characters missing from Finding Neverland

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.

Peter Pan origins

Peter Pan first surfaced – as a seven-day-old baby – in J.M. Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. The boy who never grows up is presumed 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. “It doesn’t show the Devil in Peter,” he would complain.

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 with Maude Adams. As fate would have it, J.M. Barrie’s “boy who wouldn’t grow up” – currently a cliched representation of men who refuse to accept the responsibilities of adulthood – has generally been played by adult women on both English-speaking sides of the North Atlantic.

J.M. Barrie play 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 the character in 1976.

On the big screen, Betty Bronson was a 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 J.M. Barrie’s brat/antihero in P.J. Hogan’s lavish, $130 million-budget Peter Pan. (Robin Williams doesn’t count, as his was an all-grown-up Peter in Steven Spielberg’s 1991 revisionist fantasy Hook.)

Among Broadway’s Captain Hook portrayers were Ernest Lawford (1906), Leslie Banks (1924), Boris Karloff (1950), Cyril Ritchard (1954), George Rose (1979), and J.K. Simmons (1990).

* 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 & Peter Pan Origins: Crowd-Pleasing Finding Neverland Myths vs. Complex, Unsettling Reality” follow-up post:

‘Peter Pan’ Author & the Llewelyn Davies Boys: ‘Sad End’ to Four-Decade Relationship.”


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Finding Neverland images of Kate Winslet, Luke Spill, Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies, and Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie: Miramax Films.

“J.M. Barrie + Peter Pan Origins: Crowd-Pleasing Finding Neverland Myths vs. Unsettling Reality” last updated in August 2020.

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