FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological, cosmological*
British writer-director Nick Willing seems to have made a regular habit of re-imagining public domain franchises. He adapted the Oz books as TIN MAN and came out with two different takes on ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Prior to watching the TV miniseries NEVERLAND I'd only seen Willing's second take on the Alice books, a patchy 2011 miniseries presenting a version of Alice who becomes Wonderland's judo-skilled freedom fighter.
NEVERLAND, though it was financed by the Syfy Channel as was the two-part ALICE, shows Willing warming to his material to better effect. Possibly this was because J.M. Barrie's PETER PAN has stronger adventure-currents than the source material of either Alice or Oz. To be sure, were I classifying the Barrie novel, I'd tend to consider it a "combative comedy," in that I think the comic tones of the book overpower the adventurous tones. Likewise the Disney version of PETER PAN. However, Nick Willing's version falls more completely into the category of the pure adventure-work.
Stage versions of PETER PAN originated a tradition in which the same actor played both the principal "father-role"-- Wendy's pater George Darling-- and the less than paternal villain, Captain James Hook. Willing picks up this vague "daddy issue" potential and centers the narrative of his prequel upon it, probably with no small influence by the Harry Potter/Severus Snape relationship in the J.K Rowling series. Rather than following the scenario where Peter and Hook meet in Neverland, Peter (Charlie Rowe) is one of several "lost boy" orphans born in the early 1990s, who followr the tutelage of Fagin-like thief-master and arms dealer Jimmy Hook (Rhys Ifans). Peter, Hook and the boys are transported into Neverland-- actually posited to be a planet in the center of the universe-- by a magical orb. Once there, they have various run-ins with denizens who were also transported to Neverland by similar orb-encounters. The "friendlies" are a tribe of Indians, the "Kaw," whose princess is the "Tiger Lily" of the Barrie books. The "unfriendlies" are a shipful of pirates from the 1700s, led by a fiery wench named Captain Liz Bonney, played by Anna Friel and clearly patterned after the real-life female pirate Anne Bonney.
Gradually Peter and the Lost Boys are drawn to side with the Kaw, who protect the fairies/"tree spirits"-- whose number includes Tinkerbell-- from the depredations of the pirates. Hook, however, is literally seduced to the side of the pirates by Bonney. He proves a capable leader, urging the pirates to acquire the "fairy dust" that makes flight possible and to return, with the help of a duplicate orb, to the 1900s to acquire weapons and conquer Neverland. And though he's been a surrogate father to orphan Peter, he willingly betrays him to serve his ambitions. He also has a secret in that he was once in love with Peter's mother, but when he wasn't chosen to be her husband, he reacted rather, shall we say, badly.
Obviously one's enjoyment of this miniseries will vary according to one's tolerance for seeing Barrie's simple, spontaneous children's fantasies subjected to logical psychoanalysis and political correctness (the noble savages here are considerably nobler than in Barrie: think PETER PAN meets DANCES WITH WOLVES). But though Willing never re-invents the wheel creatively speaking, he provides a much smoother tread than most adapters-- particularly the Disney version, which I find superficial and irritating. Willing provides a number of strong action-sequences, such as one in which the pirates have to cross a giant spider-web to reach a destination, calling up recollections of the 1940 THIEF OF BAGDAD. In addition there are several vivid scenes of emotional turmoil, mostly between Peter and Hook, showing good chemistry between Rowe and Ifans.
This miniseries isn't "true" to the original Barrie works, though Willing's prequel does provide some links to the setup with which Barrie begins (where Peter will become a wilder spirit with no memory of the past and no shadow). But in some ways I prefer seeing a lively if unfaithful adaptation to a spiritless by-the-numbers re-creation.