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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Narnia movie, take 3

(takes 1 and 2 found below)

By following a link at Martin LaBar’s wonderful blog, I found an excellent review* of the Narnia film. It articulates the essence of my concerns in much greater detail than I was capable of, and has given me confidence in my initial misgivings. Steven D. Greydanus puts his finger spot on it. Here’s an excerpt (yes, this is just an excerpt! But read the whole review, it's worth it):

Change in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some of the film’s departures from the book honor or even enhance the story while adapting it to the needs of the screen. Some of the filmmakers’ better ideas include an unexpected glimpse of Aslan’s power in an early scene which provides a moment of grace for Lucy (and Tumnus), additional insight into why Edmund tells a particular lie in a way that makes perfect emotional and narrative sense, and a twist on a case of briefly mistaken identity which is merely suspenseful in the book but exciting in the film. Purists will object to a number of added action scenes where Lewis had only an uneventful forced march, though in themselves these don’t harm the essence of the story.

On the whole, though, the filmmakers are safest sticking close to Lewis’s story, and tend to go awry when they depart from it, which they do more often and more seriously than they should. Take the depiction of Peter Pevensie, the eldest sibling, whom Lewis depicts as a natural leader who intuitively grasps the obligations the siblings have to Tumnus and to Narnia. In the film, Peter becomes a reluctant participant who is always trying to back out of Narnian affairs and get his siblings safely back to England. It’s the Aragorn Complex; the only good leader, Hollywood is sure, is a reluctant leader (cf. also Moses in The Prince of Egypt). Even in the climactic battle, as Aslan’s army clash with the forces of the Witch, Peter continues to be preoccupied with getting Edmund and the girls to abandon the conflict and return home to England.

This characterization makes no sense, dramatically or thematically. It makes no sense thematically because by now it’s been well established that the defeat of the Witch and the triumph of good requires all four children — two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve — to be enthroned at Cair Paravel. If three of them go home prematurely, the prophecy won’t be fulfilled. The filmmakers seem not to notice this conflict; even Mr. Beaver seems ready to go along with Peter’s plan to divide the children, even though he’s the one who taught them the prophecy.

...Other changes are even more ill-advised, and sap Lewis’s story of much of its underlying meaning and thematic richness. Most seriously, Aslan, the great and terrible Lion, is robbed of much of his awe-inspiring majesty — not by inherent limitations in translating the story to the screen, but by specific alterations in the screenplay that consistently eliminate references to Aslan’s power and his effect on others.

No longer do the children and the Beavers speak tremulously at the Beaver lodge about how intimidating it will be to meet a Lion, or hang back at Aslan’s camp before approaching him, nudging one another and trying not to be the first to step forward. No longer does Mr. Beaver utter what is arguably the single greatest, most resonant line in the entire book: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.” (The “But he’s good” bit is revisited at the end in connection with Tumnus’s line about Aslan not being “like a tame lion,” but the crucial notion of Aslan not being “safe” has been jettisoned.)

No longer does the Witch find the mere mention of Aslan’s name unendurable and threaten to kill anyone who uses it. Nor do Aslan’s enemies repeatedly balk in terror before venturing to bind, muzzle and shave him at the Stone Table.

The screenplay systematically elevates the role of the children and the Witch herself at Aslan’s expense. In the book, when Father Christmas arrived, he said, “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.” In the film, a curiously un-festive, brown-clad Father Christmas (James Cosmo) offers a contrary explanation, attributing his arrival to the Pevensies rather than to Aslan: “The hope brought by Your Majesties is starting to weaken the Witch’s power.”

Perhaps the single gravest change to the story is one that greatly empowers the Witch at Aslan’s expense. It is simply the eradication of the whole motif of the Witch’s overt fear of Aslan. This is absolutely crucial to the book’s emphasis on the utter lack of parity between the omnipotent Aslan and the powerful but limited Witch. The whole vision of good and evil at work in the story turns on the fact that the Witch is never even close to being a rival or threat to Aslan, any more than Lucifer to Christ himself.

The filmmakers, perhaps motivated by a misguided dramatic notion of needing the villain to be a credible threat to the hero, eliminate practically every indication of the Witch’s fear of Aslan from the story — in the process jettisoning much of the point Lewis was making about the nature and relationship of good and evil.

Not that Lewis’s point is lost entirely. By the end, certainly, it’s unambiguously clear that Aslan’s power and understanding are far beyond the Witch’s. Lewis’s point is thus ultimately affirmed, though it isn’t clear throughout the story as Lewis intended it to be.

