Author's Note: I loved the 2003 film Peter Pan, which starred Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan and Rachel Hurd-wood as Wendy. The cast was perfect, the story engaging, and symbolism and themes beautiful. However, the ending was a huge disappointment for me. Yes, I know that the ending was faithful to the book by J. M. Barrie, but in my opinion the movie's interpretation and development of Peter's character allowed a different, happier ending.
Disclaimer: Appearances and personality of the characters are taken from the film. Quotes are put into italics. I own neither the film Peter Pan, directed by P. J. Hogan, nor the original story by J. M. Barrie.
"I…I cannot fly."
"I'll teach you. I'll teach you to ride the wind's back—and away we go!"
"Will you come back?" asked Wendy Darling. The boy she addressed paused midflight and turned back to reply.
"To hear stories…about me!"
And Peter Pan did return. In fact, nearly every night he hovered about the window of the nursery, though he did not always reveal himself. Sometimes, he would sit with the boys, as enthralled as they by Wendy's skillful narration of his adventures—many of which were exaggerated or purely fictitious. Otherwise, Peter would accompany Wendy's tales with real-life reenactments of spirited swordfights and narrow escapes, to the delight of the boys.
By the time Michael, John, and the former Lost Boys were all put to bed, it was usually quite late—certainly not a proper time for young girls to be consorting with boys. But that did not stop Wendy from begging Peter to stay a little longer, to which the latter would always reply, "Neverland awaits." Peter was a proud, self-righteous boy, and remained of the opinion that in spite of everything it would have been best if Wendy had never left Neverland. He took a vindictive sort of pleasure in seeing Wendy's face contort in misery as he left her behind yet again, to a wonderful world free from disappointment and responsibility.
Still, Peter Pan was not a heartless child, for all his blustery talk about his lack of "feeling". Back in Neverland, whether napping in the cool green foliage of a forest or slumbering in the warm security of his hideout (which served its purpose rather poorly now without something or someone to hide from), Peter found his once pleasant dreams haunted by Wendy's sorrowful face. He resented the fact that someone—a girl, no less—had the power to mar his bliss. But knowing that he was the cause of her sadness was worse, and felt as if he was the one being pierced by Tootles' arrow. Few of his nights were spent in peaceful slumber. When his dreams took a particularly nightmarish turn, he would often hear Hook's voice whispering maliciously,
"And what is this I see? There is another in your place. He is called…husband."
So, while he would have liked to teach Wendy to regret her decision by ceasing his visits altogether, Peter Pan could never seem to keep away for long.
"Peter, this can't go on for much longer."
Peter froze in the middle of his departure, one foot already on the windowsill, the other lifted halfway off the carpeted floor of the nursery. He had known this was coming, had dreaded it for many nights now. He had seen it in her face, had known the words were hovering on the tip of her tongue. Why did that bloody girl always have to ruin everything? "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," was his cool reply.
"I think you do, Peter. I dare say you've thought it a few times yourself. Look at me, Peter. I'm not a little girl anymore." Almost against his will, the boy's cornflower blue eyes were torn away from the indigo sky to rest on the girl—no, the young woman—who stood before him. His consciousness finally realized what his subconscious had recognized long ago. Wendy Darling was no longer the skinny, frolicsome girl of thirteen who had accompanied him to Neverland. She now moved with a mature grace that was accentuated by the subtle curves visible through her nightgown. Her face, which Peter had always considered quite pretty, had altered to resemble her mother's, though blessed by the blossom of youth that had faded from the latter. Peter gazed at the beauty for a moment longer, then stubbornly turned away.
"You've changed," he said tersely. Not wanting to prolong the conversation, Peter ducked under the window and prepared for flight. Just as he was about to take off, he heard Wendy's sharp intake of breath behind him. He turned around, questioning. "What?"
"Peter," she said slowly, not believing what her eyes clearly showed, "I'm not the only one who's changed." Pointing at the window, where Peter stood with his coppery head still bowed, Wendy wondered aloud, "You never had to bend down to get out before, have you?"
