A recent article in the Globe and Mail
suggests that young adults are finding it more and more difficult to grow up and take on adult responsibilities. The article suggests that changing economic changes have made it more difficult for people to get professional jobs without a lot more education (and therefore more debt) but also that the highly structured, busy childhoods have made people overly dependent on external sources of self-definition. An article in the New York Times before Christmas on the No Child Left Behind initiative in the US made a similar observation about elementary aged children. Studies have found that middle class children with all their activities learn social skills that aid them once they start school but that they also tend to have a major sense of entitlement.
The following is part of a movie review I wrote for the Sower of the movie Peter Pan where I raised some similar issues.
On the wall in my office I kept a bumper sticker for a long time that read, “beauty is vain, youth is fleeting, but immaturity can last for ever.” It was amusing but it pointed to a problem which Robert Bly described in his 1996 book The Sibling Society. In this book Bly argued that our culture is dominated by a desire to remain an adolescent. It is an intriguing argument and I think that there is plenty of evidence in pop culture to support his thesis that many people don’t want to grow up.
I had just read another author making the same argument when I went to see Peter Pan. It is a lovely film, visually beautiful and well acted. I haven’t enjoyed earlier film versions of this story - they’ve seemed too cute. But this most recent version released by Universal and directed by P.J. Hogan is not cute. The beauty of Neverland has an ugly side represented by the pirates. The darkness of Capt. Hook accentuates the sadness of Peter Pan who doesn’t want to grow up.
The story is a familiar one. Three children, played by a trio of unfamiliar but able young actors, run away from home with Peter Pan. They dream of adventure and are drawn by his story of a land with pirates and no parents. Once they arrive in Neverland they meet the lost boys, a small gang of boys who have no families and who see in Wendy the possibility of a mother. Unfortunately their paradise is spoiled by Capt. Hook who is obsessed with killing Peter Pan. Capt. Hook is in turn hunted by the crocodile who has eaten his hand and who now has a taste for him.
What makes Peter Pan more than a typical children’s fantasy (in fact I would be careful not take young children to see it if they are easily frightened), is the attention paid to the pathos of a boy who won’t grow up. At the beginning of the film we see Wendy’s fears of her aunt’s (played marvelously by Lynn Redgrave) plans to turn her into a ‘young lady.’ Yet once she is in Neverland it is Wendy who keeps challenging Peter Pan to grow up. Despite her desire at one level to remain a child who plays with other children it is Wendy who takes on the responsibility of ‘mothering’ the lost boys. As Wendy makes plans to return to her parents with the lost boys we are mindful of her mother’s words at the beginning of the film that sometimes the most courageous thing to do is to put aside your own dreams for the sake of your family.