Peter Pan Brings Out My Inner Cynical Grown Up

August 9, 2013 Children's Fiction, Classics, Coming of Age, Fairy Tales, Fantasy 50

Happy Friday, Bookworms!

Have you ever noticed that stories you knew as a child take on a very different meaning as you grow up? I was struck with just such a conundrum this week as I read (for the first time) Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie. That’s not to say I wasn’t familiar with the adventures of the one and only Peter Pan. Far from it.

We didn’t own the Disney version of Peter Pan– this is probably due to the fact that Disney randomly pulls movies off the shelves for periods of time and it wasn’t available when I was in my prime Pan years. We did, however, own a VHS recording of the glorious 1960 production of Peter Pan the musical starring Mary Martin. I watched it often, which is kind of weird, because it always creeped me out a bit. I was particularly bothered by the cake Captain Hook tried to lure the Lost Boys into eating, because despite the sinister green frosting, I was certain “so damp and rich a cake” would be delicious. (Even if it was poisoned.) I hoped that in reading the book, my brain could conjure up the magic of Neverland better than a full grown woman playing a 10 year old boy…

This is the Peter Pan I grew up with. Realistic, no? (Source)

This is the Peter Pan I grew up with. Realistic, no? (Source)

Magic my brain could not conjure, but creepiness? Creepiness came through in spades. First. Barrie kept emphasizing that Peter Pan still had all his baby teeth, though he was about 10 years old. That would look really weird, you know? Kids start losing teeth between the ages of 4 and 7… A normal 10 year old would have regular teeth. The idea of Peter wandering around Neverland with teeny tiny chicklets all up in his mug seriously bothered me.

I realize the play was originally written in 1904, so expecting cultural sensitivity is a little unfair of me. However, I’m pretty sure Native Americans don’t relish being referred to as “redskins” or “savages” even in whimsical children’s literature. The book didn’t give a particularly flattering portrayal of females either. Tinkerbell was a serious biz-nitch, and the mermaids were nasty wasty skunks. All Wendy ever wanted to do- even in NEVERLAND- was play mother to a troop of boys. Why couldn’t WENDY go out and have the adventures? Why was she always doing laundry?!

And that Peter Pan? I’ve heard of Peter Pan syndrome- it’s applied to men who refuse to grow up and won’t commit to a relationship. Basically they’re pretty big douchebags. However. The name of this syndrome is even  more appropriate than I realized, because Peter was kind of an ass. Seriously. Peter Pan is a rather cultish figure, if you think about it. He entices children to run away with him. He’s so completely invested in the illusion that he literally cannot tell if he and the Lost Boys are consuming real food or just pretending. (Which means he starves them half the time. Bad form, Peter!) He gets the boys into deadly confrontations with the “redskins” and pirates. Deadly, yo. These little boys are slaughtering people. What the what? Adventures, indeed! Hmph.

Peter Pan, JM Barrie 2


Now that I’ve eviscerated a timeless children’s classic, do I have anything nice to say? Sure. Nana was awesome. Any dog that can play nursemaid is a-okay in my book. I also rather enjoyed that Mr. Darling chose to punish himself after the children ran off by living in Nana’s kennel. That was amusing. And Smee. There’s something utterly charming about a pirate that has no idea how darn cute he is. I don’t know why, but Peter and Wendy just didn’t engage my childish wonder the way I’d hoped it would. (Although Hook, the 90s remake of Peter Pan starring Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman? THAT is a good time right there. I hate myself for liking a movie better than a book, but there it is. Please don’t shun me.)

What’s the moral of the tale of Katie and Peter Pan? Always go into classic children’s literature expecting it to be darker and creepier than you remember. I’m always able to remember this when heading into traditional fairy tales, but I suppose I should amend my theory to include any books with fairies as characters as well. Second star to the right and straight on till morning, Bookworms.

Have any of you ever revisited a childhood story and found it stranger than you recall? Tell me I’m not alone here!



