There are few stories that capture the spirit of childlike wonder and imagination as well as the fantastical tale of Peter Pan. Originally penned as a play by author J.M. Barrie and later adapted into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, everything about this story is iconic.
But the true origins behind this childhood tale are far darker than most people could ever imagine. From the author’s troubled childhood, to the sordid fate of the real-life boy Peter’s character was based on, there’s a whole lot to unpack — and it’s making people think about the story in a vastly different light.
In case you’re not familiar with this classic tale, here’s a quick breakdown of the story. It starts with Peter, a mischievous and magical boy with one special quality: he does not age.
One night while chasing his shadow, he and his co-conspirator, a fairy named Tinkerbell, fly into the room of a young girl named Wendy. This is the event that sets off all the fantastical happenings that occur throughout the story.
Peter and Tinkerbell sweep Wendy away from her mundane life in London to a magical oasis by the sea known as Neverland. It is here where Peter Pan and his tribe of misfit “Lost Boys,”who also never age, live out their days.
Disney Art On Main Street
While it sounds nice enough on paper (what’s so scary about fairies and childhood adventures?) the reality of the matter is far more twisted than anyone expected.
It all starts with the childhood of the author, a man by the name of James Matthew Barrie, or J.M. for short. This man had a truly dark past, and it all started when he was a young boy.
Barrie was born in 1860 in Scotland, to a large, conservative family. His upbringing was relatively normal — that is, up until tragedy struck when Barrie was only six years of age.
In 1867, Barrie’s older brother David collided with a fellow ice skater, cracked his head open, and subsequently died. The boy had only been thirteen years old. Naturally, this rocked the Barrie family to its core.
Barrie’s mother Margaret had a particularly unusual reaction to this awful tragedy. This strange emotional response would end up staying with Barrie for the rest of his life.
Margaret, understandably, was devastated by the shocking death of her favorite son. But she had another set of feelings related to the incident; she took comfort in the idea that David would forever be a child, and would never grow up or leave her.
Eventually Barrie would move out of his childhood home and find love in the form of his wife, Mary Ansell. However, this marriage would prove to be an irregular one for one reason in particular.
While Barrie and Ansell were married for 15 years, they never actually consummated their marriage. Barrie himself admitted this openly in letters, and it seemed that for him this was a huge failing.
This complicated relationship with sexuality would haunt the author throughout his entire life, but to truly understand the controversy surrounding it, we must go back to a sunny afternoon in Kensington Gardens.
The Royal Parks
There, 30-year-old Barrie was taking a leisurely stroll through the picturesque grounds when he ran into two young boys walking with their nanny. These children were 4-year-old George Llewelyn Davies and 3-year-old John Llewelyn Davies.
Barrie was immediately drawn to the young boys and made it his mission to befriend them. He’d see them increasingly frequently while walking his Saint Bernard through the gardens and entertained them with fantastical stories.
Eventually, Barrie grew close enough to the boys that he met their parents, Arthur and Sylvia. The couple went on to have three more sons, Peter, Michael, and Nicholas, and all of the boys began referring to Barrie as Uncle Jim.
However, this close relationship Barrie shared with the children wasn’t entirely innocent. He truly did care deeply for the five boys, but his affection came with a dark side.
Barrie not only loved the Llewelyn Davies children, but he also felt a certain sense of possessiveness and jealousy over them. He didn’t want to have to share the boys with anyone else, and soon he wouldn’t have to.
The patriarch of the family, Arthur, passed away from jaw cancer in 1907. Rich from his popular books, Barrie paid for all his medical care. Three years later, Arthur’s wife Sylvia lost her fight with lung cancer.
These sequential tragedies made the five Llewelyn Davies children into orphans, leaving the question of what would happen to them and where they would live. Luckily, Sylvia had left a will.
In the will, she left explicit instructions as to where the children would go in the event of her death. She specified that she’d wanted the boys’ nanny to parent the girls, along with their Aunt Jenny. However, Barrie got to the document first.
The scheming author doctored the will to make it seem as if it was referring not to Jenny, but to “Jimmy,” as the children called him. No one was any the wiser, and Barrie quickly gained custody of the brood.
Everything went according to plan, and the five kids did end up living with Barrie for years. However, even today there persists intense controversy over the true nature of the relationship they shared.
Some people believe that the relationship between Barrie and the children was highly inappropriate, and may even have been sexually abusive in nature. Others have different thoughts, though.
Many insist that, while their relationship was undoubtedly odd, Barrie never would have dreamed of hurting the children. His supporters claim that he wasn’t a predator, but in fact was asexual.
