Five Groan-Inducing “Romantic” Movie Staples, and What You Should Watch Instead

For some reason the air waves this last week have become choked with no end of romance movies.  Romantic comedies, romantic dramas, romantic dramas that come off more like comedies…I’m less concerned as to why they are proliferating my viewing experience and more concerned with the ones that seem to be the top go-to films when our culture goes looking for some fictional lovin’.  Now some of them I am more than willing to get on board with, but there are others, ones that, especially in my generation, are often pushed to the forefront of cinematic romance that I can’t help but roll my eyes over.  What are they, you might ask?  And what would I recommend instead?  Why, I’m so glad you asked!

  1.  What you’re watching:

 

The Notebook

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An elderly man tells his Alzheimer’s-inflicted wife the story of Noah and Allie, two crazy kids from opposite sides of the tracks who fall in love over Summer vacation in early 1940’s South Carolina.  Of course her parents don’t think he’s good enough and separate them.  A world war passes, and a lot of water goes under the bridge; when they are finally thrust together again, Noah and Allie will find out once and for all if their long-burning passion is meant for more than a rosy memory.  

No thought is spared for the happily ever after of James Marsden, mind you.  James Marsden stands forlorn and forgotten in a corner.  That poor, beautiful man.

What you should watch instead:

Ever After

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An elderly noblewoman tells the Brothers Grimm the story of Danielle de Barbarac, the daughter of a wealthy French merchant who tragically dies just after bringing home his noble-born second wife and her two daughters.  The Edict of Fontainebleu is passed, and a lot of water goes under the bridge, and years later we find Danielle reduced to servitude in her own home as her stepmother squanders the riches of the manor.  When a chance encounter puts her in the path of Henry, the heir to the throne, the unexpected attraction that sparks between them will have to withstand an obscured identity, the political maneuvers of the kingdom, and the machinations of Danielle’s wickedly ambitious stepmother if they’re going to find a happily ever after.  

Similarities?

Both films are historical fiction (pre and post World War II in the coastal American South, and Renaissance France respectively), and both are framed as a story within a story.  Both feature pairs of lovers who are nearly torn apart by misunderstanding and family interference.  

Where they Differ

Well.  Danielle and Henry’s relationship begins when she tries to bail an old family servant out of jail and ends up arguing Utopian ideals with the prince, who happened to be passing by.  Noah and Allie’s starts when he threatens to kill himself if she won’t go out with him.  When Danielle vanishes, Henry goes to a lot of effort asking around about her.  When Allie vanishes Noah writes a whole bunch of unreturned letters, because no one had a phone in 1940s South Carolina.  And there were no buses.  Or trains.  Danielle and Henry develop their romance by going on a trip to a magnificent library, debating intellectual convictions, and gently teasing each other.  Allie and Noah get into smack down, drag out screaming matches, because they’re so “passionate.”

I think The Notebook hits a lot of people’s sentimental spot because of the framing device with the elderly couple, and it certainly gets a boost from the superlative cast, but ultimately Nicholas Sparks’ saccharine-drenched piggy bank is a cliche-heavy portrait of two ill-suited personalities who spend years separated for reasons that really boil down to laziness (also a world war.  I’ll give them some leeway for the world war).   

Basically, Ever After is the story of two people who fall in love with each other’s minds, ideals, and principles, while The Notebook is the story of two people who are super attracted to each other despite not being compatible in any other significant way.  Ever After jumps off from the most famous of fairytales and gives us a lush, romantic reimagining with two main characters who find their true match in each other.   The Notebook…lets us ogle Ryan Gosling for a couple hours.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Twilight

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shy and klutzy Bella Swan moves to the tiny town of Forks, Washington where her novelty renders her the hottest thing on two feet.  Despite her sudden popularity she is instantly, magnetically drawn to the one boy who seems to be trying with all of his might to avoid her, the mysterious and beautiful (though often chagrined) Edward Cullen.  Through some obsessive sleuthing Bella soon deduces that Edward is, in fact, a vampire; when confronted he admits that her blood is more powerfully tempting to him than any he has ever encountered.  Undeterred by predatory appetites, the concerns of Edward’s vampire family, or the threat of a rival vampire with a similar nose for Bella’s blood, the two fall into the throes of virginal teenage love and a franchise is born.    

What you should watch instead:

Stardust

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Ah the classic tale of interspecies love.  

Shopboy Tristan wants nothing more than to win the heart of Victoria, the village beauty.  When a falling star lands on the other side of the town’s mysterious, never-to-be-crossed Wall, he embarks on an adventure in a hidden fantasy world, determined to bring the star back as a gift for the young lady.  However, remarkably, the star is less star-like and more cute-girl-like than our hero had imagined, and, with the addition of several other interested parties seeking the star, Yvaine, getting her back across the Wall proves to be far more challenging than initially anticipated.  Undeterred by cannibalistic witches, bloodthirsty princes, or snooty English gentry (and with a boost from some awesome sky pirates), Tristan and Yvaine fall into the throes of (not so virginal) post-teenage love and a great adventure is had.  

Similarities?

Both are supernatural/fantasy love stories wherein only one party is human.  Both feature quirky small towns, and at least one villain whose greatest desire is to eat one of the main characters.  

Where they Differ

Bella is a self-absorbed sad sack with no personality and no interests- except for classic literature, and her vampire crush.  Edward is a controlling stalker (he hides in her bedroom to watch her sleep.  Hides.  In her bedroom.  To watch her sleep) who, though rightfully disturbed by his primal urge to drain his new girlfriend of her blood, is not at all concerned by the fact that he is about 86 years older than the delectable morsel.  Half the movie is spent on the irritating will-they-won’t-they-I-want-you-but-I-can’t dance, one quarter goes to some truly humorous attempts at romance (hard to tell what’s more comic, the actions themselves, or the god-awful special effects around them), and one quarter goes to the outsider vampire threat.  Throw in two leads who seems to be actively trying to sabotage the movie with their eminently mockable acting choices and what we have is one hilarious spoof.  Too bad this was earnestly meant as an epic romance.  

By contrast Stardust is a delightful fairytale very much in the vein of The Princess Bride.  It is clever, deliberately funny, and quite sweet in its depiction of the growing regard between the two leads.  Both Tristan and Yvaine begin as intelligent, strong-willed individuals, and both make substantial personal strides as they journey across the land of Stormhold together.  When they finally face the villains it is as a team, fortified by their own individual strengths and bonded by the love that has organically developed between them.  Vibrant with adventure, excellent characters, a taste of danger, and the sparkle of fantasy magic, Stardust is a marvelous (sadly underrated) story that delivers a good deal of genuine warm-fuzzies, even as it always keeps a bit of tongue in cheek.  

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This is a thing that happens in this movie.  If Stardust were a bad movie, this element alone would save it.

  1.  What you’re watching:

Annie Hall

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A neurotic New York nebbish falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his couldn’t last.  

What you should watch instead:

(500) Days of Summer

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An idealistic Los Angeles greeting card writer falls in love with a quirky free-spirit.  Things end badly.  He tries to figure out what love even is, and why his dream girl didn’t feel it for him.  

Similarities?

The brief synopsis above should give you insight into how similar in theme and concept both movies really are.  Both story lines jump between present and past.  Both feature meditations on the nature of love, what it is, why it happens.  Both feature a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl as the love interest (though in the case of (500) Days of Summer this characterization seems to come more from Tom’s inability, or refusal, to truly acknowledge the reality of Summer).  

Where they Differ

I KNOW that Annie Hall is considered a great classic.  I KNOW that it shows up on all these “Best of” lists.  I KNOW that a lot of people really love this movie, and that this entry is probably the most divisive one on this list.  

But come on.  I can’t be the only one that finds Woody Allen completely insufferable, can I?  Except for Midnight in Paris (which I do really love) I have yet to see a Woody Allen movie that didn’t irritate me with Allen’s fetishistic enshrinement of his own neurosis.  

(500) Days of Summer features a main character, Tom, with more than his fair share of issues, especially in his idealistic approach to romance, and to the girl who is the object of his desire.  However where Annie Hall’s Alvy is unable, or unwilling, to confront his shortcomings (preferring, instead, to wallow in them), Tom makes an active effort, after a lot of mourning, moping, and raging, to get his life together and try to make some positive personal changes.  It is really refreshing to see a male lead get his heart smashed into pieces and eventually come to the place where he’s able to say, “Hey, maybe I am partly to blame for what happened.  Maybe I can try to be better…”  And then go out and BECOME better.  You know, grow as a human being.  What a concept.  

Also, (500) Days of Summer’s expectations vs. reality sequence is one of the most strikingly true depictions of unrequited feelings I’ve seen played out on screen.  The whole movie is creatively and evocatively shot, the story is intelligently portrayed, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is infinitely more pleasant to spend two hours with than Woody Allen.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Titanic

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Poor-little-rich-girl Rose Dewitt-Bukater and Bohemian expatriate artist Jack Dawson meet on the stern of the most hubristic advertising scheme in history as she contemplates throwing herself into the ocean.  In their brief time together he teaches her how to live life to the fullest, she teaches him that gorgeous naked women wearing massive diamonds are the best portrait subjects, and then the ship sinks.  Jack dies.  Rose ditches her mother and cartoonishly terrible fiance to embark on a life of artistic self-fulfillment.  None of this should have been a spoiler to you.  

What you should watch instead:

Atonement

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Content little rich girl Briony Tallis harbors a secret crush on her family housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, oblivious to the Cambridge student’s own secret passion for her older sister, Celia.  When Briony witnesses a series of encounters between the pair her jealousy and confusion lead her to falsely accuse Robbie of a terrible crime, resulting in his incarceration and Celia’s estrangement from the family.  Years later, in the midst of World War II, the young lovers struggle to find a way back to each other as Biony, riddled with guilt, is forced to finally confront the full weight of her childish actions.  

Similarities

Both are tragic love stories of passion found only to be ripped away by unfair forces beyond the control of the lovers involved.  Both are well-costumed historical dramas set against the backdrop of vast human tragedies.  Both will deliver you a tear-jerking finale that isn’t so much emotionally satisfying as brutally bittersweet.  

