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 2004 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, Peter Pan.
This two-part article offers a (relatively) brief overview of instances when the crowd- and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences-pleasing Finding Neverland, whether or not by way of the darker The Man Who Was Peter Pan (the adult Peter’s “loneliness cracks his reserve in a moment that is terrible for being so quiet,” wrote D.J.R. Bruckner in his review for the New York Times), opted to either ignore or distort inconvenient facts while making up its own.
‘Finding Neverland’ cast
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), even though the Academy Award-nominated Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl actor, whether in life or in Marc Forster’s movie, looks nothing like the real-life Barrie, among whose works also include The Admirable Crichton and The Little Minister.
- Three-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet (as Best Supporting Actress for Sense and Sensibility, 1995, and Iris, 2001; as Best Actress for Titanic, 1997) as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the ailing mother of the four boys to whom Depp’s goofy/dashing Barrie becomes a surrogate father figure/playmate. (There were actually five Llewelyn Davies boys; see further below.)
- Freddie Highmore as Peter Llewelyn Davies (born in 1897), Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan according to Finding Neverland. In reality, the perennially youthful Neverland denizen, especially in the 1911 novelization of the play, Peter and Wendy, is supposed to have more closely resembled Michael Llewelyn Davies (born in 1900). The other two Llewelyn Davies boys seen in the film are George (born in 1893) and John (“Jack,” born in 1894). In the film, Michael, George, and Jack are played by, respectively, Luke Spill, Nick Roud, and Joe Prospero.
- Radha Mitchell as Barrie’s neglected wife, Mary Ansell. (An actress, 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 lasted from 1894–1909. 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 Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier. In the film, the stiffly upper-class du Maurier isn’t too thrilled of having Barrie as an unofficial family member. Du Maurier’s great-granddaughter, Lady Tessa Montgomery, takes issue with the portrayal, telling The Guardian that in letters written by her father, actor Gerald du Maurier, her great-grandmother comes across as “a very affectionate and kind mother.” She adds that the scene in which Barrie gets the idea for Captain Hook after witnessing Emma du Maurier furiously waving a coat hanger is “really rather ridiculous. She might well be spinning in her grave.”
- Two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Rain Man, 1988) as theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, whose stage hits on Broadway and/or the West End include The Importance of Being Earnest, Quality Street, The Admirable Crichton, Peter Pan, The Dollar Princess, and A Waltz Dream.
Contrary to what is seen in Finding Neverland, barrister Arthur Llewelyn Davies was very much alive when J.M. Barrie, then in his mid-30s, entered the lives of the Llewelyn Davies family in 1897. The Llewelyn Davies patriarch and the author/playwright weren’t exactly buddies; as found in David Smith’s The Guardian article, “according to some accounts” the former (just like Emma du Maurier in the film) viewed the latter with suspicion.
In 1907, Arthur Llewelyn Davies died of cancer of the jaw at age 44. Barrie is supposed to have paid for his medical treatment. (Sylvia died of lung cancer – her illness isn’t specified in the film – at age 43 in 1910.)
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 woman who asks Peter whether he is Peter Pan.
Tim Pigott-Smith played Arthur Llewelyn Davies in the Rodney Bennett-directed BBC mini-series The Lost Boys (1978), written by Andrew Birkin. Ann Bell was cast 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 children’s nurse – a crucial character in their lives and one who is completely absent from Finding Neverland. The Llewelyn Davies boys were each played by several child actors of different ages.
J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan quotes
The character of Peter Pan first appeared – as a seven-day-old baby – in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird. The boy who never grows up is supposed to have been originally inspired by J.M. Barrie’s brother David, who died at age 13 in an ice-skating accident.
The final character, however, especially as found in Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy, is reportedly closer to one the Llewelyn Davies’ boys: the mischievous, nightmare-prone Michael – who, in fact, was to have been the model for sculptor George Frampton’s Peter Pan statue erected in Kensington Gardens in 1912.
Among the many memorable “Peter Pan quotes” – found in The Little White Bird, Peter Pan, or Peter and Wendy – are:
- “All children, except one, grow up.”
- “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
- “You see children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies, and every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
Ironically, one of the best-known – alleged – Peter Pan quotes, “Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting,” seems to have been a creation of someone other than J.M. Barrie or Peter Pan himself.
‘Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’
The Charles Frohman-produced stage play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first presented at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in December 1904. Thirty-seven-year-old Nina Boucicault played Peter, thus beginning the tradition of having small adult women cast as the flying, satyr-like boy. (See further below.)
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. (Gerald’s daughter and Sylvia’s niece was Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel author Daphne du Maurier.)
Fearing that the sophisticated first-night London audience would be unresponsive, J.M. 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, who plays the dog Nana. Lupino was the great-uncle of future Warner Bros. star Ida Lupino (High Sierra, The Hard Way).
‘Peter Pan’ on Broadway
In 1905, Maude Adams starred as Peter Pan at Broadway’s Empire Theatre. Also produced by Charles Frohman, the play ran for 223 performances (November 1905–May 1906). 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 in 1924, Eva Le Gallienne in 1928, Jean Arthur in 1950, Mary Martin in 1954, Sandy Duncan in 1979, and Cathy Rigby in 1990 and 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/hero in 1976.
On the big screen, in Herbert Brenon’s 1924 silent version Betty Bronson was a perky, pretty Peter Pan. 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 extra songs to the production.
J.M. Barrie & the Llewelyn Davies boys
Some have speculated that J.M. Barrie had more than a fatherly interest in the Llewelyn Davies boys.
The Lost Boys teleplay writer and Barrie biographer Andrew Birkin, who read much of Barrie’s correspondence and who spoke with Nico Llewelyn Davies, thinks otherwise. He believes that Barrie was “essentially asexual, clearly impotent. He was a lover of children, yes, but not sexually.”
Nico felt the same way, remarking “Of all the men I have ever known, Barrie was the wittiest and the best company. He was also the least interested in sex. He was a darling man. He was innocent; which is why he could write Peter Pan.”
Even so, much remains unknown. For instance, the more than 2,000 letters between Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies were burned by Peter in 1952.
J.M. Barrie & the post-childhood Llewelyn Davies ‘boys’
After Sylvia Lewellyn Davies’ death in 1910, J.M. Barrie became one of the guardians of her five sons. His relationship with the boys, however, was hardly as idyllic as what’s seen in Finding Neverland, especially as they grew older.
Jack, for one, at times resented Barrie’s surrogate father role.
Later on, Barrie expressed his strong disapproval of the 17-year-old Peter’s involvement with illustrator Vera Willoughby, a married woman 27 years his senior. Nonetheless, the relationship is supposed to have continued for another couple of years.
As found in J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan, retired Scottish-born Conservative Party member Robert Boothby a.k.a. Baron Boothby described Barrie’s relationship with Michael as “unhealthy,” explaining, “It was morbid, and it went beyond the bounds of ordinary affection. … Michael was very prone to melancholy, and when Barrie was in a dark mood, he tended to pull Michael down with him. … He was an unhealthy little man, Barrie; … I think Michael and his brothers would have been better off living in poverty than with that odd, morbid little genius.”
“J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan: Finding Neverland Myths & the Llewelyn Davies Boys” to be continued.
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: Finding Neverland Myths & the Llewelyn Davies Boys” last updated in July 2019.