Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Lazy actors? Tales of Neeson and Gambon

Imagine: you're paid a lot of money to say words written by others, do things dreamt up by others, and basically pretend to be other people. And everyone looks at you, applauds, and thinks you're a lot smarter and better than you are.

Am I talking about being a pastor? I suppose I could be, in some cases. But no, I'm talking about being an actor.

Some actors work very hard at their crafts. They research their roles, they do a lot of off-camera and off-hours work, and they perform with focus and dedication. They deserve respect for such effort (Proverbs 22:29).

And then again there are Liam Neeson and Michael Gambon.

Beginning with the latter, when Richard Harris died, Gambon was tapped to take over the iconic role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. Nice work if you can get it, eh? Guaranteed employment for years, higher visibility than ever before in one's career, every movie a certain financial success — sweet.

So what do you suppose you do first? Well, given that the movies are based on books read and loved by hundreds of thousands (millions?), obviously you begin there — by reading the books. Who is this character? After all, you're following the performance of Richard Harris, one of the greatest actors in recent years — and one who, himself, visibly showed the kind of discipline I described when he took on A Man Called Horse.

Now, Harris reportedly did not read the books, but he must have listened to someone who did, because his Dumbedore was close to J. K. Rowling's depiction.

Michael Gambon, however... well, he fairly boasts about not reading the books (warning: spoilers at that link, if you haven't read all seven books). And boy oh boy, does it show. I saw his first performance before having read the books, and thought it better than Harris, because he was more vivid and emotional and physical. After I read the books I realized that this is entirely, completely wrong, and ruins the emotional impact of future developments. Rowling's Dumbledore is never shaken (nor does he shake!) nor upset... which is why, when he does become upset, and when he visibly comes to pieces in his final scenes in Half-blood Prince, it is moving and upsetting. So badly does Gambon misunderstand Dumbledore that he thinks he is "goading" Draco atop the tower, rather than reaching out to him.

But Gambon is not particularly invested in this movie that will make so much money for him. For some reason, he doesn't even wear Dumbledore's half-moon spectacles. So detached is he that he falls asleep filming a particularly moving scene. In fact, he was reportedly angry at being made to say lines taken directly from the book, and was allowed (never having read it!) to rewrite them.

But what is it to him? Words on a page. A pay-check.

Bringing us to Liam Neeson, the towering Scotsman Irishman and the accomplished actor who was tapped to voice Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movies. How hard can it be, to turn up in a studio and read lines into a microphone, letting others do all the animation and motion and imagery? Such an iconic role, you would think Neeson would at least put some effort into understanding it.

Did he? You judge:
Aslan symbolises a Christlike figure, but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries. That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids – that’s what he means for me.
Yeah, right. Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Perez Hilton, Oprah, Michael Moor... whatever.

It's a foolish, stupid statement on so many levels that one swiftly runs out of fingers. For one thing, it will surely damage the enthusiasm for the movie (coming out Friday!) of lovers of Lewis' books to know that nobody making the movie managed to explain Neeson's role to him. If the filmmaker's didn't get that Aslan represented Christ and only Christ, in this most specifically Christian of the books, how badly will they have bobbled the movie?


For another, Neeson clearly hasn't read the books, let alone The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, whose ending is very plainly, specifically, exclusively and clearly referential to Christ.

For another, to lump Christ/Mohammed/Buddha together is like saying, "I like good movies — you know, like Sophie's Choice, Howard the Duck, Schindler's List, Ishtar, Saw. Like those."

The lazy-minded may prefer to give Neeson a pass simply because he uttered the magic words "that's what he means for me." But is reality that plastic? Can I get in to see Neeson's movie if my two pennies "mean" ten dollars "for me"? Will they give me popcorn for a bit of lint because it "means" five dollars "for me"?

I don't see the need to cover for someone who's simply, at best, "slack in his work" (Proverbs 18:9).

Does it mean something for Neeson that Aslan meant an exclusive Christ-figure for C. S. Lewis who, after all, created the character? This isn't exactly rocket-science. The reading-level isn't even that advanced.

Goodness, actors have a bad enough reputation among sentient beings as it is.

It doesn't help for folks like Neeson to underscore it so roundly.

(However, I'll give them this: as far as I know, unlike Brando, at least they memorize their lines.)


Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Sometimes, it feels like it's better to not know the backstory on the actors or writers or directors or producers of a movie. Knowing the backstory can sometimes ruin the viewing experience.

Brad Williams said...

Alas! I noticed the fear that you mentioned in the movie and it irked me. In the book, Dumbledore has zero fear of Tom Riddle. Tom Riddle feared Dumbledore.

Now that you have pointed it out, I am irked again. Thanks, buddy!

REM said...

Why even play numskull and introduce it, Neeson? It isn't about what it means to you it is about what it means. Period. Just once it might be bigger than you, dawg. Wherever there is an E! interview, Proverbs 10:19 is ignored.

