Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Other Boy Who Could Fly

John Leonard Pielmeier, Hook's Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written By Himself

First, his name isn’t Hook. James Cook, great-grandson of the explorer James Cook, is press-ganged into the Queen’s Navy, aged 14, ending his London childhood and Eton education forever. But rumors of treasure lead to mutiny, and Cook finds himself sailing under the Black Flag. Soon his ship crosses the line into a mysterious land where nobody, not even little boys dressed in tattered leaves, ever grows up.

American author John Leonard Pielmeier is probably best-known for his play, and later film adaptation, Agnes of God. Since that classic, he’s become an in-demand screenwriter, especially for adaptations of heavy, difficult literature. But he admits, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan first awakened his interest in reading, and in his first novel, he returns to Neverland, retelling the story from the forsaken antihero’s perspective.

Cook finds himself orphaned, expelled, and pressed in quick succession. A comforting life of middle-class London innocence surrenders to harsh sailors’ compromises. Under his captain’s Puritanical supervision, Cook toughens his skin, practices his Latin, and conquers his ignorance. Soon he’s a real sailor. Then the mutiny forces him to choose between honesty and survival. And, on a distant Neverland shore, he finds a castaway who remembers Cook’s long-lost father.

If Peter Pan is the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, James Cook is the Boy Who Has Adulthood Thrust Upon Him Violently. There’s a Luke Skywalker quality to Cook’s transition, but he often learns the wrong lessons. He abandons his post to discover more about his father. He nurses petty grudges and pursues vengeance so far, he inadvertently injures himself. He admits lying to achieve his ends—then demands we trust him, not Barrie, to tell the real story.

John Leonard Pielmeier
Peter Pan, meanwhile, proves himself capricious, controlling, and worse. Marooned by his shipmates, Cook meets Peter, and both are overjoyed to finally make friends their own age. But Cook doesn’t want to stay fourteen forever. He faces a monster so terrible, even Peter can’t stomach it, and in so doing, wins Tiger Lily’s heart. Peter, jealous that his friend doesn’t live in the eternal present, murders her. Or so Cook says.

Pielmeier strips Barrie’s Edwardian sensationalism. Cook repeatedly insists he’s no pirate, but an orphan caught in something beyond his control. He’s certainly not Blackbeard’s bo'sun. The Piccaninnies aren’t a stereotyped Plains Indian tribe, they’re a proud Polynesian nation, the Pa-Ku-U-Na-Ini. And Neverland isn’t a haven of eternal innocent irresponsibility, it’s a land of Lotus-Eaters where all time gets compressed into Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

Repeatedly, Cook insists he’s no villain. Yet he’s exactly that, if accidentally: everywhere he goes, his presence disrupts the balance. Gentleman Starkey initiates the mutiny because he finds Cook’s treasure map. Peter and the Pa-Ku-U-Na-Ini live in peaceful rapport until Cook interrupts their religious ceremony, breaks Tiger Lily’s prior engagement, and leaves Peter friendless. He even accidentally hastens the Wendy Darling’s kidnapping.

Critics have seen, in Barrie’s Peter Pan, an enactment of the Oedipal conflict, as Peter battles the piratical father-figure and must choose between three ideals of womanhood. I see, in Pielmeier’s Cook, a dark mirror of Campbell’s Heroic Journey metaphor. Pielmeier hits every marker: the Call to Adventure, the Threshold, the Road of Trials, the Temptress, even the Return. But unlike Campbell’s hero, at every opportunity, Cook makes the wrong choice.

Cook insists he’s innocent. But everywhere he goes, he leaves a trail of broken souls and dead bodies. He insists upon his own honesty, and gives a detailed accounting of his actions, while he admits lying to achieve selfish ends. Though book-smart and crafty, he lacks wisdom, perhaps because his lifetime’s experiences don’t match his bodily appearance. Thus, instead of achieving enlightenment, he becomes driven by vengeance and rage.

Maria Tatar writes, of Barrie’s original play and novel, that the dominant theme is futility. The Lost Boys, Piccaninnies, and pirates pursue one another in a permanent clockwise pattern around the island, perpetually enacting time, though they never age. Pielmeier disrupts that: Cook enters a magic archipelago where time means nothing, but instead he brings change. He brings mortality into a land without age. But he never understands this.

Pielmeier isn’t the first author to rewrite Hook’s backstory. Besides Barrie himself, recent entries have included J.V. Hart, Christina Henry, and Dave Barry. However, I particularly like Pielmeier’s psychological depth and emotional complexity. Pielmeier’s Cook is a master schemer, but also a master of self-deception. He successfully complicates Barrie’s original story, but only at great cost to himself, which he clearly hasn’t begun to understand.

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