Mark Greene finds plenty to enjoy in the new film based on C.S. Lewis’ classic, ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’
“It’s a very big wardrobe”, says Lucy as she finds herself contemplating the expanses of Narnia. Indeed, it is. And a very credible one too, though rather bigger and grander than the smaller, plainer wardrobe that was Lewis’ inspiration and now sits snugly in Wheaton College in Illinois, complete with a range of mainly American-brand overcoats. Certainly for Narnia-philes, there will be details to quibble at but overall the filmmakers have succeeded in creating a coherent, alternative world with such affectionate wit, and with such skilful computer-generated graphics that you hardly even question the presence of galloping centaurs, talking horses or cor-blimey beavers. And if there are any beasts that we do question it is the curiously orc-like creatures that serve the White Witch. In fact, it is their very orcishness that makes them feel like strays from some other rather less likely world.
Indeed, one of the challenges the film faced was how to create a coherent fantasy world when two others already populate the filmgoer’s imagination – The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Furthermore, Lewis’ lean writing leaves much more to the imagination than either Tolkien or Rowling. The result is that the Lewis reader has had to fill in rather more detail than the Tolkien or Rowling aficionado. So, as director, Mark Johnson, put it, “Our challenge was to fulfil people’s expectations and bring the film up to the level of their imaginations.” And it succeeds, first by staying broadly true to the somewhat homely feel of the book and secondly by staying true to the smaller scale of the book. Certainly, the final battle scene involves more troops than anything you’ll find in Lewis but not so many as to pretend to even be vying with the epic conflicts at Helms Deep or Minas Tirith.
Of course, for many Christians, the great fear was not so much whether this would be a good film but whether the collaboration between Disney and Walden would dilute the Christian allegory. But rest easy, this is a fine film, if not a great one, and the Christian allegory is left intact just as Lewis might have wished – for those with eyes to see, and ears to hear. The novel, after all, was never intended to be propaganda for the Christian faith, rather it was intended to express a Christian worldview in a fantasy world. Indeed, there’s hardly a nine year old in the UK who would get to the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and say, “Aslan is like Jesus”, even if they might be hugely moved by the lion’s loving self-sacrifice and perhaps curiously stirred by the deep magic that explains it. Nor do adults necessarily ‘get it’.
When I worked in advertising I remember being in a bar in New York with some colleagues. Somehow a couple of us began to talk about C.S. Lewis – how these things happen is often a mystery afterwards. Another colleague, who happened to be Jewish, university educated and very bright, interrupted: “Is that the C.S. Lewis who wrote the Narnia books?”
“Yes”, we nodded.
“Oh, he’s my hero. I loved those books,” she replied, “I didn’t know he was a Christian.”
“Yes, he was”, I said, “And Aslan the lion represents Jesus the lion of Judah.”
“But,” she said, “Aslan rose from the dead.”
As openings to talk about the Gospel go, they don’t come much easier. And the film has preserved the Christian worldview that underpins Lewis’ work without seeking to either undermine it or indeed to reinforce it with interpretative images – the shadow of a cross-shape falling on the stone table, for example.
No, this is a straight retelling and it succeeds in maintaining its interest not primarily because of the wizardy of its special effects but because of its brilliant depiction of the emotional dynamics between the four children. Why does Edmund betray the others? How have the other three contributed to his behaviour? How has the absence of their father affected them all? Particularly Edmund who, as the film opens, runs back into his house in the middle of an air raid to retrieve a photograph of his uniformed father. The glass is broken in the kerfuffle. It is an image that the Director returns to later when the children find Mr Tumnus’ home ransacked and a picture of Tumnus’ father similarly broken – the father that Mr Tumnus thinks himself unworthy of.
