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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | Books & Film

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Aslan’s different, and the White Witch is braver, but otherwise, Andrew Adamson’s adaptation of the beloved Lewis classic is an admirable effort.


Would C.S. Lewis have been pleased to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe make its big-screen debut?

The imaginative Oxford don was not a big fan of the idea. Judging from the quality of fantasy filmmaking in the 1950s, it’s easy to understand why. Who wants to see Aslan, Narnia’s lion king, played by a guy in a floppy brown suit? In fact, Lewis would have been dismayed to see how many people prefer movies to reading in 2005. He wrote, “Nothing could be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.”

Strong language. But Lewis might have given things a second thought if he saw what director Peter Jackson accomplished with his trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And if he had seen how the Harry Potter films have motivated fans to advance-order hardback books in J.K. Rowling’s series, perhaps he would have been encouraged.

Director Andrew Adamson (the man who made Shrek) says he made The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he had wanted to do so since he first fell in love with the story as a child. And his film brings Lewis’ tale to the screen with energy and admirable faithfulness to the main events of the book — from the wardrobe to the lamppost to the Stone Table and back again. While the talking animals created by computer animation aren’t as convincing here as they were in Jackson’s Middle-Earth, it’s still a delight to finally see Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, the fox, the Witch’s wolves, and, of course, Aslan, walking across the big screen.

But the film’s greatest strength is its cast of human beings. Georgie Henley was clearly born to play Lucy Pevensie, the youngest of the four Pevensie siblings, the one who first stumbles into Narnia. Her arrival there is the most delicate and enchanting scene of the film, and her encounter with the shy and conflicted faun, Mr. Tumnus, is a joy. James McAvoy makes an excellent faun, trotting about on his goat-like legs. Lucy’s sister Susan, played by Anna Popplewell, is under pressure from their mother to “be a big girl,” and she’s already prone to thinking too much. Can she have enough faith to find her way through Narnia’s perils? The eldest, Peter, played by William Moseley, could have taken some tips from his inspiration on the page, who was a born leader; here, he’s troubled, reluctant, and weary of being responsible for the others during this trying time.

Edmund, the troublemaking brother, is just as bratty as he is in the book, but Adamson smartly develops his character so we can see some of the causes of his obstinance. His rebellion becomes the backbone of the film, as he betrays the siblings, realizes his mistake, and must hope for rescue from a power greater than himself.

It is here that Lewis’ Christian convictions become most evident — too evident for some moviegoers. (A film critic at Slate grumbled that “the film still never manages to fully escape its roots as a spiritual parable.” And why should it? Hasn’t the story lasted because of its deep roots in truth?) When the siblings finally meet Aslan, they learn just how much the King of Narnia cares about each one of them, and how far he will go to secure Edmund’s salvation. If you take young children to the film, you’ll want to stay close to them during Aslan’s most heroic act. It’s a nightmarish sequence, just as it should be, and even adults are likely to shed tears.

Readers should be thrilled to see that Adamson has preserved the heart of Lewis’ tale. No matter what criticism he receives, he has guaranteed that the film has enough spiritual resonance to make it last for generations as a story of hope. In a time when many would like to see Christmas frozen out of “holiday” traditions, it’s good to see a film that embraces the true meaning of the holiday — that hope has come into the world, salvation that we could not have managed on our own.

But it’s likely that Lewis, after praising the cast and the incredible visual effects, would have concluded with some harsh criticism. After all, it’s conceivable that the filmmakers could have done their job without deleting any key scenes or important dialogue. Adamson has edited quite a bit out, probably to make room for the elaborate war sequences in the final act, a conflict that Lewis was content to sum up in only a few paragraphs. This does more than merely abbreviate the movie — it severely limits our understanding of Aslan.

When asked if Aslan is safe, Mr. Beaver replies, "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you." It’s one of the book’s most beloved lines. Is it in the film? Nope. In fact, most of the information that the beavers give the children about Aslan is excised from the film. Further, moviegoers won’t learn that Aslan has a father: the Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Perhaps if we’d been given more time with Aslan, as we are given extra time with almost all of the other central characters, we would have been as awestruck by his power and authority as we are through Lewis’ prose. Maybe we should hope for a director’s cut.

Moreover, Adamson has changed the nature of the story’s villain. While Tilda Swinton delivers a chilling performance as the self-proclaimed queen of Narnia, she seems like quite a different character than the book’s White Witch. Revisit the book, and you’ll notice how any mention of Aslan’s name strikes terror into the witch’s heart. She lashes out at any who acknowledge the lion’s authority. She has to plead for an audience with him, whereas onscreen she boldly approaches. (If fact, she’s carried in on a litter, while Aslan just stands there looking perturbed, without the throne that Lewis gave him in the book.) She’s smarter too. On the page, she must ask the humans to identify themselves — here, she greets Edmund as a “Son of Adam” immediately. Sure, it makes her scarier, but it also contributes to the diminishing of Aslan’s superiority.

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to judge Adamson too harshly for this. He was, after all, focusing on engaging audiences in suspenseful entertainment, and if that influenced him a bit too much, inclining him to change things that tarnish Lewis’ vision, perhaps fans will forgive him. We need only look around at the other holiday movies now playing to become exceedingly grateful for Adamson’s work.

Let’s hope the next installment, Prince Caspian, gets as good, or better, treatment.



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