University of Notre Dame

Peter Pan and Cultural Constructions of Childhood

Course Number: FTT 13182-1
Instructor: Dr. Susan Ohmer

Ever since Wendy, Peter, Tinker Bell and Captain Hook first appeared on stage in London in 1904, they have represented the imaginary worlds that we associate with childhood.  In his lifetime, Scottish writer James M. Barrie took the characters he invented to amuse the children of friends and developed them in novels, a play, and a film scenario. Since his death, however, and with the development of new forms of performance and technology, these characters have been brought to life in animated and live action films, on television, and in novels by other writers.   These varied incarnations illustrate how childhood fantasies can be embodied in different forms of media and how changing social and cultural norms influence our ideas about childhood.

Our course explores the various embodiments of Barrie’s characters that have taken shape over the last 100 years and considers what they reveal about changing ideas about childhood. A visit to the Snite Museum will launch our conversation about representations of childhood at different cultural moments. We will then read Barrie’s play and novels and study how the broad narrative of Peter Pan was expressed in different literary forms. Barrie was also interested in adapting his stories for the cinema. After examining his own unproduced film scenario, we will screen films or excerpts from Herbert Brenon’s 1924 live-action feature, Walt Disney’s 1953 full-length color cartoon, Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) and P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003) and we will look at television specials from the 1950s and 1960s.  We will also read a recent novel that adapts the Peter Pan tale, Peter Pan in Scarlet, and if all goes well, we will attend a screening of Pan when it is released later this fall. Finally, we will examine how scholars and critics have discussed issues of gender, sexual identity, race, and colonialism in these texts in order to examine political and social implications of Barrie’s tales.

By juxtaposing the many representations of Peter Pan, we will study how narratives and characters are adapted in different media and at different cultural moments and how their meanings are linked to changing conceptions of childhood.

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