Peter Pan Production History

by Erica Paulson and Shane Allen

Peter Pan and Wendy began as one of many stories created between J.M. Barrie, a well established author, and two boys to whom he was close. People were first initiated with Peter Pan as a theatrical play. Adults and children alike instantly loved the story, and Peter Pan soon became a classic tale. Reproductions of this now classic story have had over one hundred years of history through plays, films, and other art forms. Co-creation, re-imagination, and ageless enjoyment of Peter Pan and Wendy lives on. Like Neverland, the story seems endless and everlasting with possibilities of adventure and play.


J.M. Barrie came up with the concept of Peter Pan by entertaining George and John Lleweyn Davies in Kensington Gardens by creating the idea that their baby brother, Peter, could fly, and that all babies were once birds. Peter Pan found his way into Barrie’s 1902 novel, The Little White Bird. Though Peter Pan was only a minor character, his mischievous presence would not escape Barrie’s imagination. Barrie wrote the play for Peter Pan, and two years later took the stories of Peter Pan from The Little White Bird and compiled them into a separate novel, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which was published in 1906.

Barrie loved his script for Peter Pan but felt that a production would be costly both in finances and workload. The cast list was large, set design and special effects would have to push boundaries, and the story was unlike any typical theatrical model. Barrie wrote to producer Charles Frohman who was considered the Napoleon of the theatre world for his ability to take successful risks. Barrie told Frohman that his play would “not be a commercial success. But it is a dream-child of mine.” As compensation for any financial loss in producing Peter Pan, Barrie sent another play along with the script for Peter Pan. Frohman instantly fell in love with Peter Pan and was not worried about the challenges of staging a cast of fifty with many roles from mermaids to pirates, nor technological demands such as flying. A new flying mechanism was created for Peter and the Darling children, and actors had to be specifically trained to use the contraption.  Tinkerbell was represented by sparkling electrical lights which worked well in the realm as magic sense electricity was a recent phenomenon still. Actors were sworn to secrecy on revealing anything about the play, and thus, the public had very little idea of what the play would be about. Barrie rewrote the script every night, sometimes making drastic changes. For example, there was no mention of Captain Hook in Barrie’s first draft; Barrie “didn’t need a villain for the simple reason that he already had one: Peter Pan. Hook’s inclusion only came about as a result of a technical necessity,” as a front cloth piece was needed to allow stage crew time to change scenery (qtd. in Friedman 189). The play was scheduled to premier on December 22nd, 1904, but was delayed until December 27th when a mechanical life collapsed and took down much of the set. Barrie took advantage of the extra time to edit the play and alter the ending again. On opening night, the audience (consisting mostly of adults) was captivated. They clapped without hesitation when Tinkerbell needed to be saved. Critics raved about Barrie and the performance. Mark Twain saw a production in 1905 and described the work as “a great and refining and uplifting benediction to this sordid and money-mad age” (qtd. in Tatar liv). The play was performed every year thereafter and revived in other theatres, usually with a female playing Peter Pan because of child laws that restricted child actors from working after 9:00pm. To see a photo from the original production, visit this outside source.

After Peter Pan and Wendy’s first run, Barrie continued to edit the play for each subsequent year’s performance. He was continually urged to publish Peter and Wendy, and finally transformed the story into a novel that was published in 1911 titled Peter and Wendy, later renamed Peter Pan. He did not publish the play itself until 1928, over twenty years after its debut on the stage. Some differences that change from performance to performance are a fight between ten to twenty mothers over who will adopt the lost boys at the end of the play, Wendy as an adult, and Hook’s surviving the crocodile after his duel with Peter (but later climbing down a tree in Kensington Gardens right into the crocodile’s jaws). These varying ways of telling Peter Pan can also be found in other art forms. There is a statue of Peter Pan that Barrie paid to have made, and though he was upset that the sculptor used a different boy model who lacks Peter Pan’s devilish side, he had the statue secretly placed in Kensington Gardens where it still stands today.

Later Adaptations

Nearly a year after J.M. Barrie had donated the rights of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929 (the first children’s hospital in Great Britain), he suggested that Peter Pan be performed in one of the wards. Patients, nurses, doctors, and even Barrie, hidden in the audience, watched in delight as actors transformed the space into Neverland and adventure. The performance became traditional and still continues today.

