Children in Fables: Gigi–Thank Heaven for Little Girls (and Boys)

The title of my article is taken from a central song in Vincente Minnelli’s musical Gigi, sung by old-timer Maurice Chevalier in a decidedly sly, politically incorrect manner—both by standards of 1958, when the picture was made, and by today’s standards.

It’s doubtful that such a song would have been approved by the MPAA at present, and the fact that it bypassed the strictures set by the Production Code is nearly a miracle.

Which brings me to the point of this article. It’s a known fact that J. M. Barrie, the creator of “Peter Pan,” had a peculiar and unusual relationship with children, particularly boys. It’s also known that Lewis Carroll, the creator of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” had a peculiar and unusual relationship with children, particularly girls. Two films, one new, the other old, contemplate the relationship between artists and the specific children who inspire them: Marc Forster’s “Finding Neverland,” about Barrie, which just opened theatrically, and Gavin Millar’s British film, “DreamChild,” about Carroll, made in 1985. Generations of biographers, novelists, and filmmakers, have offered speculations about Barrie’s and Carroll’ secret emotional and sexual predilections.

Though different in theme, sensibility, and style, the two films share one central idea in common: The celebration of ecstasy and epiphany as inspired by children. Since Barrie and Carroll are responsible for two of the most cherished classics of children’s literature, it’s interesting to speculate about such pertinent issues as children as inspirational sources for great art (not just literature); the “proper” and “improper” relationship between adults (in this case middle-aged men) and children; and the changing definitions of that peculiar phase of life called childhood.
The Victorians inaugurated the child as legit subject in the arts, and it’s considered one of the distinctive innovations of Carrol (who wrote in the 1860s) to make his protagonists seven years old. After the success of the “Alice” books, there was huge growth in books and plays featuring children.

These questions are more relevant today since both movies offer in their texts and subtexts insights about the complex, problematic relationships between writers and their inspirational role models.

My review of “Finding Neverland” describes it as a lovely lyrical fairy tale that doesn’t aim to be a full biography of Barrie. Neither does “DreamChild,” whose story goes back and forth between Alice as a young girl and as an old woman. Hence, I am not interested in singling out the inaccuracies or whitewashing in the transfer of these creative lives to the screen, but rather to point out some problem areas, specifically, how our receptions to both pictures are shaped by the mortal climate of our times–and by our personal value system.

No one goes to a Hollywood movie expecting to see a truthful, authentic, or realistic portrait of an artist. And no matter who the artist is, when he’s played by a young and handsome actor like Johnny Depp (as Barrie in “Finding Neverland”), the casting necessarily changes the meaning of the film. “DreamChild” opts for another strategy, casting not a young charismatic star, but an older actor, Ian Holm, in the role of Lewis Carroll (the pen name of Reverend Dodgson). You cant’ fault either “Finding Neverland” or “DreamChild” for presenting wart-free portraits of the geniuses at their center, an unhappy Scott in London in the former, and a repressed Brit in the latter.

Much more interesting is the ambiguous nature of Barrie’s and Carroll’s obsessions with the children who enthralled them, their compulsive, disquieting, and persistent love for youngsters throughout their lives. These issues give both “Peter Pan” and “Alice in Wonderland” richer subtexts and darker tones.

In real life, Barrie was short (about 5 feet) and unattractive; even as a youngster, he looked haggardly middle-aged. Ever since “Peter Pan” premiered at London’s Duke of York’s Theatre, on December 27, 1904, the story has beguiled millions of spectators, inking memorable characters into the collective psyche and a literary tradition that go beyond politics, culture, and geographical boundaries.

The emotional pull of both tales is largely due to their indelible characters. In “Peter Pan,” Captain Hook and Tinkerbell, the pirates and mermaids, Indians and cowboys and crocodiles. In “Alice,” it’s the White Rabbit, Mock Turtle, Cheshire Cat, some of which are most imaginatively created for “Dreamchild” by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.

“Finding Neverland” is a feel-good celebration of a child-like wonder, with a healthy dosage of sentimentality. Forster tells how Barrie’s inspiration came from befriending the Llewelyn Davies family, specifically the five boys he accidentally met in Kensington Gardens. The film describes how these friendships evolve until the quintet become “Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.”

The movie suggests a romantic attraction between Barrie and Sylvia (Kate Winslet), the children’s mother. However, Barrie’s biographers suggest that his love was not for the mother but for her boys. In the movie, Sylvia is portrayed as a widow, but in actuality, the children’s biological father was alive and quite upset about Barrie’s involvement with his boys.

Barrie was rumored to have been asexual and/or impotent. His sexuality was ridiculed in music halls with such rhymes as: “The boy who never grew up by the man who couldn’t go up.” Barrie himself was childless, and his joyless marriage to Mary Ansell, a beautiful actress, ended in public scandal when Mary had an affair; in the movie she’s portrayed as emotionally distanced. After Sylvia’s death, Barrie fought for and succeeded in adopting the boys, aged between six and 17.

Barrie’s scholars suggest that there was something calculating and controlling about the way he made friends with children. Barrie “invaded” families and played with their children, often neutralizing their real fathers by placing them in the periphery of their offsprings’ lives. Various accounts allow that Barrie did it with several families, one of which had a young girl, who served as inspiration for Wendy’s character in “Peter Pan.”

At present, our politically correct culture stresses the importance of keeping our children “safe.” But what exactly does it mean The current dread of pedophilia has skewed our sense of what relations between adults and children might have been in the past. In other words, where do we draw the line between healthy and normal and deviant and unhealthy love for children A refusal to respect the sanctity of childhood may be even more disturbing than excessive love of it.