James Joyce said...

"that’s what he means for me."

It's the postmodern mantra.
Authorial intent means nothing while reader response is king.

DJP said...

Sure. We can equally say, "So, Liam Neeson things that Aslan is Christ the King, and Mohammed and Buddha are demonic deceivers. At least, that's what his words mean to me."

Halcyon said...


How dare you demand that we surrender plastic reality to objective meanings that exist outside of our subjective perceptions! You are serving to undermine the years and years of hardcore liberation from modernist paradigms and categories!

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to finish reading The Last Battle. It's about a monkey who dresses up a donkey like a lion, which for me is clearly a statement about evolution, the democratic primary, and Ted Kennedy.

Cathy M. said...

Should we release the Kraken? Seriously, how would any of us know how to go green, raise our children, or vote if celebrities didn't tell us how to think. I always like to know what an undereducated, overpaid, entitled, pervert thinks about issues before I weigh-in, but that's just me.

Rachael Starke said...


ROFL. Especially given that it's only a moldy, dusty, and not-alive lion.

Dan, both these scenarios made me wonder about what authors agree to give up when they let their work be turned into film. I don't know about J.K. Rowling, but I can imagine Lewis would be spinning in his grave at maximum speed over Neeson's willful ignorance (were his attention not fixedly and joyfully elsewhere, of course).

I've heard that Nate Wilson's Hundred Cupboards trilogy is going to be turned into a movie series; I'd love to see what Wilson says if any of the actors in that series pull a Neeson. It'll be as entertaining as the movie, hopefully.

jmb said...

According to Wikipedia: "Neeson continues to practice the Catholic faith and has raised his children as Catholics. He has also expressed admiration for The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola."

So how could he be confused about Aslan representing only...uh...never mind.

Mark Lussier said...

I think the last movie I actually paid money to see was Forrest Gump. Going to the movies as a form of entertainment is highly over rated these days. This just proves it. I also stumble a little bit over the tendency we have to deify the actors. Something about the 1st and second commandment comes to mind...

Shepherd said...

To be fair, Neeson's recent comment is in keeping with the tradition of C.S. Lewis' comment in the Last Battle. I can't find it (don't have my copy with me) but the young Talormene who has been worshiping Tash all his life is told by Aslan something to the effect of "Don't sweat it, you really were worshipping me." Its an inclusivist stance. One I disagree with. But even ol' Lewis wasn't perfect.


DJP said...

I agree with you in disagreeing with Lewis, but "Aslan" doesn't say that he is Tashlan, or Tash; just that the pure service the Calormene offered purely was reckoned as being offered to Aslan.

As I say, I disagree with Lewis; but it isn't what Neeson is saying.

Shepherd said...

Be that as it may, I'm less bothered by Neeson's statement than I am by the changes made to the meanings of the stories themselves. This right here is a pretty good article on it, from Touchstone: http://ow.ly/3lgVT. I don't know what's worse - saying that something that is clearly a Christian allegory can be an allegory for all religions (which Neeson did) or taking a Christian allegory, keeping the symbolism, and making it say very non-Christian things (see the article). The latter is what really irks me.

Sir Aaron said...

You're assuming that even if they had read the books that it would have changed how they acted or what they said. I personally don't think so, not because it shouldn't have but because they are resistant to the idea at its core.

Rob said...

Curiously, Liam Neeson also did the narration for a documentary about Martin Luther I watched once. How does he wind up on projects like this?

RealityCheck said...

Even though I’m not a Potter fan (having not read any of the books… sorry) I have seen all the movies and couldn’t help but find Gambon's performance wanting compared to Harris. Just thinking about Harris made me want to watch ”Unforgiven” again.

But the real tragedy in this post is Neeson. I did a little googling and it was pretty easy to find a video of him talking on “The View” about how much he admired Alfred Kinsey who he played in the movie “Kinsey”. BTW, the Christian movie reviewer Ted Baher refers to Kinsey, in his review of the movie, as “an anti-Christian bigot who created bogus "scientific" data to return society to a pagan worldview of sexual victimization and exploitation”.

I also found Neeson talking about Narnia and how he didn’t even know anything about the stories until he was going for the job. It was actually his son that was enthusiastic about his Dad getting the role because he liked the stories so much.

Think about it. What kind of guy (who professes to be a practicing Catholic) admires Kinsey (his words) enough to play him in a movie but thinks Aslan symbolizes Mohammed and Buddha?

At the very least, a guy who seriously needs our prayers.

Tom Chantry said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly about the folly of Hollywood types who think they're smarter than everyone. They don't need to actually read the material they are representing, because their own creative genius clearly trumps that of poor schlups who "only" write books.