Where they Differ

Mostly in terms of the quality of the writing and the stories.  Titanic was a landmark film, unparalleled at the time of its release in terms of its scale, its visual richness, and its technological achievement.  The story though…well, story has never been James Cameron’s strong point.  Between hackneyed dialogue (that ONLY plays without being COMPLETELY ridiculous because Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are damn fine actors), cliched story beats, and characters reduced to ham-fisted caricatures Titanic is very heavily style over substance.  

Not to mention the fact that no matter where you land on the “Door Debate,” Jack totally could have survived if Rose hadn’t gone leaping out of a perfectly good life boat like a moron.

In contrast, Atonement is an exquisitely written AND exquisitely shot masterpiece of a film that relies, to some extent, on the viewer’s ability to connect some dots on their own.  With a creative approach to the structure of the story, a fascinating central character in Briony Tallis, and a truly devastating final reveal, Atonement is the gut-wrenching romantic tragedy that your soul really needs.  In fact, far beyond just being a story of a tragic romance, it becomes a wider meditation on guilt, on the nature of love, and on the importance that stories hold on a personal as well as public level.  

 

  1.  What you’re watching:

Fifty Shades of Grey

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Narcissistic billionaire stalker Christian Grey meets narcissistic clueless klutz Anastasia Steele, and their mutual fascination quickly evolves into the early stages of a text-book abusive relationship (the nature of which has exactly NOTHING to do with Christian’s BDSM fetish) in a blatant plagiarism of another terrible “romance” series.

What you should watch instead:

10 Things I Hate About You

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High school bad boy Patrick Verona is paid to woo the school shrew, Kat Stratford as part of a wacky scheme to help the sweet-hearted Cameron get a date with Kat’s popular younger sister Bianca in a modern (far less problematic) retelling of Williams Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

Similarities?

They both…take place…in Seattle?

Where they Differ

Seriously?  Well one is about a terrible human being who takes his need for control to psychotic levels, and the terrible human being who allows him to strip her of her agency, her independence, and any vestiges of self-esteem that she might have had because he’s hot and rich.  It is a stunningly accurate depiction of a deeply unhealthy abusive relationship with a narcissistic sociopath, while also being (from what I understand) a stunningly INaccurate depiction of responsible BDSM behavior.  Despite the much-touted kink, somehow the sex scenes are not even sort of hot.  This might have something to do with the fact that the two lead actors don’t actually seem to like each other.  At all.  But it’s probably also due to the fact that this is a movie based on a book by an idiot Twilight fan girl who has no concept of good writing, American vernacular, or why so many women are so viscerally repelled by the psycho that she’s been selling as God’s gift to orgasms.  The fact that there is ALSO a large contingent of women who consider Christian Grey to be their ideal man is very, VERY troubling.  

Then there’s 10 Things I Hate About You.  The anti-Fifty Shades of Grey, if you will.  If Kat Stratford ever met Christian Grey, Bobby Ridgeway’s testicle retrieval operation would look like a day at Disneyland.  Smart, tough, and fiercely independent, Kat Stratford would have NO tolerance for Christian Grey’s bullshit.  Kat Stratford needs no one’s approval, let alone their permission, she just needs them to get out of her way while she blazes her path as the brilliant badass that she is.  The man who pursues her heart, Patrick Verona, is able to make inroads precisely because he meets her on her own level and appreciates her exactly as she is, sharp edges and all.  Kat and Patrick, in their matching Doc Martens, and having brought out the best in each other, would kick Ana and Christian’s ridiculous asses all the way to Vancouver.  

10 Things is sharp and funny and feminist (despite the classic ’90’s setup device for all the romantic action).  10 Things is all ABOUT a strong female lead.  10 Things will make you glad that you are alive.

The One Big Reason Why You’re Not Watching The 100, and Five Reasons Why You Should

Avast, matey, minor spoilers ahead!

Let me set the scene for a little television show called The 100.  

On a dilapidated space station 97 years after the nuclear ruin of Earth a scarcity of resources has rendered any and all crimes, no matter how minor, punishable by execution.  Juvenile offenders are locked up pending a case review on their eighteenth birthday.  Clarke Griffin is several months short of that date when she is suddenly marched out of her cell and boarded onto a drop ship with 99 other young offenders (making up the titular 100, in case you didn’t catch that).  They are returning to the Earth.  If it is finally survivable the rest of their station will follow them, if not…well, they probably weren’t going to live long anyway.  

However Earth, as it turns out, IS survivable; a feral, unpopulated Eden of natural splendor just waiting to welcome humanity back from whence it sprung.  Except that it’s not…actually…unpopulated.  And the locals are not exactly pleased with the new arrivals.

Don’t you hate it when thousands of people survive the nuclear holocaust and forget to tell you?  

Suddenly the 100’s original fact-finding mission becomes a battle to survive against a much larger hostile force, the natural disasters of the ground, and a shadowy threat only ominously alluded to as “Mountain Men.”  Meanwhile, back in the sky, the space station’s life support is on life support and the people on board must face their own fraught decisions if they are going to see the back end of three months.  

Now, I don’t know if this little summary has piqued your interest.  It may have, or it may have just sounded like the fairly typical post-apocalyptic fare that is so en vogue these days.  However, for those of you who like this kind of story but have never tuned in to The 100 I’m willing to bet I know the biggest reason you’re abstaining.  Because it’s the biggest reason that I almost didn’t bother with it back when it premiered in 2014 (and I honestly don’t remember what swayed me, but I’m very glad it did).  

The 100 airs on the CW.  

Yes the station has had a good run of nerd cred lately with shows like Arrow and iZombie, but the fact is that its programming slate has been dominated for years by teentastic dramedies so soapy that they should come with a rinse cycle for the credits.  I spent my teen years rolling my eyes at the likes of One Tree Hill and 7th Heaven, briefly got on board with Gossip Girl as a guilty pleasure until that spun off into insane territory about three years in, and was ready to devil-egg the network headquarters after the history-rage-inducing debut of Reign (you may have caught the Gilmore Girls reference there, a show that ran on WB/CW, but I only discovered and came to enjoy it once it hit syndication on ABC Family, so for me personally I’m not giving the CW a total win on that account).  

HOWEVER.

I am here to tell you as someone more than slightly prejudiced against the CW that The 100 is not reflective of its traditional programming.  In fact it’s not typical of anything on network television (not that I’ve seen, anyway).  If you feel even a flicker of interest for the premise of the show, but aren’t watching because of the network that hosts it I have five reasons why you should allay your misgivings and start watching immediately (on Netflix.  Where the first three seasons are available in their entirety.  Don’t just jump in mid-stream on the current fourth season).  And if you’re NOT at all intrigued by the premise, then these are five reasons why you should spare The 100 a chance.  

5.  Impressive, Immersive World-Building

It’s a tricky business throwing an audience into a world that is not their own.  They have to be initiated into the rules, mores, and institutions of the story, but doing so in a way that doesn’t feel ham-handed and expository is a hurdle that has thwarted storytellers across all mediums.  

In the case of The 100 the world of the story WAS ours, and so it bears some familiarity (especially among the denizens of the Ark), but after a massive nuclear disaster, and nearly a century’s struggle to preserve the species the rules of the game have definitely changed.  The 100 communicates this, with the exception of a little voice over at the top of the pilot episode, through a method that is more heavily show rather than tell.  The reactions that characters have to an event or a piece of information says everything necessary without attempting to spoon feed to the audience.  When important details are directly presented they are often integrated seamlessly into plot-specific dialogue rather than thrown out for the sake of explicitivity.  History and backstories come to us in bits and pieces as they relate to the situation at hand.  This refreshingly assumes a level of intelligence in the viewership that is sadly lacking in so much network television; “Here is the world: Listen, watch, keep up.”  

And what a world we are presented with.  Our stage is set with a dying space station known as the Ark, and a post-apocalyptic Earth returned to a state of nature.  How would humanity navigate such a stage?  Thus far we have seen three very specific factions seeking to demonstrate how, all with their own specific cultures that have grown up around their circumstances.  The main characters, of a faction later known as the Skaikru (Grounder speak- literal meaning: Sky People.  No one said Grounders were creative), hail from the the Ark.  They have spent their lives in orbit, functioning on severely limited resources but with advanced technological amenities.  Everything they have looks slightly worn, handed down many times, used and repurposed until it cannot possibly serve any further function.  They have survived through ingenuity and sheer willpower, and so, while ultimately pragmatic, as a group they tend to be more idealistic than their ground-side counterparts (“If we just think about this some more we can discover a solution that works for everyone”).  

Ruthlessness is often the name of the game when it comes to the humans who were left to survive on our decimated planet.  The Grounders, though distinct in the specifics of their twelve clans, share the same general culture, one carved out of humanity’s desperate struggle to survive post-nuclear holocaust.  In that culture we see the ruin of ours (sometimes literally); old remnants of the world as we recognize it integrated into a new pre-industrial tribal society.  Listening carefully the audience will even recognize some of our modern vernacular reshaped into the Grounders’ unique language, while recognizable items of clothing, furniture, and crockery appears throughout their settings as salvaged goods.  Their mores are also familiar, albeit more archaic to the modern eye; they are a violent society, more formal and ritualistic, heavily honor based, and holding firm to a strong sense of balance and retribution.   

Meanwhile, in a sealed underground bunker, a faction of humanity nearly identical to that of modern America continues to exist.  Our pre-nuclear world literally entombed for a century; preserved by methods far more brutal and amoral than any we see enacted by the other two primary groups.  

As much as we are given to digest on screen, one gets the sense that there is infinitely more to see and know.  The 100 has created a future that feels as expansive as present reality; a viewer can easily imagine a richly developed, complex world that extends far beyond the frame of the television screen.  However they don’t need to reach out and wave at their audience.  By the simple act of leaving the door open they invite us in, trusting that it won’t be long before we are lost in their world amongst them.  

4.  Diversity as the Rule

Did you know that when human beings start intermarrying regardless of race or ethnicity, most of us wind up being some shade of brown?  Also interesting?  When your species has been nearly annihilated your chances of saving are vastly improved when you don’t get stupidly picky about the pigmentation of your procreative partner.  