Peter's eyes widened, and his body began to tremble.
"Why didn't I notice before?" Wendy continued. "You're so much taller. And—and your voice! It's a little deeper. Why, soon you'll—"
"Stop!" interrupted Peter in a panicked voice. "Stop it!" Jumping from the windowsill, he frantically began to pace. "Why is this happening? Maybe…maybe I've been coming here too often. Yes, that must be it! I'm not spending enough time in Neverland. I should go, and it's probably better if I don't come ba—"
"No!" This time it was Wendy who interjected in terror. "No, Peter, you can't!" She desperately sought for a reason to refute his hypothesis. "Your logic is faulty. You told me that you visited London regularly before you ever met me, right?" He nodded his head in the affirmative. "So that can't be the only reason. Perhaps…perhaps it's because…" A peculiar expression crossed her face, and she stared intently at her friend. Wendy took a few steps to close the distance between them, only to have him warily retreat.
"Peter," she murmured quietly, with something akin to compassion, "Neverland is getting lonely, isn't it?"
For a moment, there was a shocked silence. Then, heated protests filled the room as Peter lashed out in denial. But his initial hesitation was all the answer Wendy needed. Hand outstretched in sympathy, she reached out to touch his shoulder. "It's all right, Peter. I understand." But the boy jerked away from her contact as if it burned. Backing away in a slightly crouched position, he looked half prey, half predator.
"I know what you're doing!" he screamed irrationally. "This is all a trap; you're trying to catch me and make me a man. But you can't, you can't! I won't let you!"
"But Peter!" Wendy objected, blinking back frustrated tears. "What is so wrong about growing up? Life has so much to offer."
"I don't want to be a part of it."
"Oh, but I think you do. A part of you yearns for this, the adventure of a lifetime. That's why you're growing up; the spell, or whatever it is, is fading along with your desire to stay young. I know you watch me and the boys—you're scared."
Peter scoffed. "Me? Scared?" But Wendy was not to be deterred.
"Yes, scared. You're afraid to face the prospect of failure; you want to avoid commitments and obstacles and obligations. But don't you see? Without its scrapes, life would lose its joys. Think of it as an epic quest: you're searching for treasure, but the path to your destination won't be easy. What's the fun in that? Hardships along the road makes the reward so much sweeter in the end.
"Stay with me, Peter," she beckoned, just as Peter had the night they went to Neverland. "We can have this adventure together." Entranced by her words and sound of her voice, Peter was nearly drawn in. Before Wendy could rejoice, however, he furiously shook his head, breaking the spell.
"Why can't you come with me?" he demanded. "Remember how much fun we had in Neverland? Don't you miss flying, Wendy? Don't you miss the mermaids and fairies? the pirates?" Wendy's tears threatened to spill as she shook her head in refusal. Though Peter longed to ask her why, this second rejection wounded his pride, and he pressed his slips together in disdain.
"Very well then, madam, since the prospect of returning to Neverland scares you so, I shall trouble you no more and depart this very instant." At this, Wendy lifted her chin, her ocean eyes stormy with rage.
"How dare you accuse me of cowardice? Do you think I want to grow up? Do you think I do not recollect my memories of Neverland every night with an ache in my heart? But do you see me trying to escape?
"You think bravery is merely about brandishing a sword or shooting a pistol," she cried bitterly. "But bravery is also about sacrifice, about making the right decision even when you don't want to. Returning home was one of the bravest things I've ever done. Had I stayed in Neverland, I probably would have become just as immature, arrogant, and cowardly as you."
At the conclusion of her salvo, a heavy silence descended upon the nursery. The only sounds were the snores of the children and the labored breathing of Peter and Wendy.
At long last, Peter stalked back to the window. Not meeting Wendy's eyes, he growled out the parting words,
"Anyone who calls Peter Pan a coward is no friend of mine."
As he ascended unsteadily towards the night sky, he tried in vain to wipe the image of Wendy's heartbroken face from his mind.
He was trapped.