“I don’t believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call a stirring in the undergrowth for anyone — man, woman, adult or child. He was an innocent,” Nicholas, the youngest of the brothers, was quoted as saying.
Nevertheless, regardless of his intentions, the Llewelyn Davies’ tumultuous childhood and unexpected surge to fame brought them all to dark ends. The first one to meet his demise would be the oldest, George.
George passed away at the young age of 21, having been killed in combat in 1915 in the midst of fighting WWI. Less than a decade later, his younger brother Michael would suffer a fate equally as tragic.
At the age of 20, Michael drowned in what was almost certainly a suicide. Many reports say that he died in the arms of his lover — a man — and that turmoil surrounding his sexuality had been one factor contributing to his depression.
In later years, decades after Barrie’s death, John would die of lung disease and a year after that Peter would take his own life by jumping in front of a London subway car. Only one brother, Nicholas, would live to die of old age.
Barrie was extremely traumatized by the deaths of George and Michael, and their passing shook him so heavily that it transformed the very way he conceptualized his own magnum opus, Peter Pan.
While Barrie had based his beloved book on the joy he got from surrounding himself with the Llewelyn Davies children, in the aftermath of their deaths he began seeing the story as a reflection of his own tragic inabilities to mature and become a real adult.
In 1937, at the age of 77, J.M. Barrie died of pneumonia. However, his strange, controversial, and fantastical legacy not only in art but also in life has certainly outlived him, and continues to puzzle, terrify, and excite generations of children to this day.
The story behind Peter Pan is terrifying in its own right, but at least it didn’t include mutilated children and murderess tigers. We wish we could say the same about another beloved childhood tale…
We all know the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” A girl is on her way to her grandmother’s, meets a wolf, the wolf disguises himself as her grandmother, then eats the girl when she gets to the house. But that’s not the whole story…
As it turns out, “Little Red Riding Hood” dates back hundreds — even thousands of years. And those early versions weren’t the quaint “stranger danger” fairytales we’re familiar with today. They were much, much darker.
Centuries before the Brothers Grimm were doing their thing, there was another legendary storyteller who took a crack at the tale. The first recorded version of the story came from Aesop himself.
Way back in 600 BC when Aesop was doing his thing, he tried his hand at a fable that some call the origin of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. Wolves were kind of Aesop’s favorite, after all. Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”?
Cut to 2,000 years later in the Qing Dynasty of China, and we finally get the first version that resembles the modern fairytale parents tell their children today. But it’s not as cheery as the story we’re used to…
In the Chinese version, called “Grandma Tiger” or “Great Aunt Tigress,” there’s no wolf — it’s a tiger. The story goes like this: a mother leaves her children at home one night, warning them not to let any strangers in. But soon after, they hear a knock at the door…
The tiger is there, pretending to be the children’s grandmother. (Pretty rude that the kids think their grandmother looks like a wild animal, but it’s a fable so we’ll move past that). Once their “Grandma” is inside, the children start noticing odd things about her.
They quickly start pointing out the strange physical features of the creature pretending to be their grandmother. We can assume it went something like, “Grandma, what big stripes you have!” Very observant, kids.
But once they’re in the dark, things take a turn for the worse. The oldest child hears crunching and biting noises and asks for some of “Grandma’s” snack. But what the tiger gives her is completely unexpected…
The oldest child is handed one of her siblings’ fingers. The tiger ties the child up with rope, and the girl realizes they’ve been duped. That’s not going to be a fun mess to clean up in the morning! But the child has a trick up her sleeve…
The girl devises a plan and lures the tiger into the woods where, depending on the version, she drowns, stabs, or scalds the beast to death. Sounds more like the ending to an episode of Game of Thrones, not a fairytale for kids!
A French writer, Perrault, then adapted this version into his own story where a girl is eaten by a wolf dressed as her grandmother. Sound familiar yet? Perrault wanted to be absolutely clear about his intended moral with this story: stay away from strangers!
And why a wolf instead of a tiger? Perrault thought that wolves had creepy, human-like features, which he thought worked well with the story. Wolves can be quiet and sneaky to deceive you into a false sense of security. They don’t call them wolves in sheep’s clothing for nothing!
And finally we come to the version that we all know and love: the Brothers Grimm. This Little Red is the one that’s appeared in countless movies and television shows, like Shrek, Into The Woods, and Hoodwinked. But there’s an ending to this version that may surprise you…
In the Grimm retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood,” once Little Red and her grandmother are swallowed up whole by the wolf, and it seems all is lost, a woodsman passing by notices something strange happening in the house.
He bursts inside to find the wolf asleep and slashes open his stomach, letting Little Red and the grandmother tumble to the ground. Maybe he should’ve double checked to make sure that it wasn’t the wolf’s house, but we’ll let that slide.