The 100’s showrunners did nothing more radical than embrace the logic of their story construct, and they did it in time when a commitment to diverse casting policies could be seen as progressive in the most matter-of-fact sense.  In a day and age where producers are starting to have to get really creative to defend non-inclusive casting choices, the team over at The 100 simply didn’t bother trying.  Their principal cast features several caucasian actors, yes, but also Bob Morley (half Filipino), Christopher Larkin (Korean American), Henry Ian Cusick (half Peruvian), Ricky Whittle (of West Indies descent), Lindsey Morgan (Mexican American), and Isaiah Washington (African American).  Similarly, the supporting players and ensembles of The Ark, the Mountain, and the Grounders are filled with people of all shades; the factors that divide The 100’s people into their various camps are primarily geographical and never racial.  It’s almost like humanity is actually just a big melting pot and that race is more of a social construct than anything (the luxury of which would be hard to justify when you’re just trying to ensure the survival of the species overall).  

Also encouraging is the total lack of any kind of sexual politics in the story.  Characters who are homosexual or bisexual simply…exist…as a normal part of the human landscape; if anyone ever comments about the romantic and/or sexual relationships of other characters it’s never because of the genders of the people involved.  Since we, out here in the real world, can’t seem to get over our bizarre Puritan inclination to police everybody’s bedrooms it’s frankly refreshing to experience a fictionalized version of humanity’s future where no one spares a second thought for anyone else’s sexual preferences.   I would really like to believe that, even if humans can never get away from our seemingly instinctual tendency to destroy each other, one day we might just realize that we have more important things to focus our concerns on than who does what with whom and which naughty bits.  

3.  Subversion of Tired Character Tropes

You’re watching a show whose primary cast is all super-attractive twenty-somethings  meant to be in their late teens.  Boy meets Girl, Boy and Girl work to lead their peers in a bid for survival, Boy and Girl fall for each other, oops, Boy already has a Girlfriend (okay, one that he thought he’d never see again), Girlfriend suddenly shows up.  We all know what happens now, right?  There will be a love triangle, confused Boy will ping-pong between the two of them, and then will come some passive aggressive contests of will devolving into outright bitchiness as Girl grapples to win Boy away from Girlfriend, who in turn tightens her grip on him in equal measure.  They will hate each other forever after.  Right?

Wrong.  When the above scenario was teed up in early-mid Season One I braced for the cliche impact that never came.  Girl immediately backed off, with some tension and awkwardness she and Girlfriend moved forward as allies in the greater struggle, each with great respect for the other’s abilities, Boy’s emotional confusion was met with a resounding, “We have more important stuff to deal with,” from both ladies.  

Not one but TWO young women, on a network TV show, who understand that relationship drama is a petty distraction when you’re most immediate hurdles are things like acid fog and murderous adversaries?  TWO young women who maturely put their emotions aside to focus on the precarious and dangerous circumstances around them?  Am I dreaming?

Nope.  Not dreaming, and thrilled to find it so.  This was not the very first time that The 100 swerved from the expectations of a CW drama, but it was the first one that really caught me as a viewer.  This was the point at which I really started to take the show seriously.  They had proven that they were more committed to telling a complex, interesting story (with similarly complex and interesting characters) than going for easy plotting on the back of tried-and-tested genre tropes.

This is a commitment that the showrunners have reaffirmed again and again in the three seasons of the show, both in terms of actual plot points and the pawns that enact them.  Character are allowed to be multi-dimensional and to act in ways that are messy and human;  while their reasoning is usually clear (and mostly comes from a desire to do right) they screw up in huge ways, they make bad choices, and we as an audience are not always asked to like them, or the things they do.  Actions have very real, and sometimes very permanent, consequences.  Damage alters their character makeup.  Most uniquely, it stands apart from a lot of other teen-centric programming in that none of the character development ever feels like it’s coming from a need to create drama, but rather arising organically from the never ending onslaught of impossible circumstances our cast must contend with.  

In short: You, as a viewer, may not agree with (or even like) some of these people, your opinions on them may shift back and forth a dozen times…but you will always be interested to see where they are going.

2.  Female Agency as Far as the Eye Can See

          If you’re looking for strong, kickass, Bechdel-test-acing women on your TV screen then The 100 is your one-stop shop for some serious girl power.  Where to begin with this show?  There’s the central figure of Clarke Griffin, a medical student before her arrest, who shoulders the burden of leadership ground-side and faces one shattering decision after another in her ongoing efforts to protect her people.  There’s Octavia Blake, Warrior Princess, a second child born illicitly in defiance of the the Ark’s oxygen-conserving one child policy, and subsequently hidden away under the floor of her family’s quarters for fifteen years.  Once freed Octavia’s development takes her from giddy butterfly-chasing girl to bona fide sword-wielding badass as she stakes her claim on her own independence.  There’s Raven Reyes, the brilliant mechanic with a no-nonsense attitude, and seemingly limitless brain power that is integral to the continued survival of the Skaikru.  There’s Lexa, the fierce and pragmatic Commander of the Twelve Clans, and Indra, the fire-eyed Trikru general, and Luna with her remote pacifist enclave.  There’s Abby, and Maya, and Hannah, and Anya, Emori, Dr. Tsing, Harper, and Charlotte…it’s such a long list and every one of them brings a new and enriching layer to the show.  Even more importantly, while many of these women do have love interests those aspects of their stories are rarely central to their arc, or their role in the story, but rather a little meat of the side (no…pun…intended?) to give more dimension to already complex characters.  

Best of all is how many of these women hold significant leadership positions where they are respected by the men around them.  Now I heard some grumbling on the message boards back in the first season about how realistic this was really, especially when it came to very young women like Clarke and Lexa who are the driving voices among their respective peoples despite their youth.  I’m here to say that I think it actually makes perfect sense considering the realities of the world in The 100  (and also to point out that no one rolled their eyes about Bellamy Blake, a similarly young and less experienced guy, being accepted and respected as a leader).  

Among the Grounders, whose lives are harsh and seemingly short (very few elderly Grounders ever appear, even in non-combative villages) skill is the only metric that matters.  If the pretty teenage girl is the one who Samurai’d her way through all her (heavily armed) opponents to claim the top job in the land…well yeah, in an extremely violent and fractious society that’s probably who you’d want to follow regardless of her age or her sex.  Of course, when she’s also got the military and political acumen to unite the twelve clans for the first time in living memory that would only cement her authority.  

On The Ark, where age, formal training, and seniority carry more weight, brains and skill are still recognized, and rewarded, for their own inherent value.  Raven may have been junior on the engineering team’s totem pole technically, but everyone acknowledges her mechanical genius.  Clarke, with her cool head and diplomatic instincts, was a steadying presence when the original 100 first hit the ground and established a rapport with the Grounders that uniquely positioned her to work as a mediator between the two sides.  And Octavia?  Well lots of people on The 100 are pretty dismissive of Octavia.  Then she rolls her eyes, does what she wants, and usually ends up playing an important part in saving some detractor’s butt.  

Indeed, The 100’s entire approach is very much like Octavia’s.  They don’t bother questioning whether someone is unfit for their position of authority based on age or sex, instead they show you why they are exactly the right person for the job regardless of the above (and, believe me, if they’re not suitable they’ll show you that too, usually with devastating consequences for everyone involved).

  1.  Juicy Moral Conundrums

As you may have surmised by now, The 100 doesn’t deal in easy.  Nothing about the world or the people who populate it can be boiled down to black or white; every choice, every motivation, every event is sketched out in myriad shades of grey.  There are no right answers, only less wrong ones, and the less wrong is often heavily dependent on the perspective of the character making the call.  

When the person you love commits a truly horrific crime do you protect them?  Or do you deliver them to justice?  What is more important, your alliances, or your own people?  Can you rightly sacrifice a few to potentially save many?  These maddening, impossible questions (and many more like them) throw both audience and characters into devastating moral quagmires on a non-stop basis over the course of The 100’s three seasons.  As a result it is likewise impossible to truly discern heroes from villains.  As everyone scrambles for survival in a harsh and merciless world 99% of the people we encounter in The 100 are acting out of a genuine, passionate desire to make life better for the ones they care about most.  

Basically, The 100 is not here to reassure its viewers.  Its most relentless message is that life is hard.  It’s complicated, it demands sacrifices, and when the struggle for your own survival is on the table you will be forced to reckon, again and again, with which parts of yourself you are willing to lose in order to live.  The true struggle is in maintaining your humanity, fighting the urge to devolve into the worst form of our species.  Trying to find the bigger picture even in the most ethically fuzzy circumstances.  The questions that the show forces a viewer to confront are thorny, wrenching, and deeply riveting, a veritable feast for thought both in terms of the story line and in the broader debates of moral relativism.   

However, fascinating commentary on humanity (both present and future) aside, the thing that keeps us watching is the characters who form the heart of the story.  As much as we as viewers relish all the elements that make this show interesting, our most immediate concerns are ultimately with these fictional people that we have been allowed to know and care for.  

How will these characters ever make it to the peace they so richly deserve?  

Do they actually deserve it at all?

 

The 100, having just debuted Season Four, airs Wednesday nights at 9pm EST on the CW

Jess Mariano: Oy, With the Schmuck-Head Already

I have a confession to make.

I cannot get excited about the Gilmore Girls movies that have come to Netflix.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Gilmore Girls. Due to a skeptical aversion to anything produced by the WB (now CW) I was a late-comer to the fandom, but once I found Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fresh and witty series about a fast-talking mother-daughter duo and their extended circle of oddballs I was hooked. It’s great to have a show like Gilmore Girls out there in the public awareness; it’s fun, it’s clever, and it’s got a strong feminist message. Yet I can’t get pumped for more.

Some of my misgivings are probably due to the general calamity that was final season; however the biggest cause of my apprehension is a specific one that I can pinpoint exactly.

Jess. Motherfucking. Mariano.

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“Here’s some emotional baggage for you; don’t worry, I’ve got more in the back.”

Jess Mariano slouched broodily into the series in its second season with a bad-attitude scowl, and giant salty chip on his shoulder. He was instantly set up as competition for, and foil to, Rory’s then-boyfriend, Dean Forrester (whose character, unfortunately, underwent a brutal hatchet job in order to create contrast between the two guys). Where Dean was a wholesome puppy dog, Jess stole, he skipped school, he started fights. He was emotionally wounded! Rebellious! Unpredictable! The fans went nuts for him. As of now (nine years after the final episode aired) he, of all Rory Gilmore’s love interests, remains the most popular by a wide margin.

