Better late than never, right?

Narnia runs deep in my blood. One of my most cherished childhood memories is having my father read the first few books of the Chronicles to my siblings and me, a chapter at a time before bed. By the time we were up to the last few I was old enough to read them by myself, which I did repeatedly through childhood. I revisited Narnia and became rather deeply steeped in the milieu in college, when I got involved with NarniaMUSH.[1]; Rereading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe recently reminded me of how ingrained these books are into my consciousness, and how hopeless any attempt would be to re-evaluate them objectively today.

Given all that, it’s understandable that I approached the new film version with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. But given the larger context, it was the latter that won out as I walked into the theater last night. Somewhere along the line, LWW the movie had been eclipsed by LWW the cultural event, certainly in terms of media coverage. Prior to its release, just about the only article you could find about the movie would be about how it was being heavily marketed to the evangelical community by Walden Media, the folks who gave us the Passion of the Christ marketing blitzkrieg. It took coming to the Midwest (I’m writing this in a coffee shop in Holland, Michigan2) to see it firsthand, though: the billboard advertisement for a church featuring the face of Aslan, or the fact that the Holland Christian school system sent all its students to see the movie.

This is weird, wacky stuff. First of all, whatever happened to the fundamentalists I used to come across who were down on the Chronicles, what with their magic, witchcraft, and unorthodox-theology-if-you-could-even-call-it-that, penned by a quirky universalist neo-Platonic Anglican? Are they quietly stewing right now, or have they morphed and embraced Lewis now that he’s a Pop Culture Event? And why is everyone behaving as if LWW is some sort of straightforward Christian allegory? C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist: check. Hodgepodge of Biblical references: check. Sacrifical atonement by a godlike figure: check. But what book did you read in high school that didn’t have Biblical references and a Christ figure?

Lewis gives away—strips away, actually—the metaphor at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when somebody (Aslan himself, I think) hints that Aslan goes by another name in our world. As a kid it wasn’t until that moment that I “got” that aspect of the story. And I was quickly disabused of the notion that they were Just Christian Stories when I first logged on to the aforementioned NarniaMUSH and mets scads of fans of the books, ranging from atheists to pagans to Christians, who appreciated them for what they are, primarily: excellent children’s fantasy literature.

So yeah, back to the trepidation. My hope going into the theater was that, whatever the marketing campaign, the film itself would simply do the book justice. (It was in the can before the marketing began, after all.) My worry was that the same people selling the film in churches had gotten their fingers into it while it was being made and turned it into . . . something else, something that was a neater allegory to contemporary evangelical Christianity in particular.

Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the movie hews remarkably close to the book. There are the expected changes for a Hollywood film: additional action sequences, punched up dramatic sequencing, modernized dialogue and sensibilities. (“Battles are ugly when women fight in them” is changed to just “battles are ugly”—a better line all ‘round.) But none of it was in violation to the spirit of the book, and there are even a few dramatic choices that I’m sure Lewis would have wanted in his book if he had thought of them at the time.

A quarter of the way through I was worried that these young actors didn’t have the chops to pull off their roles. I don’t know if I was just sufficiently sucked in to ignore that stuff, or if they all get better, but that didn’t bother me again through the rest of it. Lucy in particular does a swell job. And all their characters age subtly but effectively, so that by the end you can actually buy Peter up there in front of the army, even though he was playing hide-and-seek just an hour and a half earlier.

J.R.R. Tolkien disapproved of Lewis’ Narnia to a certain exten;: it was sloppy world-building, after all. Lewis tosses in elements from English folklore, Greek mythology, Norse mythology, and throws in Santa Claus to boot. Ask too many questions about Narnia’s socioeconomics, or geography, and you’re bound to come up with some inconsistencies. But in the movie this messiness works, especially when surveying the delightful menagerie of the Narnian army, or the Irish stew of boggins and troglodytes that make up the jeering masses at the Stone Table. WETA Design, the folks who brought Middle Earth to life in all the wonderful ways documented in the extended LOTR DVDs, were also responsible for this Narnia, and you can tell they had a blast with it.

Big kudos to the filmmakers for starting the film with the London air raids. It’s a throwaway line in the book but it works wonderfully as a way to contextualize the story, introduce the Pevensies, and provide a counterpoint to the fantasy battles inside the wardrobe.

