NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (Andrew Adamson, USA, 2005, 6)
“I am saying that there is no teaching of knowledge, but only recollection.”
– Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Meno
I made one Socratic discovery about myself when watching “Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”: That C.S. Lewis’s book is probably (no … certainly) the novel that has produced the strongest imprint on my mind, the one that I know as if from recollection. I have seen multiple movie adaptations of objectively greater novels (“Pride & Prejudice,” obviously) and objectively greater plays (“Hamlet,” obviously). But never, before “Narnia,” had I had so much recollection of the original novel when watching a movie. Never had I said to myself so often “no, that’s not right,” or “that’s not what happened,” or “why did they cut that out?” The amazing thing is that I hadn’t read Lewis’s novel for at least 15 years, though I’d seen an animated TV version about a decade ago. I have seen movie adaptations of novels and plays I had read more recently (again, the latest “Pride & Prejudice”) … without having that sort of reaction.
And yet, this is a very faithful adaptation. The plot points whiz by in the order and manner they should (the film is a short-feeling 140 minutes); the sibling rivalry that fuels much of the relationship between Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy is present, including the “reactionary sexism” in Lewis’s portrayal of boys and girls; the four siblings are as I had always mentally pictured them and they all give fine performances in the vein of “kids in a fantasy world”; there’s no “humanizing” or excuse-making for the White Witch this – evil looks and acts bad, first as temptation and carnal (Turkish) delights, then as the grotesqueries of the Witch’s army; the death and resurrection of Aslan are presented literally and objectively; a bunch of the Christ parallel details are there or added (“Behold the Great Lion”/”Ecce Homo”; “it is finished,” though not exactly at the right time; Susan and Lucy accompanying Aslan on the Via Dolorosa and weeping over his corpse like the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdelene).
Like I said about “Pride and Prejudice” a couple of weeks ago, this is too good a story not to get an at-least-passable movie out of. In many ways, that’s all you can really ask for – gawd knows, there’d hardly be a point to a loose adaptation of this novel. But my recollection kept getting the better of me, even though I understand quite well that adapters can’t get everything on the screen. I still remember, like it was yesterday, being a 10-year-old boy at John Ogilvie Hall, looking forward to the last few minutes before all the breaks – for lunch, playtime and day’s end. Mrs. White would use those last few minutes to read to us (in that year, she went all the way through both LWW and Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”).
Even the smallest things, I noticed. Like how in the film we don’t find out until much later than we do in the book that the White Witch’s habit is to turn creatures into stone, until a new scene of Tumnus being thus “executed” in front of Edmund. But as a result, the filmgoer doesn’t get much of the eerieness of Edmund’s walk through the Witch’s “statuary,” or his taunting a lion that he wrongly thinks is Aslan.
The cinematic high point for me is probably Tilda Swinton’s delightfully fruity performance as the White Witch, the evil Queen Jadis. She isn’t camping it up, exactly – the Witch is too cold and precise for that. With her frozen face and self-possessed body language, Swinton was born to play a character with ice running through her veins. In an opposite-of-Judi-Dench sort of way, Swinton also seems like a Satanic parody of royalty – close enough to the real thing to see the deformities. Yet she also recoils slightly, as if afraid of what Aslan can do, when confronting him with her demand for Edmund’s blood.
As for the computer-generated effects, they are mixed in their specialness. On the upside, the animals look and act like animals. Aslan really is a lion saying his lines; the wolves leap like wolves. But on the down side, a scene of Susan and Lucy riding Aslan looks like bad back projection, like riding in a car in a ’40s movie.
For the last couple of years, film critics have noted anti-Iraq-war subtexts in a variety of commercial films not explicitly about the war – for example George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” and Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” Here, for the first time that I recall, there are clear pro-war subtexts, none of them explicit carryovers from the Lewis book.