I don’t get it. Not just Jess, but the cultural penchant for sticking Bad Boys on a pedestal and selling them as romantic paragons. I’m sorry, you wanted to date a self-involved asshole with emotional issues, who treats you badly, and gets along with exactly no one in your life? Come on, we’ve all been involved with THAT GUY at some point; was it fun? Sure, he might have been hot, the physical stuff was probably good, but did that cancel out the anxiety he caused? The mood swings he inspired? The general havoc wreaked on your life and mental state? So why, why, WHY are we so obsessed with romanticizing this kind of person? Why, generation after generation, do we enshrine a number of these dicks as our fantasies? (I’ve actually got thoughts as to why, but that’s a topic for another time)

Jess Mariano, with his good looks and shitty personality epitomizes this phenomenon to me. He’s absolutely terrible, and yet the majority of the fans swoon every time he skulks his way onto the screen. It’s because of this bizarre, misplaced mass affection for an awful character that I’m unenthused at the idea of the Netflix addendum. The movies themselves are a fan service, and further to servicing the fans I have a creeping feeling of trepidation that Jess Mariano (already confirmed to be returning) is finally going to wind up as endgame.
Not because it’s good storytelling, mind you, because, frankly, it’s not. Who the hell goes off to the Ivy League, embarks on a high-powered journalism career (face it, with Rory’s charmed life she’s Obama’s very own CJ Cregg by now), and then winds up with the asshat who broke her heart at seventeen? Come on. No. Terrible though Jess is, terrible though he was for Rory, the creators could so easily give in to an easy rom-com write-off just so his legion of fangirls can have something to squee themselves to death over.

I can’t reiterate enough that I. Do. Not. Get it. Jess started their relationship by stealing…sorry, borrowing *huge eyeroll* Rory’s copy of Howl, ostensibly to make some notes in the margins. I think that that single action is the indicator of all the reasons why he was a terrible love interest. It is presented to the viewer as his bad boy method of sharing his common sensibilities with Rory, but as a fellow bookworm let me just lay down some truth: Books are personal. Some people write all over theirs, dog-ear the pages, bend the spine until the book’s will to live is reliant on life-support applications Scotch tape and hope. Some try to keep their books as close to pristine as possible. Lots fall somewhere in the middle. However these are very personal, very definitive inclinations, and it is the height of presumptive arrogance to start scribbling your own pretentious rambling onto the pages of someone else’s book, especially if that someone is a total stranger. True book lovers treat borrowed tomes like babies: gently, and with the utmost care; it’s like our unofficial gospel. Jess’ behavior reveals a self-centered disregard for anyone else’s boundaries or preferences that presages his character’s entire arc on the show.

Their relationship did not truly begin until more than a year after more-annoying-Holden Caulfield’s first appearance on the show. Disappointed by fair Rory’s attachment to the aforementioned Dean, Jess spent a good part of the intervening time trying to force himself between the two. He played on Dean’s insecurity with a true manipulator’s acumen, leaping into Rory’s sleigh at the Bracebridge Dinner, reenacting a scene from Oklahoma by showing up with a fat wad of cash to outbid Dean at the Stars Hollow basket auction, stealing (or is this just borrowing again?) Rory’s bracelet, a gift from Dean, to sow discord between the couple, always with that maddening smirk that said, “It’s just a matter of time.” Through all this he never cared how anxious or uncomfortable any of it actually made Rory, because, I reiterate, Jess does not care about anybody else, up to and including the girl that he considers to be more of a prize to be won than a full human being with a mind of her own.

And what happens when he wins her? Well, he’s got what he wants, so he doesn’t really need to try anymore, does he? Jess regards any and all requirements of actually being a boyfriend with the utmost scorn. “What, CALL my girlfriend when I said I was going to? That’s so, like, bourgeois and phony.” No, Jess can’t be bothered to behave considerately. Initially Rory rails against his neglectful radio silence, and erratic affection, but when he finally appears bearing last minute concert tickets all that resolve and perceived self-worth evaporates, and ultimately nothing is really solved.

Hell, if you want a great indication of how shabbily Jess treated Rory during their relationship look no further than the infamous “He Looked It Up” instance. Jess Googles the distance between Harvard and Stars Hollow, and Rory responds to this information with sparkly-eyed awe, like her boyfriend giving a shit is the most romantic thing that has ever happened. It is a huge red flag when those kind of tiny crumbs of consideration become benchmark moments in a couple’s timeline.

Still, it would have been one thing if that was the utmost of his sins; we could have marked that down as a transitional difficulty as he learned how to be a boyfriend as opposed to a back-seat hookup. But it wasn’t. He vacillated between sullen monosyllabism and downright nastiness when he was with other people in her life, indignant that he should have to deal with them at all. In fact, that seemed to be his MO when he was interacting with anyone who wasn’t Rory. He leaned on her completely as an emotional crutch and sole social connection, admitting outright, “I don’t want to talk to anyone else. I don’t LIKE anyone else.” (ALL the big red flags. ALL of them). Finally, in one shining moment, he went right up to the border of sexually assaulting her, and then acted like it was her own fault, and then, after all that, he picked up and moved to California in pursuit of his own Daddy issues without so much as a word to his supposed girlfriend.

And so ended the Jess Mariano reign of emotional terror.

Ha. No, just kidding, he would come back for other little ninja bombs of emotional damage in the next season. Like when he ran up to Rory, who was openly trying to avoid him, yelled, “I love you,” got in his car and drove away. Or when he showed up at Yale and tried to convince her to drop out of school and run away with him, because HE was ready, and because HE was ready that meant that it was what Rory really wanted.

The thing is, even Jess’ most stalwart supporters can’t really spin any of this in a good light, because it truly is terrible, inexcusable behavior. If most of us saw a friend dating a guy like Jess Mariano, we would tell her to run far, far away from him and never look back. However, most Jess fans hinge their stubborn adoration of this awful character on small moments of decency. For most of the Jess arc this involves things like, “He Looked It Up,” or modest niceties that he has usually been shamed into. When he reappears for the penultimate time in Season Six, though, that is what the Jess fans really cling to as their proof that he is some kind of misunderstood soul mate.

This time Jess reappears out of the clear blue while Rory is living with her grandparents in Hartford, to hand deliver her a copy of his recently published debut novella. He does seem more mature, though there is still a definite whiff of pretentiousness about him. They wind up on a disastrous outing with the unexpected addition of Logan (where, let’s just be clear, not a ONE of the three comes out looking good), and then he ends the night berating Rory about her recent life choices- namely, dropping out of Yale following the first harsh criticism Ms. Snowflake had ever received in her entire life.

This instance provides the final push to get Rory out of her funk, and back to her real life (let’s not give Jess all the credit here, Rory was slowly getting there on her own, Jess just sped her up). However, the impulses that sent Jess to Hartford in the first place are still the selfish ones that primarily defined his character from the git-go. He drops into her life, unannounced (second time he’s done this deliberately), he plays on their intellectual connection, gets sulky when Rory’s current boyfriend has a problem with the two of them hanging out behind his back, and then, without understanding any of the circumstances surrounding Rory’s issues, he yells at her because she isn’t living up to HIS idea of who he thinks she should be. Now, he may have been spot on in some of his diatribe, but I don’t know that that gives him the right to pass such sweeping judgement, especially considering their shared past.

No, even after attaining basic human decency, Jess Mariano as a whole entity is still the actual worst by any objective metric. At his lowest he is an abusive, manipulative, selfish snot, and at his best he is…still kind of a selfish snot. He has little time or tolerance for the people he deems to be below him (which is just about everyone), it’s just Rory Gilmore’s great misfortune that he has decided she is one of the worthy. Jess was bad to her, and bad for her; even with an improved sense of self-awareness his underlying motivation has always been his own narcissism, which negates his ability to ever have a true partnership with a lover. Jess Mariano will only ever be a Salinger knockoff whose true spots are lurking just below the surface.

But, hey, at least he was finally nice to Luke.

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You’re my hero, Luke Danes.

Save the Turkey!

It’s that time of year again.  Halloween is two days behind us, the air is crisp, the sun golden through a bright corona of fiery foliage, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

That sucks.

Here’s the thing: I love Christmas.  It’s my favorite holiday of the entire year.  I love the movies, and the carols, and the colors, and the lights.  I love picking out just the right gift to wrap in pretty foiled paper.  I love high mass on Christmas Eve, and a lazy Christmas Day spent hanging around the house with my family.

What I loathe nearly as much as Election Season is the shiny, commercial Holly-Jolly Machine that stalks across the calendar earlier and earlier with every passing year like a gingerbread-scented Storm Trooper, crushing out an entire month beneath its steel-toed jingle-bell boots.  Why does it happen?  Why, because the world is so eager to embrace the cheer of the season, of course!  Peace on Earth, and Goodwill Towards Men, and all that.  Right?

HaHA.  No.  They do it to get you to buy crap.  You know this, I know this.  The world that surrounds us wants you in the holiday spirit so that they can pry as much money out of your pocket as inhumanly possible before close of business December 24th.  The jingly-jingles, the festive decorations, it’s all just a framing device for one AMAZING door-buster sale after another, and suddenly the spirit of the season, all those rosy, lovely Christmas Carol-esque feelings that should fill our souls to the brim, they’re blown out like so many embers in the shrill shrieking extortions of an industry that would snap Tiny Tim’s crutch right in front of him (so they can sell him a BETTER one, of course, at an AMAZING price).

As our collective stress level skyrockets, one must wonder why we allow this gross commercialism to creep into our lives earlier and more aggressively every year?  Especially at the expense of a really lovely little holiday called Thanksgiving?

While I do love Christmas, I also really like Thanksgiving.  Aside from its unfortunate status as the High Holy Day of Hand Egg, it really is one of the nicest days of the year.  Most cultures have some day marked out for an official Giving of Thanks; ours is rooted in the traditions of the English Protestant Reformation where, due to increasingly large sticks being stuck up bums between the reign of Edward VI and the crumbling of the Commonwealth, many people marked holidays with fasting and prayers of thanks instead of anything remotely festive (because if you enjoy yourself before you die, God will know, and he’ll never forgive you for it).   However, even this wasn’t suitably grim enough for the Puritans, and so they packed up all their good-time vibes and shipped out for the shores of the New World.  At some point after they established their colony at Plymouth they began a tradition of a yearly autumn Thanksgiving celebration. I was just one of many lasting contributions they would give this country, like a killer work ethic, a discomfort for public dancing, and a pathological obsession with all things kinky that is camouflaged by a heavy layer of moral righteousness.  Gradually the religious implications dropped away from the holiday, and in 1941 President Roosevelt permanently fixed the date of observance on the third Thursday of the November.  Add a parade and a narcolepsy-inducing fowl and you’ve got yourself a modern holiday.

