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Hook

Hook

By Paul Bullock • January 4th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
HOOK
TriStar Pictures

Original release: December 11th, 1991
Running time: 144 minutes

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: James V. Hart, Malia Scotch Marmo, Nick Castle, J. M. Barrie
Composer: John Williams

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, Maggie Smith

Hook

It should have been the perfect match. Peter Pan and Steven Spielberg: the boy who couldn’t grow up and the director who wouldn’t. But Hook, Spielberg’s revisionist take on a middle-aged Pan, is anything but perfect. A flawed and frustrating film that began life in 1985 and passed through the directorial fingers of Michael Myers before returning to Spielberg in time for a 1991 release, Hook is ripe for reappraisal and in hindsight stands one of the most significant and fascinating pictures of Spielberg’s career. During the course of the film, Pan isn’t the only the eternal child who grows up – Spielberg does too.

Hook’s production history is an intriguing tale that’s almost as tangled as the film itself. Having circled the project for years and considered a number of options (the most famous of which would have starred Michael Jackson in a musical rendition), Spielberg eventually settled upon Peter Pan in the mid-80s. Playwright Tom Stoppard was hired to pen the script, Dustin Hoffman was cast as Hook and construction on the sets got underway in England. All was going well, but then something changed – Spielberg became a father. Born on June 13th 1985, Max Spielberg is perhaps the single most significant creative factor in Hook’s long production. His birth inspired Spielberg to drop the film altogether and focus on his family instead. As he later reminisced:

“I decided not to make Peter Pan when I had my first child. I didn’t want to go to London and have seven kids on wires in front of blue screens. I wanted to be home as a dad.”

What Spielberg’s Peter Pan would’ve been is up for debate. It probably wouldn’t have starred Robin Williams, who was cast in the lead role during the period between Spielberg’s involvement, and it may well have been a darker affair, coming as it would have in between two grounded literary adaptations – The Color Purple and Empire Of The Sun. It would’ve also been missing its central plot point – that Pan fell in love, left Neverland and grew up. This idea was only struck upon once Spielberg left the project, by writer James V. Hart and director Nick Castle, the one-time Michael Myers whose 1984 hit The Last Starfighter earned him a career behind the camera. A discussion with his young son inspired Hart to suggest the idea and it proved enough to lure Spielberg back once creative differences caused Castle’s departure.

Hook

So what changed? Spielberg had seemed pretty intent on leaving Peter Pan in Neverland after Max’s arrival and said he had “had it up to here with ‘I don’t want to grow up’” following Empire Of The Sun, suggesting that the Ballard adaptation had covered everything he’d wanted to say about childhood, adulthood and how they relate to each other. But what about parenthood and childhood? What do those mean to Spielberg and how do they relate to each other? Spielberg wanted to “be home as a dad” and Hook is all about a man who fails to do just that. Did Spielberg see a little of himself in the isolated, work-obsessed Peter Banning of Hart’s script that he didn’t see in the original story? Had he too, as Maggie Smith’s aged Wendy says of Banning in the film’s first act, “become a pirate”?

It’s unfair to speculate too much about Spielberg’s personal life, but it’s clear that something changed during the period between Peter Pan and Hook – not just with this film, but with all Spielberg’s films. Indeed, I think Hook is a dividing film for Spielberg’s career, splitting up what I see as two distinct eras of his film-making. The first era runs from Duel to Always, the second from Jurassic Park to now. In the first half of his career, Spielberg was focused on children and childhood. If not making films about real children (ET, Empire Of The Sun), he was making films about man-children who escape the drudgery of real life through thrilling adventures (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Indiana Jones); or weak characters who prove their strength against a playground bully figure (Duel, Jaws). In each one, Spielberg identifies with the child, the little guy, the innocent stuck in a corrupt world and striving for bigger and better things.

In the 90s all that changed. Starting with Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in 1993, Spielberg made films about parents and responsibilities. Jurassic Park sees Alan Grant become a surrogate father to Tim and Lex; Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan focus on historical responsibilities (superpowers’ responsibilities to defend weaker states and people) as well as the personal responsibilities felt by Oskar Schindler and John Miller to save the persons under their care; and War Of The Worlds and Minority Report both deal with the weight of parental regret. The two eras certainly merge – Jaws and Close Encounters both feature parents and AI and The Terminal are the stories of children or man-children – but there’s a divide for sure, and Hook is it. If nothing else, Spielberg took the ultimate story about youth and childhood and turned it into a musing on age and adulthood. Clearly something had changed.

