Spielberg: Hook

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Peter Banning is a lawyer who wants to be a good father but does not know how to do so. Hook is about the process Peter undergoes to become a good father.

The structure of Hook is, like Always, one of Spielberg’s few three-act dramas, and goes like this:hitcounter

ACT I (0:00-51:00) This is the longest first act in Spielberg’s career, and takes Peter all the way from being a lawyer in Los Angeles to hosting a benefit for an orphan’s hospital in London to being captured by Tinkerbell and taken to Neverland to being challenged by Captain Hook. I’m tempted to break this act up into smaller pieces — at 24:00 Peter’s children are kidnapped, which marks a change of direction for him, at 30:00 he learns that he is Peter Pan, at 35:30 he is taken to Neverland. We could say that Part 1 is "Peter runs away from his children," climaxing in Peter’s children being kidnapped, Part 2 is "Peter pursues his children" which gets him, reluctantly, to Neverland and face-to-face with their kidnapper.

ACT II (51:00-1:31:00) Peter is given a challenge by Hook: become the real Peter Pan again in three days and then come back and fight me, or else I’ll kill your children. Peter is whisked away (by mermaids) to the Lost Boys’ island, where many colorful antics ensue. While Peter deals with his "training," Hook concentrates on brainwashing Peter’s son Jack, turning Jack into his own son instead of Peter’s. Peter starts to get the hang of being Peter Pan again when Hook stages a baseball game to win Jack over to his "side." Peter witnesses the ball game and sees that he’s lost Jack’s heart, which brings us to the "end of Act II low point."

ACT III (1:31:00-2:15:00) Peter learns his backstory (amnesia — where would movies be without it?) and regains his Pan powers. He leads an attack of the Lost Boys against Hook and his pirates, turns his son back to his side and defeats Hook and takes his children back to London.

NOTES: The Peter Pan stories are some of the deepest, most durable, most delightful, and saddest in the English language. The joy and tragedy inherent in the story of a boy who won’t grow up and his effect on other peoples’ lives seems like a natural for Spielberg. Yet Hook, in spite of being typically thematically dense (issues of time and aging, "work" and "play", parenthood and childhood suffuse every scene in the movie), takes the great resonance of Pan and makes it feel glib, facile, superficial. Spielberg’s uncanny ability to elicit emotion is everywhere, but often the tears feel unearned — they feel well and truly jerked.

The problem, I think, starts with the premise. In a classic "stand the idea on its head" move, the script has Peter Pan be a grownup. Which strikes me as "clever" instead of an actual good idea. Because once you make that decision, the movie isn’t really about Peter Pan any more, it’s a movie about a middle-aged man who must become Peter Pan, or rather, "act like" Peter Pan, in order to rescue his children.

Peter Banning is caught in the same bind many men are caught in — to be a good father he must provide for his family, but to provide for his family he must spend time away from them. Except for Peter, he’s fleeing them, using his work as an excuse. He’s lawyer in the middle of "the biggest deal of his life" (aren’t they all) and his family is a burden to his work. All well and good, dramatically. Where does the script go wrong?

Peter attends his daughter’s school play (Peter Pan) but takes a business call on his shoebox-sized cell phone during it. He schedules a meeting during his son Jack’s baseball game and promises to attend both. He makes the meeting but, of course, misses the ball game.

And the screenwriter says "baseball game?" Wait, he’s attending his daughter’s school play, which must necessarily take place during the school year, and he’s taking the family to London soon, where it is snowing, this must be Christmas break, yes? Who is playing baseball in late December? Peter mentions something about the game being part of the "Santa Series," which only makes the error dramaturgically worse — in order for Peter to miss his son’s baseball game, the script invents a late-December baseball series. Why does it have to be baseball? Why can’t he miss his son’s volleyball game, or his soccer game? Weren’t schoolboys playing soccer in 1991? The answer is: they want the beat to scan quickly. "Father doesn’t attend son’s baseball game" is a beat that requires no further explanation — because it is, of course, a cliche.

Much is made of the notion that Peter is "all grown up," but we see in his "office scene" that he has not lost all sense of play — he has a "cell phone duel" with a co-worker at the elevator bank. It seems that Peter is only "all business" when he’s around his family.

The script also cheats by making Peter’s "deal" something his wife disapproves of. I presume that the wife doesn’t disapprove of her jetting-to-London-for-Christmas lifestyle, so apparently the Banning family has plenty of money without Peter’s new "deal of his life." This is convenient, making Peter not just work too hard but work too hard at getting things he doesn’t actually need. We are meant to understand that "work is bad" and so again, the script stacks the deck dramatically.