The fairytale myth about those first Puritans sharing a meal with the local American Indians has largely been debunked in modern times.  Thanksgiving is now primarily regarded as a day of personal thanks.  We come together with our family, or our friends, the people who matter in our lives, we eat a big meal together, and we think about all the ways that our lives are actually pretty decent.  We enjoy each other.  We take a breath before heading into the Christmas season (which is always going to be a LITTLE stressful, no matter what we do).  And we do it together, as one people regardless of color, race, or creed.  That’s a really beautiful thing.

I grew up in a bi-religious household, with a Jewish parent, so as much as I love the Yule, I’m very aware of all the ways it can be alienating for non-Christians.  I enjoy holidays that don’t have a religious affiliation.  America is so divided on so many things that I can’t help but really appreciate what little we can really embrace together.  For one day we all take off work, we go to the people we love, and we eat ourselves stupid.  Who couldn’t appreciate that?  

Trouble is, it’s very hard to commercialize a day that is primarily centered around being home with your family.  Oh sure, between the parade and the 26 billion sportsball games on TV it’s an advertiser’s dream come true, but beyond what is spent at the grocery store it’s not a holiday that lends itself to the acquisition of material goods.  

Well damn.  We certainly can’t have that.  Americans, sitting at home, eating a meal, watching TV, and NOT shopping?  What is this?  Stalingrad?  No, no, no, we have to fix this.  I know!  We start the Christmas movies the day after Halloween.  And the carols, we get some radio stations on the 24-7 festivity wagon. That’ll get them in the mood.  Then…sometime in November, say that third Thursday, BOOM we hit them with deals like they’ve never seen!  That’ll save them from having to stay home!  ‘Murica!  

We’d start earlier if we could, but did you see the numbers Halloween put up?  We can’t cut in on that.  

So it goes.  Suddenly the one day that we are supposed to feast and relax in celebration of all the good things we have access to in this country is subsumed into the hellish commercial cyclone that has become the ever expanding Christmas Season.  Are you dependent on retail to make a living?  Well you’re not entitled to much as it is, but one of those things is certainly not a holiday off anymore.  Your smiling ass will be behind that counter at 6am Thanksgiving Day, ready to help the oncoming horde of bargain-hunters.  We’ll have Turkey sandwiches in the breakroom from 4pm to 4:10, then back to it!  Sell, sell sell!

Okay so I may be exaggerating slightly.  It’s not quite that bad.  Yet.  But we’re headed that way rapidly.  Already a disturbing number of stores open their doors at 6pm on Thanksgiving Day, ensuring that their employees will almost certainly not get the time off that I can assure you they richly deserve.  Every year the Christmas bombardment starts earlier, and we lose sight, not only of the Christmas season is SUPPOSED to be about, but also the significance of our capstone harvest holiday, Thanksgiving.  

So fight back.  Use November as a time of peace between the busy hum of October and the inevitable frenzy of December.  Inhale the crisp, wood smoked air, enjoy the leaves, sip your latte, focus on all those great things in your life that don’t require you to spend a cent.  And then go plunging into the Christmas Season rejuvenated and ready to make the most of a special time of year.  A time of year that is only special if its sphere is limited to the last month of the calendar.  And when Thanksgiving Day arrives, you find yourself some loveable weirdos who annoy you just the right amount, and you spend the day with them.  Eat, laugh, yell at the game; don’t spare one thought to Christmas.  It will come in it’s own time.  Let’s see if we can’t take back one of the only days of the year that we can all celebrate together.  Fight the Christmas creep.  Fight the holiday machine.  Save the Turkey!  

 

 

 

A Mad Woman’s Definitive Ranking of Peter Pan

I can’t remember when I fell in love with Peter Pan.  The story has been  a part of my life for as far back as my memories go, and it is dear to my heart.  As I have grown older my visceral fascination has given rise to a scholarly interest in the work.  I have sought it out in almost all its adapted forms, I have scrutinized each version to cross my path, I have put way more thought into this play/novel than many would think healthy.  Recently I found myself with a few hours to kill and wound up at a screening of the new film Pan.  The experience left me thinking about all the films I’ve ever seen on the subject matter; I’ve always had my own ranking in my mind, but something about seeing Pan seemed to ignite a fervor to finally verbalize what I have always felt so passionately about.  

So here it is.  The ultimate ranking of all things Peter Pan as they have appeared in film and television.  To qualify for this list the piece had to be a full length adaptation, had to feature Peter Pan as the central character, and, in the case of the films, had to be theatrical releases (thus no Return to Neverland, no Once Upon a Time).  Welcome to my fixation.  Please do enjoy.  

  1.  Peter Pan (2014 NBC Telecast)

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“Try to be sexy. Everyone likes sexy.”

After that God-awful Sound of Music I was in a state…supreme chagrin when NBC announced its second victim would be my beloved Peter Pan.  

Allison Williams is routinely one of the things I like best about Girls, but as the lead in this telecast she killed me. She’s not Peter Pan, she’s a girl with a wig and a bad accent, whose tepid acting has no trace of the mischievous fun or endearing arrogance that are integral to the character.  Nor, sadly, is any of his unbridled energy in evidence as Williams chronically underplays the role. She has no sense of how to play a twelve year old boy, least of all THIS twelve year old boy, illustrated as much by her feminized gestures and awkward physicality as by any other choice she makes in the role (When playing a guy, remember, ladies: keep your arms stiff, and bend from the waist.  Insta-boy!).  While no one has ever flown like Cathy Rigby, puppets are more lifelike on their strings than Allison Williams on hers. I hate to say this, but Allison Williams wasn’t playing Peter Pan, she seemed to be playing Marnie…playing Peter. The whole performance was embarrassing in its awkwardness, and sadly disingenuous despite the fact that she was obviously trying. Like Marnie.

However, as unsatisfying a Peter as Allison Williams was, she was a tour-de-force when  compared with a doddering Christopher Walken as Grandpa Hook. He must have been a great performer ONCE, but with age and success he’s been allowed to play roles catering almost exclusively to his natural oddness, and I think it’s made him lazy. I knew this casting was a bad idea from the second it was announced; I could hear in my head exactly how he was going to do this role, and in the end I was pretty spot on. I don’t know if he was just bored, or if he’d overshot the Valium dosage, but his waxen, wooden, stilt-tongued performance left me staring at the screen going, “Do you even KNOW WHO YOU’RE PLAYING?” Phoning it in doesn’t begin to describe his performance.  Suffice it to say that I have never heard a less believable line delivery than, “…Hammer and tongs…I’m burning.” (You KNOW you can hear it in your head, you KNOW you can)

A major low point came during one of several new songs (this one sung by Hook and Peter), and a rickety, tentative sword fight that left Peter too grievously wounded to fly despite having very little action. Watching Allison Williams and Christopher Walken awkwardly inching around each other as a means of a duel was…well…it happened. In combining the two weakest links in the proverbial chain their individual shortcomings were magnified to ignominious proportions, ensuring that the audience was, for five minutes, at least as uncomfortable watching the scene as the performers were playing it.  It’s a solid strategy.  If you can’t win the audience’s love, at least get their empathy.  

The chief problem with the whole production seems to be the fault of the production TEAM, though. I don’t know whether to lay blame on the network, the script adaptors, the director…it’s likely a combination of all three. Let’s pass over the crappy fairy “effects” utilized when an actual light or a handful of glitter would have sold so much better. Let’s move past the poor casting choices. Let’s even ignore the bizarre blocking choices.  They displayed again and again, not only a disregard for their source material, but a lack of understanding in it.

Let’s just start with the surface cosmetic issues: the Lost Boys as written and named by J.M. Barrie are: Slightly, Nibs, Curly, Twin, Twin, and Toodles. Notice how there’s only one set of twins. Yet the telecast features a veritable horde of Tweedles, jete-ing past, two by two, in doubled up English schoolboy motifs like twinkle-toed truants from Neverland prep.  I also dislike the way they were directed. Most of these guys are Dancers (picture that with an out-thrust chest, beveled foot, and jazz hands), and so their quality of movement is very Dancer-y.  The Lost Boys, a pack of rough-living, tumble around, undisciplined boys should have more rough-and-tumble in their choreography, right?  As it stands Neverland appears to have quite a stunning ballet program. This isn’t to say that the dancing shouldn’t be good, but the quality of movement is altogether too polished for the characters.  I lay this failing solidly at the feet of a choreographer more interested in tricks than in character work, and a director too disengaged to ask anything different.

Moving on.

The book for the musical of Peter Pan is a tightly written story that tells itself well, it didn’t need augmenting and it didn’t need rewriting, especially when the rewrites proved to be so expositional and clunky. However, angry as that made me, it was some of the odd rearrangements within the construct of the script that made me truly understand we were dealing with pirates on the creative side (and I mean that in the Hook sense of the term).

The first indication that we were in trouble came when it was announced that Christian Borle would be doubling as Mr. Darling and…Smee. In the history of this production, Mr. Darling has always, ALWAYS doubled Captain Hook. And there’s a very good reason for that. It makes a strong statement, it’s an evocative parallel. Mr. Darling and Smee? Not so much, it’s just NBC’s attempt to get their money’s worth out of Borle, who has to know by now that he is way too talented for anything NBC pitches him.

Another moment that revealed the ineptitude of these adaptors came in the Home Underground (which has windows?). “Distant Melody,” the lullaby sung by Wendy and Mrs. Darling in this telecast, is originally Peter’s song*.  I assumed that is was reassigned to Wendy here because Allison Williams isn’t vocally up to singing it.  That choice dilutes a revelatory character moment (and removes one of the most bittersweet moments in the show), but the lullaby IS immediately followed by a short monologue that reinforces and underscores the poignancy of the lullaby, so as long as that survives, it’s fine right?  Right.  So let’s take a machete to that, since coherence at this point in the telecast would only confuse the audience.  Peter’s monologue in inexplicably cut, only to be replaced with another original song that (obliquely) communicates the same points.  Reassign a song to a stronger singer, only to then cut a monologue and give the weaker singer a song?  Excuse me, but…WHAT?!

