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'Pan': Why Hollywood thinks moviegoers want more of the famous story

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(Read caption) 'Pan' stars Hugh Jackman (r.) and Levi Miller (l.).

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Peter Pan comes to the big screen again with the new movie “Pan,” which stars Levi Miller as the boy who wouldn’t grow up and Hugh Jackman as the pirate Blackbeard.

“Pan” takes place before the story by J.M. Barrie and centers on how Peter came to Neverland, how he gained the ability to fly, and how he met the future Hook, who in this story is not yet a captain (portrayed by Garrett Hedlund). 

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Peter Pan popped up again in pop culture recently when NBC chose the musical version of the story for their newest live musical production. It stars Allison Williams in the title role and Christopher Walken as Captain Hook and aired this past December. 

The story was also adapted as a Disney animated movie in the 1950s and as a live-action film in 2003 that stars Jeremy Sumpter and Jason Isaacs. 

What makes studio Warner Bros. greenlight a new movie about Peter? The element of the prequel. The pitch of “what you don’t know about this famous story” has worked going back, at the very least, to the hit Broadway musical “Wicked,” which premiered in 2003 and is still running on Broadway. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire and tells the story of the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, who is portrayed as a villain in “The Wizard of Oz.” The story of “Wicked” looks at the witch’s childhood and relationship with fellow witch Glinda and ascribes more positive motives to the character than are seen in “Oz.” The tagline of “Wicked,” “So much happened before Dorothy dropped in,” has the same message as “Pan”: There’s something you've never heard about this cultural touchstone.

Disney recently scored with this strategy with the 2014 movie “Maleficent,” which, like “Wicked,” presents a more nuanced portrait of the “Sleeping Beauty” villain, and with the 2010 movie “Alice in Wonderland.” “Alice” expanded on the original story written by Lewis Carroll. 

The other part of this strategy: Studios are saying “There’s something you don’t know about this familiar story,” and the “familiar story” part is also key. Hollywood executives could give the go-ahead to a story about a boy who can fly and fights pirates, but they most likely assume it wouldn’t get the same attention or interest than if they touted the story as a new one about famous literary character Peter Pan. With remakes, sequels, and “spin-offs,” in which a supporting character in a movie gets their own film, ruling Hollywood at the moment, Hollywood is largely betting on familiarity. The top 10 highest-grossing movies of 2014 were either adapted from books, were sequels, or were based on toys (in the case of “The Lego Movie,” though the story was original). 

More new takes on classic stories are on their way. This November will see a new, possibly more action-oriented version of “Frankenstein” and Disney has plans for projects involving existing characters, such as a new take on, incidentally, “Peter Pan” character Tinker Bell.


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