Scott Z. Walkinshaw on Lost Boys and Absent Fathers – based on the relationship between father and son in Spielberg’s Hook, which would explore the director’s own father issues and how they feature in many of his films, Hook being the most notable example as the father is the central character going on the journey rather than the child.
Peter Pan had been in Steven Spielberg’s life since he was three years old. Read to him by his mother, the story followed him through childhood school productions into his later work as a director, culminating in his 1991 film Hook. A modern take on the tale, Spielberg sought to ask the question: what if Peter Pan finally grew up? Of course, the famed filmmaker already knew the answer.
Originally conceived as a straight retelling of the Peter Pan fable, Spielberg changed course after his first son, Max, was born in 1985. With the newfound responsibility of raising a child, Steven found his Pan-like innocence fading away as adult vocation set in. Without realising it, he had become a mirror image of his own workaholic father, Arnold. Steven’s strained relationship with his dad stemmed from his parents’ divorce when he was 19. For years, he blamed his father for this familial disruption, not just privately but projected on the screen for all to see.
Spielberg’s filmography charts both the rise of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, as well as the public catharsis of a man dealing with his own pain. The recurring theme of the absent father figure first appeared in his 1977 science-fiction classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, whose experiences with extra-terrestrial life divert his attention away from his family, eventually declining into a full-blown obsession. Spending all his time on his newfound focus leaves his wife and kids feeling rejected, and in turn, they leave Roy once it becomes clear there’s no bringing him back. This is perhaps one of the most telling aspects about Spielberg’s absent fathers. For the most part, they are not stereotypically deadbeat, and their vices lie not in alcohol, infidelity or gambling.
Take Henry Jones, Sr., for example. Father to the titular archaeologist-turned-adventurer in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jones Sr.’s distraction from his family is found in his work in medieval literature and the search for the Holy Grail. While that latter quest ultimately becomes the journey that bonds the father and son closer together, it’s clear that the wedge between them is a hard one to remove. “You left just when you were becoming interesting,” the elder Jones tells his son – the words of a man who never really knew how to deal with a child, and who mistook his own parental negligence as nurturing independence. But whereas Roy Neary chooses to leave his family behind in the end, Henry Jones, Sr. not only reconciles with his son, but also loses the Grail he has coveted his entire life to do so.
The Last Crusade provided audiences with Spielberg’s first happy ending between parent and child, an especially significant move when considering E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial’s complete lack of fatherhood in 1982. In that film, the feeling of abandonment shared by Elliott and E.T. becomes key in their friendship and understanding of each other – Elliott left by his dad (seemingly for another relationship) and E.T. by his people while visiting Earth. Until The Last Crusade, E.T. was Spielberg’s most parentally-minded film, exploring the effects that a lack of stable adult-relationships can have on a child. Then, with a hearty crow, Hook swooped in in 1991 to provide the definitive turning point.
Over the years, Spielberg, in his own words, “grew up”. The fathers in his new films became more humanised, and so too did the old, with Close Encounters gaining two more cuts that would expand on the Neary’s home life. Perhaps it was the acceptance that his parents’ divorce had been his mother, Lead Adler’s decision, and not his father’s. Perhaps it was his fresh perspective on parenthood courtesy of his 2nd wife, Kate Capshaw and her two children. Whatever the reason, Spielberg found a new empathy for the fathers in his films, and it shines through in the form of Peter Banning.
Just as the director reflected his father, Peter is a shade of Spielberg’s own self at the time. A workaholic dad who means well, but who makes more promises than he does baseball games. The world has squeezed every drop of imagination out of him and dampened any remaining spark he may have left. Only the threat of losing his children to Dustin Hoffman’s larger-than-life Captain Hook can restore the once Peter Pan to his former glory. In the role of Peter, Robin Williams shows a buttoned-down side rarely seen from the actor as his corporate law career bleeds from the office into his home.
Significantly, Hook is the first of Spielberg’s films told from the father’s point of view, showing more empathy, if not sympathy, for the male parent caught between their job and their family. It’s not that Peter is a bad father per say, it’s that he has merely lost his way, a fact that can be seen plainly by every other adult around him. Fortunately, Spielberg’s new optimism says that all lost boys can be redeemed, and while it takes a trip to Neverland to do so, Peter finally remembers how to be the Pan the lost boys revere and that Hook fears. Most importantly though, he remembers how to be the dad his children need him to be.
Every artist has their inspiration, something that fuels their ideas, be it intentional or subconscious. For Steven Spielberg, this also happened to be the most painful period in his life, but through that pain the filmmaker was able to connect with children around the world who could see themselves in his characters and make sense of what they were going through in their own lives. With Hook, Spielberg showed every grown-up that, no matter how lost they seemed, they could be found again.