MORIARTY Takes A Trip To Neverland!! PJ Hogan's PETER PAN Script Reviewed!
Published at: Oct. 10, 2008, 4:39 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Let’s just cut right to the controversial statement and get it out of the way, shall we?
The screenplay for the new live-action PETER PAN, written by PJ Hogan and Michael Goldenberg, is better than the original PETER AND WENDY by J.M. Barrie.
And let me go ahead and address something else before you even bother bringing it up.
This is not HOOK. Do not make any of your decisions about this film based on your feelings about HOOK. Despite shared source material, these are radically different movies.
And that’s a good thing.
The last two big script reviews I’ve written have been describing projects that might not happen. When I autopsied SUSPECT ZERO, it was because I’m afraid the film is so far off track that there’s no fixing it. When I gave you a peek at THE FOUNTAIN, I was careful not to spoil any of the surprises of Aronofsky’s film in the hopes that Warner Bros. does the right thing and makes the movie.
But this time out, I want to write a love letter.
I want to set aside the possible and discuss the probable. This film’s got its greenlight. Full speed ahead.
This sumbitch is gonna happen.
As I understand it, they’re aiming for a December 2003 release for the film. If they start shooting this October in Queensland, Australia, as planned, then they’ll have no problem making the date. They’ve hired a number of the major department heads already, and so far, things are very promising.
Every good rock band has got to have a great rhythm section, and in the world of feature films, I consider the cinematographer and the production designer to be the rhythm section. In this case, director PJ Hogan has got some serious power he can rely on. Donald McAlpine is a great cinematographer whose work with Baz Luhrmann on MOULIN ROUGE and ROMEO + JULIET has marked a real rennaisance in the palette of a guy who has been an accomplished and professional craftsman since hitting the map with MY BRILLIANT CAREER in 1979. He’s worked on films as disparate as Alan J. Pakula’s criminally underrated ORPHANS, action classic PREDATOR, late-career Mazursky hits like DOWN & OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS and MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON. I have confidence that McAlpine will rise to whatever artistic challenge PJ Hogan offers in his efforts to create a persuasive fairy tale universe.
He should be aided mightily by Roger Ford, a workhorse of the Australian film industry who got his start on DOCTOR WHO back in the ‘60s. His work with John Duigan (FLIRTING, THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE, SIRENS) is quite lovely, evocative of very specific times and places. But there are two particular films that make him more qualified for PETER PAN than almost anyone out there. He was the production designer on both BABE and BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, two of the most exquisitely crafted fairy tales ever committed to film. The detail in both films is both original and somehow immediately familiar. There’s a rich tradition of interpretations of Peter Pan and the other characters that Barrie created that Ford can draw from in creating his world, and the challenge for them is similar to the challenge that faced Peter Jackson and his remarkable team of collaborators when they began to give shape to Middle Earth. Jackson was smart enough to involve the artists whose work had defined Tolkien, like Howe and Lee, and I hope Hogan and Dean dig deep in their research. In particular, I hope to god they look at the work of Greg Hildebrandt, whose illustrated PETER PAN is worth tracking down, no matter what sort of e-Bay/Amazon/Google hunt you have to go on.
These are all the images I was able to track down. It’s just a taste of how deep his work on the subject is. There’s an image of the children leaving the nursery, flying away into the night as their parents stare out the window, unaware of what’s overhead, that totally captures the mood of what Hogan and Goldenberg have written. Hildebrandt captures the menace of the pirates and the breathtaking beauty of a world of perpetual summer and the power of Tiger Lily and the wild child nature of Pan. Tinkerbell, based on Hildebrandt’s love, is particularly striking in his work. Overall, his work reminds you that PETER PAN is a story about children... but not necessarily for children.
I don’t profess to being an expert on JM Barrie or his books or his plays or the original PETER PAN. I was raised on the Disney film, and that’s the strongest impression of the characters that I have. When I finished reading Hogan’s script, though, one of our chatters steered me to a website where I was able to read the full text of PETER AND WENDY. Reading it back to back with the script, the first thing that is apparent is the enormous care that Hogan and Goldenberg have taken in trying to translate not only the tone of Barrie’s work to the screen, but also the exact language where they can. One of the things I learned from reading the original book is that it’s very much a book written in the voice of an adult, for other adults. It’s full of sly wit and genuine remorse for something lost. It’s not as blatantly cracked as Lewis Carroll’s ALICE books, and it’s not the same kind of involved fantasy as Frank Baum’s OZ books. If anything, it reminds me of William Goldman’s novel THE PRINCESS BRIDE (which is quite a different beast from Rob Reiner’s equally wonderful film version), the “good parts version” of a non-existant book that Goldman loved as a kid. In that novel, Goldman is a character, a presence throughout. The way he edits the story and tells it to his own kid reveals much about him. In PETER AND WENDY, there’s a tone that draws us in, that earns our confidence. The fact that so much melancholy creeps in around the edges is one of the things that distinguishes Barrie’s work, and right from the start, this script works to preserve that.
