How did Peter Pan get to Neverland? Where did Tinkerbell come from? How did Hook lose his hand? And most importantly, how did Captain Hook and Peter Pan meet? This last question is the one Paige Pearson asked her father after hearing “Peter Pan,” which in turn led to Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson‘s collaborative effort Peter and the Starcatchers, written as a prequel to J.M. Barrie‘s classic work of children’s literature.
The result is decidedly mixed: although some components are marvelously clever and mysterious, others fail to engage the reader’s imagination, and at some points the authors make the blasphemous mistake of tampering with the established facts of Barrie’s invented world. Barrie’s Neverland is the internal world of child’s imagination, a place of escape and fantasy. Barry and Pearson change this concept. Neverland, which was a place accessible only by following “the second star to the right and straight on till morning,” instead becomes a standard desert island affected by external magic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins in London, where two ships are setting sail: the Wasp and the Never Land (how the ship got this rather odd name is sadly never explained). On board the Never Land are six young orphan boys, a young lady and her governess, and a mysterious trunk that has a strange effect on those carrying it aboard. Among the orphans is young Peter, who soon makes a tentative friendship with the young Molly, a girl who seems to have an agenda of her own upon the ship.
Meanwhile, the pirate ship Sea Devil, led by its villainous Captain Black Stache, is lying in wait for The Wasp and the great treasure that it is said to be carrying in its hold, a treasure beyond gold and jewels. This trunk and its mysterious contents are the focus of the story, and amidst sea battles, castaways and escapes, the parties involved come to Mollusk Island, where things take another turn for the worse and the beginnings of the Peter Pan story begin to come together.
The book begins promisingly: the characters are vivid, the narrative strong, and the premise intriguing. Molly in particular is a great character, innocent yet sophisticated, with a strong sense of moral duty and a surplus of bravery, intelligence and resourcefulness. She’s by far the most striking character in the book, eclipsing even Peter himself. The authors’ idea of Starcatchers and “starstuff” is an interesting one, and deserves more attention than it gets — in fact, I think it would have been more successful overall if they’d discarded the Peter Pan prequel angle and concentrated solely on the Starcatchers’ mission.
As I mentioned, it all goes reasonably well until Barry and Pearson begin to tamper with the original text of J.M. Barrie, changing several facts established in his novel of how things in Neverland work. It isn’t just little details however, which could be forgiven or overlooked, but fundamental components to Barrie’s novel, such as Peter’s ability to fly, his eternal youth, how he gets to Neverland in the first place, the nature of Neverland, the arrival of the Lost Boys, the existence of Tinkerbell — all are changed in order to fit around Barry/Pearson’s central conceit: the magical substance of “starstuff,” the residue from falling stars. These changes are inexcusable, as they meddle with the very meaning and purpose of Barrie’s Peter Pan and make me seriously wonder if Barry and Pearson have actually read the book, or just an abridged “children’s version.”
Likewise, I could never really connect their version of Peter with Barrie’s original Peter Pan: he is neither cocky nor self-interested enough, and his romantic interest in Molly is a development that really shouldn’t have taken place. Black Stache makes a better future Captain Hook (though they strangely don’t make this connection explicit), especially in his treatment of his crew and first mate Smee, and his storyline with the crocodile is excellent (the line “as if [the crocodile] knew he had all the time in the world” is especially sublime). But where is Hook’s tortured soul, his upper-class breeding, his charisma and intrigue? Here he’s presented as a vicious pirate and his hatred of Peter rings false — and the fact that one of Peter’s friends is called “James” is a frustrating red herring.
At some points the humour and whimsy are great, such as the involvement of the porpoises and Molly’s minimal grasp of their language; at other times it just comes across as strange: a sail made out of a huge brassiere? Huh? Yet Greg Call‘s black and white illustrations are beautiful, very reminiscent of Barrie’s Peter Pan and manage to be both whimsical and realistic at the same time.
Ultimately, I think that this should be read only if you’re a very tolerant reader. Fans of Barrie’s Peter Pan will be absolutely livid at the liberties taken with his classic story, and needless to say, this is not a novel that is endorsed or recognised by Barrie’s family or the Children’s Hospital that owns the publishing rights to the book. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is the definitive source for all things Neverland, though I also highly recommend the 2003 movie release of Peter Pan starring Jeremy Sumpter and Jason Isaacs, which is more faithful to Barrie than Peter and the Starcatchers. The first “official” sequel to Barrie’s book is Geraldine McCaughrean‘s Peter Pan in Scarlet, published in 2006.