Finding Disappointment
I've been feeling very down lately and to cheer myself up I decided that I would go to the 8 o'clock screening of Finding Neverland. For those of you who remember these two posts, you will know that J.M. Barrie and Pan have a special place in my little literary analyst heart.
Not so for the film.
I hate to be one of those historical nit pickers, but well, ok, you talked me into it. First off, when Barrie met Mrs. Davies (the prototype for Mrs. Darling) she had only three children, not four, although after meeting Barrie she would give birth to two more male children. In addition, unlike in the film, Arthur Davies, Sylvia's husband, was very much alive when Barrie met the Davieses. Mr. Darling is represented as a money grubbing fool in Pan for precisely such a reason. Apparently Arthur was not entirely pleased with the "adoption" of Barrie and often complained. Barrie took his revenge, as many novelists do, by making Mr. Darling a farcical figure who literally "lives in the dog house" after the loss of his children. Arthur died the same year that Barrie finally divorced his wife, the actress Mary Ansell (1908). Two years later Sylvia Davies died leaving J.M. Barrie to raise her five children as his own, which he did.
The show Peter Pan was first performed in 1904, a full four years BEFORE he divorced Mary Ansell, although I forgive this fudging of the time frame because it was meant to build dramatic tension. And certainly aside from all the historical muddling, the lack of dramatic tension is the most marked problem with Finding Neverland. Coming out of the film, I had no sense of any kind of resolution. The film consists of Barrie meeting the Davieses, getting divorced, scoring a hit with Pan, and losing Sylvia Davies to cancer, but the film never alights on any one aspect deeply enough for there to be a sense of tension. The film lightly touches on the death of David (the older brother who died when J.M. was still quite young) but doesn't fully explore the influence that ordeal had on J.M., nor the tension between pretense and reality that seemed to strain J.M.'s life ( ie his "marriage"). By eliminating Arthur Davies as a character, the writers eliminated another source of possible dramatic tension, but certainly made J.M.s intentions more acceptable. Arthur certainly felt put upon and ousted by J.M.s presence, and the accusation made by Sylvia's mother in the film ( played by Julia Christie) that J.M. is selfish is not without merit. Certainly J.M. had many unattractive and unpleasant qualities, certainly his possible asexuality was quite difficult for his wife to deal with thus precipitating a divorce.
The film focuses on the maudlin death of Sylvia Davies, but not much attention is given to the tensions that this death must have created for J.M. Yet again he was dealing with the death of someone close. In childhood, he dealt with the death of his brother by becoming him, by dressing in his clothes and assuming his manner. How then would Barrie deal with such a crushing loss as an adult? Such a question is more intriguing to me than what was put up on screen which was simply the power of belief and imagination. A more inspiring tribute to the power of belief, which also stars Johnny Depp, is the film "Ed Wood."
Essentially the problem with Finding Neverland is the same problem I encountered with Claire Bloom's autobiographical account of her marriage to Philip Roth. Barrie took the events in his life, "everyday events" such as flying kites or walking his dog, and was able to transform them into something archetypal. Finding Neverland has almost a reverse effect, it takes something archetypal and breaks it down into something pedestrian. Bloom's account of her marriage versus the fictionalized account Roth gives in I Married a Communist. Bloom's account simply becomes a list of, and let's be clear on this, completely justified reasons that her marriage to Roth was a travesty. But where Bloom failed in her accurate account of the marriage is in terms of transforming it into a more universal situation. After coming out of her book, I had that "So what?" feeling. Roth's I Married a Communist took the same events and by placing them in a different historical context transformed the events from mere marital discord into a moving piece about revenge and how it touches the lives of peripheral characters in the most unexpected ways. Reading those two books together made me realize how much of an artist Roth is in transforming the common (crazy wife who trapped him into marriage) into archetypal/symbolic significance ( Portnoy's Complaint).
And now I have to go teach my little chil'uns.

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