(On the plane to London, it is noted that Peter is afraid to fly — but how many have noticed that the pilot making announcements over the PA is Captain Hook?)

Once in London, the aged Wendy notes that Peter, in his job as a corporate lawyer, has "become a pirate" — that is, one of the "bad guys" of the Pan narrative. This, again, is clever but does not resonate as it should, for reasons we shall see later.

(The other day I was looking for something to watch with my son Sam, and Sam asked if there were any Spielberg movies he hadn’t seen yet. I breezed past Schindler’s List and Munich — he is 7, after all — and took out Hook. I showed him the box: "It’s a comedy about Peter Pan — but he’s grown up!" Sam got a confused look on his face and asked if he could play Lego Star Wars on the computer instead.)

It is announced by the wife that Peter "needs to spend time with his kids," as they are growing up fast and soon won’t want him around. Time, time, time, ever encroaching. And I wonder, where is there a movie narrative about parents who need to spend less time with their kids?

As Peter and his wife attend a testimonial dinner on the behalf of Wendy (a scene that includes a shot of a building-shaped cake being pushed up an aisle — a bizarre, out-of-the-blue reference to, of all things, Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well) Capt. Hook invades Wendy’s home and kidnaps Peter’s children.

Why? That is, why now? Why is Hook kidnapping Peter’s children now? How did he get to London? Can he travel back and forth between Neverland and our world at will? If so, why London? Why not kidnap Peter’s children in Los Angeles, where they live every day? And why this night? Did he know Peter would be out of the house? How? If he knows so much about Peter’s comings and goings, why is he so surprised to learn that he’s grown up? For that matter, how could Hook hatch a devious plan to kidnap Peter’s children and not understand that that means that Peter is grown up?

Anyway, the children are kidnapped and the police are notified. This, we understand, is a dead end, not because we know about Hook’s involvement, but because the chief inspector on the case is Phil Collins, who may be many things in this life, but "great detective" is probably not one of them.

Wendy takes Peter aside to inform him that he is, in fact, Peter Pan, the Peter Pan of legend. Peter doesn’t believe her, even though she’s played by Maggie Smith, who can make just about anything believable. Instead, Peter must be physically dragged to Neverland by Tinkerbell, who shows up later that night. And so we see that Peter may not believe his "mother" (that is, Wendy) but he can be convinced by Tinkerbell, who, as it turns out, has a life-long crush on Peter. And so a dynamic is set into motion regarding a boy’s psychological development — there comes a point where he won’t listen to his mother but will follow a girl anywhere. This notion eventually comes back full circle when we learn that Peter was lured from Neverland by the sight of Wendy’s daughter Moira, giving up eternal youth for the sake of earthly love (and never mind that Moira is, essentially, his sister — ick).

Peter arrives in Neverland, where he finds, in the town square, the giant crocodile who ate Hook’s hand dead, stuffed and turned into a broken clock. The croc/clock is a major part of the Pan ethos, representing death in the form of time — it was not an accident that the crocodile had swallowed a clock in Peter Pan. In Hook, Hook has killed the croc, and killed time as well — we will eventually learn that he has banished all timepieces from Neverland.

Which leads me to, I think, an important question. Hook, by the end of the movie, is shown to have aged dramatically since Peter last saw him. Why? Do the rules of Neverland not apply to him? Because he is already "grown up," does that mean that he will, in Neverland, grow old and die? Does it mean that his fellow pirates will also grow old and die? If so, why haven’t they?

I ask because, from the moment we meet Hook, it’s clear that he hasn’t "grown up." He’s still playing — at being a pirate. His ship never leaves the dock, his self-made pirate society goes on all around him, he’s long since gotten bored with raiding villages and killing Neverlanders — it’s obviously all just a game to him. He’s the "bad guy" in Neverland, that’s his role, and he’s grown bored with it. That’s why he wants his fight with Peter, and that’s why, when he sees that Peter has forgotten who he is, he agrees to Tinkerbell’s deal to get Peter back in fighting shape. For Hook this is all a game, a game he’s won a long time ago and gotten bored with.

So yes, Peter is brought to Hook, Hook has Peter’s children, Peter is unable to fly, Hook is disappointed, Tinkerbell makes a deal with Hook to get Peter back in shape.

Peter is taken to the island of the Lost Boys, where the production design, already a little too-too for my tastes, threatens to sink the entire movie, and the casting takes a disastrous turn. The Lost Boys of Hook all turn in standard-issue Hollywood "kid performances", mugging and gesturing, "helping out" the scene by indicating emotions rather than honestly expressing them. In the Lost Boy scenes, it’s hard to believe that this movie is directed by the same man who made E.T., who got an incredible performance from 3-year-old Cary Guffey in Close Encounters and who will get another one from Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds.

