From The Terminal to The Polar Express, old-fashioned innocence is back in Hollywood, winking her magical charm into our lives this year. But this charm seems most evanescent in Miramax’s “Finding Neverland,” which I recently happened to catch en route to Osaka for an exhibit at Yoshiaki Inoue Gallery.
Finding Neverland casts Johnny Depp (John Barrie, as the Scottish playwrite of Peter Pan) and Kate Winslet (dying mother of four children, including Peter) in a tender look at John Barrie’s life and offers a background (apparently fictional) account of the creation of Peter Pan in 1905. It offers rich reflection into the nature of creativity, of an artist’s struggle to incarnate his hopes, and an admirable exploration into the very nature of belief. Neverland is a place, if believed, all can enter into.
Believe in what, you might ask? And these latest Hollywood movies seem to want to convince us to believe in at least something (remember Polar Express, with Santa’s deep and resonant voice?), and the world would be a better place. These movies pit children’s innocent beliefs against our adult cynicism: saying something like “if you don’t believe, you can’t really meet Santa or get to Neverland.”
But we may want to reverse that question to ask: “Where does this desire in wanting to believe in belief come from?” And that’s the imaginative landscape Finding Neverland really invites us into. By the way, if you ever doubted Johnny Depp or Kate Winslet’s ability to act with great depth, and incarnate that tension between cynicism and hope in a most serious manner, the movie greatly encourages a new assessment. You see, good art does move us to believe in the possibility of belief, whether in ultimate reality, or wanting simply to have hope in desperate circumstances. One Japanese commentator noted: “Though the actual historical evidence does not line up to the story told, this only goes to show how much a movie, any movie, is suspended belief in movie making itself. Neverland, the movie, is indeed the true Neverland to be believed in.”
John Barrie, in the movie, invites 25 orphans into the theatre for Peter Pan’s opening, with the plays’ financier, played by Dustin Hoffman, becomes irritated, as Berrie has the children sit next to Edwardian arts patrons. It’s the children’s innocent laughter that brings life into initial tense moments, as Peter Pan is unveiled. It’s their wonderment, as they see Peter Pan fly across the stage, that moves the respectable gentlemen to begin to be children once again. Believing, which Barrie insists to be most necessary for the children’s health and growth, must be incarnated into action. Neither this movie nor the character of John Barrie would be convincing apart from his own wrestling with this very question, and actually being torn by the gap between his own vision and the reality of survival, while also experiencing fully the cruelty of death. It’s in that brokenness, that Barrie’s own heart is moved to sacrifice his freedom to commitment, embracing the orphans into his own theatre of life.
The Greek word in the New Testament for “believe” is “pisteuo,” which suggests not belief as a sheer intellectual exercise of having “blind faith”, or to imagine and will us into irrational faith, but belief as a relational axis of trust. Good acting, and good art, moves one to this place of trust. What inspires us, after all, is not being force-fed to believe in belief itself, but to be moved to desire in believing, and exposing our deep need for trust in each other. That pisteuo compels us to a greater sacrifice for each other. Neverland brings us effectively to that place, to create a shelf for such a longing for a greater love. In that place, orphans are always welcomed into our imaginative enterprises, shocking us out of conventional comfort zones.
Now, if a movie can communicate all of this via the10-inch screen of a United flight from Newark to Osaka, and woo this weary traveler to land in Japan with joy and delight, that movie must be deemed successful. The word “entertainment,” after all, originally meant “giving rest to the weary”1 or even hosting strangers into your home to nourish them. If Hollywood can begin to truly do this, we would be no worse off than that. It might even feed our orphaned souls, waiting for hope, waiting for Neverland.
- Thanks to Dr. Bill Edgar for this insight.