Fighting Disappointment in Narnia
The concept of a “traitor” looms large in C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s more than a little ironic, then, that I felt like a traitor after seeing the film version of this beloved story.
This story is one of the most beloved and most read of all children’s novels, especially in Christian circles. It earned that reputation by its deep symbolism, its heart-felt emotion, and its warmth. It also avoided the Pollyanna syndrome by including fierce battles, thoroughly wicked characters, and great drama. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
So why did I feel like a traitor when I left the theater? Because I wanted the film to be a stunning success. I wanted to be able to proclaim it a film to rival other fantasy films: Batman, The Matrix, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings. I wanted it to be the kind of film that would make folks wait with baited breath for the next installment, like we do with Harry Potter. I wanted it to be the kind of film that people might say changed their lives.
But it wasn’t.
It was, to put it bluntly, rather bloodless—both literally and figuratively.
To be sure, the film was as faithful to the book as could be expected. Aslan is portrayed as the all-powerful but self-sacrificing ruler of Narnia who gives his life for the sinner Edmund. No one who knows the gospel story could miss the symbolism in the film, and that’s a good thing.
But the genius of Lewis’s story is not the fact that it’s an eminently successful allegory: it’s the fact that it makes us feel something new about a story we know so well. And that’s where this film failed.
In the book, for example, we are introduced to an Aslan who is both “beautiful and terrible.” The Aslan character helps us walk the biblical line between loving God and fearing him. In the film, Aslan is majestic and kingly, but not at all “terrible.” In the book, the White Witch’s evil capriciousness makes the reader shiver—reminding us that Satan has real power; in the film, the Witch seems anemic and bored.
In the book, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy experience awe, wonder, fear, anger, great grief, and great joy. In the film, those parts were played by young actors who fit the bill physically but couldn’t deliver the range of emotion required of them. They seemed emotionally stunted and as a result failed to inspire their viewers to experience the emotional heights and depths of Lewis’s story.
Some smaller things bothered me as well. For example, the filmmakers took great pains to make computer-generated fur and feathers look absolutely real, but shied away from showing blood when blood was needed (after Peter shakily kills his first wolf and Aslan reminds him to clean his sword and after Aslan was beaten, bound, and stabbed to death). Blood is integral to the gospel story and it's a significant part of Lewis's story as well. If the filmmakers left out the blood in deference to young viewers, then why did they include other intense and scary moments that many young kids, mine included, won't be able to handle?
So call me a traitor, but I just can’t help saying how let down I feel. If ever a book had the potential to become a truly gripping and soul-piercing film, this was it. But somehow the filmmakers failed to pull it off, and there won’t be a second chance.
Charmed by Narnia
Those of you eager to see your favorite C.S. Lewis tale come to life will find The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe enchanting.
The beautiful scenery of England and New Zealand helps, of course, but the strongest part of the film is the acting. Tilda Swindon is delightfully icy as the evil White Witch, Jadis. And I was especially charmed by Georgie Henley's unself-conscious portrayal of young Lucy Pevensie, and by her interactions with the gentle Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy), who portrays the faun just as you might have imagined him.
Though his roar could be more impressive, even the computer-generated Aslan is believable, helped I'm sure by the perfectly chosen voice of Liam Neeson.
What I found better than the book was the portrayal of Edmund (Skandar Keynes). In the book he seems merely a brat, but the film gives him a more complex personality, beginning with his actions during the opening air raid. Here's someone, like us, who's fairly likeable yet capable of betrayal.
Yes, the film follows the book closely, leaving out few scenes yet including some well-integrated ones that only add to the enjoyment. The religious elements of the fantasy remain intact, with one notable exception: I missed the grand frolic between Aslan and the Pevensie girls. That scene parallels the joy of Easter morning and could have added to the emotional depth of the film. (Oddly enough, the filmmakers include a well-known biblical line that Lewis avoided.)
Comparing the intensity of Narnia (PG) to Lord of the Rings, as some critics have done, however, is like comparing apples to oranges. Lewis's audience is primarily younger children, so the film is understandably gentler than LOR (PG-13). It leaves out the White Witch's knife at Edmund's throat, replacing the scene with comic relief. Nor does it show any blood--either in the death of Aslan or in the culminating battle. Parents should keep in mind, though, the realism of the magical creatures, especially the White Witch's wolves and the rest of her scary cohorts. And of course the death of Aslan can be traumatic for those not prepared for it.
Earning more than $67 million, the film shot to no. 1 its opening weekend. No doubt Disney will get the message it can earn big bucks by putting the rest of Lewis's series onscreen.
—Jena Vander Ploeg
Becoming a Child Again
I was 11 the first enchanting time I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the time I wasn’t at all interested in the fact the story was a biblical allegory and that Aslan represented Christ, nor was I interested in discussing the implausibility of Father Christmas showing up in the middle of the story or the decided bland representation of the main characters, the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. I was a child enjoying a story put down by C.S. Lewis for his goddaughter and millions of other children like me who longed to escape into the snowy world of Narnia. The idea that one could escape through a wardrobe into a forest full of tree spies, umbrella-carrying fawns, and talking beavers set my imagination whirling. Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien’s detailed description of middle earth and wildly complex characters and plot lines in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lewis spent little time painting a vivid picture of Narnia, leaving much to the imaginations of the readers. As well, aside from Lucy and Edmund, whose characters held some hint of personality, the siblings’ characters weren’t particularly compelling. But the concept of escaping into what fantasy literature experts call a “secondary world” where the White Witch had cast a spell of endless winter over its inhabitants and a Lion who would save the day by sacrificing himself for everyone, easily displaced mediocre storytelling to the background. I grew up hoping I’d find my own Narnia behind some ordinary object.
Last week, some 30 years later, I again escaped into the world of Narnia at my local movie theatre, this time with my 11-year-old daughter at my side. Bound by the limited characterization (with the exception of Tilda Swinton’s radiantly evil portrayal of the White Witch) and simplistic biblical allegory of the book, director Andrew Adamson does a remarkable job of bringing a convincingly enchanting world to a movie audience spoiled by blockbuster fantasy forerunners The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies. While I longed for Aslan and other characters to move beyond passive observers of the events happening around them; while I hoped the story would make me feel more emotionally invested in the characters than in my adult readings of the book, my 11-year-old’s eyes sparkled with wonderment as the story unfolded in front of us. Unbound by critical response, she was bedazzled by the costumes of the White Witch; she oohed and aahed at the talking horses and beautiful beavers’ house; she, like Lucy, grew attached to poor Mr. Tumnus; she shuddered and grabbed my arm when the wolves appeared and when the White Witch was about to turn Edmund to stone. I could feel her firm grip when Aslan’s hair was cut mercilessly off and heard her intake of breath when the Lion rose again from the dead. Then I was reminded that Lewis didn’t write The Chronicles of Narnia for a hypercritical English teacher and media critic. He wrote if for 11-year-old boys and girls who, like the Pevensie siblings, live in a world of war and disasters and who long for a place of escape and imagination where good prevails over evil.
Incidentally, when I polled my high school students, they, too, had managed to maintain enough of their childhood to say, unprompted, that they loved the movie.
So if you still have a sense of wonderment in your heart, I dare you to walk through the movie theatre wardrobe with your family and follow Mr. Tumnus, fight the White Witch, and fall under the spell of Aslan.