This article originally appeared in print in the Filmhounds Magazine #14
With Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans (2022) now out in the world, there has been plenty of chatter about how it reveals more about the man than any other work. We are always searching for ways to psychologize and comprehend towering artistic minds. Look no further than the rash of “Great Man” bio-pics, or soul-bearing profiles where writers and readers alike lap up stories that give a glimpse behind the mental curtain. When it comes to Spielberg, he has already gifted us with a stream of films that return to the same psychological and emotional ticks. The Fabelmans may literalize much of the Spielberg bio-mythos, but it is hardly his first film to vivisect his psyche. In fact, its memoir nature may render it more obscure and mannered than a raw avenue toward understanding the Spielbergian inner world.
Hook (1991) doesn’t have that hang-up. A sequel of sorts to J.M. Barrie’s iconic Peter Pan stories, Hook finds Peter Banning (Robin Williams) married with children and working as a corporate lawyer. When he and his family travel to London to celebrate Granny Wendy (Maggie Smith), who ran the orphanage in which Peter and his wife Moira (Caroline Goodall) grew up. While the adults are away, Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) emerges to kidnap Peter’s children and lure his lapsed rival back to Neverland. The problem? Peter doesn’t remember his life in the green tights. Only through help from Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) and the Lost Boys, Panning returns to Neverland to again become Pan, take on Hook, and rescue his children from the clutches of evil. Happy endings (mostly) all around.
Sigmund Freud may not have stood the test of time as a clinical psychiatric touchstone, but his theories about art, consciousness, and dreams remain a bedrock for film analysis, not to mention that Freud being wrong has never changed how influential his theories have continued to be. Jet-streaming Freud into Neverland throws Hook into new relief. On top of allowing Hoffman to chew more scenery per square foot than possibly anyone else ever on film, Hook’s fantastical jaunt provides a dense framework to reflect on why Speilberg chose to make the film. Removed from the explicit goal of creating a semi-autobiographical film, Hook refracts Speilbergian obsessions and complexes through a foundational modern fairy tale. Turning a psychoanalytic lens on the results opens the floodgates.
Speaking with Entertainment Tonight about Hook’s 30th anniversary, Speilberg said of himself that “part of me is [Peter Pan], and I think part of me is Peter Banning as well.” The note came in response to a question about Speilberg’s reputation for being a sort of Peter Pan figure himself: a boyish filmmaker always looking for ways to play with and entertain audiences. The duality of Banning/Pan transferred onto Speilberg himself offers a clear read on the filmmaker's well-documented history of fighting with commerce and business for the sake of his craft. Bring The Fabelmans in, and Sammy’s (Gabriel Labelle) ongoing battle with his father Burt (Paul Dano) about pursuing something other than his filmmaking “hobby” and Pan/Banning emerges as an undeniable stand-in for Spielberg. From a Freudian angle, it is an act of fictive transference; instead of into a therapist, Spielberg places his crises in Pan/Banning.
There is also a bearing to approach the Spielberg-Pan/Banning relationship through the Freudian lens of the conscious and subconscious. Hook starts with Banning having forgotten everything of his Pan exploits. While the filmic world chalks it up to the magic of forgetting the longer you are away from Neverland, the actualization smacks of Freudian repression. Later on in the film, Banning accesses submerged painful memories of losing his mother which is a more classical example of a memory repressed because of trauma. Yet, reading the forgotten Neverland as a case of survival repression opens a similar avenue, especially when layering on Freud’s concepts of childhood experiences and trauma informing adult personality. For Pan to give up his fantasy life (read: childhood), he must choose to grow up (read: adulthood), which necessitates excising Neverland. That in itself is a deep trauma and one Banning clearly repressed, magic or not.
The conscious and subconscious consideration can also extend to the separation between Neverland and London. London is the corporate and adult space: Banning projects a sense of dull professionalism at every turn. He is never without his cell phone. He misses baseball games (more on that later) for meetings. It is the conscious version of the dual self where active experiences inform life. By contrast, Neverland is the space where the previously repressed memories and urges kept latent in London grow and flourish. Peter’s entire arc of discovery around his old abilities and life unfolds in a series of instinctual responses tied to his unconscious mind: he picks up the sword and yells “Bangarang!” because even though he has repressed those parts of him his unconscious mind takes over. In short, you can take Pan out of Neverland, but even corporate law cannot take Neverland out of Pan.
Returning to the Spielberg of it all, Hook came at a point in the man’s career where he was somewhat in-between phases. If his initial superstardom that ran from Jaws (1975) to E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) was defined by an outward playfulness and blockbuster sensibility, the years between E.T. and Hook represent a Spielberg publicly grappling with who he wants to be as an artist. It may not quite be Banning the lawyer versus Pan the swashbuckler, but it is nonetheless an under-the-spotlight navigation between filmmaking sensibilities. The Color Purple (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), and Always (1989) make up a cycle of works that tip toward “adult” entertainment, dealing with heavy topics and angled away from his earlier tones. Comparatively, the two Indiana Jones movies and his Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) segment maintain his boyish aesthetic.
The result, looking back on the era decades later, is a stretch of filmography torn between childhood wonder and staunch adultness. That Hook caps that run and is followed in 1993 by the legendary duo of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List suggests that Hook may have in fact done wonders to balance the two sides of Spielberg just as Neverland served to reconstitute Pan and Banning as a new man. Banning returns to London with his children only because he has embraced Pan, yet he must also leave Neverland again to continue his life with Moira and the children. Just as Speilberg’s filmography post-Hook embraces both creative tones, Banning post-return to Neverland weds the lessons of both selves. For both men, self-reflection (and sword fighting in Pan’s case) has led to the bridging of the conscious and unconscious minds. A fuller self meets the future.
Of course, what both the reflective Spielberg of The Fabelmans and the younger man behind Hook know is that such work does not dissolve all pain. Hook sees the filmmaker working through generations of father-son issues. Peter is an orphan who has children, grows removed from his children, then loses his children, and must bond with the Lost Boys leader Rufio (Dante Basco) in order to save his children from Hook. Decked out in a black and red mohawk and an assemblage of bone-based costume elements, Rufio is as punk-rock as Banning is lame. The relationship that grows between them is one of a father figure stepping in for a young man angry about his own absent father. Rufio and Peter become incredibly close, and when Hook murders Rufio, the boy’s last words to Peter are “I wish I had a dad…like you.” Peter saves his children and builds a new self, but true growth often necessitates great pain, and Rufio’s death is a brutal reminder of that fact.
Does all of this make Hook a masterpiece? Even with all my affection for the film, no. It is a flawed but unfairly maligned entry in Speilberg’s canon. Yet, what it unabashedly remains is an intricate and loaded glimpse into Stephen Speilberg’s personal psychology in ways that emerges all the stronger when taken in conjunction with The Fabelmans. As Spielberg solidifies the mythos he wants to tell about himself, it allows a more pointed reflection on what has come before both on and off the screen. Every time he picks up a camera, Spielberg takes on the act of transporting audiences to a new Neverland, be it Abraham Lincoln’s private study or Amity Island. He is a purveyor of dreams, and, to paraphrase a final touch of Freud, we can learn a great deal from sifting through the dreams his mind creates.