Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe

I just saw The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe on DVD. Many moviegoers, when they see this film, make a couple of invidious comparisons.

To begin with, they compare the book to the movie. Is it faithful to the book? Does the movie downplay the Christian motifs in the original? Does the movie drop some of their favorite lines?

The degree to which a cinematic adaptation should be faithful to its literary source is a complicated question.

In any event, it’s been years since I read the book, so I can’t indulge in any detailed comparisons, whether odious or meritorious. At this late date I can only judge the movie in its own right.

Of course, many of us bring a little something to the movie that we cannot get out of the movie itself.

Most of us know something about C. S. Lewis. His childhood. His atheism. His conversion. His apologetic writing. His marriage.

So we’re not coming to this film as a blank slate.

In addition, many moviegoers compare the film to the Lord of the Rings. This comparison operates at two levels: comparing the books and comparing the movies.

It’s also been many years since I read Tolkien, so, once again, I can’t offer a detailed comparison even if I wanted to—not at the literary level.

On the other hand, the movies are fairly fresh in my mind.

I suppose the general critical verdict would be that Tolkien’s achievement is a greater artistic achievement because his literary vision enjoy as a degree of inner unity lacking in the Chronicles.

The Lord of the Rings was painstakingly furnished and plotted from start to finish. It depicts an intricately self-enclosed world.

By contrast, Lewis is very eclectic, and he relied on the inspiration of the moment, making things up as he went along.

But by the same token, there is more loss of fine-grained detail in adapting Tolkien to the big screen than there is with Lewis.

One can argue that Tolkien’s achievement ranks higher than Lewis’s.

At the same time, we can challenge that assessment.

Precisely because the Lord of the Rings was so long in the making, went through so many drafts, is so faithful to its narrative assumptions, that it’s somewhat labored and laborious, plodding and even dull, compared with the fluency of Lewis, who was writing on the fly.

Tolkien has a great visual imagination, but he’s not very imaginative in other respects. Lewis also has a great visual imagination, but he’s also a man of ideas.

Indeed, with Lewis, the danger is that his many ideas will outstrip the supporting material.

As to his eclecticism, several things need to be said. Ransacking mythology for narrative furniture is a distinguished literary precedent. Dante, Milton, and Spencer are outstanding examples.

So it’s not simply that Lewis was too lazy or impatient to lay a new foundation, building up the story from scratch, piece-by-piece, the way Tolkien did. Lewis is working within a venerable tradition.

In addition, the strength of a holistic vision is also a potential weakness. If you’re going to hammer out a self-consistent and richly detailed fantasy world, and confine yourself to the narrative parameters of that vision, then you better make sure that it’s pretty interesting, that the reader doesn’t get bored with the vision half way through the game. Does your original idea have the staying power to sustain interest from beginning to end?

Here’s a question for you: which world would you rather visit? Which world would be a better tourist destination for a great vacation: Middle Earth or Narnia?

Speaking for myself, I think Narnia is a lot more fun that Middle Earth.

Since Lewis doesn’t feel bound by any particular literary conventions, he gives freer rein to his imagination. He takes his story wherever he wants it to go—or wherever the story wants to take him—on the spur of the moment.

He doesn’t obey a set of rules. He isn’t adding patches of color to a literary outline. He’s doing this for fun, and he’s taking the reader along with him on his joyride.

Take the lamp-stand. A lamp-stand in Narnia is incongruous. Utterly out of place. Can you imagine a lamp-stand in Middle Earth?

But its very incongruity is part of the charm. No, it doesn’t belong there, and by putting it there, Lewis teases the reader’s curiosity.

In my opinion, Lewis is more enjoyable than Tolkien. More readable for being less effortful and dutiful.

Writing on the fly has its dangers, which is why some entries in the series are weaker than others. But when it works, when all the ingredients come together in a spontaneous combustion of creativity, it gives the story a natural bounce buoyancy lacking in a more studied set of literary effect. At his best, which is more often than not, Lewis has a spring in his step that stands in favorable contrast to Tolkien’s pedantry.

On the other hand, Lewis was writing to children, for children, and about children.

There is even a sense in which Lewis was, emotionally speaking, something of a child when he wrote the Chronicles. The fact that his mother died when he was young, along with the further fact that he was separated from his father when he was carted off to a boarding school, meant that, until he fell in love with Joy Davidman, Lewis never came of age.