”All children, except one, grow up.”
That’s how the book opens.
Sounds of a forest. Exotic bird calls. The wind rustling through tree tops.
TITLE: All children grow up...
The words fade. Then:
TITLE: Except one.
That’s how the script begins.
If the purist in you freaks out about breaking the single sentence into two title cards and rearranging the sentence slightly, then I don’t know what to tell you. I hear Paxil is quite mellow. You will never, ever be satisfied with an adaptation, and you should not read any further. Just go directly to the Talk Backs to begin bellowing.
Everyone else, though... you’re in for a treat. This is a lovely ode to the art of storytelling itself, and begins, appropriately, with Wendy in the nursery telling stories to younger brothers John and Michael. Wendy uses descriptions lifted straight from Barrie in the novel as she describes Captain Hook and his band of pirates, including “Cecco, who cut his name on the back of the governor at Goa; Bill Jukes, every inch of him tattooed; Noodler, whose hands were fixed on backwards,” and more. John and Michael are a receptive audience, and we see how much they adore their sister and follow her. We also get a chance to see Nana, their giant Newfoundland dog who doubles as a nanny.
We meet their family, and the screenwriters have added a new family member, Aunt Millicent, who serves as the voice of “acceptable” society. She’s the one steering Mr. Darling’s future at the Bank where he works, the one steering the social life of the Darlings, and the one who first realizes Wendy is a young woman now, and no longer a mere girl.
Aunt Millicent is also the one who decides that Wendy has to move out of the nursery and stop spending time telling stories to the boys.
This simple event, and the appearance of a strange leaf on the wind, are the two things that start this adventure, and right away, there is a matter of fact quality to the fantastic that is very appealing. I hate movies where actors stand around and gape at awe at some teamster offscreen with a piece of tape on a stick. Spielberg pioneered an entire generation of filmmakers who seem to have carved whole careers from the CGI reaction shot. Although I’m not an enormous fan of MINORITY REPORT, the FX in that film managed to all seem like an extension of the story rather than the reason for the story, and Scott Farrar, the visual effects supervisor for that film, is working on this one. I’m hoping that when the magic starts to creep in around the edges of the frame in this film, Farrar and his team will remember to actually make it all seem magical. The challenge for Hogan is find children who can make it all seem completely real. Thankfully, as he writes in the script:
... [W]hat troubles a grown-up will never trouble a child. For instance, a child may remember to mention, years after it happened, that they once met a ghost and had a lovely game with it.
At one point, Lasse Hallstrom almost made this film with Christian Bale starring, just after EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Steven Spielberg was also attached to the film for a while, but these were all different versions, developed by different writers. Spielberg’s version was written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes, who wrote WARGAMES and SNEAKERS together. Parkes, of course, is now one of the lead execs at DreamWorks. They wrote their version back in the ‘80s, and it supposedly played it traditional, much like this new version.
And, no, by the way. Despite all the times he’s said it to the press, Michael Jackson was never actually attached to play Peter Pan.
Give Spielberg a little credit.
I mean, even though HOOK is a mess, at least he didn’t release it as a musical. He shot it as one. John Williams actually wrote nine songs with Leslie Bricusse... who, I might add, is responsible for the lyrics to the mind-bogglingly awful “Can You Read My Mind?” on the SUPERMAN soundtrack. Two of those songs are in the final film, and I think “When You’re Alone” actually got an Academy Award nomination.
Considering who has tried to make this film before, why should any of us get excited about PJ Hogan making the movie?
The same, of course, might have been asked about another PJ before he made LORD OF THE RINGS.
And like that other PJ, Hogan has a real passion for the material at hand. I don’t know if anything about MURIEL’S WEDDING or MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING suggests that he is right for a giant budget fantasy film, but he’s been trying to make this for years now. He walked away from the chance to do a $60 million Warner Bros. feature film version of SALEM’S LOT to do this film. He’s aiming to open the film just before the 100th anniversary of the debut of Barrie’s original PETER PAN, which is in 2004. Timing and passion and the right creative team all add up to me believing that this guy deserves a little faith.
I do believe in fairies. I do... I do.
Right now, the biggest bit of casting news is Jason Isaacs, playing both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, father to Wendy, John, and Michael. Isaacs is currently working like a mofo, with a featured role in HARRY POTTER & THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS this Thanksgiving and THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN currently shooting in Prague, where he’s playing Campion Bond, according to IGN Film Force. Of all these roles, it’s the work he’s going to be doing in PETER PAN that most interests me, because this script is a thing of beauty, rich and deep, and the dual role he’s been given is easily the best of his career. Meanwhile, the search is underway in London and other places for kids to fill out the cast, including the lead role. Peter Pan. The spirit of youth incarnate. Yeah... that’s not pressure or anything.