Other versions from folklore actually change up the ending so that Little Red prevails over the wolf by using her wits to outsmart him. But another author had a different idea in mind.
French writer Charles Marelles took a crack at the tale, but this time, the granny stole the show. In his story “Little Golden Hood,” the grandma steps out to shop for some herbs before the wolf arrives, leaving him in for a surprise…
When Little Golden Hood arrives, he tries to chomp down on her head, but her magical cloak stops him! At that moment, Granny comes in to save the day and traps the wolf in a large sack. But that’s not the only reinterpretation the classic fairytale has seen.
The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is still so popular, Hollywood executives even made a blockbuster movie about it in 2011. It starred Amanda Seyfried as a young woman protecting her town from a savage werewolf.
As storytellers continue to adapt the tale in their own ways, Little Red will probably be around for a long, long time. In fact, that’s why other current Disney classics eventually hit theaters — they were modified from their sinister origins.
In large part due to the beloved Disney animated classic, Pinocchio is a cultural icon. Kids all over the world instantly relate to the puppet who only wants to be a real boy. But, as it turns out, there’s a lot more to this story than Disney fans realize.
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For one thing, Pinocchio is not a Disney original character. Instead, his earliest appearance dates back to 1881, in a tale that sees the living marionette endure a much darker and more twisted series of adventures.
Italian author Carlo Collodi detailed the puppet boy’s adventures throughout issues of children’s magazines. In contrast to Disney’s warm and fuzzy adaption, Carlo seemed more interested in really using the story to teach a lesson.
Not only does Carlo eventually reward characters for doing good, but he also goes out of his way to punish any immoral act in the story. All in all, his fairy tale resembles the sinister tone of the writings of the Brothers Grimm.
For starters, Collodi’s Geppetto doesn’t explicitly wish for Pinocchio to come to life. He’s just a poor beggar carving a marionette, which gains consciousness on its own. From the moment the lonely man starts carving, Pinocchio’s nose begins to take shape and grow.
Though Collodi doesn’t have the Blue Fairy endow Pinocchio with life, she does appear — in a way. Called the Fairy with Turquoise Hair, she pops up sporadically to guide him. And, to add a layer of creepiness, she describes herself as a dead girl who was never buried.
Disney’s Pinocchio makes his fair share of mistakes, which endanger himself and his loved ones. But the original goes out of his way to be rude and selfish. For everyone around Pinocchio, there are a lot of strings attached.
The puppet does more than just lie to Geppetto. He exploits him financially, selling off his meager possessions for a theater ticket and other frivolities. When the police witness Pinocchio’s antics, they accuse Geppetto of negligence and toss the adoptive father in jail.
Jiminy Cricket serves as Pinocchio’s conscience and famously sings about wishing upon stars. The Collodi novel, however, doesn’t even name him. That’s probably a wise choice since the talking cricket doesn’t have much of a role in the story.
The cricket does appear, spouting advice to the misbehaving Pinocchio, but he is having none of it. Channeling his inner Thor, the puppet nonchalantly grabs one of Geppetto’s hammers and hurls it at the wall. It pulverizes the poor insect.
Collodi likely devised these unlikeable moments to set up Pinocchio’s eventual redemption, though that’s not all. They also help readers feel less guilty for Pinocchio when terrible things happen to him.
The Disney adaptation sees the puppet trapped on Pleasure Island, where misbehaving boys turn into donkeys and get sold into slavery. Luckily, Pinocchio’s transformation halts after he receives a donkey tail and ears.
Collodi, however, has the protagonist fully morph into a donkey. When an old man tries to drown Pinocchio so he can skin him, the puppet gets out of danger through disturbing means: fish devour all the donkey flesh around him, leaving the puppet unharmed.
Just like in the animated movie, the novel introduces a conniving Fox and Cat who try to con Pinocchio. For family audiences, Walt Disney and company left out their most bloodthirsty plots.
The book includes a scene — which Collodi planned as the original ending — where the Fox and Cat attempt to murder Pinocchio. Disguised as bandits, they ambush him in the forest and hang him from a tree. Fortunately, the Fairy later shows up to rescue him.
Despite their very different paths, both the novel and Disney film reach the same destination. The Fairy uses her magic to fulfill Pinocchio’s wish by turning him into a real boy.
Moreover, the variations in these stories of Pinocchio only enrich his legend. They give writers and filmmakers more space to project their own visions, which explain the many other film adaptations released over the years.
No matter which version is your favorite, there’s no denying that the puppet is one of the most enduring pop culture icons ever. If you claim you haven’t heard of Pinocchio, there’s a good chance your nose will start growing.
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