Peter had gotten stuck in a room with only two exits. Trying to go back the way he had come in was impossible, since the entrance had somehow disappeared while he was not looking. He was beginning to despair when the two doors of the room suddenly opened, though shadowy figures in the doorways seemed to prevent any means of escape.
Peter was planning to take his chances and simply try to bowl over them when light from an unknown source flooded throughout the room and illuminated the dark forms. Recoiling with a yell, Peter realized that Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell were obstructing one exit, while Wendy blocked the other. Familiar voices called to him from each doorway.
"Pass through here, Peter," invited the Indian girl and the fairy. "Go with us and you will never have to worry, never have to live by the rules. You can live a life as wild as the river, and experience wonders that other boys can only dream of."
"Oh, Peter," sighed Wendy, her long auburn hair flowing in waves over her shoulder. "You're just a boy." Unlike the other two and their enticing whispers, Wendy's musical voice was laced with melancholy.
Peter stood in that room for a long time, unable to make a decision. The voices of Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell adopted an ethereal quality, so that they sounded like the ghostly sirens in Mermaid Lagoon.
"Come with us and you will never, ever have to grow up."
The last thing he remembered thinking before he awoke was that "never" was an awfully long time.
Peter awoke to a tinkling sound in his ear. "Tinkerbell?" he muttered sleepily. The diminutive fairy fondly tugged at his ginger locks. Her yanking became harder and more insistent when at first he did not respond. "What is it, Tink?" he asked, irritated. Tinkerbell began to pantomime with wild, exaggerated movements, simultaneously making high-pitched noises that sounded somewhat contemptuous. She batted her eyelashes and puckered her lips until the boy's eyes lit up in comprehension.
"Wendy!" he exclaimed. "What about her, Tink? Is she all right?" The jealous fairy rolled her eyes but continued to gesticulate, pointing towards the sky, at a distant orb that Peter distinguished as Earth. "No, Tink, I can't do that," answered Peter quietly. "I can't leave you here all alone." But Tinkerbell would not give up. Her body language clearly indicated that she knew his feelings regarding Wendy (even those that he did not admit to himself), and that it was high time Peter grew up.
Raising his eyes to watch the sunrise, Peter thought about the life he had led thus far. After a period of quiet reflection that was quite rare to the boy, he turned back to his fairy friend. Allowing a few tears to escape past his tough façade, Peter bid Tinkerbell goodbye.
"Don't worry, Tink. I'll always believe in fairies."
And then Peter took off for the heavens, traveling at the speed of light. Something was different this time, though. He was sure he had not yet entered the solar system, but Neverland seemed to be fading behind him, soon disappearing quickly. He could no longer see what direction he was going in, and soon he lost all control of his flight. Light exploded in his field of vision, and then everything went dark.
It was time to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Upon regaining consciousness, he thought he was still in Neverland, for the twittering of birds and the humming of bees reminded him of the rainforests where eternal summer reigned. When he opened his eyes, however, he was greeted by a great expanse of cultivated greenery that was nothing like the the wild, uninhibited growth of vegetation in Neverland's forests. Taking in his surroundings, he realized with a start that he was in Kensington gardens, one of the Royal Parks of London. Looking down, he also saw that he was wearing the same outfit that he had worn when he ran away so many years ago. Though the soiled shirt was comfortable enough, his breeches were too short and itched terribly, yet another testimony to his inadvertent growth spurt.
"What now?" he wondered aloud. Figuring his best option was to find the Darling residence, he made his way out of the park and onto the streets of London. After meandering past countless stalls of produce, getting shoved by adults in a rush to get to work, and nearly being run over by an automobile, however, Peter realized that he did not have the slightest idea where he was. And because he was uncomfortable, hungry, alone, and unable to fly, the boy sat down on the front steps of the nearest building and cried.
A chilly wind chafed Wendy's rosy cheeks as she trudged home from school, weary and dejected. She was not in the mood to tell stories to her brothers tonight; in fact, she had not the heart to tell any tales since the night Peter had left. Although well aware that she was in the right, Wendy could not help but reproach herself for saying such cruel words to her best friend. I'm such an idiot! she thought. I shouldn't have pushed him.