The problem of the apparent parity of Aslan and the Witch is nowhere more glaring than in the parley or summit meeting, which the film begins and ends very differently from the book. In the book, Lewis makes a point of having the Witch send her Dwarf to beg safe conduct from Aslan before she will dare to approach him. In the film, by contrast, we’re told that the Witch has “demanded” an audience with Aslan, with no mention of safe conduct requested or granted. In fact, the film depicts her fearlessly entering Aslan’s camp on a royal litter with her dwarf acting as herald proclaiming her arrival, rather than as emissary begging safe conduct.

The end of the parley scene, a highlight of the book, is even more glaringly changed. In the book, when the Witch expresses doubt whether Aslan will keep his word, he lets out a terrible roar, striking the Witch’s dumb with terror and causing her to flee abjectly for her life. In the film, since the Witch has come in a litter, she can’t very well pick up her skirts and head for the hills, as Lewis had it; instead, she merely looks a bit shaken and sits down kind of hard before being carried off. Lame.

Even during the parley, the film subtly undermines Aslan’s control of the situation. In the book, when the Witch brings up the Deep Magic, Aslan remains supremely calm, even toying with the Witch (“Let us say I have forgotten it. Tell us of this Deep Magic”), causing her to begin shrieking angrily about the Stone Table, the sceptre of Aslan’s father, the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, and the World Ash Tree.

In the film, on the other hand, it’s Aslan who gets angry, snarling, “Don’t tell me about the Deep Magic! I was there when it was written!” This is an interesting line, but Aslan now seems merely indignantly assertive, rather than supremely in control. (In interviews, Tilda Swinton has spoken of not wanting to portray the Witch getting angry and “hot under the collar,” which she felt would only diminish her character. Ironically, no one seems to have noticed or cared that Aslan was diminished in precisely this way.)

Visually, Adamson has obviously been influenced by Jackson’s trend-setting work in LOTR. As a storyteller, though, Adamson lacks the poetic and dramatic sensibilities that made Jackson’s films so effective. The visual and emotional impact of some of the most important sequences, which a more gifted or experienced storyteller would have played for maximum impact, has been muted or lost.

Take the transition from the Witch’s winter to Aslan’s spring, a major motif in the book. It wouldn’t be going too far to say that the changing of the seasons — a process of profound mythological significance — is one of the central organizing principles of the book; that in a word LWW is precisely a Christian mythopoeia of the end of winter (representing the fallen state of the world) and the coming of spring (representing redemption and the new creation). Lewis devotes pages and pages to melting snow, running water, the appearance of various varieties of flowers, and so on. The film, however, has no time for all this, and gets it out of the way with an action scene, a few brief effects shots, and a quick transition.

Or take Aslan’s agony-in-the-garden via-dolorosa walk to the Stone Table. In the book, the omnipotent Lion alarmingly stumbles, moans, and confesses to being sad and lonely, even asking Susan and Lucy to comfort him (as the angels did in Gethsemane) by placing their hands on his mane so he can feel them. A filmmaker like Peter Jackson would have zeroed in on the emotional impact of this scene like a heat-seeking missile. Alas, here Aslan seems merely somber as he walks to the Stone Table; of the pathos and the passion of Lewis’s scene, there is no hint. Why? Having diminished Aslan in so many other ways, why cheat on the one scene in which Lewis actually allows him to be emotionally vulnerable?

Perhaps most inexplicable is the film’s half-hearted approach to the reanimation of the enchanted statues in the Witch’s courtyard. So vividly does Lewis describe this scene that the last time I read the book to my kids, I actually had to interrupt the reading to take them outside and set fire to some crinkled-up newspaper to show them what it looked like (to see why, see this review of the 1988 BBC version of the story, which quotes the relevant passage). This is precisely the kind of scene for which God created special effects. One can hardly imagine a filmmaker coming across that scene and not yearning to linger over all those statues gradually coming to life. Why, then, does Adamson give us only one token onscreen reanimation, and consign the rest to off-camera action? What was he thinking?

These aren’t the objections of a purist unwilling to accept departures from the text. The problem is not the filmmakers’ depatures from the letter of the book, but their insensitivity to its spirit, not to mention the sometimes slapdash quality of their storytelling even on its own terms. I don’t mind early scenes establishing Lucy’s apprehension regarding the unseen Professor at whose country estate the children are staying. Yet, having established that dramatic tension, shouldn’t the film have somewhere to go with it? Didn’t anyone notice that it makes no sense to introduce the Professor by having Lucy actually cling to him for comfort during a quarrel with her siblings?

