Ambiguity and Morals in Barrie’s and Disney’s Peter Pan

June 19, 2022 by Essay Writer

Peter Pan, the 1911 novel by J.M. Barrie, has been a popular read for over a century. In the one-hundred and six years of its existence it has inspired numerous adaptations for film, stage productions and other works. Among the film adaptations reside titles such as Hook (2013) and Peter Pan (2003), but undoubtedly the most well-known adaptation is Disney’s Peter Pan (1953). According to Deborah Cartmell “the ambition of a Disney adaptation is to usurp its source . . . so that the film adaptation triumphs over its literary original, and, for most viewers, it is the film rather than the text that is the original” (169); Peter Pan has a reputation of being a true Disney classic. Disney productions take immense liberties with the texts they adapt, and do not shy away from omitting, replacing, or greatly changing characters, replacing sad or realistic endings with happy ones or adapting the plot to fit the Disney corporation’s views and goals. Whilst Barrie’s novel is often described as a children’s book, it contains some dark subject matter that might not be suitable for (all) children; for example, it is mentioned that Peter “thins out” his lost boys when they “seem to be growing up” (59). Peter’s character is not wholly the good, innocent hero we would expect from a children’s story. Janet Wasko identifies a clear-cut distinction between hero and villain as one of the key elements in Disney’s films, linked to the guarantee of good always triumphing over evil (ch. 6); in this case, Peter defeating Captain Hook. Barrie’s characters, when compared to those in Disney’s adaptation, are more ambiguous in nature and behaviour.

Transposition of medium causes inevitable changes to the original work: according to Linda Hutcheon, “a novel, in order to be dramatized, has to be distilled, reduced in size, and thus, inevitably, complexity” (36). In the medium of film there is simply less time to elaborate on character details. Furthermore, unless certain forms of narration are used, it is harder to convey character’s thoughts, which novels can accomplish through narrating the stream of consciousness, or their covert backgrounds and motivations, usually revealed by an (omniscient) narrator. In Barrie’s novel, this narrator, for example, tells us that Hook “was not wholly evil; he loved flowers . . . and sweet music . . . ; and let it be frankly admitted, the idyllic nature of the scene stirred him profoundly” (149). Though loving flowers and music might not seem like significant factors of measuring one’s degree of evilness with, and this sentence can therefore be interpreted in an ironic fashion, the reader’s attention is nonetheless called to diversity in character; the bad guy is more like us than we might want to believe. No such thing happens in the animated film: there is no omniscient narrator to enlighten the public. However, as mentioned, there certainly are cinematographic devices that can achieve this same effect, but Disney does not attempt to convey this side of Hook in a visual manner either: the only moments where Hook is not portrayed as menacing, he is either afraid of the crocodile, or acting as a comic relief by, for example, losing half his outfit whilst fighting with said crocodile (00:44:22). Simplifying Hook’s character is therefore a deliberate choice and cannot be blamed entirely on transposition of medium; he needs to be unquestionably evil, and positioning him into comedic situations where he is the victim reaffirms that villains should not be taken seriously.

The role and importance of animated films, with children as their target audience, is multi-faceted; however, increasing pressure is put on their function of educating youth about values and morals (Giroux 66). The idea that good behaviour will always be rewarded and evil will perish, at least in the end, is a constant theme in Disney’s many movies. In the battle of good and evil, both sides must be clearly distinguished, leaving little room for ambiguity or complexity; “good always triumphs; dealing with defeat, failure or injustice is typically not explored in the Disney world” (Wasko ch. 6). Everything seems to work out for the protagonist, who is always the hero and therefore the victor. Peter’s ambiguous traits are simply left out of the Disney adaptation; no mention is made of him killing anyone, nor does he actually wound any of his enemies on screen. This can also be attributed to another characteristic of Disney movies, namely the avoidance of excessive violence and not explicitly displaying bodily harm or blood. However, both factors seem to work together when we compare the weapons of the pirates to those of Peter and the lost boys: in the film, only Peter carries a sharp weapon, namely a small dagger, while the rest of the boys carry wooden swords and other blunt weapons such as slingshots. In the novel, the lost boys use bow and arrow as well as actual swords (Barrie 72, 174), while the pirates use sharp swords in both versions of the story. Captain Hook owns the most impressive weapon, his hook, in Barrie’s as well as Disney’s version. By making the good guys relatively harmless but still victorious, Disney avoids showing excessive violence, affirms their roles as good or evil characters and shows that good will triumph even if the bad side seems to have the upper hand.

It could be argued that Disney’s portrayal of the pirate Smee, however, does stress ambiguity of character. He is Hook’s right hand, but while his role is that of a villainous pirate his character in the film is typically ‘good’: he is caring, funny, not very intelligent, bespectacled and never harms the children. In the novel his disposition is far from this sweet: “Smee had pleasant names for everything, and his cutlass was Johnny Corkscrew, because he wriggled it around in the wound. One could mention many lovable traits in Smee. For instance, after killing, it was his spectacles he wiped instead of his weapon” (Barrie 67). Though he still performs typically feminine actions such as sewing, and is described as being “infinitely pathetic” (156), there is a mean streak in him. In the novel, Smee is sent out to drown Tiger Lily and only fails to do so because he obeys what he thinks are Hook’s orders. Disney conveniently chose do let their main villain Hook do the dirty work whilst Smee holds on to the boat (00:40:21). It seems a good-natured pirate would not fit in the typical Disney universe, but as long as Smee does not actively partake in any evil activities he is the perfect example of a good person caught in a bad situation. In the final battle between the pirates and the lost boys, the pirates are beaten and humiliated; all of them apart from Smee, that is. All he does is pack provisions onto the lifeboat during the fight (1:10:30), and since he does not partake his behaviour is not punished.

Disney simplified Barrie’s characters, partly to fit them to the new medium without being forced to use certain narration techniques, mostly to enforce the morals they wanted to teach to the children that would be watching the film. Virtuous behaviour is rewarded and therefore stimulated, whereas bad deeds are punished and therefore discouraged. Disney is the leading authority when it comes to children’s entertainment, and the liberties they take with Barrie’s characters serve a clear purpose: to morally educate the next generation according to their standards.

Works Cited

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. 1911. London: Puffin, 2008. Print.

Cartmell, Deborah. “Adapting Children’s Literature”. The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen. Ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whehelan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 167-80. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

Giroux, Henry A. “Animating Youth: the Disneyfication of Children’s Culture”. Socialist Review 24.3 (1995): 23-55. Web. 15 Jan. 2017.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. London: Routledge, 2006. Web. 13 Jan. 2017.

Peter Pan. Screenplay by Ted Sears and Erdman Penner. Dir. Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson. Disney Studios, 1953. Film.

Wasko, Janet. Understanding Disney: the Manufacture of Fantasy. 2001. Cambridge: Polity, 2001. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.

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