I was predisposed not to like Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook, a Peter Pan prequel from the point-of-view of Captain Hook. Not only is Peter Pan one of my favorite stories of all time, but I worried that this book was simply jumping on the Villain Retelling Bandwagon.
I should not have doubted author Christina Henry, who also successfully added to and commented upon Alice in Wonderland canon with her novels Alice and Red Queen. The characters and world of Peter Pan is in safe hands.
The story of Lost Boy.
As advertised, Lost Boy tells the story of Jamie, the original Lost Boy and the boy who will become Captain Hook. Through his young eyes, we see Neverland and Peter Pan like never before. Here, Peter is not a reckless, innocuous youth who never wants to grow up; he is a dangerous sociopath who values his games and eternal youth above all else.
“The ground of Hook as an adult has been walked by many other writers and filmmakers,” Henry told Den of Geek last week at San Diego Comic Con. “That wasn’t where I wanted to write. I wanted to know about who he was before he was Hook.”
Lost Boy is a gory, gutting retelling, one that would not work without a strong central character we know, like, and understand. Jamie is that character, a nurturing type who looks after the other Lost Boys while Peter plays his games. When the novel begins, he loves Peter best of all. They have been together literally longer than Jamie can remember. He is Peter’s favorite. But, as Jamie begins to become disillusioned by The Island and Peter’s games, all of that changes.
The empathy of Lost Boy.
Where did the idea for Lost Boy come from? Henry has an 11-year-old son who was obsessed with the story of Peter Pan when he was five. They would watch the 1953 Disney animated film and read the story over and over again.
“All those times I was experiencing Peter Pan with him, I started thinking, why does Captain Hook hate Peter Pan so much?” Henry said. “Why does this adult hate this kid?” It was a question that sparked a novel. “I always say, if there was no Henry, then there would be no Lost Boy.”
It’s this empathetic, relationship-driven question that drives the thrust of the Lost Boy narrative, and makes the book a fascinating exploration of boyhood, friendship, and the intersection of the two.
“One of the things I was trying to get at in the book,” said Henry, “is the way groups of boys can be both really brutal with each other in a careless way, but also really tender and how they’ll tend to follow the most charismatic leader. And, obviously, Peter’s a charismatic leader. And so they follow him.”
Reading this book, it’s not hard to understand why this is the first book that made Henry cry while writing it. This book will break your heart, and it’s the empathy on every page that will do it. Henry believes in the vital humanity of this proto-Captain Hook, thus so does the reader. This book would not work if we didn’t believe in Jamie’s humanity, if we didn’t understand in an emotional sense what makes him turn against Peter. If we can’t imagine ourselves making the same choices and feeling the same things as Jamie, were we in his shoes.
The darkness of Lost Boy.
I won’t spoil the twists, turns, or ending of Lost Boy (you will be able to guess some, though not all, from your prior Peter Pan knowledge), but I will say that things get dark.
“When I started thinking about this book a few years ago, I had originally intended that maybe it would be like a steampunk thing and it would be a little bit more light-hearted,” said Henry. “But, you know, the more I started thinking about it and the more I started writing, the darker it became … I thought the only thing that’s that deep and viscious is a relationship where you used to love the person.”
While this book is intended for adults, not children, Henry doesn’t spare the horror because of the characters’ young age. “People talk about kids like they’re really innocent,” said Henry, “but I always say that the reason why Roald Dahl’s books have been so successful for so many years is because Roald Dahl doesn’t pretend that the world is a good place. He believes that bad things happen and bad things happen to kids and that’s present in all of his books: an awareness.”
Kids have to live in an unjust world, too, and they see that unfairness and injustice and, sometimes, horror, whether we adults like it or not. Lost Boy is the story of Jamie beginning to truly process the lifetimes of horror he has witnessed during his time with Peter.
Was there any pushback from Henry’s editor or agent about the darkness of this book? No, said Henry, but there was some concern from the sales and marketing department about setting the right expectations for would-be readers.
