Reading Films, Watching Books
Associated Press; Ken Regan/Camera 5, from Fox Searchlight Pictures
Left to right: Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey in 1953; Liam Neeson in the biopic "Kinsey"; J. M. Barrie, the author of "Peter Pan"; Johnny Depp, in the role of J. M. Barrie in the film "Finding Neverland"; Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager whose true story is told in the film "Hotel Rwanda"; Don Cheadle as Mr. Rusesabagina.
By CARYN JAMES
Published: December 17, 2004
Biopics, With Literary Condiments
In a season flooded with film biographies, there are fascinating novels and nonfiction books offering fresh and sometimes alternative views of people we've come to know onscreen, from the Peter Pan-ish J. M. Barrie to the empire-building Howard Hughes. And often the best of these books are not direct movie tie-ins.
"Finding Neverland" is a warm, graceful, tear-jerking film about Barrie's friendship with the widowed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (Kate Winslet) and her four sons, who inspired him to write "Peter Pan." Johnny Depp creates a slightly sad, sympathetic Barrie in a film that unapologetically strays from the facts.
Andrew Birkin's book "J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys" sets out to do the opposite and is just as effective. Mr. Birkin writes that he has tried to create "a documentary account," not an interpretive biography. He offers such a wealth of firsthand information that the book holds up 25 years after it was first published (it was reissued last year) and becomes a rich complement to the film.
Beautifully designed, the book reproduces letters and diary entries from Barrie and his circle, as well as dozens of photographs. There is the now-unknown Nina Boucicault in tights as the first stage Peter, and photographs of the Llewelyn Davies boys at play, some taken by Barrie. And of course there are pictures of Barrie himself, a dour-looking little man with a large moustache and nothing Depp-like about him.
"J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys" allows readers to sort out the facts from the film. Sylvia had five sons, not four, and her husband was very much alive, resentful of Barrie but tolerant of someone so asexual that he seemed no threat. Learning these facts doesn't diminish the fiction onscreen though. Mr. Birkin's work shares the film's view that Barrie was the most childlike of men. "He was an innocent - which is why he could write 'Peter Pan,' " Sylvia's youngest son, then an old man himself, wrote to Mr. Birkin in the 1970's, dismissing any hint that there was something sexual in Barrie's relationship to the boys - an idea the film dismisses just as blithely.
"We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become." -Ursula Le Guin