This is a chance for Hogan to leave his mark on this character. If he finds the right kid, he sets the standard against which all future performances will be judged. This is going to be a huge film, massively budgeted, and the script is so good that I truly believe this is it. The definitive PETER PAN.
Earlier this year, there were reports that the god-daughter of J.M. Barrie was outraged by the script, saying to THE LONDON TELEGRAPH, “It is a shame the play is being treated in this way. My father and Mr. Barrie would have been horrified. Mr. Barrie just was not interested in that sort of obvious sexuality and romance, and it certainly is not in the original story.”
I’m not sure who told her what, but she’s not talking about the script I read. Maybe she got this confused with NEVERLAND, the film about J.M. Barrie that is shooting now with Johnny Depp playing the author. I haven’t read that script, though, so I don’t know for sure. Whatever the case, she was mistaken, and Jonathan Bing and Cathy Dunkley in VARIETY set the record straight. They broke the story about Universal joining Revolution Studios and Columbia as partners on the film, replacing Disney. This is where I learned about McAlpine and Ford and Farrar and costume designer Janet Patterson (THE PIANO, PORTRAIT OF A LADY) and score composer James Newton Howard, a choice that has many score geeks cheering.
They also ran a quote that seemed to directly contradict the earlier reaction from the god-daughter, the official reaction of Stephen Cox, the chief press officer of the Great Ormond St. Hospital for Children NHS Trust and Institue for Child Health in London. “We have read the script by P.J. Hogan and Michael Goldenberg and are delighted to report that we feel that it is in keeping with the original work whilst communicating to an audience with modern sensibilities.” The Hospital, of course, controls the rights to Barrie’s work, a gift he left to them in perpetuity. If they’re happy, it’s a good sign. This is a major asset for the Hospital, something they depend on. I think they are very wise to endorse the film based on what I read. Goldenberg worked on the very literate script for CONTACT, and he’s brought that same level of intelligence to the script for this film. The dialogue is moving and smart and never overly sentimental.
MRS. DARLING sits on the side of WENDY’s bed.
Your father is a brave man, but he will need a special kiss before he can face his colleagues tonight.
There are different kinds of bravery, John. There is the bravery of thinking of others before oneself. Your father has never brandished a sword or fired a pistol – thank heavens – but he has made many sacrifices for his family and put away many dreams.
Where did he put them?
(with a smile)
In a drawer. And sometimes late at night we take them out and admire them.
Are they pretty?
Oh, yes. A put-away dream grows prettier every day. So pretty it is harder and harder to close that drawer. But he does. And that... is why he is brave.
In this film, dreams are things that can be stored in drawers, just as kisses are things that can hide at the corner of a mouth or that can be hung around one’s neck. It makes perfect sense for a shadow to be something that you can lose, the way Peter Pan loses his one night. And of course, if you lose it, you’re going to have to come looking for it...
As any fan of Pan knows, Wendy and Peter meet over that lost shadow. She helps him sew it back on when he can’t figure out how to reattach it. He’s very pleased by this, and he begins to crow about how clever he is, hurting Wendy’s feelings.
In Barrie’s book, it happens like this:
To induce her to look up he pretended to be going away, and when this failed he sat on the end of the bed and tapped her gently with his foot. “Wendy,” he said, “don’t withdraw. I can’t help crowing, Wendy, when I’m pleased with myself.” Still she would not look up, though she was listening eagerly. “Wendy,” he continued, in a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist, “Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys.”
Now Wendy was every inch a woman, though there were not very many inches, and she peeped out of the bed-clothes.
“Do you really think so, Peter?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I think it’s perfectly sweet of you,” she declared, “and I’ll get up again,” and she sat with him on the side of the bed.
In the script, though, Hogan and Goldenberg push it just a little further, the way they do on every page. They take an idea or a notion and they run with it:
Wendy, don’t withdraw. I can’t help crowing when I’m pleased with myself.
She ignores him. After a moment she turns to see what effect her sulk is having. He is right beside her, his face close to hers.
(in a voice no woman can resist)
Wendy... one girl is worth more than twenty boys.
You really think so?
The artful one nods.
I live with boys. The lost boys. They are well named.
Who are they?
Children who fall out of their prams when the nurse is not looking. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent to the Never land to defray expenses.
Are there girls too?
Girls are much too clever to fall out of their prams.
Peter, it is perfectly lovely the way you talk about girls!
Throughout the script, there’s a sense of humor that has been injected into the dialogue that manages to never approach camp. It’s far more gentle than that. I shudder in horror to think of what this could have been like in the hands of, say, John Hughes circa HOME ALONE and CURLEY SUE or someone like Raja Gosnell. Hogan and Goldenberg have struck a sort of alchemy here, a beautiful balance that makes it all work just right.