Why do the Lost Boys of Hook have a skateboard park on their island? And a basketball hoop? And some kind of elaborate roller-coaster track? Who built such a thing? Not the boys, certainly — a construction project like that would take serious engineering skills. Yet there they all are, multi-colored and "wacky." Hook is the only instance I can find of Spielberg the director "talking down" to a young audience, cooking up kooky, overplayed, colorful antics to supposedly delight kids. Physical comedy of a Little Rascals variety ensues.

Hook, meanwhile, ponders what to do with the three days he has to kill. He vainly contemplates suicide, then instructs Peter’s children that their parents hate them. Maggie, the girl, is unreceptive to Hook’s brainwashing and is shunted offscreen — the better to concentrate on the father/son conflict. But then why have Maggie in the script at all?

Hook takes Jack to the "broken clock museum," where he allows Jack to work out his aggression against Peter by smashing timepieces with a mallet, compressing the symbols of grown-up Peter, clocks and death into one. Again, this is all clever on a scene-by-scene basis but the end result fails to resonate. Worse still, Hook stages a baseball game for Jack, to "seal the deal," make Jack his "son" — again, why? Hook wants to turn Jack from Peter why? He says the move is to improve his chances in the upcoming "war" against Peter, but the previous day Hook seemed unaware that Peter was a father — why would he have an understanding of the importance of fatherhood to Peter? Hook obviously isn’t a father and shows no interest in parenting — what is his endgame? Kill Peter and then Jack? And then what? He can’t kill Peter, not really — that would be the end of his game. And what does it mean, really, to be "killed" in Neverland, where no one ever grows old (except, apparently, Hook)? In the script’s quest for novelty, it upends the delicate balance of Peter Pan‘s exquisite symbology and makes it shallow and narcissistic.

(The Pan character is, of course, a first-rank narcissist, made explicit in Hook when Peter, having recovered his Pan-ness, gazes at his youthful reflection in a pond.)

(The Bad Sleep Well reference may not be the strangest in Hook. There is also a scene where the pirates are held spellbound by young Maggie singing a song of innocence on the dock — apparently a reference to, of all things, Paths of Glory.)

As Act II draws to a close, Peter understands that in order to save his child he must become a child — that fatherhood is, in part, a second childhood. This second childhood is harder than the first, because the father must be both innocent child and responsible adult. And again, it’s a clever notion but the script can’t seem to make up its mind — Peter recovers his memories of being Pan, but then immediately forgets why he had to do so, then just as quickly recovers that memory and charges off to save Jack. This back-and-forth seems to stem from the quasi-love-story between Peter and Tinkerbell, which, like the love story in Always, doesn’t quite land, is rushed and seems to slow the story down instead of creating additional tension. Tinkerbell, it seems, is supposed to represent the tragedy of lost innocence — when you no longer believe in fairies part of your soul is gone — but the emotions in the love-story scenes are forced, demanded instead of achieved.

Anyway, Peter regains his Pan powers (by conveniently tying his ability to fly with his desire to be a father) and leads an attack on Hook’s ship, and there are many colorful antics as the Lost Boys fight the pirates with weapons that are, essentially, toys. And Hook kills one of the Lost Boys, provoking Peter’s anger, but again, the beat doesn’t land because the rules of Neverlandare never properly outlined — does Hook really kill people? How does one die in a place where no one dies? Aren’t Hook’s activities really just play?

Peter gets Hook on the ropes and Hook indicates that he wishes to die. And perhaps that was his plan all along, to bring Pan back to Neverland so that he can have a glorious death, that, having played his game for too long, death is "the only adventure left." And this is, of course, the tragedy of a man who pretends he’s a child all his life — he misses out on maturity, on parenthood, on the life that Peter has back in Los Angeles.

In any event, Hook does not get his glorious death in battle, nor does he get his triumph over Pan. Instead, he is, somehow, devoured by the long-dead croc/clock and vanishes — the script has played too fast-and-loose with its own mythology and, finally, has no solution for Hook’s problem except to make him disappear, no longer a character but an empty symbol.

Peter, oddly, does not take the Lost Boys with him to back to London, even though they are, theoretically anyway, orphaned children in need of parenting. He leaves them in Neverland and passes along leadership to the oldest (or at least the biggest) of them, charging the boy with a kind of fatherhood, to "watch out for the little ones." As Peter takes off, the littlest Lost Boy says "That was a great game," indicating that, perhaps, tomorrow their "dead" comrade will play again and Hook will be back in his place and the whole cycle of play will begin again.