Saddest of all is that NBC managed the impossible. Or what I thought was the impossible. They made Peter Pan boring. I have rarely found the story or it’s telling to be anything less than magical. But NBC managed it. They stripped the magic away and made it into something weak and lame, and for that I am abysmally sorry. I don’t blame the ensemble that worked so hard and did so well following leads who were unequal to their tasks, I don’t even really blame Allison Williams. I blame a network that has become synonymous with Musical Theater Heartache. Let’s just close our eyes and see if we can pretend this one out of collective memory.  

  1.  Peter Pan (1924)

Released in 1924, this silent movie was the first significant film representation of Barrie’s story.  The special effects were hailed as groundbreaking, and eventually the film was judged to have enough cultural and historical significance to win a spot in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.  Points for casting a minority woman, the ever underappreciated Anna May Wong, as Tiger Lily.  She’s not the RIGHT minority, mind you (Hollywood, it seems, has never understood that all pigmented people are not the same, more on that later), but in an era when no one would have blinked at a blonde girl in a feathered headdress as the Indian Princess, and when an enormous lack of opportunity made minority film actors scarce to say the least, you have to appreciate the attempt, even if it was a weak one by modern standards.  

So why the low ranking?  Simply because I’ve never seen this adaptation.  But then why does it rank higher than one I HAVE seen?  Because I don’t need to see it to know that a ninety-year-old silent movie is still a vast improvement on Marnie Pan and her nemesis, Grandpa Hook.  

  1.  Neverland (Sy-Fy 2011)

“We’re having at least as much fun as those boat guys in Ben-Hur.”

I watched this, all four hours of it, I KNOW I did…but I can’t seem to recall any wealth of information about it, which is a pretty dismal indictment against any Peter Pan adaptation that comes across my path.  

What I DO remember is that it was dark (in theme and in design), it was slow, and it was hell bent on finding pseudo-sciency explanations for all that screwy “magic” stuff.  

Note to all Producer Guys: When choosing to adapt a story that prominently features flying children, fairies, mermaids, giant ticking crocs, and death undone by passionate applause…maybe don’t try to find a realistic explanation for any of it.  Just embrace the magic idea and move on with your life.  While I will talk your ear off about how Peter Pan is not just some fluffy fairytale, a production that is so thoroughly stripped of joy and magic has likewise missed the point.  This is one of many stories that does not benefit from the fashionable penchant for Gritty Reboots.  

Rhys Ifans was a good pick for Captain Hook, and it was fun to see Hook’s Bob Hoskins step back into Smee’s boots (though with far less inspired material to work with this time around), but the script is just no fun.  Peter Pan is not without its mature themes (again, don’t start me, we’ll never get out of here) but to maniacally shoehorn grim and aggressively adult scenarios in around the existing structure of the story creates such a dissonance that it’s unsettling, and even a little absurd.  What’s the point of a land of eternal youth if no one there is having a good time?

  1.  Pan (2015)

“You don’t look like Tiger Lily…”

Ah, the most recent attempt to mine gold (or, “Pixum,” as it were) from the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.  This actually shares several similarities with Sy-Fy’s Neverland.  Both are origin stories, and, as I hinted above, both feature the riveting subject of mining as a major plot point (“Mineral Dust” in Neverland, “Pixum” in Pan…Let’s cut to the chase: it’s all Fairy Dust).  Likewise, both establish Peter and Hook as fast friends, and partners-in-crime prior to their immortal rivalry.  However, unlike Neverland, Pan  never reaches the point at which their paths diverge, instead hinting winkingly, and hopefully at events to come, at adventures to be had…at franchise potential (I wouldn’t hold my breath there, guys).  

I was seriously torn on my feelings about this prior to its release.  I have a natural skepticism towards any attempt to adapt Peter Pan.  I’ve been burned in the past; lots of people miss the point of this story, and because of the nature of my connection to the material a part of me can’t help but take it personally, no matter how irrational my intelligent brain knows that to be.  Joe Wright’s prior films (notably, for me, Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, and Anna Karenina) are visual feasts; moving works of art.   He’s someone that I felt was fully capable of realizing Neverland in a visual sense if nothing else.  I tried to be hopeful.  

My first moment of real trepidation came when Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lily.  Don’t get me wrong, she’s a great actress, but she’s a blonde haired, white girl playing a role that has almost always been depicted as some kind of minority.  When even the 1924 production has more progressive casting practices than a movie from 2015 you know you’ve got a problem.  

“But, but,” the production team sputters, “but we wanted a MULTICULTURAL native tribe!  Just look how COLORFUL it is!”  And it is very colorful.  The village is a riot of varicolored striped tents, its racial grab bag of residents decked out in bright, fanciful costumes.  Why, a fatal gunshot wound will even induce them to explode into a burst of vividly colored powder.  Which, in case you’re wondering, is how you depict brutal genocide while still maintaining your family-friendly PG rating.  And Rooney Mara isn’t the ONLY white person wandering around.  There’s, like, two or three others in amongst the ensemble of minority players.  One of them is not Rooney Mara’s father, mind you, that actor is an Aboriginal man (“See!  We put a brown-skinned person in a position of power!  …And then we killed him off so his white daughter could go be the hero.”), but why quibble.  If you’re still not convinced that everything’s A-OK in this scenario, just remember the production team’s vehement assurances that to cast Tiger Lily they looked all over the world, they even auditioned…Lupita Nyong’o.  Proving beyond a shadow off all doubt that they really are as clueless as they seem since A.  They still cast Rooney Mara instead, and B.  Kenyan is not the same as Indian (in either sense), though I suppose we could kind of see that as a side step in the right (ish) direction.  If we’re being charitable.  Or if we’re going to go with a direct (if racist) interpretation of Barrie’s actual term for the Neverland natives (more on that later).  Point is, American Indians are one the most underrepresented group in cinema, bar none.  Why get rid of one of the few major roles that we all tacitly acknowledge belongs to them anyway?  In 2015 it seems bafflingly backward.  

Bumping the initial setting of the movie from Edwardian London to the Blitz of the early 1940’s was a weird move, too.  I was confused as to what the rationale behind that was, but fifteen minutes into the movie I got my clear answer.  It exists for no other reason AT ALL than to have a flying pirate ship caught in the crossfire between the RAF and the Luftwaffe.  Seriously.  That’s the only reason.   But we DO get a fun shot of this particular conflict through the uncovered windows of a well-lit civilian passenger train as it clatters along the benighted tracks of urban London.  

I’ll pause here while all my fellow history nerds have the thousand little aneurysms I did in that moment.  

There are other things that don’t make much sense either.  Like Garrett Hedlund’s characterization of Hook-to-be, as a roguish, yet inherently moral, adventurer, who dresses like Indiana Jones and talks like Karl Urban’s Bones McCoy.  Or the impetus for the central conflict being Blackbeard’s quest for eternal youth, which is bewildering in a realm whose defining characteristic is that time is suspended inside its borders.  This scores higher than Neverland on the strength of Joe Wright’s abundant skill as a visual storyteller, but ultimately the story and characters are very weak.  They generally only serve as a framework for one elaborate action sequence after another.  It’s a shame to see such a great director so disconnected from his source material, so unable to understand the world or the characters that populate it.  There are so many inside references to the book!  He obviously did his homework!  Alas, oh well.  Better luck next time.  

  1.  Disney’s Peter Pan (1953)

“This waaaay to…Disneyland!”

I might catch serious flak for this, because the animated movie is so beloved, but as tellings of the original play/novel go it’s actually pretty two-dimensional (HA!  Get it?  two-dimensional?  Because…it’s…okay, moving on).  It hits the plot points, it gets the central gist of things, but it only manages to capture one narrow facet of what is actually a pretty complex story.  That was almost certainly a deliberate choice.  Disney wasn’t interested in thematically complex in 1953.  They wanted to make beautifully animated movies, with catchy songs, that would be loved by children, and could provide the company with ample merchandising potential.  On that level I’d say they succeeded handily.    It has all those things going for it.  It’s a fun, cute animated movie with a Puckish hero, a simplistic villain, a sweetly dull damsel-in-distress, and a colorful cast of supporting characters all embroiled in a series of never-too-dire shenanigans.  Also a mortifyingly racist caricature of American Indians (if you’re not noticing a pattern yet, don’t worry, we’ll visit this again).  Eesh, is that scene painful to watch; unfortunately this was just one of many instances where early Disney handled issues of race and culture with all the finesse of a sledgehammer.  But egregious blunders in sensitivity aside, it’s a mostly enjoyable movie about free-wheeling fun on a magical island in the stars.  

However, the movie lacks the weight necessary to help it truly resonate as it should.  Disney reduced the story to a fluffy fairytale, which I have always passionately maintained it is not.  But hey, at least we got the fabulously sassy Tinkerbell out of it.

  1.  Peter Pan starring Mary Martin (1960)

“And my legacy shall be THIS big.”

Just a year after Disney’s Peter Pan became an animated hit, Broadway lit up with a new musical starring stage darling Mary Martin in the titular role.  It enjoyed both critical and financial success, and when it was recorded for a live telecast (three times between 1955 and 1960) it also gained immortality.  

I think this is the first version of the story I ever became acquainted with.  It’s very hard to say because, as I mentioned, I don’t clearly remember a part of my life that didn’t include Peter Pan.  What I do know is that I wore out two copies of the VHS, and had every word of both the script and songbook down pat.  However, it’s not JUST because of my childhood attachment to this version that it rates in the top half of this assessment (though, if we’re being honest, that certainly didn’t hurt).  It established the musical Peter Pan as a classic of American theater, which in itself is our great contribution to the legacy of the character, and the story.  It helped to give the material new legs (wings?) and refreshed its cultural significance with a longevity that I don’t think the Disney movie ultimately would have.  

