The Chronicles of Narnia (1988‑1990)
By Steven D. Greydanus
Part fairy-tale adventure, part Christian allegory, part classical mythology baptized by Christian imagination, The Chronicles of Narnia rank among the most beloved works of C. S. Lewis, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and popular Christian writers and a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien.
For children and parents who have enjoyed the Narnia stories, this WonderWorks series represents a unique opportunity to revisit these classic tales in a new way. Like many BBC adaptations, these made-for-TV movies are respectful, straightforward visualizations of the text of the books, rather than reimaginings like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
Beautiful, rugged UK landscapes, splendid old castles and other shooting locations, and some fairly impressive sets help create a sense of authenticity. At the same time, with the earlier episodes especially limited by modest production values, rudimentary special effects, and uneven acting, the Chronicles can’t be held even to the standard of such American TV productions as the Merlin and Arabian Nights miniseries.
At times, in fact, the costumes and props are more reminiscent of stage productions than TV fare. However, for viewers able to exercise a suspension of disbelief comparable to what would be appropriate for a televised stage play, Lewis’s spiritually rich stories come to life with excitement, beauty, and magic.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Directed by Marilyn Fox. Sophie Wilcox, Jonathan R. Scott, Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook, Barbara Kellerman, Jeffrey S. Perry, Kerry Shale, Lesley Nicol, Jeffrey S. Perry, Michael Aldridge, Ronald Pickup (voice of Aslan). BBC, 1988 (TV).
Based on the first of the Narnia books, this film tells the story of how four London children staying in a country manor home during the Nazi air raids discover a mysterious wardrobe through whose doors one can step into another world. There they find a world of magic, talking beasts, and mythological creatures — but also a world gripped by perpetual winter, ruled by the cruel White Witch, but rightfully belonging to the great Lion Aslan.
With its allegorical retelling of the redemptive passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is among the most spiritually significant of Lewis’s tales. Unfortunately, WonderWorks’s first stab at Narnia is also the most limited and flawed, with full-sized adults in silly costumes playing Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, extensive reliance on hand-drawn animation, and wobbly devices such as Edmund debating with a visualization of his own conscience.
Even more problematic is a line in which the filmmakers clumsily attempt to explain why Aslan, on the eve of his great trial, doesn’t comfort Susan and Lucy by letting them in on the secret of the ultimate outcome of the Deeper Magic. The reason, Aslan explains, is that the Deeper Magic had "never been tested" — and this is supposed to make Aslan’s sacrifice more compelling because he "took that risk" for Edmund. Needless to say, this is rank heresy against the omniscience of Aslan and the omnipotence of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Fortunately, the series improves as it goes on.
Aslan himself is a two-man puppet, well-made and serviceable. Unfortunately, Ronald Pickup as the voice of Aslan is rather wheezy, lacking both the requisite authority and the humor for the role. Among the child actors, Sophie Wilcox shines especially bright as Lucy, with her round face and genuine manner.
Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Directed by Alex Kirby. Sophie Wilcox, Jonathan R. Scott, Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook, David Thwaites, Samuel West, Warwick Davis, Jean Marc Perret, John Hallam, Robert Lang, Ronald Pickup (voice of Aslan). BBC, 1989 (TV).
The second BBC film combines two stories, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, awkwardly blended into a single tale but still presented as separate episodes. Prince Caspian is one of the slighter of Lewis’s stories, and as abbreviated here is slighter still, omitting both the spiritual lessons of the journey to Aslan’s Howe and also the mythological riot of the final chapters. However, the production values are improved, and after the over-tall Beavers it’s nice to see Trufflehunter the badger played by a suitably sized actress in a decent costume.
With The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of the best loved Narnian tales, the filmmakers finally hit their stride, and this episode is a delight, with the Dawn Treader herself, Caspian’s ship, beautifully realized, virtually every major episode covered (the encounter with the mer-people at the world’s end is one of the few omitted bits), and the Christian imagery (Eustace’s transforming "baptism"; the Lion looking like a Lamb) and moral insights (the dangers of wealth; the fearfulness of our own inner worlds) basically intact.
The story features one of Lewis’s most delightful characters, the valiant Mouse Reepicheep, played by Warwick Davis with pluck and spirit, but somehow not quite capturing Reep’s gallant bearing.
The Silver Chair
Directed by Alex Kirby. David Thwaites, Camilla Power, Tom Baker, Richard Henders, Barbara Kellerman, Ronald Pickup (voice of Aslan). BBC, 1990 (TV).
The third and final film in the series is the most mature, complete, and satisfyingly realized of all the four adapted works. Following the books, it’s also darker and grimmer than its predecessors, with an extended journey into darkness that calls into question the reality of everything the heroes love and believe in.
As Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, one Lewis’s best and most vivid creations, Tom Baker (sometime Dr. Who) is excellent; he’s not the right physical type for the froggy Marshwiggle, but he nails the long-faced bog-dweller’s blend of frowning pessimism, canny wisdom, steady nerve, and finally heroic faith.
For dramatic reasons, Lewis’s Black Knight has been made into a kind of Man in the Iron Mask; Richard Henders makes the enchanted Knight too sinister and menacing rather than frivolous and giddily shallow, but does better with the role when the spell is broken.