That said:

Lewis's "Christ"-figure denied the justice of God and practiced a moral, non-substitutionary atonement. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) He offered a salvation which would be forever, but which the recipients could easily loose if they lost interest. (Prince Caspian) He instructed his disciples in an evolutionary theory of world religion in which rank pagans are viewed as naive proto-Christians. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) He saved everybody from every religion, because all religions are one. (The Last Battle)

Your point remains valid because Neesom is clearly too much of a twit to actually know what he's talking about, but I'm not at all sure that Aslan couldn't be "Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries." Indeed, if this does "damage the enthusiasm for the movie" I rejoice in Neesom's folly! Now if only we could find some way to damage the enthusiasm for the books!

The truth is that as a thinking person and as a reader I'm offended by Neesom's stupidity. As a Christian I can't find it within me to be the least bit offended - for the simple reason that I've never been able to accept The Chronicles as remotely Christian books. I could go on to talk about Lewis's more substantial books and speculate as to exactly what his religion may have been, but I imagine I'd be banned from this and several other blogs.

Si Hollett said...

Tom Chantry: "He saved everybody from every religion, because all religions are one. (The Last Battle)"

This begs the question - have you read the book?
-First off, not everybody is saved in it.
-Secondly, the "all religions are one" idea comes through from the bad guys' Tashlan.
-Thirdly, the Calomene solider that was saved followed the true religion, but had names muddled - he called Aslan 'Tash' and Tash 'Aslan'. This is because he didn't know any better (where's Narnia evangelism?). I can't see how Lewis squares with Romans 10 here, but he's definitely not advocating pluralism here.

Lewis had a Christianity that was mixed with lots of Medieval and Classical thought. It was Christianity, but with lots of sub-par, and some downright bad, thinking. He's a mush of enough 'Christian' strands to appeal to them all (and all with misgivings).

Are the Chronicles of Narnia Christian? Yes. Is there a lot of iffy stuff in there, despite that? Yes.

Halcyon said...


I'm sensing a Lewisian dog-pile waiting in the wings.

(word verification: "nonmas"; n: another secular attempt at replacing Christmas.

Tom Chantry said...


That's an awful lot of parsing for a children's book. Did I read the book? Yes, several times - as a child. What I took from The Last Battle was that all roads lead to heaven. I wasn't too surprised, since I had already read (in Dawn Treader) that superstitious pagans are just Children of God that don't know better because they haven't evolved intellectually as far as we have.

They are kids books which pretty clearly promote some false teaching. What you wrote here sound like tricks designed to say, "I like this book, so while what it taught was not great, neither was it awful." Do you really expect the pre-teens who were the target readership of these books to draw that distinction?

As far as "Christianity that was mixed with lots of Medieval and Classical thought" is concerned, you are free to define "Christianity" so loosely as to include pluralistic, gospel-less religiosity if you wish, but I think we have enough of that in our own day without reviving the memory of a confused soul like Lewis and pretending that he was a profound Christian thinker.

Steve B said...

I don't know who exactly they are reaching out to when they try and front this "we all worship the same god" shtick. Muslims certainly don't think so, and neither do Christians, so really? What's the point?

RealityCheck said...

“I'm sensing a Lewisian dog-pile waiting in the wings.”

lol…yeah… maybe. I do think Tom’s comment is definitely worth thinking about.

In a general sense it makes me think about how much we as Christians are so starving for things Christian around us, that we are far too willing to find them (even… put them) where they don’t really exist.

More specifically to the Narnia books, I was thinking of the book Planet Narnia which apparently does a pretty good job of connecting the Narnia books to medieval cosmology.

I purposely haven’t read the book because I didn’t want to ruin my view of the Narnia books… what does that say about me?

I also remember very much enjoying a talk given by: John Piper about Lewis.

Piper has some major disagreements with Lewis but still finds Lewis to have been one of the biggest Christian influences in his life.

Finally, if Tom is right, we shouldn’t be so surprised at a practicing Catholic who admires Kinsey who doesn’t find Aslan to be as much an exclusive Christ figure as we would hope.

Si Hollett said...

Tom - when you read The Last Battle, a long time ago, you failed to actually read it:
- it's clear from the book that not all are saved.
- it's clear from the book that the idea that all religions are one is false and comes from the bad guys.
- it's clear from the book that only worshipping Aslan (even if you call him something else) gets you saved.

Maybe the pre-teens (if that was really the intended audience - I'm not so sure it was) that the book was written for were less po-mo, more observant and less likely to miss the point than yourself.

Your argument reads like "I didn't like the book so it's all bad"

My problem with your argument is not that it criticise Lewis, it's that it's a complete and utter straw man - nowhere is he a pluralist.

You're totally right that Narnia teaches some bad stuff, so we need to be careful, but you have completely misread the Last Battle - I suggest re-reading it and not relying on childish impressions and your memory to see what Lewis actually says.