Of course, it also features some very nice performances.  Cyril Ritchard’s Hook (modeled on Gerald du Maurier’s original 1904 interpretation of the role) would be the definitive version of the character for decades after, and is certainly a lot of fun to watch.  How do you make a bloodthirsty, child-murdering pirate fun?  You give him some good physical comedy and you play up the gentleman fop aspects of his demeanor, of course.  Likewise, Mary Martin gives a strong, spritely performance as Peter, though, if you want my opinion, her star power was actually a bit of a hinderance here.  She’s quite good, she just never seems to give herself fully into the character.  She’s not ever Peter Pan, she’s Mary Martin AS Peter Pan.  However, both Martin and Ritchard won Tonys for their portrayals, and with Jerome Robbins’ direction and a strong supporting ensemble the show really is pretty delightful.  

BUT…you didn’t think we would avoid mentioning the Indians did you?  No, of course not, how could we?

So let’s talk about the big blonde buffalo in the room.  

That’s not a crack at Sondra Lee who is, indeed, quite petite.  But she is unquestionably blonde.  Very blonde.  We’re not talking Rooney Mara dirty-blonde either, we’re talking full-on platinum.  No attempt was made to disguise the fact that this was a 100% white girl playing the role of the Indian Princess.  Even as a toddler this struck me as odd enough to ask about on more than one occasion.  

Over the years, many people have come to the defense of white-washing in adaptations of Peter Pan by arguing that because Barrie never specifically said that they were American Indians the Neverland natives COULD be white, or look any way at all, really.  Yes, I suppose you could make the case that way.  If it wasn’t for the fact that Barrie does actually refer to the natives by a specific and decisive term: Pickaninnies.  No, that is not an American Indian tribe, what is is is a variation on a very offensive term for dark skinned native people (generally African, but it was occasionally applied elsewhere).  While I think it’s best that we leave that term firmly in the past where it belongs, I don’t think there can be any further argument on the original intent of the author.  While the natives don’t HAVE to be American Indians, Barrie obviously meant for his Neverlanders to be decidedly “other” when compared to his English leads; he was not envisioning the Easter variety of lily for his native Princess, let’s just put it that way.  

In the case of this Peter Pan, the incongruity of white-bread Tiger Lily is only more pronounced given the overall design of her tribe.   Their costumes are clearly intended to reference buckskins (insofar as orangey-brown pajamas can reference buckskins), with feathers in their braided black wigs,and big red spots painted on their cheeks, just to really hammer home the point.  They all speak in that offensive halting, broken English that we have come to associate with American Indian caricature, thanks to early/mid twentieth century media depictions.  In short, they are animated stereotypes of American Indians made flesh, and they are ruled by a white girl.  While the pervasive racism and lack of political correctness rampant in the 1950’s may earn this production some minor leeway on that account (I’m not saying racism gets a pass, I’m saying that  we can’t flog them too hard for being products of their culture), I will never understand the rationale behind Easter Lily the Indian Princess.  It was a weird choice then, and it doesn’t stand the test of time now.  Let’s just agree on that.  

Ultimately this production shows its age in a number of ways, but Mary Martin’s Peter Pan introduced the world to the now-classic musical, and rejuvenated the story.  It also precipitated later, even better stagings of the musical.  High marks for cultural relevance, with an edge for childhood nostalgia.  

  1.  Hook (1991)

hook-1

Steven Spielberg is one of the most respected film directors of the 20th Century.  His filmography is packed with iconic movies; he has the unique distinction of being able to find success across multiple genres and target demographics, and as a result he probably has an entire room in his home for the awards he’s accumulated.  

I lost all respect for the man when he failed to stand behind Hook in the years that followed its release.  

It’s true that when Hook came out in 1991 it was raked over the coals by critics and, despite making around $500 million for the studio, it still somehow qualified as a financial disappointment.  Yet through VHS and television airplay Hook gained a cult following, and is now a fiercely beloved classic, especially among people of the Millennial generation.  

Its story is a supposition on what might happen if the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up decided to.  And jeez is it a depressing entry point.  Hook shows us a Peter who has no memory of his former life, now a high-powered corporate attorney and, as Hook himself will eventually state, “A cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children.”  This is actually pretty well in keeping with the epilogue Barrie gives for John, Michael, and the Lost Boys; it is one of the saddest endings to a book I’ve ever read.  To be honest, given Peter’s particular personality, this is likely EXACTLY the way he would have ended up if he’d come back with Wendy when she begged him to.  I don’t know if the spot-on character progression was the result of a writer’s impressive knowledge of Peter Pan as an individual entity, but if not then it’s one of the best accidents in script writing I’ve seen.  

As our hero, Robin Williams is incandescent.  He is the only actor I can think of with the range to take Peter from self-absorbed, emotionally distant Peter Banning, to playful, boy swashbuckler, and then, finally, to a mature, fully realized Pan the Man.  It’s a difficult arc, and he nails it like no one could have.  This is a role that really showed us a full spectrum of Williams’ considerable abilities.  He is very funny, but also brings a pathos, and a great deal of genuine heart to the role; as we watch his journey we are with him every step of the way, and when he finally finds his Happy Thought we soar right along with him.  This role isn’t often mentioned with some of his more critically acclaimed dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society), but it is a masterful portrayal, and a true privilege to watch.  

Actually, the casting is almost uniformly fantastic.  The actors find wonderful dimensions to their characters, and their is hardly a mediocre performance among the bunch.  Even the small role of Toodles, erstwhile Lost Boy and current nutty uncle, is brilliantly memorable in this movie.  Dustin Hoffman is a wonderful Hook, and surprisingly menacing for such a petite man (his dark comedy tag team with Bob Hoskins’ Smee is completely delightful).  He gives us an elegantly cruel, and quietly simmering psychopath, with a bitter vendetta that he will stop at nothing to fulfill.  The similarities between Hook and Pan are much more sharply drawn in Hook than in any other version of the story, but then that makes sense.  When they face each other both as adults the likenesses that have fueled their rivalry are bound to be more pronounced, and it is easier to see them for what they are: two sides of the exact same coin.  

The one off note in the casting would probably be Julia Roberts.  Again, a very talented actress, and obviously trying quite hard in this role.  That might be part of the trouble.  With every other cast member so effortlessly inhabiting their character, Julia Roberts is very, very noticeably reaching for Tinker Bell.  Her performance isn’t bad, per se, it just doesn’t feel as easy and believable as every other one around her.  

Now.  Let’s talk about the Indians.  

Oh!  We don’t have to.  While obliquely mentioned in this movie, they don’t actually show up, so there’s literally nothing to quibble about on that account.  Well played, Mr. Spielberg.  

Seriously though, as much as I adore this movie, it’s not totally perfect.  There are a few things I would change.  Mr.  Spielberg thinks so too.  He would let Robin Williams run wild with the madcap comedy, and he would shoot the Neverland sequences on entirely CGI’d sets.  I’d tell Mr. Spielberg to sit down and stop talking.  The comedy in the movie works perfectly the way it is, and amping it up would dilute the emotional impact of the overall story.  The sets look really cool precisely because they’re real environments for the actors to run around in.  James Cameron might be able to work wonders with a green screen and a team of animators, but not everyone has his dark sorcery, and too often these CGI heavy films don’t come off as well as their directors would hope.  Neverland looks good.  Leave it alone.  

No, the one nit I have to pick with Hook (beyond Julia Roberts) is with the Lost Boys, and some choices that were made to make them seem “hip and cool” but really just make them look hopelessly dated.  

So.  

In the novel (and the stage version), Peter insists he will never grow up, but when given a chance his tribe of Lost Boys are not so set on the idea of eternal childhood if the alternative is a loving family.  They return to London with the Darling children, are adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Darling, and grow up to enjoy respectable, English lives.  Thus Wacky Old Toodles crawling around Wendy’s parlor looking for his marbles.  Now, Peter isn’t going to just hang around being lonely and sad, no, he’s going to go out and find himself some new friends.  The pack of assembled Lost Boys makes sense to me in that regard, especially the core group of kids who really support Peter’s efforts to find his Pan-ness and save his kids.  Their hodgepodge costumes reference everything from Edwardian England up through the 1950’s (gotta love Don’t Ask with his checked blazer and greaser-boy hair), which is consistent with the story continuation Hook has concocted.   Then there’s this other group of kids.  They’re the older ones grouped around Rufio, and they don’t look so much like Lost Boys as they do extras from The Lost Boys, what with the headbands, and the spiky hair, and the earrings, and all that mishigas.  Seriously, where did these kids COME from?  Peter Pan hasn’t been around to bring anyone to Neverland in thirty years.  Now, in the mythology of the book, boy babies who fall out of their cradles and aren’t claimed in seven days are just SENT to Neverland, but I feel like Hook dispensed with that setup, and even if it didn’t then how, if they’d always lived in Neverland, would these weirdo kids know what skateboarding was?  Or breakdancing?  It just doesn’t fit with the story.  As with “Cool Moms,” attempts to look funky fresh and “with it” often have the exact opposite effect.  An effect that is not improved as time marches ever away from the early 1990’s.  

That aside, Hook really is a wonderful movie.  It takes some of the darker themes running strong below the surface in Peter Pan and it brings them to the forefront: Loss, innocence, choice, memory, the nature of adulthood, and of courage…and then it adds its own points and counterpoints to the stew.  No matter how Spielberg may dismiss this movie now, he made something beautiful and poignant, something true to the spirit of its source material, which is a lot harder to do than you might have realized before you spent too much time reading this list.  Of course the brilliant score by John Williams also lends the film quite a boost.  As addenda on the original story go this movie is the best of the best.  

  1.  Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby (2000)

“Trust me. We are gonna do great things.”

Former Olympic gymnast, Cathy Rigby plays Peter Pan on Broadway in 1990, produces a remount in 1998, tours off and on until 2013, returns to the role for special engagement in 2015.  This is a woman who feels a connection to this role, and that it why her telecast (filmed in 2000 at one of her tour stops) stands apart from all other stage versions, and most other film versions.  While we’re continuing to plug our ears and hum every time the 2014 telecast is mentioned, I urge you to help drown it out by scooting over to Youtube, where this one is available in its entirety.  THIS is how this musical is supposed to be done.

This is a production made by people who really and truly love Peter Pan, possibly as much as I love it.  Their love certainly helped to increase mine, that’s for sure.  Cathy Rigby understands both her character and his story in a way that few purveyors of the material seem to, and it is evident in every aspect of this production from the technical to the performative.  It is bursting with life, joy, silly humor, great choreography, and the occasional pangs of melancholy.  

