Monday, December 12, 2005

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe": movie review

I first ran into C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series when I was just a little pagan, a lover of fantasy and ghost stories. In retrospect, I think that the one I read was The Magician's Nephew. Years later, as a converted Christian, I read the entire seven-volume set, loved it, and have re-read it many times, both to myself and to my family.

The first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, was made into a cartoon, followed by a rather unsatisfying BBC production.

As I discussed earlier, I had concerns about this adaptation, when I learned that Andrew Adamson had been tapped to write and direct. Nonetheless, both the trailers and all the "buzz" had me greatly looking forward to this movie. And now I've seen it, with my wife and three of my children (ages 6, 10, and 22).

What did I think? Let me give you a spoiler-free and a spoilerific version. In both, I'll assume you know the basic story, and don't want me re-hashing it for you. If that isn't the case, consult 95% of the other reviews.


In short, I thought it was terrific. See it, now, in the theater -- if you care at all to see other such movies made, and made so well.

What was perfect: The two actors who carried the greatest weight, portraying Lucy and Edmund. Lucy Pevensie (ten-year-old Georgie Henley) is arguably the human heart of the story, and she is brought to life with perfect measures of wonder, innocence, warmth, and vulnerability. I cannot imagine a better performance. And as her counter, her brother Edmund must be a bit glum, peevish, and self-involved; and so he is, as fourteen-year-old Skandar Keynes realizes him.

What was very good: Overall, the movie adaptation is almost startlingly faithful to the book, even to those aspects which one might not have expected a director/screenwriter even to try to bring across.

As a decades-long lover of the Narnia books, I can say there was no point at which I was jolted with that sense of "Whoa! that's not right! Where did that come from?", as I was with Peter Jackson's mishandling of the characters of Faramir, Denethor and Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings. I daresay anyone who loved the book can go in, relax, and expect to enjoy the ride without any nasty bumps.

Aslan looks majestic, yet personal, and lionlike. The centaurs are as arresting as they should be, and Mr. Tumnus the faun couldn't be better; then there are minotaurs, vampires, and other creatures for which I have no name. The visualization of the spirits of the trees is an absolute delight of creativity.

The battle scenes, touched on relatively briefly in the book, are envisioned here in a satisfying way that is a legitimate extension of what Lewis only suggested. I don't know that I've ever seen such a clearly violent and crushing battle done in a way kids could watch.

What was wretchedly jarring, unforgivable, and gratuitous: Nothing. Not one darned thing. Given the director's involvement with Shrek, I was concerned. I'm delighted to report that, while my concerns were justified (see below), my darker fears were never realized. It wasn't Disney-fied.

Kid-friendly? Absolutely, unless your children are extremely sensitive. There are a couple of startling scenes, but the startlement passes quickly. There is an extended battle sequence in which the adult viewer gets the impression that a great deal of violence is being done, but the editing passes over it very lightly, nothing lingering except a couple of scenes that are also soon made right.

Not only kid-friendly, but kid-positive. The values of the story, and the depiction of Christ through Aslan, is exactly the sort of thing I want my kids seeing.


You really should see the movie before you read this. Form your own views, then compare them with mine.

What could hardly have been better. As I've said, the children were wonderful, and the movie overall was terrifically faithful to the book -- with some regrettable exceptions. But I was delighted to recognize so many personal favorites, both subtle and not ("The Macready!" "Spare Oom").

For instance, at the first mention of the name "Aslan," Lewis writes (pp. 64-65):

And now, a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. ...At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.

You'd think no director would try to bring this across in a movie -- and yet Adamson does, and does it well. It was a delightfully deft touch.

What could -- and should -- have been better. Let me enumerate, in no particular order:

  1. To start with a small point, Edmund is apologized to, but doesn't apologize. After Edmund's treachery, and his nearly costing his siblings' lives, Lewis writes this: "Edmund shook hands with each of the others and said to each of them in turn, 'I'm sorry,' and everyone said 'That's all right" (p. 136). In the movie, however, Edmund may look regretful, but he's about to go off with nary an apology -- and it is his would-be victims who go out of the way to make sure he doesn't feel bad about it. Peter is depicted as almost more the wrongdoer than Edmund is, which is a change for which I see no sense.
  2. Far more significantly, in the book, when Lucy asks the Beavers (in their first conversation about Aslan) whether Aslan is a man, Mr. Beaver replies thus, on pages 75-76:
  3. "Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you, he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea...."

    "Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he--quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

    "That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

    "Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

    "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

    Virtually all such dialogue is cut, apart from a coda in which Tumnus says Aslan isn't a tame lion, and Lucy says he's good. Aslan is never called anyone's son, nor is there any reference to the Emperor. I think this is a significant omission, and likely to be an instance of the imposition of Adamson's "anyone can interpret it however he wants" post-modern approach to Lewis. Aslan is robbed of his full majesty, part of which is in his person, and part of which is in his relationship to the Emperor.

  4. And so, Aslan's awe and respect for the Emperor's law is missing, as represented by parts of such exchanges as these -- in the book, not in the movie (pp. 138-139):
  5. "Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?" asked the Witch.

    "Let us say I have forgotten it," answered Aslan gravely. "Tell us of this Deep Magic."

    "Tell you?" said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. "Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written as deep as a spear is long on the trunk of the World Ash Tree? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill."