By contrast, there are certain adult values in Tolkien that you’re not going to find in Lewis—not in the Chronicles, and not in the Space Trilogy.

If Narnia would be a better resort, Middle Earth would be a better place to settle down and raise a family.

Generally speaking, I regard the movie as a resounding success. The special effects are used, not ostentatiously, but just where they’re needed, to create a plausibly enchanted world.

For the most part, the actors are ideally cast for their parts. Moseley (Peter) is noble, conscientious, and idealistic. A natural leader of the reluctant hero variety.

By contrast, Keynes (Edmund) appears to be naturally vindictive, impish, and resentful.

Popplewell (Susan) has the sulky, self-conscious, petulant, and superior air of a debutante who’s dying to impress her peer group.

Most important is the casting of Lucy. Some liberal critics feign indignation at the patriarchal outlook of Lewis.

But Lucy is the heroine of the series. She stands in the tradition of the holy fool—of the saints whose outward powerlessness is the source of their inner strength. She embodies the theological virtue of faith, and the triumph of faith over the high and mighty and worldly-wise.

And in this movie she is cast to perfection by a very expressive young actress (Henley) who looks like a real girl instead of a junior fashion model.

The casting of the white witch is not quite as successful. Swinton is a fine actress, but not a conventional beauty, and when you play the part of a temptress, looks go a long way.

As for Aslan, he looks the part, but he doesn’t sound the part. So there’s a jarring mismatch between what we see and what we hear. The dubbing needs a James Earl Jones type of voice to do justice to a lion—especially this lion!

Unfortunately, the actor who does the voiceover has an elegant, aristocratic voice rather than a primal, kingly voice. This is a dumb mistake.

Thanks to the book, the action has an unforced suspense, momentum, and denouement. So many high-budget movies flounder for lack of a good storyline.

The movie has a great look, from the ice castle to the torch-lit Stonehenge, from the spring thaw to Cair Pravel.

The central event of Aslan’s immolation is done reverently and movingly.

Another great scene is where the petrified characters come back to life by the Pentecostal breath of Aslan.

The meeting between the timid Mr. Tumnus and innocent little Lucy, where the bashful faun is more afraid of a polite and petite English girl than she is of him, has a sweetness out of character with the usual TV and cinematic fare.

Having said all that, the film is not without some other weaknesses, a few more serious than others, and sometimes traceable to the book.

1.Although Aslan is a type of Christ, the director or screenwriter seems to be working with a rather Arian or Socinian Christology. Mighty, but not almighty; limited in time and space.

Wise, but not omniscient; Aslan is ignorant of certain things—and easily taken by surprise.

It’s been too long since I’ve read the book, but Lewis was an orthodox Christian.

2.The dialogue is a tad hackneyed at times. You can tell when a screenwriter substitutes modern dialogue for the original. Lewis had a knack for one-liners, for which trite substitutions are a sorry substitute.

3.The beavers get to be a bit cloying. The ah-shucks earnestness of the country folk is laid on pretty thick, with the romantic condescension of a devoted urbanite. I prefer a butter knife to a shovel.

4.There is a secularizing quality to the adaptation. Instead of letting Narnia function as a partial parable for certain theological themes, it verges on a parable of World War II. This transvaluation of the original vision is quite subversive.

5.In the movie, Queen Jadis is nothing more than your generic wicked witch or evil stepmother. This fails to explain why she should take such a personal interest in or exhibit such enmity towards the Pevensie kids.

In the original, Jadis is Lillith. In Hebrew legend and lore, Lillith is Adam’s other wife. This is why she feels so threatened by the legitimate line of Adam and Eve. They are the true heirs.

6.In the movie itself, there is also no dramatic necessity for having the Pevensies ride to the rescue. Aslan could defeat the forces of evil without their assistance. The griffins and centaurs are far more useful on the battlefield than Peter or Edmund.

In the larger arc of the Chronicles, the reason that human beings play a role in the redemption of Narnia is because they also played a role in the fall of Narnia.

It was a son of Adam who interjected Queen Jadis into the pristine world of the newly formed Narnia.

But that dramatic symmetry is lacking in the film.

7.Things happen rather too fast. Peter becomes a master swordsman overnight. The Narnian nationalists instantly embrace him as their warrior king. Peter, Susan, and Lucy instantly bond with Aslan. They instantly identify with the insurgency.