As Peter Cathy Rigby is perfection.  She plays a twelve-year-old boy with such aplomb that it’s uncanny.  Her Pan is a careful balance of his arrogance with his playfulness, his bravery with his occasional petulance, his bold self-assurance with a childish uncertainty, and then for good measure she lets us see moments of deeply repressed longing.  In her hands Peter is allowed to be a fully-formed human child and not just a mischievous sprite.  Her medal worthy gymnastics are also a perfect fit for the part, allowing for a physical performance that is every bit as vibrant and expressive as her emotive performance.  If her work on the stage wasn’t good enough, once her feet leave the ground she really is exhilarating.  I’ve never seen anyone quite so at home in a flight rig; as Rigby boomerangs fearlessly through the air it’s easy to believe, just for one moment, that she really is Peter Pan leading the way to Neverland.  

This production also features Paul Schoeffler in one of my absolute favorite portrayals of Captain Hook ever.  As we discussed above, Captain Hook’s villainy is a bit watered down in the musical; he has to build to menacing by the end of the show, but on stage he can never be fully realized as the diabolical, murderous villain that he is; that would be wildly out of keeping with the tone of the show.  Rather than being a cold-blooded psychopath he’s a narcissistic fop with elephantine delusions of grandeur.  Many actors who take on this role play him to the campy hilt.  Paul Schoeffler does not.  Paul Schoeffler’s dryly delivered Hook is self-serious, grandiose, and endlessly exasperated by the bumbling idiots that surround him.  Even as he obsessively redoubles his efforts to finally best Peter Pan, you can almost see a glimmer of self-awareness, asking himself where his life took such a wrong turn.  By refusing to make Hook ridiculous, Schoeffler makes him duly ridiculous; it’s a treat to watch him whenever he’s on stage.  

The cast is filled out with an ensemble that really fires on all cylinders (special call outs to Mr. Smee, a brilliant physical comedian, and to Slightly, who’s just adorable).  The production value is beautiful.  The choreography, substantially beefed up from previous productions, is athletic and energetic.  

Now.  

Let’s talk Indians.  

They’re a mixed-race, multicultural group of people, wearing costumes that vaguely reference the tribes of the Northeastern US, led by a dark-haired, bronze-skinned woman with abs that you could bounced quarters off of.  Oh thank God.  

Really, with the way I’ve been pounding on other productions for their Neverlanders, you might think that I cannot be satisfied, but this is a case where I think they’ve hit a happy medium.  Stage productions are generally constrained by who shows up to the audition with a mastery of certain skills, which can be both limiting and liberating in terms of putting together a cast.  Here they’ve assembled a strong group of dancers who look decidedly different from the Lost Boys and the Darlings, while going with a design that is a fantasy patchwork of North American native people.  Their song, Ugg-a-Wugg, previously a bit of nonsense meant to convey that A.  There are Indians, and B.  They no speakum heap good English (it’s facepalmingly cringey to the modern ear; every bit as bad as the Disney animated film), has been reworked and repurposed into a high-octane dance number, where they establish friendship with the Lost Boys, and the two groups have a bit of a cultural exchange.  It all works very nicely, especially compared to so many other portrayals, and it actually manages to come down as a win no matter what side of the Neverland Natives debate you find yourself on.  I do also realize that plenty of people may feel the opposite, but for me this is one of the few productions of any medium where I think big steps were taken to portray the natives well and respectfully.  And Dana Solimando is a really kickass dancer.  

Overall it’s a magical production, one that has been so carefully crafted in every aspect.  One in which the love, and respect for the source material is evident in every second of stage time, and in every nuance of every performance.  It, like Peter himself, is a moving embodiment of “Youth, joy, and freedom.”  Peter Pan is a hard story to adapt effectively, but if you’re going to do the musical, this production is what getting it right looks like.  

  1. Peter Pan (2003)

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In a production that got so much exactly right it’s very sad to me that this movie was so detrimentally impacted by the one thing it got wrong.  WHO.  In their right mind.  Thought it was a good idea to release this movie ON THE HEELS of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King?  

What?  You thought that because it wasn’t released the same day that it wouldn’t be in competition?  You thought that there wouldn’t be audience crossover?  Are you insane?!  LotR: RoK was the epic conclusion to a juggernaut, landmark film trilogy!  Everyone saw it.  And then saw it again.  It ruled supreme at the box office for the entire season; I didn’t expect anything different and I don’t even work in the film industry!  However, because the studio team responsible for Peter Pan either didn’t think it would matter, or didn’t care whether or not the movie succeeded, poor P.J. Hogan’s masterpiece adaptation swept quietly in and then out of theaters with very little fanfare, and without much audience attention.  I didn’t even manage to see it during its initial theatrical release, and I’m…well, you might have noticed that I’m a tad bit invested.  

This version is a revelation.  To me it is the definitive film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s story; the only one to exactly capture, not just the narrative, not just the thematic elements, but, more importantly, the tone and overall spirit of the the work.    

Just from a technical standpoint this film blows me away.  It has a very specific quality, hyper-saturated, richly detailed; it is more like a vivid series of illustrations come to life as opposed to strict realism.  Stark, snowy London appears in a cold and somewhat dreary palette, the cozy Darling Nursery is all rosy warmth, and Neverland…Neverland is a visual realization of every cherished fantasy.  It is lush jungles, and eerie lagoons, and seas full of stars.  It is enthralling night shots awash in  dreamy silver.  The stunning skyscapes are the perfect backdrop to the soaring, swirling children as they achieve an organic (and exhilarating) impression of flight the like of which has never been seen before.  And it’s all set against an expressive, adventurous score by the incomparable James Newton Howard.  

This is no slavish, fundamentalist retelling of the story either.**  As we have seen time and again those rarely work (The Watchmen, anyone?).  No, the best adaptations of any material retain the narrative and the essence of the original, while offering us some new perspective on familiar territory.  In the case of Peter Pan that is often in the way characters are given a bit more to round them out.  Wendy, who actually isn’t shrinking violet in the book, is allowed to really develop her backbone in this version.  It’s not that she doesn’t enjoy being “Mother” to the Lost Boys, but when adventure presents itself, she wants to make sure she gets a piece of the action.  John Darling, an aspiring English gentleman, but not much of a major player in most versions, is actually given a developed personality here, and some time to play hero himself.  Whereas most adaptations make Peter the object of all feminine attention for miles around, in this movie it is John who holds the interest of the fiery Princess Tiger Lily (played by Carsen Gray…AN ACTUAL FIRST NATIONS TRIBE MEMBER!!!), and their mutual crush makes for some really fun isolated moments throughout the film.  Likewise, it’s nice to see all of the Lost Boys with distinct personalities for once, instead of just being an unruly mob.  Hogan really found some superlative young actors for his cast, especially Theodore Chester (as my favorite Lost Boy, Slightly Soiled) who delivers every line with such charming brilliance that I just want to hug him.  

No character benefits from this extra attention more so than Captain James Hook, in no small part because of the brilliant choice of casting in Jason Isaacs.  In Isaacs’ deft hands he is cold, cruel, selfish, violent, commanding, unstable, elegant, manipulative, and dangerously alluring; in short he is a fully realized psychopath.  Yet we also see moments of despair, jealousy, deep longing; we see the emptiness that threatens to consume him, the fear or mortality that drives him.  Not even Dustin Hoffman did as well (though he probably gives the closest competition).  In Isaacs’ portrayal Hook is, for the first time, alive to the fullest extent of the character both as he is written and as he is implied.  The result is brutally compelling.***

On the flip side of the coin is Jeremy Sumpter, a relative newcomer in 2003, as the titular hero.  With his tousled hair, and intoxicatingly mischievous grin he could have won the part on looks alone, but the young actor attacks the part with the part with obvious glee, and gives us an exuberant, exasperating, irrepressible Pan that any kid would gladly follow out the window.  While many other versions of this character reduce Peter to a fun-loving scamp, here (as in Hook) we are allowed to see the parallels between a boy and his nemesis.  Peter, while the embodiment of “Youth, joy, and freedom,” is also commanding, and arrogant (how else do you keep six other rowdy boys in line?), self-centered, sometimes selfish, and eternally on the run from an existential loneliness (and perhaps dread) that hovers just at the fringe of his carefree existence.  We see the longing for things that lie just out of his grasp, and the temptation that almost tips him over the edge.   

This movie is notable for really embracing the theme of choice that is so paramount to the story.  While many versions linger on the coolness of living an eternal childhood in a magical world apart, Hogan’s Peter Pan shows us that there is a price for everything.  In a scene written specifically for the movie Mrs. Darling defends her husband to his less-than-impressed children by telling them that he is, in fact, a brave man, a man who has made many sacrifices, and put up many dreams for the love of his family.  By the end of the film that point has been realized in most of the principal characters; even without the burdens of actually growing up life is an eternally unbalanced scale, and to gain anything you must be prepared to lose something else.  Peter will never grow up, but he will also never know reciprocal love or the closeness of a family.  Wendy will gain all those nameless things she is just beginning to realize she wants, but she will have to let go certain parts of herself to do so.  Life is choice, and no choice is perfect.  No matter what path we walk, there will always be a piece of us that wonders what would have been if we’d done differently.  

By embracing the melancholy of this story Hogan shows real understanding of the qualities that have caused it to stick in our collective consciousness this last century.  His film has a depth and truth that few other adaptations have managed to capture; it rises above the base image of the source material as just a fanciful children’s story and gives real life to Barrie’s most enduring work.  I can’t imagine anything that will ever surpass it, but I hope someday someone might come close.  

* Actually the song “Distant Melody” WAS initially written for Wendy, but in the original Broadway production Mary Martin asked to sing it instead, and it has remained Peter’s song forever after.  While we could chalk this up to a moment of diva syndrome, I actually agree with Martin that this song makes a more poignant character moment when sung by Peter than it would coming from Wendy.  

** Big, BIG points for being the only adaptation to incorporate the “Hidden Kiss.”  In the book it’s a fascinating, briefly mentioned symbolic element; Hogan turns it into a major plot theme.  And it’s wonderful.  

* **On a side note, Jason Isaacs is also a brilliant foil to Captain Hook as Mr. Darling, and the best example I’ve seen of the frequent choice to double cast that part

Disclaimer: No photographs used in this story belong to me.  All were sourced via Google Image Search.