The success of this ‘family therapy’ approach to Lewis is obviously highly dependent on the child actors and they acquit themselves far better than the Potter trio in their early films. Lucy, played by Georgie Henley, is utterly captivating, moving from wide-eyed enthusiasm to angry tears effortlessly. Similarly, Edmund plays the unpopular second son with the right blend of anger and woundedness, of resentment at Peter and ambition to be his own person. Susan is, as in the book, somewhat bland but never irritating, whilst Peter, the weakest of the four, is more convincing as King Peter than he is as older brother Peter.
Interestingly, one of the biggest changes that the script makes to the book is to the development of Peter’s character. In the book when Peter first encounters the wolf Maugrim, Captain of the Secret Police, he simply kills him but in the film there is an earlier encounter in which Maugrim questions Peter’s capacity to kill. And so do we. In the film, Peter is acutely aware of his age, his inexperience, and feels unfit for the role of leader that is thrust upon him. He is not then a child of the nineteen forties, who simply accepts martial duty, if not with relish, but at least with the strengthening conviction that there is really nothing else to be done. No, this is a child of the 21st century, more squeamish about war, less convinced that they have it in them to do what has to be done, needing reassurance. And getting it, in this instance, from his formerly rebellious, resentful younger brother.
Similarly, in the film, there is much discussion among the children about whether the problems that Narnia faces are theirs to solve. What is their responsibility? The echoes of recent debates in the West about Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan and so on are obviously present. In the film, the defining motivation is most often the children’s desire to rescue Mr Tumnus who had, after all, been Lucy’s friend and had only been petrified because of Edmund. In sum, some high duty to liberate the oppressed is replaced by the more personal desire to rescue a friend. In that, this version of Narnia, despite its opening WW11 air raid scene, loses some of its resonance with the idea of a grand liberating cause of the ilk that impelled Britain to go to war to liberate Poland.
Still, for all its careful psychology and rich characterisation, the film never gets bogged down in it. Rather, it has a relish for the world it has created and this expresses itself in all kinds of details. Mr Tumnus’ home, for example, is richly realised and as Lucy looks around she notices a set of leather bound books, one with the title ‘The Myth of Man’ and another called ‘Humans’. Indeed, one of the joys of the film is this interplay between characters from two cultures, as one or the other suddenly recognises that the other is distinctly strange. This is nowhere better illustrated than the moment when Lucy teaches Mr Tumnus to shake hands. This is something that is done in the land of Spare Oom for no reason that Lucy can think of other than that it is. Tumnus complies but does it ‘wrongly’, though to joyous effect. Like trying to say ‘thank you’ to an Afghani cab driver in Afghan, it hardly matters that you pronounce the word wrong, just the effort to do so is gift enough.
If there is a disappointment in the film, it was for me in the relative impact of the witch and Aslan. The white witch is brilliantly played with icy intensity by Tilda Swinton. She captures the ruthlessness, the deep malevolence and the self-centredness of evil with utter conviction and creates a character that completely eschews the usual clichés associated with hocus-pocus, hubble-bubble, straggle-haired, broomstick ‘witchery’. By contrast, Aslan seems to lack depth. Certainly, it’s harder to bring depth of characterisation to a computer-generated lion when you only have voice tone to work with but somehow we don’t get to know Aslan well enough, or see him often enough to care about him deeply enough. And we don’t see or sense the kind of awe and love that others feel for him that would serve to make him an appropriate and compelling centre of good for the film.
Indeed, as he wanders away across the beach in one of the closing scenes, there is no huge sense of loss, despite Lucy’s wide-eyed sadness. He will be back, we’re told, but will we miss him in the meantime?
In the book, the first time we hear Aslan’s name, Lewis writes this:
‘At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside. Edmund suddenly felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delightful strain of music had just floated by. And Lucy got that feeling when you realise it’s the beginning of summer.’
In the film, there is no such reaction, nothing to compare with John the Baptist’s leap in Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary arrives. And this is its weakness. A good adventure story needs a compelling villain and it needs a compelling hero. Narnia has the former and not the latter. And that is a pity – in both cinematic and kingdom terms. But this is a warm, fun, funny, beautifully photographed film and highly, if not unreservedly, recommended. Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.