For example, very early on, the Pevensie kids are at a London train station and there’s a quick shot of the adolescent Peter giving a longing look at Tommies going off to fight Hitler. This underlines what is only implicit in Lewis – Peter’s growing into manhood, as defined by his willingness and ability to use the sword that is a gift from Father Christmas. When Peter is first confronted by the White Witch’s wolves, Susan yells at him like a true isolationist: “this isn’t our war.” Later, she says “just because someone gave you a sword doesn’t make you a hero” and I was waiting for her to say “cuz A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” in the fashionable lingo of today’s books. But guess whose actions, right at the end, save Peter from the coup de grace? This construction of adulthood as leaving behind childish things and taking up arms is also present in Edmund, who is portrayed as having the worst vice imaginable for a British child of that generation – disobedience. “Why don’t you just do as you’re told,” Peter several times says to Edmund, who is portrayed (much more here than in Lewis) as the rebel, maybe even the most autonomous. But by the end he’s saying “I’ve seen what the White Witch can do. We can’t leave these people behind.” And we get the added line of Tumnus saying he betrayed the tyrant for “a free Narnia,” just as he’s turned to stone.
But there are several adaptation cuts which I just think were unnecessary or excessive. The changes in Edmund noted above made me regret even more the decision to basically delete the chapter where Lewis follows Edmund’s trip from the Beavers’ abode to the witch’s castle. There we get all of Edmund’s thoughts, including his decision to worship another god (“I expect that she is the rightful Queen really. Anyway, she’ll be better than that awful Aslan.”)
For another, the carefully considered conversation Peter and Susan have with the professor, which takes up a whole chapter in Lewis, is compressed into an accidental exchange of four or five lines about whether to believe Edmund or Lucy. Thus, we lose all of Lewis’ defense of fantasy and his whole understanding of his enterprise in writing the Narnia chronicles. In addition, Lewis has a whole chapter called “Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time,” explaining Aslan’s resurrection. The film makes no allusion to this at all, instead Aslan telling Susan and Lucy that the White Witch just hadn’t figured out the deep magic, which she cited to make her claim on Edmund the traitor’s blood, necessitating Aslan’s sacrifice. This undermines the Old Covenant/Deep Magic – New Covenant/Deeper Magic parallels, which deepen the Aslan/Christ parallels. I’d like to think the adapters (unnecessarily but understandably) wanted to avoid any taint of pure supercessionism, which many Jews consider anti-Semitic. But I think that’s crediting them with more theological sophistication than they have, since Aslan’s rebuke of the White Witch – “I was there when [the Deep Magic] was written” (a direct allusion to the opening of St. John’s Gospel) – remains. So I rather suspect they just didn’t get what the Deeper Magic was a reference to.
Probably the biggest disappointment for me was the role of Aslan. Nothing against Liam Neeson’s performance, which is quite good and quite “right-sounding.” But Aslan has little Providence here. There’s too little foreshadowing of him as the promised Messiah that half the Old Testament is about (and of course, no reference to the Father beyond the Sea). The Lockhornsesque marital quarrelling between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (well-played though it was by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) dominates the kids’ time with them, so there’s little of their conversation about Aslan, and the Hope that He represented even before His coming. Mr. Beaver’s line “of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” is absent (except for a reprise at the end, shorn of its Providential meaning). In the same way, the transition from winter to spring is way too sudden and too complete. It all makes Aslan appear a bit arbitrary. When he walks away at the end in an extreme long shot, it was all I could do not to yell at the screen: “Come back, Shane.”
I got that kind of sense about too much in the film to give it an unqualified recommendation. The secular film-makers tried their darndest, and in good faith I think, to keep the allegory intact. Necessary to get those “Passion dollars.” But the effect is like listening to a singer who learned a song phonetically in a language he doesn’t speak. Or hearing, as a native speaker, someone who learned your language in a classroom. The “music” just isn’t there.
Still, to overextend the metaphor, at least be grateful that Disney is singing from a Christian song sheet to the limits of its abilities. And isn’t rewriting the music.
Originally published at The Fact Is.
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