Finding Neverland: A Reaction

So, this is something of a tangent, but it’s directly related to a WIP I’ve been playing around with lately (you know, to the tune of nearly 175k words, but no big deal). Half of that WIP is set in first decade of the 20th century. That story thread procees through time to the Great War. As a result, I’ve done some research on the era. And one of the more interesting entry points into the era was the story of J.M. Barrie, the Llewellyn Davies family, and Peter Pan.

Peter Pan has become a part of our collective consciousness, and he has a place in most everyone’s childhood, thanks to various adaptations (most notably the Disney cartoon version, the one I watched on VHS as a kid). Most people aren’t aware of the story behind Peter Pan, however, which–for me as an adult–is more interesting than Peter Pan itself. There have been multiple books about the relationship between J.M. Barrie and the boys who inspired the play, and there’ve been a few stage, television, and feature film adaptations. The most recent, and probably best-known–and likely least-accurate–is Finding Neverland with Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. It’s lovely, of course, and does some very interesting work with weaving the characters’ fantasies in with their realities. The acting from Depp and Winslet and the children is fine. The arc of the story is depressing but uplifting at the same time, which is a pretty hard feat to pull off.

I know the target audience was a younger crowd, and I know that in a feature film there are constraints, and I also know (having listened to the commentary) that the writer and director were really going for a theme (the power of imagination). As far as achieving what it aimed to achieve, I think the movie succeeded. Yet, I still felt it was lacking. And, yes, I am a historical fiction writer with a certain point of view and maybe–just maybe–something of a chip on my shoulder when it come to taking historical liberties. But I think that the choices made by the director and writer resulted in a portrayal that was disingenuous.

Keep in mind, again, that I’m approaching this from the viewpoint of a writer of historical fiction. I know that film is constrained by certain limitations that I, as a novelist, am not. I try to make allowances.

The Biggies

Let’s get out of the way a few big things first.

The film omits two very important people: the boys’ father, Arthur, and the youngest of the five brothers, Nico. That’s right, Arthur Llewelyn Davies was very much alive when Barrie met his sons, and he was very much alive when Peter Pan was first performed in 1904. His attitude towards Barrie’s suddenly insertion into his family’s life isn’t easy to gauge (he was a stiff-upper-lip sort). But he seems to have been quietly disapproving of the situation until near the end of his life, when he seems to have recognized that he was dying and that Barrie could (and would) offer assistance to the large family being left behind. (Arthur had cancer of the jaw and underwent a harrowing surgery that essentially removed most of one side of his face; the cancer returned anyway, and he died in 1907 after a long illness.)

Nico was the youngest of the boys and, at the time of Finding Neverland, that is 1904, he was an infant. This is a pretty egregious omission. In the commentary, the writer and director said that they didn’t want to have to deal with an infant being lugged around all the time, presumably getting int he way. They also pointed out that to have an infant would mean that the father had died fairly recently. Since Sylvia is dead by the end of the movie, that would mean that both parents died within maybe a year of one another. That’s perfectly logical–well, the second point is; the first one strikes me as somewhat lazy. The culprit here is the compression of the timeline. There’s an obvious solution: have Nico in the picture, but make him a bit older. You might have to bump up the other boys’ ages slightly, but it would work. Or, even more simple, just have Nico as a baby  and don’t worry about the fact that that means the boys lost both parents in very short order. If you’re going to compress the timeline, don’t solve the resulting problems by erasing a real person from existence. (The irony here is that at one point in the film, Nico’s daughter and granddaughter are extras.)

