J.M.Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, personally knows something about being a lost boy;
At the tender age of six, Barrie’s next eldest sibling, his 13 year-old brother, was killed in a tragic accident leaving his mother devastated and swallowed in grief. Trying his best to breathe life into an emotionally drained and unresponsive mother, he adopted the mannerisms of his deceased brother and even began wearing his clothes. He remarked later that his mother found a certain comfort in her deceased son never growing up, therefore never psychologically leaving her.
The impact of attachment trauma on the young Barrie would become paralleled later in his association with the Llewellyn Davies children, whom he later became the legal guardian of. Michael, one of the youngest, is reputed to be the inspiration for Peter Pan – a character Barrie originally created to entertain and amuse the children.
In this latest adaptation of beloved children’s story, the film Pan begins with the infant Peter being left on the steps of a boy’s home by his distraught mother. Set against the bombing blitz directed on London during the Second World War – which forced the immediate evacuation of thousands of the city’s children to safer boarding with strangers throughout towns and cities across the British Isles – it’s no surprise that the themes of separation and abandonment run through the story.
Peter’s primal wound of attachment trauma created in the original separation presents him with the struggle to formulate his identity in the absence of his biological and personal heritage. Aside from being an enjoyable and engaging story, the recent film adaptation deals with complex psychological and emotional content, really one could say that the film (and original book) contain characters that could be representative of all aspects of Peter’s internal world, in essence, he is really every character he encounters!
The film makes explicit that Peter, now aged twelve, is one of many ‘lost boys’ housed in the orphanage, who are being stolen in their slumber and captured by pirates to be enslaved by the narcissistic, and overtly unstable Blackbeard. The lost boys are confined to a life of drudgery, mining for fairy ingots, which Blackbeard needs to rejuvenate himself. It is in the mines that Peter first meets Hook, a distant and disillusioned adult who manages to stay connected to Peter long enough for both to successfully escape the mines.
So where does Neverland come in? To insulate himself against the pain of abandonment Peter escapes to a blissful place – Neverland – where he hopes to find his now idealised mother. On arrival, he encounters inhospitable natives who expect him to prove he is the “chosen one” or else face death. Linking back to the theme of abandonment, specifically of children, the concept of being ‘chosen’ is a particularly salient one as they regularly face annihilation anxiety if failing to fulfil the desire placed on them by others and consequently themselves.
Peter eventually befriends Tiger Lilly, a warrior princess, who seeks to fight and protect the fairy kingdom - the place where Peter believes he will find his mother. However, he soon discovers his mother is dead, killed at the hands of Blackbeard in an act of murderous rage. Facing this painful truth propels him into a chasm of confusion and narcissistic retreat, as he wrestles with an untrustworthy world – a life long journey for many of us.
A major theme woven throughout the story is believing in one’s self. Peter’s potential to fly is unlocked by the necklace of pan pipes his mother gave him as a baby. Therefore he had the key all along but lacked the self-belief. The hopeful message in Peter’s story is the irrepressible nature of children who tirelessly pursue repair, no matter what age, in the midst of psychic pain and identity confusion. The potential for personality fragmentation in the face of emotional abandonment is cleverly depicted in the story of Peter and his adventures in Neverland.
The film brings to life the complex psychological impact of abandonment for all who experience it, particular to those with adoption and fostering histories but not exclusively so, as there is the wider application for all who have experienced emotionally abandoning primary caregivers, through depression, addiction, anxiety, grief and other mental health challenges.
Finally, Pan the film, captures beautifully the reparative potential for the development of integrated personalities and recovery from attachment trauma. Through supportive and loving relationships, we can indeed all learn to fly!!