29 Responses to “Spielberg: Hook”
  1. moroccomole says:

    Did you happen to see the P.J. Hogan adaptation of Peter Pan? It’s probably my favorite treatment of the story, even though the sexual subtext — the film gets heavily into Bruno Bettelheim territory — scared off a lot of its intended “family” audience.

    P.S. It’s quite possible that you’ve just spent more time thinking about the Hook script than did anyone involved with the production.

    • teamwak says:

      I love PJ Hogans version of Peter Pan, and was going to mention it here as well.

      Jeremy Isaacs is my favourite Hook, for sure. And its a pretty faithful adaptation as well.

  2. chadu says:

    Everything you say about Hook is perfectly true.

    But why do I still LIKE it so much?


    • Anonymous says:

      I second that question. It might have to do with the fact that this movie is one of the first movies (not a cartoon feature) that I remember seeing in theaters and consequently loving as a kid and re-watching a bunch of times on VHS.

      Nostalgia alone can’t overcome a bad movie and make it palatable for adult eyes. So why do I still like this movie so much and so much so that I bought it on DVD (only after I found it for 10 bucks)?

      -C. Woodward

      • chadu says:

        Agreed on all points, only I saw this as a college student, soon after reading Peter Pan for the first-time post-childhood, and for the first time fully.

        I think part of it might be Hook’s double-cigar holder.


  3. leborcham says:

    Wasn’t the shoot of this movie notoriously difficult? Everyone was high on blow or some other drug, and Julia Roberts was acting particularly terrible (it was right around the time of her leaving Keifer Sutherland at the alter, etc etc.)

    Might explain some of the joylessness.

  4. jdurall says:

    > Hook is the only instance I can find of Spielberg the director “talking down” to a young audience, cooking up kooky, overplayed, colorful antics to supposedly delight kids. Physical comedy of a Little Rascals variety ensues.

    Spielberg wrote the original story and executive produced The Goonies, which had plenty of that. I believe he also did uncredited editing and second-unit direction on it as well. It’s not one of his films per se, but it very much felt like a Spielberg production.

    • Anonymous says:

      Spielberg’s Dubious “What If?”

      Speilberg plays a ‘What If?’ game with this movie. One that probably should never have been played. Regardless of its foibles or merit, the fact this story highly contradicts Barrie’s original stories. And kudos to you for pointing out that an inanimate crocodile falls on and “comsumes” a character that had already been eaten by it. Drivel. It has so many discrepencies one hesitates to count them. I once read a review that argued if Peter’s happy thought is his son, what does that make his daughter? An afterthought?

      But there is a ‘sequel’ to Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy” on the way that doesn’t contradict. It’s unlike all the prequels and sequels that have come out because of this very fact and that it is based on Barrie’s notion to continue Pan’s adventure.
      You can find the announcement page here:

      The Never Fairy

      Stay young and believe!

    • curt_holman says:

      The Goonies

      Ugh, I HATED ‘The Goonies’ when I saw it in its initial release (I was about 20 years old or so). And now it’s getting this weird midnight movie resurgence.

  5. mr_noy says:

    The only time I ever saw Hook was in its initial theatrical run. I remember feeling annoyed as I left the theater. At one point during the film I actually shed a tear (I’m man enough to admit that I occasionally cry at the movies) which wouldn’t have bothered me if it weren’t for the fact that I recognized how patently unearned it was. You’re right, in Hook Spielberg resorts to blatant tear jerking and I’ll be damned if he didn’t jerk one right out of me. I think that all great art requires some level of manipulation (and Spielberg is one of the greatest manipulators ever to work in cinema) but I felt more like I had been tricked into having an emotion. Years of watching films have conditioned me to react to certain cues and like a cheap huckster Spielberg exploited that conditioned response. I wasn’t moved; I was pushed – and I resented it. It took me years to warm up to Spielberg again but I now look back on Hook as one of the unfortunate anomalies in an otherwise exceptional oeuvre.

    • Todd says:

      I’m guessing that Hook read like a great script and Spielberg found himself in the position of having to “fix” a movie that didn’t work when he had it finished (after a difficult, complicated shoot). But what do I know.

      • rennameeks says:

        If it really read like a great script, a truly great script, then a number of the conceptual problems that you pointed out initially would have surfaced immediately. When dealing in the realm of fantasy worlds, the rules need to be clearly defined, and they were not in Hook. This should have been obvious, even in the earliest stages of production, at least to those with a trained eye.