John, for example, doesn’t just sputter now, the way he does so often in the book. Instead, he’s got a wonderful way with a phrase, like when he is woken up by Wendy’s excited cry:
John! Michael! There is a boy here who is going to teach us to fly!
MICHAEL rubs his eyes sleepily. JOHN fumbles for his spectacles, stares at PETER.
You offend reason, sir.
PETER floats effortlessly into a graceful backwards somersault and lands on the end of JOHN’s bed. JOHN gapes for a moment, then quickly hops out of bed.
I should like to offend it with you.
Flying on film is one of those things that always bugs me on some level. The best flight I’ve ever seen in anything is in the work of Miyazaki, in films like CASTLE IN THE SKY or KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE. There’s something particularly magical about the way he gives wing to his characters. There’s a peace to it that just makes me ache when I watch it. Hogan and Goldenberg have written some striking scenes here as the children join Peter and head for Neverland. And once they get there, they launch into a series of set pieces lifted directly from Barrie’s book, given a rowdy extra bit of life. We see Lost Boys fighting pirates in a world wrapped in winter, and we see spring start to break through and thaw the world around them. Hook’s ship is trapped in ice that starts to break up. Everyone across Neverland knows immediately that Peter is back. He’s the one that keeps the world alive and fresh.
It’s page 34 of the script when Smee goes to wake up Hook to tell him that Peter is back.
And that’s when the real fun begins.
He’s described as “cadaverous and grim, his hair dressed in long curls which look like black candles about to melt,” and from the moment he appears to destroy the watch Smee carries, he is a roaringly great film villain.
I was dreaming. Smee... of Pan.
Oh, I was tearing him so splendidly. And in the dream I was a magnanimous fellow, full of forgiveness. I thanked Pan for cutting off my hand and giving me this fine hook for disembowling and ripping throats and such homely uses as combing my hair and opening jars.
The threats of Neverland are painted as a genuine menace, hazards that can kill you. Michael and John get separated from everyone else and wander into the cave of the crocodile. YOU KNOW which crocodile. The one that’s described like this:
A singular specimen of Crocodylus Porosus, easily 50 feet long. Its mouth partially open revealing two inch long razor sharp teeth; its feet scar the ground with eight inch claws.
Running from the cave of the crocodile, littered as it is with the skeletons of pirates who have dared to face the thing on its own turf, Michael and John end up meeting Tiger Lily and being captured, with her, by Hook and his crew. They’re used to bait Peter and Wendy and the others into a fight that takes place at the Black Castle. If I have any complaint about these great action showdowns, its that they’re so big that we are almost worn out by the film’s halfway mark. They almost unbalance the film compared to the ending.
But if my worst complaint is that the pace of this thing is exhausting and that there’s almost an over-abundance of imagination on display, then that’s a pretty good complaint, as complaints go. This manages to deliver unforgettable imagery, a wonderful fantasy world that we’ve never seen realized like this, great pirate action scenes (something I never thought we’d see again after Renny Harlin single-handedly killed the genre dead), and characters that manage to reveal all sorts of depth as the script plays out. Hook and Wendy have a scene in the script where he manages to seduce her over to his service, convincing her to tell her stories to the pirates instead of the Lost Boys, and the way that scene plays out is totally believable. Hook is seemingly honest with her, and she is intrigued. She can’t help but quiz him:
Why do you hate him so?
Imagine a lion in a cage, and into that cage flies a butterfly. If the lion was free it would pay no heed to such a creature. But the lion is not free. And so the butterfly slowly drives it insane.
I could discuss this script for another 4,000 words and not get bored with it. I could compare each beat of the story to the book. I could illustrate dozens of places where Barrie wrote something lovely and the screenwriters took his ideas and expanded them into something even more remarkable.
I could discuss the startling moment that comes during the final duel between Hook and Peter that will challenge many people’s notion of what the Peter Pan story is all about, a scene that will hotly divide viewers because of the audacity of it. I like the scene a lot, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more impressed I am by it. I think it’s going to take real balls for them to try it, and I’m curious to see if any nervous executives force them to take the moment out before it goes in front of the camera.
I could discuss the way the script stays true all the way to the last line, the way it takes the ending of the book and wrenches every bit of emotion out of it, so thick with regret for the way youth fades that it just hurts.
But instead, I’ll just close by saying this: sometimes it is simply a joy to read something, a pure pleasure that is separate from anything else. Regardless of how the film turns out... regardless of what finally plays in theaters a year from this Christmas... I will always remember the remarkable movie on the page that these writers crafted.
Thank you, PJ Hogan. Thank you, Michael Goldenberg. My fingers are crossed for you on this one, and I look forward to watching this awfully big adventure you’ve laid out for yourselves.