All these missteps add up to the difference between what could easily have been one of the greatest family films of all time, and what is, instead, merely a good one. Though the film misses greatness, even in this diminished form Lewis’s story is still well worth seeing, and the film adds enough to the experience to keep things fresh. [emphases added]

Greydanus' points are very well taken, especially the ones about the shift in emphasis from moral struggle to behavioral things (in a token-character kind of way). This is why I wanted more attention given to Edmund’s hike to the White Witch’s lair. He’s supposed to be fantasizing about what he will do and have when he’s king (as the Witch has promised) and how he will get back at his brother for being angry with him. He also rationalizes his thoughts and actions. In the movie, though, his spoken concerns over who or what is good or bad and who or what is to be trusted (when the children are just-arrived in Narnia) seem only manipulations to get his siblings into the Witch’s grasp. But in the book, it’s all about his inner struggle over what he wants to be true and good vs. what he knows or suspects to be really true and good, and how this all relates to his own thoughts and actions.

None of this is shown in the movie, however. Neither is the irresistible, corrupting appeal of the Witch’s Turkish delight. The T. D. is merely bait to get him to return to the Witch, not a true temptation. Edmund is shown merely as a traitor and a generally disagreeable boy (though still with a bit of sweetness and openness), not as someone struggling with issues of the heart (/mind). Not to mention that the whole point of his encounter with the stone lion inside the Witch’s courtyard is lost in the movie.

It’s also true that Peter isn’t quite the “threatened deserter” in the book that he is in the movie. He's portrayed as almost hapless, though in a sympathetic way. One also doesn't get much of a sense that use of the tools he and his siblings are given by Father Christmas is guided by Aslan; the children appear to just sort of use them on the fly.

In the face-off between Aslan and the White Witch and their respective armies, the real difference between good and evil is not evident. There are merely "nobles" pitted against "uglies." Nor is the Witch’s effect on creatures and people (as when everyone felt cold in her presence as she approached Aslan, in the book) shown…nor is Aslan’s, really. Allegiances are shown, but not explained.

As for the Professor, the cinematic version is too much of a kid himself, or else too much on the same “level” as the children -- perhaps reflecting the way that generations have been sort of equalized in modern society. There is a fear of him in the beginning, as if he’s some eccentric bogeyman, but later when the children learn they have nothing to fear from him he is just sort of a quirky old man. He is not shown as being particularly learned or wise nor as keeping a proper distance/mystique, and the children do not show him reverence and respect as such. There is too much familiarity between him and the children.

As Greydanus says, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is just a great action/adventure family flick rather than a morality play as it should be. I still think it’s a wonderful movie, but it's not really true to Lewis’ intent for the story.

Lewis’ brilliance in storytelling lay not merely in his ability to incarnate moral truths in fanciful yet plausible (in a fairy-tale sort of way) narrative, but also in his ability to illustrate the motivations of the human heart and their consequences. It is self- and moral recognition mirrored in Lewis’ writings that highly influenced my own conversion. What a shame that most of this aspect of Lewis’ story is lost in the movie.

*I was late to finding this review because I purposely didn’t read any reviews before seeing the film. I wanted to see it with only the book in mind.


  • I think that you and Greydanus are correct that the story isn't the same, but I still think it indicates the need for a supernatural redemption to pay for sin remarkably well, for a mainstream media production.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 11:35 PM  

  • What a pair of wonderful reflections on this movie. I quite enjoyed your reflections as well as those of Mr. Greydanus--they both treat movies with a fundamental respect, according them the right (and the responsibility) of speaking with the language of cinema. Reading into the particular nuances of how representation changes meaning is one of the best things that can be done with movies, and many of his observations, from Peter's transformation to the movie's presentation of Aslan (whose emasculation is perhaps THE event of the movie) is a wonderful and just thing to do.

    I was a bit disturbed that someone as insightful as Mr. Greydanus would refer to the Lord of the Rings movies as "effective"--in terms of "poetic and dramatic sensibilities" CoN:LWW beats the blunt, sledgehammer storytelling of LOTR merely by sticking closer to what was originally a well-told story.

    I will say that I imagine the many weaknesses in the screenplay to be failures of art, and not of intention, if that makes sense, and in that sense I was mollified into a gentle enjoyment of the movies. But, in a certain sense, this is the most damning thing a person could say about this new movie: it wasn't even intentional enough to be misguided or evil, something I would have far preferred--it was merely lukewarm, the kind of thing someone great once averred to wish to spit out.

    After seeing the movie, I felt quite the same.

    By Blogger Nate, at 11:54 PM  

  • I really like what you both had to say about Aslan. I believe that his de-deification was the most important flaw in the movie. A flaw that takes a great work of Christian art (in the book) and removes both the Christian, and the art. Greydanus describes how Adamson causes Aslan to be "robbed of much of his awe-inspiring majesty." I wrote extensively on my blog. Specifically about how Aslan is Sublime in the book, but not in the movie.

    By Blogger noneuclidean, at 12:36 AM  

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