LWW is a good movie, but not a great one, and one of the big reasons is that Andrew Adamson has taken way too many pages from the Peter Jackson Book of Fantasy Film Direction. This is true throughout, especially in the climatic battle scenes, which are done rather well except for a fact that they steal rapaciously from The Lord of the Rings, sometimes shot-for-shot. It all would have been a lot more thrilling if we hadn’t seen it before. This is going to be a problem for anyone who wants to do a fantasy movie or a big army battle scene for a long time—Jackson found a near-perfect visual language for it, so how are you going to live up to that but still be original? A tall order, and one that doesn’t get filled here.

A lot of it still works, though. Like the centaur dude dual-wielding broadswords—Lewis never would have written that in, but he totally kicks ass.

I couldn’t help myself—as I watched the movie, I was keeping a mental inventory of any changes from the book that might be construed as an attempt to Christianize the story more than it is. I came up with three, all of them tenuous:

1. Aslan walking away at the end on the beach. Subtle reference to the maudlin Footprints in the Sand meme? It’s a stretch.

2. After the battle, Aslan says “it is finished,” which doesn’t happen in the books. But if this is a conscious allusion to the Biblical words it is just plain bizarre, seeing as they are Christ’s words moments before his death on the cross. It works as a nod but not as any sort of allegorical reinforcement. Maybe a coincidence.

3. The fact that the trees carry the news of Aslan’s death to everyone back at the army camp. In the book, only Susan and Lucy (and the reader, of course) are ever aware that Aslan dies and comes back. I always liked the fact that Aslan’s death and resurrection were so limited—for the sake of one person alone, and done essentially in secret. It meant there were associations with the Christ story but no point-for-point connectivity. Making everyone aware of Aslan’s death moves it a step closer to being a collective, religious experience, which it’s not in the book. But you could also make a good case that doing so simply increases the dramatic tension, so, as with the previous two points, this really isn’t enough to get worked up about.

So where are they going to go from here? The IMDB doesn’t have anything else on the horizon, Narnia-movie-wise. I’ve heard it said that if this one does well, they have six more that they can make, but that isn’t necessarily so—not all of these Chronicles are necessarily going to translate well to film. Prince Caspian, the next one in order3, is a middling contender. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader would be a much better bet for a next movie—it would work well on film, and is the best of the books to boot. I would love to see The Horse and His Boy and The Silver Chair, my other two favorites, but neither The Magician’s Nephew nor The Last Battle seem like the big screen is going to embrace them without some heavy tweakage.

Whatever happens, though, I no longer have trepidation about the film future of these beloved books. If Adamson & Co. stay on this course, it’ll be good—good enough, at least, to withstand whatever manner of marketing silliness, for those who are willing and able to see past it.


Some links:

1. Joshua Bell, a fellow Narnian from those days, has an excellent page describing what the heck a MUSH is for those who don’t know, and describing NarniaMUSH in particular. Those readers who also took part in NarniaMUSH will also appreciate his archive of assorted files and maps from those days as well. Quite a trip down memory lane.

2. Lemonjello’s Coffee. Good place.

3. This seems as good a place as any to shoehorn in my Chronicles of Narnia Book Order Rant. The published order of the books—LWW-PC-VDT-SC-HHB-MN-LB—has stood for a while, but more recent editions have been coming out in chronological order—MN-LWW-HHB-PC-VDT-SC-LB—presumably with the consent of the Lewis estate. This is all poppycock and nonsense. Lewis wrote an oft-quoted letter to a kid one time where he suggested reading the books in chronological order, but if you read that whole letter it’s clear that what he was saying was “it’s not a big deal, and if you’ve already read them the published way why not read them this way this time,” not “This Is The Way I Wish My Books To Be Read.” When it comes down to it there’s really only one point of contention. LWW-PC-VDT-SC-LB should obviously be read in that order. The Horse and His Boy is unrelated to that chronology, and can be inserted pretty much anywhere. The issue is whether to read The Magician’s Nephew, the “prequel” book, right away or at some later point. And as far as that goes, MN as it is written is clearly the sort of prequel that you read after having read the other stuff. It gives plenty of “aha!” answers as to how various things came to be in Narnia. Answering the questions at the outset takes away a little of the mystique of LWW especially, and besides, MN is a quirky, somewhat uneven work—not the strong opener you’d want for a series of books. Chronological order is a fun way to read the Chronicles on a subsequent reading, but sucks as a way to tackle them at the outset, and super-sucks as a way to publish them.