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The flights of Peter Pan: A history of Peter Pan in print, onstage and on screen
Levi Miller as Peter and Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard in "Pan." - photo by Jeff Peterson
Bolstered by some snazzy visuals and a star-studded cast, this weeks release of Joe Wrights Pan promises to explore the origins of J.M. Barries beloved character Peter Pan in an entirely new way.

Over the years, though, Peter Pan, the quintessential childhood rebel, has undergone some pretty drastic changes that might surprise even fans of the original 1911 book.

Heres a brief overview of the history of Barries beloved character in print, onstage and on screen.

The early years

Every legend has a beginning, say the posters for Pan.

J.M. Barries literary character began life in a somewhat unexpected way. He was not, as one might imagine, the star of the first story he appeared in, a 1902 book written by Barrie titled The Little White Bird. In fact, Peter was just part of a story within a story. And in this very first iteration, he is barely recognizable.

Far from the adventure-hungry, pirate-dueling boy audiences are familiar with, this version of the character was a 7-day-old infant who rode a goat and lived in Kensington Gardens among fairies. Although he could also fly, the ability didnt come from pixie dust, but from the whimsical notion that Peter, like all children, according to Barrie, used to be a bird which is why, reasoned the author, according to "J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in and Out of Time: A Children's Classic at 100" by Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr, nurseries of the time had bars on the windows: to prevent infants who briefly forget that theyre human from flying away.

These chapters were later published in 1906 as a standalone childrens book (with a few alterations) titled Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

But it was through a stage play, primarily, that the character really took shape. In 1904, the first production of Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldnt Grow Up was performed in London. It introduced everything from Wendy and the rest of the Darling children to the Never-Never-Land and Tiger Lily with her tribe of Picaninny warriors.

The play proved so popular with audiences that it was performed every year thereafter for 10 years, albeit with slight tweaks along the way. For instance, in the initial production, Peter and the other children could fly completely unaided, without having to use pixie dust. That was changed after Barrie started getting complaints from parents whose children had injured themselves by jumping from high places.

Barrie later turned the play into a book, Peter and Wendy, in 1911, and it has become a bona fide childrens classic and arguably the most successful novelization of a play/movie ever.


By far the most well-known take on Peter Pan to this day is Walt Disneys 1953 animated version.

The characters first on-screen appearance, though, dates back nearly three decades before, to a 1924 silent film.

One of the big innovations of this early adaptation, which was produced during Barries lifetime (he even wrote a draft of the script), was casting a flesh-and-blood actress to play Tinker Bell. Before this, the character had been portrayed using just a dot of light that stage hands would flash around with a mirror to focus it.

It was Disneys animated version, however, that invented a lot of what audiences think of when they imagine Peter Pan today, including his appearance. Barries own description of Peter was pretty scant on details, but he wore an outfit made of skeleton leaves and the juices that flow from trees, according to the 1911 book. Likewise, in the early stage productions, the actors wore auburn-colored leaves and cobwebs not the now-iconic green tunic-and-tights combo from the 1953 movie.

Even in the 1911 book, Barries Peter was also significantly younger than the Disney version. In fact, he was supposed to still have his baby teeth.

Just a year after Disneys animated feature hit theaters, Peter Pan also appeared on Broadway in a hugely popular Tony Award-winning musical starring Mary Martin. An NBC live broadcast of the show in 1955 pulled in a record-setting 65 million viewers.

Since then, there have been a number of other adaptations, including a 2003 movie directed by P.J. Hogan and a 2014 revival of the musical, once again broadcast on NBC, this time starring Allison Williams in the title role opposite Christopher Walken.

Sequels, prequels, spinoffs and reimaginings

Barries play and books have proven to be a wellspring of inspiration for later generations. Beyond just starring in adaptations of Peter and Wendy, Peter Pan has appeared in all sorts of stories in print and on screen.

This includes sequels, such as Steven Spielbergs 1993 Hook, starring Robin Williams as an adult Peter, and Disneys animated Return to Never Land, which was loosely inspired by an added scene Barrie wrote for the stage version that he called When Wendy Grew Up. An Afterthought.

In 2004, British author Geraldine McCaughrean was selected to write an official sequel book to Barries original 1911 novel. Titled Peter Pan in Scarlet, it picks up with the Lost Boys and the Darling family circa 1926, when bombs from World War I have punched holes between the real world and Neverland.

Likewise, a number of stories have explored the origins of Peter and the Lost Boys well before Pan ever tried to including a five-book series by Pulitzer Prize-winning author/humorist Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, beginning with Peter Pan and the Starcatchers, which has itself been turned into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.

Then there are the animated spinoffs, such as DisneyToon Studios computer-animated Disney Fairy franchise as well as Disney Juniors Jake and the Never Land Pirates.

And finally, Peter Pan has even been portrayed as an all-out villain in the ABC television series Once Upon a Time a twist that is far less at odds with Barries original conception of the character than one might imagine.

All in all, Peter Pans popularity as a character does not seem to be waning, even after 113 years. There is something about the impish youth who refuses to let go of childish things that resonates with audiences as much now as it did when Barrie first created the character which, in all fairness, Barrie more or less predicted in the last line of When Wendy Grew Up. To paraphrase, Peter Pan will remain a part of childrens lives as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.

Other sources: "J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan In and Out of Time: A Children's Classic at 100," by Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr; "J.M. Barrie & Peter Pan: From Fantasy and Dark Realities,"; "The Evolution of Peter Pan: From J.M. Barrie to 'Once Upon a Time,'"; "The True Story Behind 'Peter Pan' is Crazy & A Little Creepy," by Mike Albo,; and "The Racist History of Peter Pan's Indian Tribe,"