“They wanted to make sure that people knew it would be a dark book. They didn’t want people looking for a light-hearted Peter Pan book to be surprised, so those concerns went to the cover design.”
Guys, it’s a dark book.
“It’s not a YA book. It’s a book that’s written for adults. It goes in the adult section, so I hope that will mitigate some of the concerns, but I have spoken to a few parents who have come up to me at signings and said, ‘I have a 12-year-old who really loves Peter Pan. Would she like this?’ And I’m like, ‘Maybe you want to wait a couple of years.’ It’s a case-by-case basis. Usually I do say that my editor calls it Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan. If your kids aren’t ready for Lord of the Flies, they’re probably not ready for my book, either.”
Putting a spin on an existing story is nothing new.
Henry is far from the first person to put her own twist on a familiar story, and the tradition of adapting, retelling, and reimagining Peter Pan itself goes back a long way, to its very beginning. Original author J.M. Barrie retold the story of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up multiple times.
Peter Pan first appeared as a character in the Scottish writer’s 1902 adult novel The Little White Birdbefore getting his own 1904 stage play, dramatized in the 2004 Johnny Depp movie (and current musical) Finding Neverland. After that, Barrie wrote the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy.
When asked about the current popularity in villain retellings like Wicked or Maleficent, Henry says this is nothing new, but rather part of an “eternal game of telephone” we have been telling as a culture since the beginning of storytelling. Henry draws a link between the Greek story of Cupid and Psyche to the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast to Norse fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
What we did, pretty much from the time we started telling stories, is we gather around, and someone would tell a story. And whoever heard that story would go someplace else and tell that story, but with their own flourish, right? So the story starts to change already in the first retelling. And then someone else would hear it and they would tell it to somebody else and it would change again, so it’s like this eternal game of telephone.
Henry speaks of the collaborative nature of these ongoing myths. In her own storytelling, she often looks for the “imaginative space” in existing stories…
One of the things that I do and one of the things that I think a lot of authors do when they’re retelling stories is they’re finding the empty space in the original story and filling it in for themselves. That was me, wanting to answer this question of ‘Why does Hook hate Peter Pan?’ I filled in the space. I don’t think I answered every question, and so there’s still imaginative space in there for the reader to fill in that space for themselves.
While the retelling, reimagining, and expansion of already-existing stories is nothing new, our modern idea of ownership over a story and the copyright law that goes with it is relatively new. If you’ve spent any time in fandom, then it’s a topic of conversation you are no doubt familiar with: Can a story be owned?
This question seems to interest Henry as well, who mentions Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture and the character of Batman as a great example of this discussion. In the book, Henry notes, Weldon addresses “how the Batman we have today is so different from the original conception of Batman and how each generation has sort of claimed that their Batman, the one that they grew up with, is sort of the authentic Batman.”
“It really gets into this issues of fandom and ownership and what is the authentic character?” said Henry. “Is there an authentic character or is there space for all of these ideas to exist?”
Want to know what happens after Lost Boy? You’re in luck! There are plenty of Peter Pan stories, including the original, that will continue the story for you. “My idea was that it would be almost like a true prequel,” Henry said, “so this is Hook’s story and the sequel is Peter Pan. So, to find out what happens next, read Peter Pan.”
As for Henry, she just finished writing His Mermaid, “a tale of magic, mermaids, and P.T. Barnum,” according to Henry’s official website. With her next novel finished, Henry is on the lookout for ideas for her next project. When asked about narrative spaces in other iconic stories she might like to explore, she has some ideas…
“The Tempest is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and I’ve always wondered what happened to Miranda after. And I liked to imagine her older, like who is she now? That’s something I might write someday … I’ve [also] been really toying with a kind of post-apocalyptic Red Riding Hood.
Whatever Henry puts her mind, and pen, to next — whether it be a fresh spin on an old tale or something less explicitly connected to our “eternal game of telephone” — I’ll be reading.