A recent Los Angeles Times article lamented that in recent years, films have been skewed toward younger and younger audiences. Most modern movies are designed for teenagers, and as a result, much of the content lacks weight. That is why I find it particularly gratifying that two of the most thought-provoking popular films released this holiday season deal with the very grown-up issue of maturity. Both of these films, Peter Pan and Big Fish, allude to important truths about choosing to grow up, the need to take on responsibility, the power of stories to communicate life lessons and how knowledge of death equips us to live.
Peter Pan is celebrated for being the boy who “won’t grow up.” Pan lives the adventurous life. He is the embodiment of both childlike joy and childish stubbornness. Peter, however, does not “have it all.” He lures the Darling children—Wendy, John and Michael—to Neverland so Wendy can spin stories. Both he and his Lost Boy companions are desperate for Wendy to be their “mother.”
Despite Peter’s protest that he doesn’t want to grow up, Captain Hook discovers that Peter actually longs for adult romance and love. In a telling scene, Hook confronts him with the knowledge that in the future, a grown-up Wendy will bar him from her room and will no longer tell him stories, and that the immature Peter will be replaced by “one called husband.” The recognition nearly defeats Peter until he is restored by Wendy’s kiss—a taste of mutual relationship that he will be missing if he elects to remain a selfish child. After defeating Hook and returning the children home (all of the Lost Boys tag along and reenter the world of adults), the lonely Peter goes back to Neverland, appearing more sad than heroic. But he has taken a step toward maturity by selflessly returning to her parents the one he most longed to keep. The audience can easily imagine that Peter will someday come back to grow into manhood, as the film Hook predicted. There is bravery in self-sacrifice.
That sentiment continues in the portrayal of Mr. Darling. Historically, the same person who plays the father of the Darling children also plays Captain Hook. I always thought that joining the characters of father and Hook was a malicious attack on fathers, until I saw the latest version of Peter Pan. In the film, Mrs. Darling tells her children that their father is “brave” in a most particular way. Mr. Darling was possessed of many potent desires and longings, but he chose to lay them aside in order to nurture and care for his wife and children. She says that he put his dreams in a drawer, and that they take them out now and again to look at them—but the drawer is getting harder and harder to close because of all the dreams that have been stuffed inside. In Peter Pan, Hook is not the disciplinarian Dad unveiled, but the father’s undisciplined dreams grown to full, cruel, self-serving stature outside the civilizing influence of maturity. The father has paid for this self-denial, and the children have benefited by his sacrifice.
The meaning of the film strongly reflects the message of Scripture. We are told that when we mature, we are to “put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). And in earlier verses, those childish behaviors are spelled out: jealousy, arrogance, selfishness, prickliness and love of sin (I Cor. 13:4-6). In the same breath, we are told that we must receive the kingdom of God “like a child” (Mark 10:15). I Cor. 13 also explains those childlike qualities: kindness, rejoicing, belief and hope (4-7). There is a tension between the childish and the childlike that can only be resolved by maturity. While we are not to remain childish, we are to be childlike.
Edward Bloom, the lead character in Big Fish, never loses his childlike wonder, even on his deathbed. His son Will, a journalist, flies home to be with him, hoping to reconcile the fantastical tales of Edward’s youth with a more factual version. What Will does not understand, but will learn, is that Edward’s bedtime stories were like parables—the truth is not in the tale itself, but in the message within the tale. Will just wants the facts; his father wants to impart truths. Edward’s stories are about perseverance, meaning, longing for home, redemption and fidelity. Sometimes, Jesus laid out the facts, like when He spoke to the men who had caught the woman in adultery. But often Jesus spoke in parables because He knew people would hear and repeat the stories. In these stories, it didn’t matter if there ever was an actual prodigal son, or good Samaritan—it was the principles of repentance and a father’s forgiveness, and the need to care for one’s neighbors that were important. Jesus was teaching people how to live.
The most important message of the Gospels is life. The running theme of Big Fish is that Edward can bravely endure all of the various trials that beset him because he has foreknowledge about how he is going to die. He can face a giant, parachute behind enemy lines and brave a treacherous forest because he knows that it won’t kill him. The knowledge that he won’t die brings with it the courage to live. History is full of accounts of Christian martyrs who sang hymns while burning at the stake, or prayed while being torn apart by lions. If knowing beforehand how one will die imparts courage, imagine the strength that comes with knowing that death cannot hold you, that you are destined to live forever. The Apostle Paul said it best: “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
J.R.R. Tolkien noted that the Gospel of Christ is the intrusion of the world’s most longed-for happy ending—eternal life—into historical reality. C.S. Lewis called it “Myth Become Fact.” Big Fish doesn’t carry the Gospel message to its conclusion—Edward’s death-bed story continues his tall-tale tradition—but the underlying ideas suggest that our deepest desire is to continue on after death. The film displays the longing; the Gospel explains how we may gain that good end.
In an era marked by the worship of youth and frivolity, it’s nice to see two films address the importance of maturity. In doing so, they reveal that to be childlike, one need not remain childish, and that the good stories of our youth can strengthen us as we near the end of this life. It may be that we fear to grow up because we fear to grow old. We tremble before the idea that this life is all there is and nothing waits. The story of the good news is that Christ has conquered death and freed us to live fearlessly—forever.[Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon illustrations from popular film and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people.]
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