Barrie wrote and drew out a difficult and imaginative silent film production of Peter Pan that was never produced. Paramount wanted the rights to make a Peter Pan film, but was deterred by the demands in Barrie’s layout. Barrie took nearly twenty years to allow Paramount movie knowing that he would not be director or screenwriter but reaching an agreement that he would decide on the casting. The 1924 release of Peter Pan is the only silent film production. Special effects were impressive for the time period. The Darlings live in the United States as opposed to England and the film contains several patriotic references and symbols. Only one copy of the film remained after WWII and was decomposing in a Kodak vault. James Card, who was renowned for his work on film preservation, worked with Iris Barry to restore the film.

Perhaps one of the best known adaptations of Peter Pan is Disney’s 1953 animated film version. Walt Disney felt that Barrie would have loved Peter Pan in a cartoon format, as live actors were limited but cartoons allow a “free rein to the imagination” (Disney qtd. in Ohmer 151). While Disney had bought the rights to make Peter Pan in 1938 against Paramount, other movies and World War II delayed and interrupted production. After World War II, the Disney studio’s viewpoints on animation shifted alongside society’s changes. They developed a poll for the Audience Research Institute to determine how much interest Peter Pan would accumulate. The results were concerning, as people preferred live action Hollywood films, and many flat out disliked animated movies. People between eighteen and thirty years old felt the story of Peter Pan specifically was “childish” and “silly” (Ohmer 158). Themes of eternal youth were out of popularity and adult romance interest was in for preteens. Regardless, Disney decided to make the film with caution and awareness. The studio decided that modernizing the story to include well known actors, music, and romance would increase popular interest. Peter Pan was made more boyish with a male voice actor (against the usual sexual ambiguities of having a female play Peter), as well as acting more indifferent toward Wendy instead of wanting her to come with him in Barrie’s versions. To balance out Peter’s manliness in the film, Tinkerbell was a sensual woman with a curvaceous body; an independent, single woman that was at odds with Wendy’s motherly habits. Disney kept the idea of Peter Pan being superior in cartoon format by having the flight scene take five minutes in the film to highlight the possibilities of animation. The reviews for Disney’s Peter Pan were mostly positive, suggesting that Barrie’s text had needed to “grow up” and Disney accomplished just that. Many other adaptations hold more true to the original text, and some have taken the story further.

A musical version of Peter Pan appeared at the New York’s Winter Garden Theatre in 1954 and lasted for 152 performances. NBC broadcast the musical live and fan mail continuously piled up and requested that they “do it again.” The original cast was brought back together in 1956 for a television performance. Broadway revived the production in 1979 and again in 1990, 91, 98 and 99. More information and track samples can be accessed at .

P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan is a live action film that came out in 2003 as an early centennial celebration that follows the play and novel closer than many other adaptations. Great Ormon Street Hospital for Children licensed the film production. Peter is played by a boy that is more preteen than child and Wendy is more determined to convince Peter to grow up with her. Peter and Wendy’s relationship is more sensual, though not explicitly sexual, than in Barrie’s original story: Peter floats above Wendy while she sleeps in her bed, they are more flirtatious, and a scene is included where they perform a fairy dance together. Yet in the end, Peter refuses to grow up and Wendy returns home to embrace maturity and the adventures of growing old.

Sequels, Prequels, and Other Inspired Stories

One such adaptation is 1991’s Hook. Starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan who has forgotten his childhood in Neverland, Hook imagines what would happen if Captain Hook never died and in fact came back one day to get his revenge on Peter. Peter has to return to Neverland and rediscover how to fly in order to rescue the Lost Boys and rid Neverland of Hook once and for all. Steven Spielberg, who directed Hook, had loved the Peter Pan story since his mother used to read it to him when he was a child. Though Spielberg originally planned to produce the film as a faithful retelling of the 1953 animated film, the project developed into a sequel to the original story after screenwriter James Hart was inspired by a drawing, made by his son Jake, that depicted Captain Hook escaping from the Crocodile’s jaws. After Jake asked Hart if Peter ever grew up, he decided to write a movie about Peter becoming an adult. Hook used elaborate sets and special effects to create a vibrant and spectacular Neverland, complete with extravagant sword fighting scenes and, of course, plenty of flying around. Although Hook received mostly negative reviews from critics, it was a major commercial success, and was nominated for five Oscars.