Tom Chantry said...


I'm sad that you are so angry with me. I am, though, afraid that my analysis of Lewis is spot-on with his theology - which is readily available in his many books. His pluralism is clearly on display in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, an assertion I've now made twice which you have yet to address. His unbiblical and gospel-less view of the death of Christ, which is not only on display in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe but is also expressed in Mere Christianity, is not something I am willing to dismiss as "teaching some bad stuff."

To put it another way, the problems are far deeper than your understanding of The Last Battle vs. mine. If you are convinced that it does not teach pluralism, I cannot convince you. But when I read a book, I read it in context of the whole series. So when I read that someone accidentally called on the name of the wrong savior and was saved anyway, I tend to think that maybe this has something to do with that savior having earlier rebuked his followers for doubting the "faith" of primitive people who happened to follow a different and very superstitious religion.

I would suggest you dial back the criticism of me (a person with whom you've never interacted before) and ask yourself whether you've really read Lewis carefully. RealityCheck's comment at 9:30 is worth a closer read: I purposely haven’t read the book [Planet Narnia] because I didn’t want to ruin my view of the Narnia books… what does that say about me?

Are you absolutely sure you aren't doing the same thing? Or is there some other reason why you are focused exclusively on one episode near the end of the series? Do you have no opinion on Lewis's use of a Moral Theory of the Atonement (ie Medieval Catholicism at its most sinister) or his explicit inclusion of pre-Christian pagans among the people of God?

If you can't at least ask yourself those questions, I think that's too bad. There's not much more I can say here. It's late in my part of the world, and tomorrow is given to other endeavors. I wish you well.

CR said...

Sometimes what an author writes is not open to interpretation by others, including Liam Neeson.

RealityCheck said...

I just did a quick glance at the talk on Lewis by Piper that I referred to yesterday and he says some things right off the bat that I think are interesting.

Under the heading of, “The Ironic Effect of Reading Lewis” Piper says, “How and why has C. S. Lewis been so helpful to me when I think he is so wrong on some very important matters?” [Emphasis mine]

In the next paragraph he says that the things Lewis said made him [Piper], “embrace inerrancy tighter, not loser... the particularities of the Reformation more, not less...” and then he says this, “There was something about the way he portrayed the wonders of the incarnation that made me more suspicious of his own inclusivism, not less.”

It sounds to me like Piper is saying that it was the way Lewis said things that for him [Piper] caused him [Piper] to go deeper, even though, Lewis, often had the specifics wrong. Is this the case for Si?

In the next paragraph Piper says this, “It may be that others have been drawn away by Lewis from these kinds of convictions and experiences.” [Emphasis mine] Is this the case for Tom?

For me, I’ve never been much of a fiction reader, in fact, my favorite book by Lewis is, “The Aboltion of Man”. My wife started to read it a few summers ago while we were on vacation and not only didn’t finish it but concluded that there may be something wrong with me… lol.

Anyway, I’ll try to read Narnia again some time, with a more critical eye, but I don’t rule out the possibility that my effort will fail because… well… because… Lewis… was just that good of a writer… and there’s the rub.

RealityCheck said...


My daughter was told today that she needs to pick a fantasy book that’s about 200 pages long to do her next book report on. Guess which fantasy book comes in at 186 pages… The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If the teacher gives the o.k., I’ll be reading it (along with my daughter) a lot sooner than I thought just yesterday. I will keep your comments Si and Tom (and others) in mind as we go along.

BTW, when I was looking through my books for the Narnia series I ran across a book I didn’t even remember buying called, “C.S. Lewis & Narnia for Dummies” by Richard Wagner. Going right to the stuff about the first book, I read this interesting comment under the sub-head of “The puzzle's final piece: Aslan”:

“Seeing as the lion Aslan is the central figure in all the Narnia Chronicles, one would assume that Lewis had him in mind from the very start. But, in actuality, Lewis was pretty far along into the first story when Aslan, in his words, "came bounding into it."”

Aslan, the Christ figure… an after thought?!? Interesting…

Tom Chantry said...


That's an interesting quote - Aslan as an afterthought makes you rethink things. I wonder if Lewis was merely attempting to write a great children's story and belatedly incorporated allegory?

I tend to think there's something to the criticism of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe having so much pagan symbolism in it. It only becomes more obviously problematic later on in the series. But to understand this book you really only need to answer one or two questions:

Aslan offered up his life for the sinner (good so far) but to whom? Put another way, whose wrath against Edmund needed to be sated?

And when you've answered that, ask if this has anything to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or whether it is perilously misleading.

trogdor said...

Being clueless about the fantasy world he's acting in is nothing new for Neeson. Remember, he was able to give a long speech about midichlorians without grabbing Lucas and performing some lightsaber proctology. Unthinkable for anyone who knows Star Wars and isn't certifiably insane.