Though this may seem odd, my biggest problem wasn’t these larger omissions (though they bugged me) or the more minor fabrications or rearranging of facts (which honestly didn’t bug me much). Perhaps my biggest problem was where the film dropps us. Sylvia is dead. Barrie is helping Peter to process his grief. And . . . roll credits. Fade to black. Not a title card about the real family, not any explanation of the boys’ later lives (which is most of the story, in my mind), not even a dedication to them. The movie-makers’ near-indifference to the real story of these real people seems to extend as far as excluding them from the credits! We just stop while the boys are all very young, not bothering to acknowledge that, unlike Peter Pan, they all did grow up. I know the story is uplifting, and the subsequent lives of the boys is less so, but it would fit perfectly well with the movie to have added a few cards at the end with photos of the real Barrie with the real Llewelyn Davies boys.

A brief tangent to explain why I feel strongly about acknowledging the rest of the boys’ story, however briefly: Peter Pan was really only the beginning of Barrie’s relationship with the boys. He became guardian of all five boys and was involved in their upbringing, especially that of Michael and Nico (George and Jack were a bit older; Peter was in between). In 1915, George–who was the original inspiration behind Peter Pan–was killed at the age of twenty-one in the Great War. Michael, who was perhaps the closest of the boys to Barrie, drowned at the age of twenty (it might have been suicide, though we’ll never know for sure). Peter and Jack, like George, both served in the Great War, though they survived it. In later years, Peter committed suicide. Nico was perhaps the best-adjusted of his brothers (except maybe for George) and lived to a ripe old age. You can see how all of this might clash with the tenor of the movie, so I don’t blame them for not going there. But there are plenty of pictures of happier days, when the boys were young and playing fantastical games with Barrie.

The Little Stuff

Because I think it warrants it, I’m going to list a few of the smaller things from the movie that don’t match up with reality. This isn’t comprehensive.

Peter wasn’t the favorite. Okay, so this is a mid-to-low level change, but it isn’t a biggie in my opinion. In Finding Neverland, we see Barrie making particular friends with Peter, which might seem inevitable, given that Barrie named his character Peter Pan. But in reality, while Barrie clearly cared about all five boys, he just as clearly connected most with George and Michael, both of whom tragically died very young (those deaths crushed him, by the way). Peter and Jack were much more wary of Barrie as boys and young men. (Peter did eventually reconcile with Barrie, though he always viewed Peter Pan as a mixed blessing at best.)

Barrie did meet the boys in Kensington Gardens, but their mother wasn’t with them; their nurse was. Barrie met Sylvia a little later at a dinner party and when they got talking, the penny dropped and he realized that the boys he’d befriended were Sylvia’s sons. This one doesn’t bother me. The more roundabout way of meeting Sylvia doesn’t add anything to the story.

The aforementioned nurse, Mary, was in the boys’ lives as long as Barrie was. In Finding Neverland, her role as Barrie’s most prominent adversary is taken over by Sylvia’s mother. This one actually doesn’t bother me a whole lot: Mrs. Du Maurier represents Sylvia’s family (she did have family, and so did Arthur) who were willing to take care of the boys but simply didn’t have the resources that Barrie did. Sylvia had told her mother that she didn’t want the boys separated; if Barrie hadn’t taken all five, they would have had to divide the boys up among relatives since none were able to care for all five. All along, Mary the nurse disapproved of Baryr’s influence, and so did members of Sylvia’s family. It makes some sense to concentrate that disapproval in one person with such limited time.

George breaking his arm while “flying” and Peter putting on an amateur play are both fictional events. And they’re perfectly fine by me. The play is more acceptable than the broken arm, which to my mind doesn’t serve much purpose. (Peter did end up going into the publishing business, though not as a writer; it was Michael who apparently had great literary talent before his untimely death.) Still, there are plenty of real-life events they could have pulled from instead.

The performance of Peter Pan in the Llewelyn Davies household really did happen, though it was put on not for Sylvia but for Michael.

In the movie, Sylvia doesn’t want to talk about her illness, and that *sort of* mirrors reality. Sylvia doesn’t seem to have known until very late in her illness that she was dying. This seems to have been due to a combination of her own unwillingness to think she was ill and to everyone else’s collusion to keep her in the dark. So, not far from the truth.