In 2002, another high-profile film sequel to the Peter Pan story was released: Disney’s Return To Neverland. A direct sequel to the 1953 animated film, Return takes place in World War II during the blitz and follows Wendy Darling’s daughter, Jane, as she is kidnapped by Hook and whisked away to Neverland. Though Jane is initially skeptical about Peter and desperate to get back home, she learns to love Peter and the Lost Boys as they band together to defeat Hook for the last time. Like Hook, Return to Neverland was largely disdained by critics who questioned whether the Peter Pan story needed a sequel. However, it was a moderate box office success. Clearly, modern audiences of all ages are still enthralled with the story of Peter, Wendy, and Hook, over a century after the play was first released.

Stories that are open to change and include active participation from a reader or audience are kept alive through conversations and conversions that keep the story fresh throughout time. A popular and recent appearance of Peter Pan is found in the video game Kingdom Hearts released in 2002. Cathlena Martin and Laurie Taylor note that “Just as Barrie’s Peter Pan existed as a story within a play, so does the story of Peter Pan exist within a larger play of stories in Kingdom Hearts.” Kingdom Hearts blends Disney characters and worlds from a multitude of movies alongside characters from the Final Fantasy games to create an overall adventure with smaller stories interlinked. The main characters in Kingdom Hearts, Sora, Goofy, and Donald Duck, come to Disney’s Neverland world and meet the ever arrogant and charming Peter Pan who is looking for Wendy who’s gone missing after Captain Hook and the pirates take her from the command of higher evils. The story played stays true to Disney’s version of Peter Pan and could be considered another adventure in Neverland. Even the narrator in Barrie’s Peter Pan novel has to explain that many adventures happen, and often teases the reader with the ideas of some adventures before exploring others. “The extraordinary upshot of this adventure was–but we have not decided yet that this is the adventure we are to narrate.” Barrie’s admits a world of infinite possibilities and outcomes that invites others’ imagination and involvement in Peter Pan.

Peter and the Starcatchers is a prequel that creates a back story to Peter Pan, attempting logical explanations about Neverland and characters such as why Peter can fly, and the origins and identities of Hook, pirates, redskins and mermaids. Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson published the book through Hyperian Books, part of the Disney Corporation, and was released in 2004. Two follow up novels that still take place before Peter and Wendy have appeared, and Disney has plans to make a 3D animated film based on Starcatchers. In 2009, a musical of Starcatchers premiered at La Jolla Playhouse in partnership with Disney Theatricals. The show moved to Off-Broadway, and opened on Broadway in April, 2012.

Based on a 1990 play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, Finding Neverland explores Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys and Silvia, as well as Peter Pan’s creation. Released in 2004 starring Jonny Depp as J.M. Barrie and directed by Marc Forster, the film takes liberties with factual history, such as conveniently writing Silvia’s husband, Arthur, as having passed away before Barrie meets the family, thus avoiding the tension between Barrie and Arthur Llewelyn Davies. Five boys are reduced to four, and all are alive when Barrie first encounters them. Frohman, the original producer for Peter Pan onstage, is skeptical in the film about Peter Pan as opposed to the real Frohman’s apparent excitement to product the play. The details of Barrie’s divorce with Mary also substitute fiction versus historical fact. The film has been made into a musical and just premiered in Leicester, England, on 22 Sept 2012. The show is set to run through 18 October.

The novel, Peter Pan in Scarlet, is an authorized sequel to Peter Pan setup by the Great Ormon Street Hospital. In 2004, the hospital decided to search for an official sequel to the story, and considered over two hundred submissions. Geraldine McCaughrean was selected and wrote Peter Pan in Scarlet. The book was released in 2006 and received overall positive feedback for being a sequel to a classic story. Unlike many sequels to Peter Pan, McCaughrean’s story begins not long from where the original Peter Pan and Wendy left off. Wendy, John, Michael, and the lost boys have grown up and have jobs and children of their own. They all have dreams with elements from Neverland, and decide that they must figure out a way to return for fear that Neverland, like London, has been set out of balance.


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