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On Peter Pan

CBC’s new History is Lit series will explore literary history, book lore, ancient storytelling, and any place where stories and yesteryear meet.

Books are better than movies, or are they?

Like many readers, I was taught from a young age that books are better than their film adaptations. After experiencing a few botched interpretations of my favorite stories, this concept was easy to believe. However, recently, I started to notice that not all film adaptations bother me. 

With this week in history marking J.M. Barrie’s birthday anniversary, Peter Pan came to mind. I noticed that I enjoy the screen and stage adaptations of this beloved children’s story much more than the novel. Diving into the history, I found out that my preference makes sense. Peter Pan was originally a play, one that Barrie continually worked on and updated several times. As it happens, this was a pretty good thing. When the play was first released, many kids tried to fly and ended up in the hospital, so Barrie invented pixie dust as his early twentieth-century version of “don’t try this at home, kids.” 

As much as Barrie tweaked, one thing he left vague and untouched was Peter Pan’s appearance. He allowed each production to interpret and present their Peter Pan version. It wasn’t until the 1953 Disney adaptation that the iconic green outfit debuted and is now irrevocably tied to the character. Disney didn’t just innovate though; they followed longstanding traditions too. The same actor voiced Captain Hook and George Darling, as had become tradition in the stage plays. 

But, no matter how much we love Disney’s iconic adaptation, the No. 1 spot has to go to Hook (1991). I must have watched Hook hundreds of times. The idea of a grown-up finding his inner child while kids were in charge was #goals, plus I had a major crush on Rufio (RU-FI-OOOooo), but who didn’t? Watching the legendaries Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Maggie Smith was a masterclass in acting. And I was not the only one who thought so. The set of Hook was frequented by many celebrities, some of whom accepted cameos and minor roles just to hang out work with these top performers and director. (Glen Close was the pirate who gets locked in the chest with a scorpion while Carrie Fisher triaged the script!)

Peter Pan adaptations show the genius of Barrie. He created an incredible story and then made it a playground where kids of all ages could come to play and create. Regardless of how we consume stories, I think the key to appreciating them is in viewing them as adaptations (not copies). Each one is a new and exciting way to tell the same story. 

And, don’t forget, it’s the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning. See you in Neverland!


CBC’s resident history and yesteryear explorer, Laura Peraza, takes you back in time. Check out other series on our blog and our Reader Resources for more books and materials.

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