But the groundwork hasn’t been laid for these alliances. There’s no time to get propery acquainted, much less befriend one another. Who is Aslan? The exposition is lacking.

If you, the moviegoer, already know that Aslan is a type of Christ, then it all falls into place.

But within the narrative parameters of the movie itself, the immediacy with which these strangers take sides and take the lead seems to be driven, not by any dramatic logicality, but a running time of 140 minutes.

8.The climactic battle scene, while well enough executed, suffers from a fatigue factor. We’ve seen this all before in Lord of the Rings, where every battle was bigger and better than the last battle. We’ve seen the beasties before. We’ve see the baddies before. The good guys eye-to-eye with the bad guys.

No doubt it isn’t fair to judge one movie by another, but the formulaic quality gets to be tedious. We already know how it’s going to end before it ever begins. A routine is just that—routine.

9.Another, more vexing difficulty with the battle scene is the spectacle of fresh-faced boys in hand-to-hand combat.

This reminds you that the books were written for kids. What we have here is every boy’s fantasy writ large. A kid dressing up as Richard the Lion-hearted and going toe-to-toe with dragons and giants and minotaurs.

That works well enough on the printed page.

But when you take away the plastic sword, put a real sword into the hands of 6th or 7th grader, and when you put that up on the big screen, the essentially silliness of this boyish fantasy becomes a little too apparent, because it is made apparent.

Left to the imagination, it works. But film is about the illusion of realty. The effect is unwittingly ridiculous.

10.The same could be said of their coronation. Yet another childhood fantasy. Something we readily accept on the printed page, or within the confines of our juvenile imagination, but when you turn a daydream into cinematic reality, it’s pretty absurd.

Having said all that, the Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe is a wonderful movie as long as you don’t ask too many questions. The NeverEnding story with a dose of dogma.


  1. "Unfortunately, the actor who does the voiceover has an elegant, aristocratic voice rather than a primal, kingly voice. This is a dumb mistake."

    Oh yeah, I totally agree with you here.

    Another problem was that I instantly recognized actor Liam Neeson in the voiceover. So, for me at least, Aslan didn't seem quite like Aslan as he did Rob Roy, Qui-Gon Jinn, or (blech) Alfred Kinsey.

  2. Oh, and of course, thanks for your review! I love your reviews. SO insightful and enjoyable to read, too.

  3. "It’s been too long since I’ve read the book, but Lewis was an orthodox Christian."

    I'm about to speak heresy against Anglicanism (within which I find myself), but I think you've overstated your case. Lewis was a committed Anglo-Catholic, which puts him in the "orthodox" camp as far as most Anglicans are concerned, but not all. After all, Anglo-Catholicism in some of its forms affirms certain Catholic beliefs that Protestants would call problematic or, at worst, affrontery against the Gospel. Lewis's claims regarding paganism are particularly troubling. Of course, none of this touches the point you were making, since Lewis definitely held to an orthodox Christological formula.

  4. Great review! I'd have to say that my only complaint/regret is that they didn't do the Stone Tablet scene better. There (at least in my recollection) was no mention in the movie of the "deeper" magic after Aslan is raised. He simply is alive again, and they bound off to the camp. But, I guess if there is a striving to make the story a focus on WWII and not Lewis' intent, such a thing would be left out.

    Overall, I would agree that the movie was done well--but I totally agree on having James Earl Jones as Aslan! Can you imagine that? THAT would inspire fear, and actually make Tumnus' statement that "he's not a tame lion" resonate. One guess I'd make that they didn't get him because possibly him not being around for all the movies (or they couldn't afford him?).

    Again, thanks for the review.

  5. I, too, would have voted for James Earl Jones, but he's already voiced a certain other godlike royal lion for Disney, and maybe Walden wanted to avoid seeming to copy The Lion King. (He's also supposedly voicing the armoured bear in the film of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials, so maybe he's contractually barred from doing anything to help the Lewisian canon.

    Re: the battle and the unrealism of children actually fighting. Maybe the producers should have followed the book by having someone narrate bits of the battle after the fact. They could have done them as isolated sepia "dream sequences" rather than shining (bright) daylight upon magic. (Plus also avoided the "LOTR Episode IV" feeling, a.k.a "But where are the Fell Beasts this time?")

  6. That last one ("I, too, would have voted for James Earl Jones") was me, not the Catholic "Anonymous".