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Remembering SYFY's 'Neverland' miniseries, the wild Peter Pan prequel from a decade ago
A decade ago, Peter Pan got a whole new fantasy treatment.
The world of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan has been reimagined numerous times throughout pop culture history, from novels to films to television, all of them seeking to put their own spin on the world of the Boy Who Never Grew Up and the magical land where he lives and adventures. This week, Walt Disney Pictures will put yet another twist on the saga with Peter Pan & Wendy, a re-imagining of the company's own Peter Pan animated film from decades earlier. It's only natural, then, that we'd start thinking about other times the Peter Pan tale got a new twist, so in that spirit we ask this question:
Remember when SYFY and Sky tried their hand at a Peter Pan origin story?
More than a decade ago, during the 2011 holiday season, SYFY aired Neverland, a two-part miniseries event with an impressive cast that included Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel, Charles Dance, Kiera Knightley, and even Bob Hoskins playing Smee again for the first time in 20 years. Created by Nick Willing (who also worked with SYFY on the Oz reimagining Tin Man), the miniseries was an effort to breathe a certain new life into the Peter Pan legend by dreaming up how it all began, or at least how Peter and the pirate known as Captain Hook first came into the picture. The result is a strange and frankly fascinating mix of urban fantasy, fairy tale, and even science fiction that's not the Peter Pan you remember.
The story of SYFY's Neverland
In attempting to imagine Peter Pan's beginnings, Willing's story jumps back to the early 1900s, where Peter (Charlie Rowe) is a gifted street thief working with a band of fellow thieves who will eventually become the Lost Boys. An adult James Hook (Ifans) works with the boys, drafting them to steal a mysterious object for him: An orb with apparent magical powers. This orb, it turns out, is the creation of an Elizabethan magician, and serves as a portal to a planet where time works differently, and humans can basically stop again altogether.
This planet is, you guessed it, Neverland, and the bulk of the series follows what happens as Peter, Hook, and the rest of the boys are transported to this mysterious world, learn a few of its secrets, and battle the un-aging pirate Elizabeth Bonny (Friel), who discovered the orb years ago and wound up in Neverland, frozen in time for more than a century. Along the way, they learn a little more about how the orb works, how it was created, and what it means for each of them.
Then, of course, there are all of the origin story Easter eggs that you'd expect to find in such a project. We learn where fairy dust comes from, why Tinkerbell (voiced by Knightley) ended up hanging out with all the Lost Boys despite the presence of other fairies, how Hook lost his hand and became a pirate captain, and we even learn why Peter felt the need to venture back to Earth to retrieve his lost shadow. It's classic prequel stuff, and if you're the kind of person who was looking for explanations for all of this, it's reasonably satisfying, particularly in light of the cast that was assembled for this piece.
The themes of SYFY's Neverland
Willing told Collider in a 2011 interview he was most interested in exploring the types of themes you can bring out through the lens of fantasy and well-worn fairytales, which is something he kept in mind while crafting Neverland.
"It’s very important for kids to grow up knowing that adults are capable of doing horrible things. All the fairy tales are designed to educate children and adults alike. Kids hate being lied to. They want to know the truth, and they want to learn that in a safe environment, he said. "That’s one of the things that movies and stories and fairy tales give them. It allows them to be comfortable in their parents’ arms, and yet learn about the world. That is the magic of fantasy. I don’t think it will ever disappear. It’s a genre that will always entrance because fantasy allows you to broach very serious, tough, often horrible, perhaps political subjects, in a way that is palatable. If some of this story was told in a realistic setting, it would be an R-rated movie. But, because there are flying fairies and magical worlds, we’re able to broach these subjects with children and family audiences."
In hindsight, of course, Neverland is also fascinating because of its blending of various subgenres to try and build something new out of a classic story. It was made in 2011, which you might remember as a breeding ground for all sorts of would-be fantasy franchises trying to capitalize on the frenzy brought on by Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, as well as the rising tide of young adult stories that often put their own spins on classic fairy tales and other children's stories. There's a grit to Neverland that fits right in with the pop culture of that era, along with an attempt at worldbuilding that feels bigger than the story itself, as though this could have been the first installment in some kind of new Pan trilogy. That gives the miniseries a certain time capsule quality which means that, even now when it's been largely forgotten, it's at the very least a fascinating watch.