50 Responses to “Peter Pan Brings Out My Inner Cynical Grown Up”

    • Words for Worms

      I didn’t see it. Perhaps that’s tainting my vision of Peter Pan. If I knew the backstory (even the Hollywood version with a dishy Johnny Depp) maybe I’d be less of a curmudgeon.

      • Jayne

        Oh man, you need to see Finding Neverland! It’s an amazing movie, but just a warning… if you are a crier, you will SOB in this movie. Even my husband cried at the end! But it’s totally worth it. I haven’t read this book, but I get your cynicism. I’d probably have a similar reaction, even knowing the backstory.

  1. Rory

    If its any help, I didn’t lose my first baby tooth until I was 9, so it could happen. But I do agree that the image is creepy.

    I’ve never really enjoyed Peter Pan/ Peter and Wendy. It’s not a classic for me…

    • Words for Worms

      Really? That makes me feel a tiny bit better about the teeth. I lost my first baby tooth at 4. I somehow feel that being a dental hygienist altered my mother’s DNA so that my sister and I were very advanced in all things teeth related.

      • Rory

        My took forever to fall out, I had to have some pulled after my adult teeth grew in behind my baby teeth (this only happened in the bottom). The other kids called me shark mouth, I was sad. 🙁

  2. Turn the Page Reviews

    You should watch Finding Neverland- I loved that movie (Johnny Depp was great). I have never read the book, but I think the same way (a bit) about Maurice Sendak’s works- they aren’t FOR kids-and can be a little sad and painful.

    • Words for Worms

      See now I’m all torn and stuff. Maybe these stories are a safe way to introduce kids to what’s sad and painful? I’m all conflicted! (And clearly need to see Finding Neverland)

  3. Megan M.

    Hook is indeed the best Peter Pan. Rufio! Rufio! RU-FEE-OHHHHHH!

    I haven’t read the actual book either but it does indeed sound creepy. I’m usually more struck by that kind of thing in movies, like when you finally realize how lewd Grease is. Good times.

    • Words for Worms

      YES! Rufio ruled! And when they imagined food, real food did appear. So yay!

      Oh and Grease! I watched that as a kid and had NO IDEA how dirty it was!

  4. kristinshafel

    I must think! What tempo, Captain? Tempo tempo tempo tempoooooo…. a tarantella! (to the ship, to the ship, to the ship, to the ship….)

    Oh boy. Memories! I never read J.M. Barrie, but I did read Wizard of Oz a few years ago and felt the same—much darker and even more action-packed than the film.

    • Words for Worms

      Ahhhh! Yes! That is how I learned what a “tempo” was! I had to ask my mom what Captain Hook was talking about! I read the Wizard of Oz within the last few years too… Similar response.

  5. Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader

    “with teeny tiny chicklets all up in his mug” Ha ha ha!! I can’t stop giggling! I’d really like to read this. The only Pan I know is the Disney Pan and that’s a shame.

    I recently read the original Pinocchio. Sweet Lord, what a wacky book!!

  6. Liesel Hill

    You make some excellent points, here. I’ve never read it either. I have heard theories about Barry being a pedophile, and I’ve never really bought into that. (There’s no real evidence and I prefer to think of great writers as relatively decent human beings) but I can see that some of these concepts would alarm people. Very interesting post and discussion, though. 😀

    • Words for Worms

      Oh I’d hate to think of Barrie as a pedophile… I’m glad there’s no real evidence because that’s just yucky. I don’t see any real case for THAT concern in this book, but plenty of other disconcerting concepts!

      • Wayne

        Barrie was probably not an actual pedophile according to what I’ve read. However, he may have had fantasies: According to Wikipedia “One source for the speculation is a scene in the novel The Little White Bird, in which in the protagonist (who resembles Barrie) helps a small boy undress for bed, and at the boy’s request they sleep in the same bed.”

  7. Heather

    Alice in Wonderland is effing scary, but I didn’t see it that way as a kid. (At least I don’t remember seeing it that way as a kid.)

