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Finding Neverland: The truth behind Pan's legacy



Feature by: Jack Foley

THE makers of Finding Neverland will candidly admit that the events depicted on film do not represent 'a factual re-telling of what happened to James Barrie when he wrote Peter Pan'.

Notes screenwriter, David Magee: "I wanted to tell a story about what it means to grow up and become responsible for those around you.

"I hope people see the film as a respectful tribute to Barrie's creative genius and come away with a feeling that as human beings, we can grow up without losing all aspects of childhood innocence and wonder."

The film certainly succeeds in doing that - but it also taps into Barrie's well-documented yearning for a world in which playfulness and whimsy would always triumph over seriousness and propriety.

In his memoir about his mother, for instance, he wrote: "Nothing that happens after we are 12 matters very much."

Perhaps this is because the author himself had a chaotic and interrupted childhood, which the film does allude to.

Born a weaver's son in Scotland in 1860, Barrie was forever shaken by the death of his brilliant older brother, David, in a skating accident when he was only six.

To comfort his grief-stricken mother, Barrie tried to take the place of his 13-year-old sibling, even imitating his posture and whistling habit - and wearing his brother's clothes.

Remarkably, Barrie claimed that as soon as he reached the age at which his brother died (13), he himself stopped growing.

Not that this limbo seemed to affect his writing, given that Barrie was part of a celebrated circle of writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy and HG Wells, who was considered one of the leading intellectuals of his day, known for his biting satire and sharp observations of a class-driven society.

However, Barrie always felt more comfortable around children than adults, and his interest in other people's children has occasionally been mis-interpreted in this post-Freudian world.

However, Michael Emrys, president of the JM Barrie Society, points out that 'historians and biographers of Barrie agree that nothing improper ever occurred'.

And the youngest of the Llewelyn Davies boys, Nico Davies, who eventually came to live with Barrie and regard him as a father, noted that 'he was an innocent - which is why he could write Peter Pan'.

Finding Neverland explores the relationship between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family, and how it came to form the inspiration for his classic novel.

Yet, it does tinker with certain aspects of the timeline involved.

Barrie did, indeed, meet the family in London's Kensington Gardens, with their nanny, Nancy Hodgson, while he was taking his daily walk with his St Bernard, Porthos.

When he met them, however, there were only three boys - George (5), Jack (4) and Peter (1). The two youngest boys, Michael and Nico, were born later.

And it was only after befriending the children that he met their mother, Sylvia, at a New Year's Eve party.

At the time, she was married to the lawyer, Arthur Llewelyn Davies, yet in a bold breach of protocol, she welcomed Barrie into their family home, allowing his friendship with the children to blossom.

Feeling betrayed by Barrie's love for another woman's children, however, his own wife, Mary, began an affair with a writer friend, Gilbert Cannan, eventually divorcing Barrie in 1909.

Although Barrie's play of Peter Pan was first performed in 1904, he continued to revise and expand the story for a number of years, during which a number of tragedies befell the Llewelyn Davies family.

In 1907, the boys' father, Arthur, died following an agonising bout with cancer.

Although Arthur had been suspicious of Barrie at first, the two men had become very close at the end and Barrie spent every day at Arthur's bedside, comforting the children and Sylvia. He also began to provide much of the family's financial support.

There is even some evidence that Barrie may have intended to marry Sylvia after Arthur's death, but then she too was afflicted by cancer, which she kept a secret from the boys to spare them more pain.

Sylvia died in 1910, six years after the premiere of Peter Pan, but it is said that Barrie was working on the novel version of the play, Peter and Wendy - which emphasises the heartbreaking choice between worldly time and timelessness that Wendy is asked to make - by Sylvia's bedside as she faded.

After her death, however, Barrie became the unofficial guardian of the five Llewelyn Davies boys, then aged between seven and 17.

Though he provided for them handsomely, their grown-up lives were equally as fraught with tragedy.

George was killed in the trenches of World War One; Michael, who hoped to be a writer, drowned at the age of 20 while studying at Oxford; and Peter committed suicide at the age of 63, many years after Barrie's death. None are alive today.

To find out more, visit www.jmbarrie.co.uk

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