One of the most magical effects in Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn’t rippling computer-generated fur, ice castles, or battle scenes. It’s the wide-eyed wonder and delight on the face of young Lucy Pevensie (Georgie Henley) as she passes beyond the wardrobe for the first time into the winter wonderland of the Narnian wood.
Based on the beloved first volume of C. S. Lewis’s faith-inflected fairy-tale series The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe tells the story of four children swept up into a war of good and evil in a magical fairy-land, with the great Lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) versus the evil White Witch (Tilda Swinton), whose magic holds Narnia in the thrall of a hundred-year winter and whose house is full of stone statues that were once her enemies.
The arrival of LWW on the big screen is a cultural milestone of sorts, in some ways a crossroads of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and The Passion of the Christ.
As a tale of a war of good versus evil in a fantasy land with mythic creatures, LWW recalls Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, minus the obligatory large-scale story compression and PG-13 battlefield mayhem.
As an ensemble story of 20th-century British schoolchildren caught up in a world of magic and danger, it evokes the Harry Potter stories, though without the moral debates about witchcraft and rule-breaking and the like.
And with its central motif of a divine being who faces down a chilling icon of evil and brings salvation by laying down his life before triumphing over death and evil, it recalls The Passion of the Christ, but without the troubling arguments about antisemitism or the almost unbearable brutality.
At the same time, Adamson’s film — the director’s first solo effort and first live-action film (Adamson’s only prior credits are co-directing Shrek and Shrek 2) — is neither as daring nor as visionary as Jackson’s or Gibson’s films. Nor is the screenplay, by Adamson and three credited co-writers (none with any notable credits), as faithful to the source material as the Harry Potter films (at least before the books broke 500 pages). Nevertheless, the film brings Lewis’s story to life with sufficient fidelity and movie magic to make it one of the best and brightest family films in some time.
Take the interactions of Lucy and Tumnus the faun (James McAvoy), and of Swinton’s White Witch and Lucy’s older brother Edmund (Skandar Keynes). Either scene is fraught with danger: The prospect of a little girl meeting a strange male in the woods at night and going home with him could easily take on creepy overtones, while the White Witch, though she must be creepy, must not be so repellent that any child would only shrink in terror from her, since Edmund must be at least somewhat able to endure her.
Happily, the actors are more than up to the challenge. McAvoy brings just the right naivete and otherworldliness needed to put viewers at ease with his spontaneous friendship with Lucy, while Swinton’s disconcertingly aloof White Witch is at once chilling and strangely compelling. The atmosphere of these scenes, if not always the dialogue, is nearly perfect.
Aslan himself is another triumph. An astounding digital creation, he doesn’t exactly look like a real lion — he’s somehow too perfect for that — yet he doesn’t look like a hokey special effect either. He’s more like the quintessence of lion-ness than an ordinary lion, which is perhaps exactly right.
As the voice of Aslan, Neeson hasn’t got the growly basso profundo I’ve always imagined (and tried to emulate for my children reading the books aloud), but he actually fits the bill surprisingly well, with just a hint of digital tweaking. Listening to him, it occurs to me that I might be able to accept Neeson as the voice of Jesus in an animated life-of-Christ film (like Ralph Fiennes in The Miracle Maker); and Aslan, of course, is Jesus’ Narnian alter ego.
The film follows the basic plot and structure of the book, and its most important themes — guilt and expiation, sacrifice and redemption, death and resurrection, the triumph of good over evil — are preserved. Yet widespread reports of the film’s “slavish” or “religious” fidelity to the book are just flat wrong. This is perhaps somewhat surprising, because education-oriented Walden Media has a track record of ultra-faithful adaptations, from Holes to Because of Winn-Dixie. Yet the facts speak for themselves, and the truth is that the filmmakers have taken significant liberties — some good, some bad, some indifferent.
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.
Peter’s diffidence makes even less dramatic sense because he’s supposed to be the leader — Aslan himself has said so — and certainly by the end of the story, if not sooner, any leader worth his salt should be leading his followers in the right direction. If the filmmakers had wanted to show Peter growing into leadership, a natural turning point would have been the scene in which Aslan knights him after he kills the wolf. Yet they miss even this opportunity, depicting Peter continuing to “lead” in the wrong direction right up to the climax.
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.
All four Pevensies are ideally cast. Henley particularly shines as Lucy, but Keynes makes Edmund human without undercutting his nasty streak. William Moseley’s Peter manages to project compassion for Edmund even as he scolds him, and Anna Popplewell’s Susan is self-possessed and cool-headed.
Like Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, Adamson’s Narnia has been scouted or created in New Zealand, yet the Narnian forests and plains feel more intimate and less expansive than Jackson’s immense vistas and endless mountain ranges. (At times Narnia actually seems a bit too cozy; the Witch’s house seems just around the corner from the Beaver lodge, so we miss out on Edmund’s miserable trek in the snow.)
Though the child-empowerment theme has its drawbacks, it offers some creative bits as well. I particularly like a clever line from a fox (Rupert Everett) who is part of the Narnian resistance. And for all the downplaying of the religious themes, at least one touch, a strategically deployed echo of the sixth of Christ’s seven words from the cross, suggests a deliberate nod to the story’s redemptive meaning.
For family audiences, LWW is a minor treasure in a holiday season — sorry, a Christmas season! — with few alternatives beyond tired family-sitcom remakes (Yours, Mine and Ours; Cheaper by the Dozen 2). Particularly for those who’ve never read the books, or who remember them only dimly, the taste of Lewis’s story and themes afforded by the film may well be a revelation, and they may wish to seek out the books after seeing the film. Viewers who know the books, too, will return to them after seeing the film, grateful to the film for what it adds to them, and to the books for what the film leaves out.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.