I love Peter Pan. It’s one of my favourite books, I live very closely to JM Barrie’s birthplace and I’ve been pleading silently with the world for a proper adaptation of the material (Disney doesn’t count). So when I heard that Joe Wright, director of Atonement and the recent adaptation of Anna Karenina, had signed on to the latest big budget take on the classic tale, I had high hopes. Wright knows how to tackle adapted material with deftness and creativity and I was giddily excited by the casting of Hugh Jackman because sometimes I’m shallower than I like to believe I am.
Of course, this was all before I heard the news that the role of Native American princess Tiger Lily would be played by Rooney Mara. Academy Award nominee Mara is many things; Native American is not one of them. In an attempt to quash the backlash the casting cause, Warner Brothers released a statement defending the choice by claiming “The world being created is multi-racial/international — and (Tiger Lily is) a very different character than previously imagined.” Other actors considered for the role included Lupita Nyong’o and Adele Exarchopolous, both very talented but neither Native American. It is also worth noting that this multi-racial take on the tale so far includes Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Garrett Hedlund and Adeel Akthar. Only one of those actors is not white. I’m guessing multi-cultural means actors from different countries these days.
The role of Tiger Lily, and indeed the entire ensemble of Native Americans within the world of Pan, is problematic, to say the least. Barrie wrote the story originally as a play in 1904, and it’s safe to say that attitudes towards Native Americans have changed in the interim century. As much as I love Peter Pan, it is the exemplification of “Your fave is problematic”. The Native American characters, often called “Red Indians” and “red skins” in the story, speak in broken English, give out “unearthly yells”, are violent and implied to be of inferior intelligence to the white characters, and are generally seen as “savages”. The term “Picaninnies” is also used at one point. It’s that level of racism.
Many Pan adaptations over the years have chosen to omit the Tiger Lily scenes entirely to avoid the kind of gross racism Disney ended up giving into with their version. That opens up a whole new issue: it’s bad enough when the miniscule number of Native American roles in film is whitewashed or stereotyped (The Lone Ranger, anyone?), but to pretend those parts didn’t exist in the first place isn’t helping anyone.
The stories that hold pride of place in our cultural pantheon are often products of their time. That doesn’t mean that we must hold onto the outdated and insulting elements when we choose to reimagine them. The casual racist stereotyping in the original Sherlock Holmes stories is not put front and centre in our modern adaptations (unless you’re Stephen Moffat, I guess) and everyone tends to forget the odd attacks on Mormonism in A Study in Scarlet. The Little House books are hardly kind to Native Americans and treat Manifest Destiny like the jewel in the crown, and then there’s Enid Blyton’s love of golliwogs in her children’s tales. We don’t simply swallow these stories without a second thought: we know the context and we know better now, so we adapt. It’s one thing to be loyal to the source material but that doesn’t mean you must be loyal to every aspect. On the other side, loose reimaginings may come with more freedom but there is still a responsibility to the audience and to the world. If Wright and Warner Brothers really wanted to make a multi-cultural world for Pan, they could start by going back to square one and doing Tiger Lily justice, both in her casting and in her depiction, and maybe bring a Native American film-maker or writer on board and ask for some feedback while they’re at it. Maybe that way, a new generation can come to a truly wonderful story with a sense of awareness and understanding.