        What bothers me about Spielberg is that he seems more caught up on jerking emotions out of people than evoking real ones. Does he luck into the deeper scripts? Or are his missteps more like 1941, where the original stories started out with deep subject matter, then became perverted into something completely different?

        • Todd says:

          I wasn’t there, but perhaps, like 1941, it was a “great script” that got lost as ideas got piled onto it. In the case of 1941 it was a dark comedy about race and paranoia that got turned into a broad physical comedy, but maybe the case of Hook was something different. Perhaps it was a simple idea that Spielberg — or someone — kept finding ways to “improve” until it got to the point where the original simplicity was lost and the result is what we have today.

  6. ogier30 says:

    I always felt that the casting of Robin Williams as Peter undermined a lot of the story tension. Robin’s whole career to that point had pretty much been built on being the child-man (and, I suppose, one could argue still is in many ways). Having him as Peter Pan meant that the early scenes where he was supposed to be grown up felt like he was playing pretend, and made the later scenes a forgone conclusion.

    I have, at times, pondered how the film would have been transformed if the roles of Hook and Pan had been flipped – Dustin Hoffman as the aged Peter Pan and Robin Williams as Capt’n Hook may have created a different dramatic tension in the tale.

    • curt_holman says:

      Ooh — I like that idea. With Williams, turning into Peter Pan is a foregone conclusion — but what if it were, say, William Hurt circa 1990?

      After I read the analysis above, I was wondering what ‘Hook’ would be like if the settings looked more like real locations than movie sets — if Neverland looked like a “real” island (or at least, as real as the Jurassic Park island) — and if the characters looked comparably credible — if Capt. Hook was more like Capt. Barbosa from PotC, for instance. Maybe that wouldn’t work, either, but at least it wouldn’t feel so painfully phoney.

      I do like Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Hook, which has been called an homage to character actor Terry-Thomas.

  7. jbacardi says:

    My hatred of this film is extreme, and I’m not really even all that much into the source material. I spared myself this in its theatrical run, but rented it on video as soon as it was available, and watched it with the family, who kept asking me why I was making faces and cringing. Textbook case of a pretty good cast (yes, even Williams) done in by a staggeringly wrongheaded script and indifferent production values. If this isn’t Spielberg’s nadir, I don’t know what is.

    And please don’t say it’s The Terminal, I might cry…

    • Todd says:

      This is the only Spielberg movie I’ve ever walked out of — and I am a huge fan of Spielberg and Spielbergism in general. The Lost Boys antics were irritating enough, but the baseball sequence with the adults doing all the childish slapstick put me over the edge. My legs were heading up the aisle before I really even knew what was happening. It was years before I could watch it all the way through. Now, with my older eyes, I can see it for what it is, but yeah, I think this is where this particular brand of Spielbergism — facile manipulation of an audience’s emotions, derived from a script that is clever without being profound — reached its terminus (no pun intended).

      • jbacardi says:

        Even the mighty stumble once in a while, and it’s only natural- how else can we better appreciate their successes? It just seems like (as with 1941) circumstances, and perhaps hubris (just a little) worked against him.

        I’ll tell ya, I’ve always been kinda ambivalent about a lot of Spielberg’s output, but since you started this series of examinations of his films, I’m really beginning to see his work in a more revealing light.

  8. stormwyvern says:

    “And I wonder, where is there a movie narrative about parents who need to spend less time with their kids?”

    The closest film I can think of is “Finding Nemo.” It’s one of a very few films where the father figure actually has to learn to be less concerned about his kid to become a more well-rounded individual. Aside from that, there’s not much.

    • Todd says:

      And even then, it’s essentially narcissistic — it’s not about what the kid needs, it’s about what the parent needs.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Well to be fair, I think it’s made pretty clear that Marlon’s overprotective behavior hurt both Marlon and Nemo and both are better off when he learns to let go a little.

  9. Mr. Alcott, you’ve written a lot about film; also heard that film is a director’s medium whereas television is a writer’s medium–so, any plans to write about the differences between writing for film and writing for television?

    • Todd says:

      When people say that television is a writer’s medium they’re talking about episodic television, which I have, alas, not yet had much of a chance to write for.

        • Todd says:

          Been busy writing features, mostly. Once the business thinks of you one way, they tend not to think of you another way. So far that’s been more or less okay with me, I’ve only had a couple of TV ideas that I thought worth pursuing.

  10. kornleaf says:

    A. this is one of my favorite movies ever, Hoffman was an amazing Hook
    B. I always felt that “pirate” in this sense meant the abandonment (or killing) of one’s youth and by Banning becoming peter pan he is reclaiming his youth.
    D. any way i could see a copy of your Stage Script about the party with the Serial Killer?