So wrapped up in her thoughts, Wendy almost did not notice the solitary boy on the stone steps of her house. The youth had buried buried his face in his arms, so all she could see was a mass of curly copper hair. Upon further observation she heard wretched sobs, interspersed with the occasional hiccup, shake his thin form. Forgetting her own troubles, Wendy's kind heart filled with pity for this boy, and she kneeled down before him.
"Boy, why are you crying? Are you looking for your mother?" she instinctively asked, though she realized an second later that the boy looked somewhat older than the average toddler.
The boy's head instantly snapped up in indignation, though he could not yet see clearly through his tears. "I wasn't crying about mothers!" he protested angrily, but with a sniffle. "I wasn't even crying in the first place!" Wiping the last bit of water from his eyes, he hoped he had sufficiently convinced his listener.
"Peter," came the shocked whisper. Peter looked up, and their eyes met. It was a charming scene: Wendy in her navy blue school uniform, her hair in two braids over her shoulder and blue-green eyes wide with disbelief; and Peter, in a dirty, oversized shirt and itchy, undersized trousers, open-mouthed and blushing at the witness of his emotional display.
"I…" Peter desperately racked his brain for a way to salvage what dignity he might have had left. But before he could invent a plausible explanation for his circumstances, Wendy dropped her schoolbag on the concrete and threw her arms about his scruffy neck. Having had little opportunity to associate with females in Neverland, their intimate position only heightened his discomfort.
Pulling away from the flustered boy, Wendy repeated her original question. "Peter, why were you crying?" Though he insisted that he had not been crying, with her encouragement he poured out all his woes to her patient ear. He was starving, his pants were too small, he had spent hours futilely searching for the Darling house, and he had lost his ability to fly. "I know how to solve all your problems, sir," Wendy chirped, giving him a brilliant smile. Grabbing his callused hand with her smaller, softer one, she dragged him up the stone steps. "You see, Peter," she explained, eyes twinkling, "you were in front of my house the whole time!"
Pushing through the wooden door, she called out, "Mother! Mother! I need your help!" Soon Peter saw the lovely, elegant Mrs. Darling gliding down the stairs, followed by a familiar group of boys. Before Mrs. Darling could even say hello, the boys recognized the newcomer as well, scrambling and wrestling with each other to be the first to get downstairs. "Peter!" they shouted in unison, tackling him to the floor as Wendy's mother looked on in confusion. Wendy asked her mother if she could be so kind as to fetch a bigger pair of pants for the boy as well as some tea and cookies.
Once this was accomplished, Mr. Darling, who had gone downstairs to see what all the commotion was about, came up beside his wife with an identical expression of perplexity on his face. Turning to his eldest child, he said, "Wendy, what is the meaning of all this?"
"Oh!" cried Wendy with a start and a blush, realizing how strange the situation must seem to her parents. Watching the boys talk excitedly with Peter out of the corner of her eye, she turned to her mother and father with her hands demurely folded behind her back. "You see, Father, this boy—his name is Peter—was lost and hungry, so I brought him home. He doesn't have any parents, and I was wondering if—"
"You don't mean to ask me to adopt another one!" Mr. Darling interrupted incredulously. "Honey, have you considered the expense? The cost of feeding another mouth is…" As the clerk rambled on and on about numbers, as was his wont, Wendy thought about what he had said about adopting Peter. Did she want Peter to be adopted into her family? How would Peter feel about all this?
As these and similar thoughts ran through Wendy's mind, Mrs. Darling took note of the blush on her daughter's cheeks (which she guessed was not entirely a result of the cold) and the ginger-haired boy's frequent glances in her direction. Does he have a place to go? thought Mrs. Darling. Perhaps it would be good for Wendy to spend time with a boy her own age. Ah, Aunt Millicent would have a fit. At this last thought, Mrs. Darling decided that the expense would be worth it.