    • Words for Worms

      Alice is one of my FAVORITES now, but I didn’t read the book as a kid. It is pretty scary! As a kid when I saw the movie, I remember thinking some parts were really fun (the teaparty especially) and some parts were scary.Then again, I was scared of other movies too and would just close my eyes until the witches or whatever left the screen. Didn’t necessarily damped my enjoyment :).

      • Heather

        Oh, I love Alice in Wonderland…I was just amazed at how effed up it really is when I read it again as an adult. (I tend to love things that are effed up. Heh.)

        • Words for Worms

          I can’t argue with that at all! It is kind of the epitome of screwy kid-lit. It feels a bit like falling into a dream because no rules apply! 🙂

  8. June

    I don’t think I’ve had this happen with books, but I’ve definitely had those moments with some Disney movies that I watched as a kid. The Lion King: a deranged uncle kills his brother then blames it on his nephew, who in turn runs away from home and spends his adolescence thinking that he killed his own father. That’s a little heavy for kids! Or what about 101 Dalmatians? I specifically remember Cruella De Vil talking about wanting those puppies so that she could skin them and make fur coats. Yikes! I’m pretty sure that a lot of modern parents wouldn’t want their kids going near movies with those kinds of themes.

    • Words for Worms

      I have had snippets of the song going through my head all day. “I will never grow a mustache (I will never grow a mustache) or a fraction of an inch (or a fraction of an inch)”

  9. Jenny @ Reading the End (formerly Jenny's Books)

    I don’t think I’ve revisited Peter Pan a single time as an adult. I do remember being bewildered by the scene where Mr. Darling is totting up expenses for his children (mumps, measles, whooping cough, etc.), but most of the book is lost to my memory. Which is fine. I’m confident I would hate it if I reread it.

    We didn’t have any version of Peter Pan when I was a kid, although I think when I was in high school or so my little sister got a video of the musical (not the Mary Martin version though). We weren’t allowed to watch the Disney movie, I do specifically recall — my parents yanked it from our shelves and donated it or something, because they thought it was too racist and sexist for us to have. Which, like, yeah. I rewatched a bit of it with some kids I babysat for in college, and it is pretty awful.

  10. well minded

    So funny! I remember seeing a live production of Peter Pan when I was young, and I was totally creeped out by Sandy Duncan in the title role. Why can’t they ever find a talented young boy? Ugh.

  11. Wayne

    I’m think about re-reading some of the Grimm Fairy Tales. “Snow White” and “Hansel and Gretel” would be a good place to start. Very psychological stuff indeed.

  12. Sarah Says Read

    “The idea of Peter wandering around Neverland with teeny tiny chicklets all up in his mug seriously bothered me.”

    SNORT. Lol you are the funniest.

    This book is FULL of bad images and messages to kids. But I did kind of love that Tinkerbell was such an asshole. I liked that about her in the movie when I was a kid, and it’s so much more evident in the book.

    Hook IS a good time. Don’t feel too guilty, that was a great adaptation of an already-shady book 🙂

  13. Writer / Mummy

    I don’t think I can have watched Peter Pan as a child because I didn’t remember any of it when I watched it with my kids. I wasn’t paying attention the first time (their TV time is my reading time!) but when I did pay attention I was horrified. My daughter loves tinkerbell from all the merchandise and the beginnings of every Disney DVD, but you’re right she’s a complete cow. And the mermaids! And Peter is a total (think of child-appropriate nasty word). They still insist on watching it but I keep hiding it at the back of the cupboard. Not good. Give me Tangled any day! Frying pans, who knew, right?

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  15. Leah

    Ew, this sounds super creepy. Also, Disney’s Little Mermaid is SO FAR OFF BASE from the original Hans Christian Anderson book. I remember reading the book as a kid and being super depressed by it.

