By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - British writer and director Nick Willing has always been fascinated with the story of "Peter Pan," but it took decades before he summoned the courage to put his own version of the children's classic on screen.
Television movie "Neverland", making its U.S. debut on the Syfy cable channel on December 4 and 5, and on British-based Sky Movies on December 9, is a two-part prequel to the story of the boy who refuses to grow up, taking viewers from the grimy streets of 19th century London to a world of pure imagination.
"It's a story of where Peter came from, who he was, where the lost boys came from, how they ended up in Neverland, and why it's full of pirates and Indians and fairies and...why Peter doesn't want to grow up," said Willing.
"When I read the book, I loved it so much that my imagination just ran wild...But only in the last couple of years have I had the courage and the confidence to take on such a massive thing," he added.
Scottish writer J.M. Barrie's children's tale has seen dozens of film, stage and TV versions or spin-offs in the last 100 years. A different prequel, based on the 2004 novel "Peter and the Starcatcher", is headed to Broadway in early 2012.
Willing uses high-tech and green screen wizardry to create a lush, fantasy world of tree spirits, white jungles and cities formed out of forest for "Neverland," and he introduces audiences to new characters like power-mad pirate queen Elizabeth Bonny, played by Anna Friel.
But what interests the 50-year-old British writer and director most is the relationship between Captain (or in this case Jimmy) Hook and Peter Pan.
In "Neverland", Hook, played by Rhys Ifans, starts out as a kindly, if enigmatic, father figure to young London pick-pocket Peter (Charlie Rowe) and his gang of young thieves.
Hook and the gang get caught in a time fracture that takes them to the magical world of Neverland where no-one ages. But trust and hero worship quickly deteriorates into hostility, and Hook and Peter soon part ways.
"Nick's version goes a long way in describing the Hook we see in the (J.M. Barrie) novel into this -- painting his psychosis and his arrival as the embodiment of evil," Ifans said.
"Everyone in the Western world has been touched by Peter Pan in some way in their life. It was kind of a thrill to have a lot explained as Nick has so eloquently done in this film," the "Notting Hill" actor said.
"Neverland" is the latest in a career of fantasy and adventure TV films from Willing, who in 2009 put a modern-day spin on "Alice in Wonderland" and plumbed "The Wizard of Oz" to make the TV miniseries "Tin Man".
"If you keep the story alive, keep reinventing, keep trying something new, keep making up your own story around those famous stories, then you always go back to the famous story itself and you keep that something that we all treasure alive for longer," he said.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)