Nudging her husband to halt his rambling, Mrs. Darling walked over to Peter, who lay sprawled amidst her adoring sons. He has a beautiful smile, she thought, glancing at her daughter. "Peter dear, we would like to welcome you into the family. Mr. Darling and I have decided to adopt you—"
"No!" was the immediate reply. Peter looked as surprised as everyone else by his involuntary outburst. Mrs. Darling, far from being offended, looked pensive.
"No?" she repeated. "Why is that, dear?" All was silent to hear his answer. Peter looked like a cornered hare, and his blue eyes shifted left and right as if looking for a chance to escape.
"If you adopted me, I would be Wendy's brother, right?" His conjecture was confirmed. "Well, that can't happen because then…" He paused.
("Peter, what are your real feelings?")
("What do you feel?")
Peter looked around: the boys were curious, Mr. Darling was baffled, Mrs. Darling looked thoughtful, and Wendy…
Wendy was holding her breath.
Peter saw Wendy's lovely sea-green orbs glittering with an unidentifiable emotion. Perhaps if he had been a mere bystander—such as, say, Mrs. Darling—he would have discerned the same emotion in his own.
("There is another in your place.")
"Then," continued Peter with renewed confidence, "I couldn't be her husband!"
"Husband?" cried the boys incomprehendingly.
"H-Husband?" stuttered Mr. Darling, looking as if he was about to faint.
"Husband?" murmured Mrs. Darling with a dreamy smile.
"Husband?" whispered Wendy breathlessly.
By now, what confidence Peter had mustered to make his bold declaration had withered away and died. Humiliated, he resorted to doing what he did best: flying. No, he did not literally take flight right then and there, though he undoubtedly wished he could do so. Instead, he figuratively flew out the door, with Wendy at his heels.
"Peter, stop! Please. You're doing it again! You're running away!"
To Wendy's surprise, Peter responded to her cries by abruptly halting in his flight, not too far away from the house. Shoulders slumped and chest heaving from the exertion, he stood with his head bowed in defeat. Wendy soon caught up with him. "What's the matter, Peter?"
"You lied, Wendy," came the glum reply. "You didn't fix all my problems. I still can't fly. Now I'm just an ordinary boy."
"That's not true," objected Wendy. "You're a frightfully fascinating character, Peter Pan, with or without the ability to fly. Besides," she continued, lowering her voice to a confidential whisper. "I like you more than all the girls at my school put together. You never hear them talking about pirates unless it's with a shudder and a squeal of fright!" Wendy sniffed scornfully for effect. As she hoped, her speech brought a little smile to Peter's face.
Out of an unspoken agreement, they both turned around and headed back towards the Darling house. Peter, considerably calmer, talked a bit more freely. "I didn't always fly just to escape, you know. I also loved the sensation of soaring above everything, untouched by the real world." Wendy nodded empathetically. "I suppose I just miss that feeling, is all." There was a lull in the conversation, and then an unexpected question:
"Wendy? You're never going back to Neverland, are you?"
Surprised, Wendy nevertheless answered, "No, I suppose not." The boy beside her sighed in good-natured resignation.
"Then I suppose there's no turning back."
It took her a few moments for her to register the significance of those words. When it finally sunk in, it struck her as so very sweet that she stopped walking. Fortunately, it just so happened that they had reached the front of her house. Peter, noticing that Wendy had stopped, turned his back to the building, and thus on nearly a dozen faces pressed against the window, attentively watching the couple.
"Peter," began Wendy in a timid voice, "there is more than one way to fly, you know."
"Really? What's that?"
Wendy edged closer to Peter until they were mere inches apart. "Let me show you," she said slyly. And before he could say another word, their lips met in a chaste kiss.
And away they went.
A/N: In case anyone hasn't figured it out, Peter came back to Wendy to grow up, though he regrets losing his ability to fly. Wendy told him that there's a way to regain that liberating sensation, i.e. through "thimbling". They are not literally flying at the end; they just feel like they are.