The recent scandalous accusations of Michael Jackson have raised the issue of how “natural” it is for children to sleep with their parents in the same bed, particularly when it comes to a single male parent and boys. Indeed, how do we react today to Barrie’s prose about children In “The Little White Bird,” the narrator (Barrie) describes his friendship with a young boy, and how he persuades him to sleep with him as “an adventure”.

There was obviously an element of obsession in Barrie’s attraction to boys, but what kind of obsession was it Was Barrie a childless man with a warm heart who just loved to entertain children Would parents in today’s moralistic climate allow a mature man like Barrie to look after their own children unsupervised Arguably, our reactions to adults touching children would vary according to our basic value system, our subjective perceptions of what we consider “proper” and “improper” conduct with children.

The personalities of both Barrie and Carroll point to a modern dilemma: If they were alive today, would they be perceived as social misfits, or as deviants and pedophiles. The stereotype of the genius as emasculated misfit has been used to explain artists’ attraction/obsession with children. That said, the motives for Barrie’s behavior would become suspect, depending on our approach to–and experience–with children. Is our concern just with the protection of our children’s safety, or is there something else going on

Barrie’s obsession with boys who never grow old might have been a result of his brother David’s death, at age 13, after a skating accident. David was his mother’s favorite, and his loss devastated the family. According to this reading, Peter Pan is the perpetual youngster, a boy forever kept alive in his brother’s imagination. But Barrrie’s love for children could have been based on his longing to have a child of his own. In a program note for a Parisian production of “Peter Pan,” Barrie wrote: “Of Peter himself, you must make what you will. Perhaps he was a little boy who died young. Perhaps he was a boy who was never born at all, a boy whom some people longed for but who never came.”

Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice, as conceived by Dennis Potter in “Dreamchild,” is disquieting, too. Alice Hargreaves (Coral Browne), now 80, arrives in New York to speak at the Lewis Carroll centenary celebration at Columbia University. After a disorienting voyage, she revisits her childhood days, specifically one crucial event. On a July 4, 1862 party, she met Reverend Dodgson, a math lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, where her father was the dean. Dodgson entertains her and her sisters by spinning a tale that would become “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

At the ceremony, Alice remembers Dodgson’s shyness during a summer excursion that also included male adolescent and grownups. When Dodgson tries to recite, he begins to stutter. Out of embarrassment, Alice giggles and her sisters Lorina and Edith giggled too. The humiliated Dodgson stutters so much that he has to stop his routine. Feeling his hurt, Alice goes over and kisses him gently on the cheek. Dodgson feels gratified by Alice’s gesture, but he retreats from her.

We observe the bright Alice converses with her sisters, all angelic little princesses, and the Reverend’s happiness as he eavesdrops outside the girls’ windows. We sense the man’s agonizing self-consciousness, his stifled emotional life, a mixture of pleasure and fear. We are led to believe that there were many other little girls after Alice, who inspired him to write poems and stories.

The elderly Alice remembers how he withdrew from her touch. It took her decades to grasp Dodgson’s deep torment and true love for her. Did she know it then, subconsciously No matter. It’s clear that Alice, Dodgson’s dreamchild, has learned to value his love for what it was. Though never expressed erotically, that love extended far beyond the conventional limits of ordinary kindliness.

Unlike “Finding Neverland,” “DreamChild” was not a movie for the mass audience or the family. Instead, the film offered a mature contemplation about the dual power of children to inspire as well as to hurt adults. Emotionally and sexually repressed, Dodgson forbids himself any transgressions against propriety.

It must have been hard for Alice, when she passed beyond Dodgson’s favored age, to see him transfer his devotion to other little girls. There’s an element of melancholy in the realization that little girls (and boys) don’t stay little for very long—that time doesn’t stop. In real life, after the success of the “Alice” books, Dodgson began to cultivate a public image as a patron of little girls, prowling public spaces to strike up acquaintance, begging mothers to let him escort the girls around town—and photographing them naked.

But Alice’s new experience as an old woman pulls her out of a restrictive Victorian repression, and when she looks back she finally realizes the price that she has paid for cutting this experience out of her life. The movie implies that this was the only true love Alice has ever known.

Both “DreamChild” and “Finding Neverland” have magical moments and are replete with charm and insight, and both boast a glowing dreaminess in their images. More important, both pictures indicate that attitudes toward childhood are never static. Variations and new images of childhood emerge and reemerge in response to changing socio-cultural conditions.

It may not be a coincidence that both classics were created by Scottish and British writers, not Americans. In American literature and film, children are portrayed in much simpler, less ambiguous, ways. Children are either nave or monstrous (depending on the genre), and in all genres, they are deprived of any sexuality.

In contrast, “DreamChild” and “Finding Neverland” intimate the physiological, cognitive, linguistic stages through which children pass as they move into adulthood. In these films, the difference between children and adults is not simply a matter of degree but of dissimilar capacities and perceptions of reality. “Finding Neverland” is refreshing in that it entertains children without condescending to them. There’s even an instructive maturity with regard to life’s perils and tragedies–the way the boys respond to their mom’s fatal illness.

One of the main differences between “DreamChild,” which was a commercial flop, and “Finding Neverland,” which is bound to be a hit, is in their point-of-view. In “DreamChild,” a cinematic memory play, we learn about the creation of “Alice in Wonderland,” from the perspective of the real girl (and then older woman) who inspired the tale’s heroine. I can only speculate about the effect of “Finding Neverland,” if it were told not from Barrie’s but from Peter’s point-of-view, as a boy and adult.