    And so also, this is missing (pp. 139-140):

    "Oh, Aslan!" whispered Susan in the Lion's ear, "can't we--I mean, you won't, will you? Can't we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn't there something you can work against it?"

    "Work against the Emperor's magic?" said Aslan turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody every made that suggestion to him again.

    With that element gone, gone too is much of the weight, substance, and drama that inexorably builds to the crescendo of the Stone Table. In the movie, that event is a necessity; but it is not the tremendous, inescapable reality it is in the book.

  6. On a somewhat more emotional level, the deep and special connection between the girls and Aslan is missing, particularly in the scene leading up to the Stone Table. Lewis builds the feeling of dread from pp. 142-148, with forebodings, foreshadowings, and dialogue between Lucy and Susan revealing their sense of something dreadful hanging over their heads. But Adamson brushes past this briefly. The girls more or less just happen to see Aslan, and walk with him. Then, with no particular expression, Aslan says "Thank you" to each, then "Farewell," and saunters off. Movie-Aslan may seem a bit glum, but he isn't as burdened, as dragging as Lewis' Aslan, who stumbles and lets out a moan as he approaches the Stone Table. Movie-Aslan reveals no particular dread of what is to come. From their grief-stricken response to his death, it is clear that Lucy and Susan have grown attached to Aslan -- but we don't ever really see it happening. Adamson rather whisks past it.

    It would be as if a movie of the life of Christ devoted two hours to miracles, a few brief remarks, some clowny scenes of the apostles, and then five minutes on the Crucifixion and Resurrection, with apostles sobbing heartbrokenly in between these events, we aren't sure why. The Gospel records themselves devote greatly disproportionate space to Christ's last week. To be true to their unique and authoritative voice, any depiction would have to make the same emphasis.

    This passage of the book is clearly more important to Lewis than to Adamson, who (I think) doesn't really "get" what the story is about. His Aslan is something of a super-hero; he isn't savior, nor Lord. He certainly isn't fully Lewis' Aslan, and that is a shame.

    I am hearing a great many people, Christians as well as non-Christians, say that the movie is about the battle between good and evil. The hope, I think, is to appeal to more non-Christians and the universal love for a rollicking good fight.

    But that isn't really accurate. It would be truer to say that Lewis' idea is about how the battle between good and evil is decisively won -- not, in the first place, by a battle, but by Aslan's person, and by his substitutionary self-sacrifice. Then it is the resurrected Aslan himself, in person, who decisively finishes the battle.

    Adamson could have cut the chase scenes by ten minutes, and let Aslan be Aslan, applying his considerable talents to portraying him as Lewis did. He could have shown Aslan's majestic character through what the characters say about him, and to him, as well as by more of his own words and deeds. Or better still, leave the chases in, and just let the movie be ten, twenty minutes longer. Lewis' Aslan isn't just another interchangeable superhero, but Adamson's handling of him moves him regrettably in that direction.

How does this movie compare to the Lord of the Rings? I'd say the movies compare as the books do. The way I'd express the comparison is likely to offend evanjellybeans and others... and, while not my goal, that's not necessarily bad.

Here it is: they vary about in the way you'd expect the expressions of a Roman Catholic and a Christian heart to vary.

Tolkien's story is fascinating, rich and wonderful. His world is ornate, obsessively thoroughly-constructed, laden with backstories, languages, poems and songs. His characters are fulsome and grand, and the plot is a wonderment.

Lewis' story is less so, but nonetheless it is more, and it is better. It is indeed a wondrous story with engaging characters with whom the readers connect, and the plots are very satisfying... but Tolkien's story is about his story and his make-believe world. Lewis' story is about Jesus, and real life, through the lens of fantasy.

The "values" and "messages" of Tolkien are subtle almost to the point of invisibility, because he didn't care all that much about them, per se. (This is why folks who write on Christian elements in the Lord of the Rings have to work so hard to find them there.) Tolkien wanted to create a mythology, and he did a bang-up job of it. He didn't want to talk about Jesus, or God, or life... so he really didn't do any of those things in LOTR. What values are present in the story are there because they were part of his Roman Catholic mental furniture.

To Lewis, as a Christian, all is ultimately anchored in the person of Jesus Christ. So all of Narnia and its wonderful stories and adventures and characters in varying ways lead to and center about Aslan, his Christ-figure, because that is how Lewis saw life. As a Christian, he couldn't create a world in which God was a distant and virtually irrelevant CEO, reached mostly through countless intermediaries. Tolkien's Roman Catholicism let him do that; Lewis' Christian faith didn't.

And, as I recall, Tolkien didn't think much of Lewis' creation, which I've always found rather telling.

Sum of the matter: Adamson did about as splendid a job of bringing Lewis' tale to the screen as one could hope for, given that he does not share Lewis' faith. Adamson's artistry, and even his respect for what he understood of the material, is evident, and the movie is not to be missed. It is this excellence which leaves one all the more wistful. One wonders what might have been, had Adamson himself bowed the knee to the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the King, to whose glory and service C. S. Lewis employed his own astonishing -- and superior -- gifts. Perhaps the excellence of Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia will lead Adamson and others to read his Mere Christianity, and consider the compelling reasons for believing in the Lord Jesus Christ.

[Quotations are from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan: 1950, 1970).]

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