The Good Stuff

My discomfort with the whitewashing notwithstanding, this movie did get a lot of things right. First and foremost, it faced the pedophilia rumors head-on and made it clear that Barrie cared for the children as children. Most people who know the story well would agree: Barrie was not abusing these boys. Yes, they had an odd relationship, but the circumstances were odd, extraordinary even. Nico himself later said there was nothing sexual about Barrie’s relationship with the boys.

There were some nice, authentic details, too. Gilbert Cannan was a real man who came between Barrie and his wife, Mary (and, no, their marriage was never happy, and though the divorce was public and ugly, the two of them don’t seem to have borne each other much malice). Barrie created a real book titled “The Boy Castaways”, which was a set of photographs from his time at Black Lake Cottage (portrayed in the movie) with fictionalized captions (in the movie, it’s the title he puts on an empty journal for Peter). Barrie’s relationship with the producer Peter Frohman is basically accurate (Frohman died in the sinking of the Lusitania). Barrie really did create a cricket team called the “Allahakbarries”, and famous literary people like Arthur Conan Doyle really did play on it. And Barrie really did stick stamps to people’s ceiling by putting them on the back of a coin and tossing the coin at the ceiling. There were just enough little details like that that I wasn’t totally outraged by the movie–but the overall tone still made me uncomfortable. Perhaps I’ll come up for a more articulate reason at some point, but for now I’ll just say the tone didn’t do justice to the reality lived by the people it portrayed.

If I had to quantify this one, I’d say 3.5 out of 5 as a movie and 2.5 out of 5 for the accuracy.


For further reading, I HIGHLY recommend J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin. There was a miniseries made in the ’70’s based on that book (The Lost Boys) which is exactingly accurate and very well done (it has some flaws, mostly due to a limited budget and the necessity of casting a bunch of different actors to play the boys at different ages). It isn’t available new, but used copies are available (I have one).

3 thoughts on “Finding Neverland: A Reaction

  1. This is an interesting take on the whole ‘how much history, how much fiction?’ debate. Personally, I think you are looking more for a dramatised biography rather than a work of fiction based on real events. I know a lot of authors who would feel as you do, but I think most writers (and most readers) are more interested in the story and if changing the facts makes the story work better, then things have to be changed. In ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ I have left out a whole invasion. I explain why in the notes. The British invaded Buenos Aires in 1806 and this is at the centre of my story. The invasion is described pretty accurately, though the details of the defeat are fictional. In the story the British leave and the plot moves on. In fact, they returned the following year and were again driven out. As history, it’s fascinating. As a novel it would just be a boring re-run. So it’s gone.

    Keeping in every historical fact makes things run long (175K words is pretty long) and can interrupt your narrative arc. (I’ve never been quite sure what that means, but I think that too much detail is not particularly arc-y.) The balance between fact and fiction in historical novels is always tricky (and I’ve blogged about it several times, if you’re interested in my take – for example: In the end, though, it’s called ‘historical *fiction*’, not ‘historical dramatised biography’ and I think the balance should reflect that.

    That’s my view, in any case. Every writer draws their own line and there are certainly authors I’ve given up on because they play too fast and loose with the facts. Good luck with your approach – just don’t let it bog you down.

    • I agree, Tom, and I’m generally pretty forgiving, actually, especially with movies. Something about the particular changes they made just seemed *off* to me. It’s hard for to put into words, but I felt they missed the heart of the real story–like they were forcing it to fit a predetermined arc instead of allowing the story to have its own arc. This doesn’t have much to do with my own approach, since I don’t write often about real people (and when I do, I make it work).

  2. This makes me want to watch the movie funnily enough. I enjoyed a similar film that was dramatized and not as accurate as it could be, but I do admit that I choose to ignore those things in favor of the story. I just educate myself on the real story later because I don’t believe story means I should stay ignorant.

    That’s probably the thing that bothers me the most as much as I like stories like this one, people take them at face value and don’t look up what really happened. It’s a damn shame that people are so lazy.

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