Hook

Spielberg does stay true to some familiar tropes to explore this unfamiliar theme though. Hook begins with a theatrical production and typical themes of play, fiction and storytelling run throughout it. When Banning first arrives in Neverland he has to play-act to blend in, dressing as a pirate and affecting a pirate’s drawl to avoid detection – a marked departure from his earlier self, who is distracted from his daughter’s play by a business call, can’t make it to his son’s baseball game and dismisses an offer of an origami flower with a crushing “it’s only paper, honey”. The scene is followed by the arrival of Hook himself (Hoffman on theatrical form in pantomimic costume and grand wig), a moment Spielberg plays as a song and dance sequence set to John Williams’ swaggering score. The pirates chant in preparation, Hook’s hook is attached to his arm with a crackle of light and sparks and when the man himself arrives, he does so to cheers and hollers, hushing the baying crowd so he can speak and demanding a red carpet be rolled out when descending the ship’s stairs. He’s like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, milking every inch of his encore and shamelessly asking for more. The world’s a stage and Captain James Hook is ready for his close-up.

Hook appreciates the power of fiction, fantasy and storytelling to inspire and demoralise and uses it to his own ends. When trying to break Jack and Maggie’s spirits later in the film, he resorts to the worst insult he can think of – telling the children that their parents don’t really love them. “Your parents tell you stories,” he reveals with glee, “to shut you up and conk you out.” His reverence of fiction comes from his recognition that storytelling is the only true way to live forever. The Hook of Hook (and it can’t be a coincidence that the film is named after him) is older than he’d ever been portrayed before. He’s killed, stuffed and mounted the crocodile that once stalked him, turning the reptile’s ticking clock into a silent one, but he hasn’t been able to escape the relentless clutches of time. He’s old, wrinkling and bald. He’s bored by life and theatrically fakes a suicide attempt out of depression, demanding that Smee remove the gun from his head before he pulls the trigger. Before death finally arrives, he seeks one thing: war. But not just any war – the ultimate war, the war to end all wars, the war that will be written about and remembered for years to come and give him that precious immortality.

By building a binary approach to storytelling in his two leads, Spielberg is acknowledging the familiar idea of Hook as Pan’s dark alter ego but pushing it one further. Hook isn’t just Banning’s shadow, Spielberg suggests, but a part of him, a representation of his darkest desires. Two key moments highlight this. One comes at the end of the film when Banning awakens back in London. A park sweeper walks by and we see he’s played by Smee actor Bob Hoskins. Could the film have been some kind of lucid dream on Banning’s part? Could he have just fantasized the whole thing, incorporating elements of reality and his own psychology? The second moment comes in the film’s closing duel and seems to confirm these questions. After a protracted fight, Hook finally pins his opponent and says: “You know you’re not really Peter Pan, don’t you? This is only a dream. When you wake up, you’ll just be Peter Banning – a cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children!”

Hook

Taken literally, this line suggests Banning’s darkest desire is a vision of a life without responsibility, without a wife and without kids. Banning wants to be a child in an adult’s body, a carefree boy who enjoys all the benefits of being a grown-up with none of the drawbacks. In other words, he wants to be Hook. At the start of the film, Banning explains that he’s in “mergers and acquisitions”, but his son spins a very different tale: “When a big company’s in trouble, Dad sails in and if there’s any resistance he blows ‘em out of the water!” This consumes all his energy in the opening act as he misses Jack’s baseball game and has to take a call during Maggie’s school play. Like Hook, he wants to cement his legacy, sealing his immortality with the battles he wins. Hook’s shadow must be dismissed. He is everything that Banning must at all costs avoid.

He succeeds of course, but only after the intervention of his children inspires him to spare the life of a defenceless Hook in the closing duel. “I want you to take your ship and go. And I never want to see your face in Neverland again,” he says withdrawing his sword. The ruthless pirate who once blew small businesses out of the water has gone, replaced by a father who isn’t interested in winning petty duels or gaining a legacy, only being with his kids at “home as a dad”. Naturally, Hook refuses and makes one last bid for an epic finale and the immortality he craves. He ends up defeated though, disappearing in a cloud of vapour when the crocodile’s jaws land on him. No big finale, no noble last battle. He simply ceases to exist, and so too does his legacy. Banning makes sure of that by leaving Neverland in the hands of the Lost Boys and a more positive paternal influence, granting parental responsibility to the largest of the boys. “I want you to look after everyone who’s smaller than you,” he says.

And so Pan leaves Neverland for a second time, but does so having achieved what he never could before: balance. He’s banished both Captain Hook and Peter Pan and become simply Peter Banning, dedicated family man who flings open the windows of opportunity and seeks adventure not in fantasy but in life and his family. “To live,” he says to Wendy. “To live will be the greatest adventure of all.”

Hook

Paul Bullock

Paul Bullock

Paul fell in love with cinema when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. A childhood viewing of Jurassic Park introduced him to the power and wonder of the silver screen, and after his dreams of directing were shattered by crumbling papier-mâché sets, disobedient action figure actors and a total lack of talent, he quickly turned to writing, thus proving that life does indeed find a way.

When not citing scripture from the apostle Ian Malcolm, Paul also enjoys the films of Billy Wilder, Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog. His favourite film is The Apartment and his favourite apartments are in films. They're much cleaner than his.

Paul can also be found talking nonsense on Twitter and his website Quiet of the Matinee. He works through his addiction to a certain bearded director on From Director Steven Spielberg.

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