—About this Film
Beautiful. Poignant. Magical. I keep running words through my head that will describe this movie. Meaningful? Yes. Quiet? Yes, it was quiet—if that word can be used for a movie. Really, it was so quiet, I swear that a fellow audience member gave me one of those half-smile-half-nods that people do at funerals as we were walking out. As though we had just watched a two hour-long eulogy—which, in a way, we had. Finding Neverland is about death, after all. But mostly, it’s about life after death (in more than one sense). It’s about growing up, and learning how to deal with death and the other sad things that life brings. And, according to this film, learning how to do that is all about learning to believe.
As a piece of filmmaking, Finding Neverland works very much like another great movie, Shakespeare in Love. We get a “behind the scenes” look at J.M. Barrie, as he is writing his play Peter Pan. It turns out, the inspiration for his story comes largely from a recently widowed mother and her four sons, whom Barrie befriends. As the movie unfolds, we see how the real people in the playwright's life become beloved characters in the play, much like we all tend to look at our lives as stories. But by the end, the four boys—now the “Lost Boys of Neverland”—have to learn to deal with yet another death in their lives. But also by the end, the insight, or remedy, or realization needed to cope with such things is in place. And the remedy is . . . believe. So says Johnny Depp—who gives yet another brilliant performance, by the way—to young Peter, one of the boys.
Assuming that this advice is for all of us, what exactly are we to believe in? Are we to believe in fairies, as the actual play’s ending encourages us to do? Are we to believe in Barrie’s Neverland, as the boys’ mother learns to do? Well, kind of—but I think there’s more to it than that. If we were to just believe in those things, specifically, we’d be believing only in figments. No matter how hard one believes in fairies—when a loved one dies, a loved one dies. As brightly as it is portrayed in this movie, there is no Neverland to flee to.
But we can believe—I hope Barrie would agree—in something above, beyond, outside this world of calamity. An otherworldly something that somehow makes everything all right. A something that reveals things to be simple and good, as they are supposed to be for children. A something, also, of imagination and adventure, that makes simple things take on fuller, and somehow more true meanings. Taken in this sense, there can be a Neverland to believe in. And this Neverland—even just the consciousness of it—can make a difference when the “real world” presses in.
The spiritual implications aren’t hard to see. Many people feel that the Christian story is just a fairy tale, like Peter Pan. In many ways, it is. Jesus claimed to come, like Peter Pan, from another world. Like Peter, Jesus will live forever, unchanging. Like Peter, Jesus calls people from the “real world” into his world of adventure, where we must “become as little children” and believe. Jesus has a nemesis, as Peter does. Jesus is self-sacrificial, as Peter is. Correlations could be multiplied.
And, of course, the Christian story isn’t like the story of Peter Pan alone—it’s like many fairy tales. This comparison might seem to weigh against it. Why not believe in Peter Pan instead of Jesus, then? Why not believe in Neverland instead of Heaven or the Kingdom of God? Well, as another author for children, C.S. Lewis, put it: “the heart of Christianity is a myth [read: fairy tale] which is also a fact.” No one claims that Barrie’s fairy tale is true, but many claim that the Bible’s is. No one has claimed to have met Peter Pan, but many have claimed to have met Christ. That’s the difference. Besides, if the story of the universe really turns out to be this Christian fairy tale, it shouldn’t surprise us when echoes of it pop up in our own fairy tales.
This is why Finding Neverland, though quiet, is so exciting to me—it makes us consider the riskiness, yet wonder of believing in fantasy. Imagine: what if simply believing could have that much power? What if there really were someone like Peter Pan? What if there were magic like this? What if we didn’t let the serious business of “being an adult” interfere with our childlike sense that there’s more to the world than it lets on? What if my life could be a great, meaningful adventure? What if, in the end, the fairy tales were true? What if I believed, like Barrie said to?