J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, a novelization of his original play Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, touched on many dark themes. It was based upon the death of Barrie’s older brother as a child and the trauma it left on his mother. The role of Wendy as a mother character for Pan, her brothers, and the Lost Boys is indicative of this.
In the original play, and in the many other stage adaptations in the early to mid 20th century, Pan was played by a woman. In the 1953 Disney version many of the darker themes are glossed over and Pan is clearly male. However, his rejection of Wendy’s kiss and his relationship to the Lost Boys has been read as him being gay.
Perhaps this is part of why we begin to see an explosion of new adaptations of the Peter Pan character beginning in the 1990s and reaching a fever pitch in the 2000s. Although part of this sudden increase in new films, books, and plays about Pan may be related to the expirations and extensions of copyright on the character during this time, the more subversive interpretations of Peter Pan cannot be ignored. In fact the term “Peter Pan” became a slang term for gay men who refused to grow up.
Lost Boi by Sassafrass Lowrey is just one recent example of how the tale of Peter Pan has been reinterpreted for a modern LGBTQ audience. Published in April 2015, it folllows a plot identical to that of Barrie’s original novel but paints the characters in a new light– making Peter Pan gay, portraying his sexual relations with the lost bois, and making the mermaids into femmes, along with a number of other means of queering the narrative.
Even when the retellings are not meant to be viewed as queer, in the modern world where LGBTQ perspectives permeate deeply, it can be easy to read them as such. The December 2014 showing on NBC of Peter Pan Live!, despite the intention that it would be straight and family friendly, was interpreted by a number of news outlets as being full of gay subtexts. One source even claimed that the costumes on the Lost Boys looked as if they were from “‘Barely Legal’ gay porn”.
Although sexuality is an important and interesting tool for helping us break into understanding why retellings remain necessary and popular today, it is not the only factor to consider. Part of what keeps the Peter Pan character relevant over 100 years after Barrie’s telling is that despite being written for a young audience, it easily takes on darker meanings for adults. The darkness of Peter Pan and his shadow combined with the innocence of wishing to remain a child forever is the sort of chiaroscuro that seems to always fascinate the collective human psyche.