  16. Helen @ My Novel Opinion

    So I actually have Peter Pan on my shelf but never read it. It’s actually one of my favorite disney movies (I must come up with an excuse to watch it soon) but I hadn’t realized that the book was strange and creepy…this makes me curious. I also have Oz…see I started collecting the Puffin Clothbound Classics because the covers are so gorgeous and they “look” nice on my shelf 🙂 I don’t actually intend to read those actual copies – so I’m going to have to buy duplicates of Pan and Oz in not so pretty editions so that I can actually read them. Like I need an excuse to buy more books 😀

  17. Milo

    The Martin the Warrior series by Brian Jacques. These were perhaps the first “serious” fantasy books I read as an elementary shool kid but now that I’m an adult I notice more and more of the very serious topics put into the books. Also, are these animals life sized or is this an anthropomorfic type of world where mice and squirrels are human sized? Not the same as Peter Pan of course, but still…

    Also almost every single classic Disney movie ever…especially Bambi! That movie was just messed up yo!

  18. lauratfrey

    Oh god. I let my 3 year old watch this movie and now he`s obsessed with it. I had NO IDEA it was so horrifically sexist and racist!! Ugh! That said, I do love George Darling.

  19. Wayne

    Just thinking about Michael Jackson’s misbehavior and Neverland Ranch. He was a big Peter Pan fan and a boy that “never grew up”.

  20. Michael

    What an awful article!

    1. You said “he’s about ten years old”. No, he isn’t. His age is never stated. The character Peter Pan was first introduced in The Little White Bird — and was little more than an infant. Saying he’s ten years old is moronic – he was almost certainly younger than that. But again, his true age is never revealed.

    2. The “redskins” were savages because they had no technology back then compared to Western culture. And they were portrayed very favorably in the book. Stop making horrendous comparisons across centuries of cultural shift. Stop making everything political *gag*

    3. Have you considered that Wendy didn’t go on adventures because she liked staying back and playing the role of a mother? And that it was she — and she alone — who visited Peter years after all the Lost Boys went home? Of course not, because in your backwards liberal hypocrisy you don’t like when women make decisions for themselves, as opposed to what you want them to be.

    4. Peter Pan was not an “ass” — he was, like all children, heartless. That was one of the most poignant messages JM Barrie delivered. He didn’t portray children as innocent amazing creatures …. because they aren’t. They are innocent, and they are full of joy, but they are also, in many ways, selfish and heartless. That is what they are, and what they will always be, and these kinds of insights are why we are still reading this book 100 years later.

    • Katie Words for Worms

      Well. Thanks for that, Michael. I vehemently disagree with everything you posted. But hey. So glad my 8 year old article resonated with you. Have fun interneting. Try not to use any racial slurs out there, K?

  21. Michael

    I’m sorry if my comment was too brusque. But this article was such a disgrace to Peter Pan, one of the most iconic literary characters ever created, a masterpiece by JM Barrie, a story that has captured the imagination and fantasy of entire generations of children, and – even more than that – punched through to the essence of the greatest American theme — child innocence — that I could not allow the nonsense and outright misinformation you spewed to go uncontested.

    It especially hurt when I read the comments and saw other users (almost all of whom hadn’t even read the book) take your blatant misinformation as truth. You’re right that I’m eight years too late, but still better late than never.

    • Katie Words for Worms

      There’s a lot to unpack here, my dude.
      1. I hate to be overly pedantic, but JM Barrie was not American, he was Scottish. The Darling children hailed from London. The only thing even remotely American about this work is the dismissive and offensive attitude toward Indigenous people, so calling Peter Pan “the essence of the greatest American theme” doesn’t make sense.
      2. The opinions of others on this thread remain perfectly valid regardless of whether or not they actually READ Peter Pan, because every film and stage adaptation portray the same problematic themes of racism and sexism.
      3. There is nothing in this blog post (yes, a personal blog post, not an article in a major publication or work of literary criticism) that is “blatant misinformation.” Everything I discussed was right there in the text. Your chosen interpretation of the text is different than mine. Which is fine. But YOU having an differing opinion doesn’t make ME a liar.
      4. I’m going to err on the side of compassion here- it’s clear that Peter Pan holds a very special place in your heart. I can understand that. As a child, I found it magical. However. I’m no longer a child, and for me, the bad elements of this story outweigh the good. I have no doubt that there are places on the internet where you can find people who also delight in your fandom. Do yourself a favor and find a place that brings you joy instead of arguing with strangers.

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