Gentle readers who have read Muriel Spark's typically astringent The Finishing School and seen the tender, sweet Finding Neverland may be wondering how, exactly, I plan to get them into the same post. Believe it or not, there's a connection--and not just because I serendipitously read Spark's novel the day after I saw the film. Both are concerned with the life of a "successful" writer, either as it's lived or as it's fantasized (we'll talk about the definition of "success" in just a moment). Both take on writer's block. Both take the writer's "private life" as a problem, either seriously (the film) or satirically (the novel). Both juxtapose jealousy and creativity. And both ask how--or if--it's possible to represent the workings of the imagination itself.
In both Finding Neverland and The Finishing School, there's aesthetic success and financial success. Spark slyly targets the way the former slides into the latter. Rowland, our blocked creative writing teacher, spends the novel jealous of teenage prodigy Chris, who is writing a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. While the quality of Chris' novel initially triggers Rowland's jealousy--"But this is quite good" (10)--Chris, in fact, is far more interested in the public role of "writer." Chris cheerfully plays into the publishing market's desire for celebrities by contacting film producers and highlighting his own youthfulness as a key selling point, but he eventually hits a snag:
"It will turn out all right."
"It will be all right because of your youth and the publicity you've spread about. How far has the film project come along? Do you have a contract?"
"Not yet. Of course, they're waiting for publication of the book itself."
"The book itself," said the publisher, "is actually a lot of shit." (145)
Chris' book has little to do with aesthetics and everything to do with product and property. Indeed, for Chris, it seems as though the book won't be "complete" without the film (and he begins negotiating the film rights before the book is finished, let alone published). As the publisher dryly notes, the book will "be all right" not because it passes critical muster, but because it comes commercially prepackaged. (Was Spark thinking of this, I wonder?) When the novel finally comes out, it is "highly praised for its fine, youthful disregard of dry historical facts" (179)--an ironic verdict that simultaneously proves the publisher's point (Chris really has sold the critics and the public a load of, well, you know) and demonstrates its irrelevance (the "youthful" part makes the ineptitude a marketing point). There's another delicate twinge of irony in Chris' final destiny: he becomes a "readable novelist" (179). One wonders if that's quite the same thing as a good novelist. (Much earlier, Spark undercut her account of a student's apparent brilliance by describing her as an "excellent exam passer" .)
As long as Chris writes for himself, his work goes along swimmingly, even mechanically; it's only when he discovers the possibility of a fractious audience that matters bog down. Rowland, however, cannot write his novel at all. Part of the problem appears to be his belief that there's a way to uncover "the secret" that drives Chris' fiction: "But even more than dope, there was some secret of Chris's that Rowland wanted to get hold of. He was in a choking, suspicious frenzy about it. Chris wrote like a professional. How did he manage language so wonderfully at his age, and with so little experience? How?" (27) Significantly, these thoughts spool through Rowland's head while he frantically searches Chris' backpack, as though the "secret" were some sort of tangible object. In fact, Rowland comes unblocked inadvertently, once he stops writing his novel and starts writing a book about his school; the moment when everything clicks, as it were, slides by in Spark's narrative. The whatever-it-is that drives a writer's creativity, in other words, cannot quite be put on the page. Nor is it clear that Chris' "secret" could function as Rowland's "secret," even presuming that Chris really does write as well as Rowland thinks. Significantly, Spark never gives us any direct quotations from Chris' novel--only Chris' ruminations about the novel. And, given the relief with which Rowland accepts the publisher's verdict on the novel's quality, it's not clear if Rowland grasps what constitutes good fiction in the first place. Is there a serious historical novel in the house?
Spark has a fine time sending up middlebrow literary conventions. There's the goofy metafictional opening, in which Rowland's lecture on "setting the scene" is promptly followed by, well, the narrator setting the scene. There are the faux-mysterious moments of foreshadowing. There's the parodic wrap-up at the end, which promises to tie off every possible narrative loose end. And, of course, there's the gleefully obvious resolution to the rivalry between Rowland and Chris (foretold more than once). Spark gives us not a bad novel but a "bad" novel, one that pokes fun at our literary comfort levels--our definition of the "readable."
Finding Neverland, by contrast, sets up a conflict between the "imaginative" and the "commercial," but never quite gets around to confronting its implications. On the one hand, the film repeatedly makes it clear that there's something soul-killing about theatrical or social commercialism, whether in the form of Barrie's wife (obsessed with her social contacts), Mrs. Du Maurier (obsessed with her daughter's household finances), or his producer (obsessed with the bottom line). On the other hand, the film defines success in commercial terms: we know that Little Mary is a bad play because it flops, and we know that Peter Pan is a good play because it's a smash hit. In other words, the film's definition of imaginative quality is very much audience-directed. Indeed, in the film Barrie ensures the play's success by papering the audience with innocent orphans, who show the adults how to respond. What's odd about the tension-that-isn't is that there's no reason for it to be there in the first place: Barrie made his living writing popular drama and fiction, not avant-garde literature. If anything, Peter Pan becomes the film's equivalent of the Harry Potter phenomenon, in which adults take pleasure in children's literature. The film's moral anxiety about wanting money, thinking about money, or making money--if we do any of these things, we substitute materialist values for the imaginative joys of "play"--doesn't square with the production's outcome, namely, a considerable amount of cash.
Strictly speaking, I've blown this minor puzzlement out of proportion. The film carries off its more important themes--the relationships between loss and maturity, death and the creative impulse--with considerably more sophistication. Once one gets past the stellar wrongness of casting Hollywood-dreamy Johnny Depp as decidedly undreamy J. M. Barrie, it's possible to appreciate Depp's quiet, carefully modulated performance; he's a Victorian "new man" of sorts, a sensitive soul (at least, where his wife isn't concerned). Kate Winslet makes less of an impression, while Julie Christie does what she can with the tyrannical Mrs. Du Maurier. Dustin Hoffman underplays nicely as Barrie's deadpan producer. The production design values are excellent, including the Neverland scenes, which blend fantastic "reality" with prop elements--collapsing the theatrical and imaginative worlds.