Monday, December 05, 2005

The new Narnia movie

My wife and I were among the lucky ones to see a pre-screening of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe this past weekend. So how was it? Well, here's a long-winded review:

I had the privilege to take a full course in C.S. Lewis when I was in college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. I learned a lot in that class from Dr. David Ard, who now teaches at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. One of the things I learned is that Lewis was steeped in the Christian faith and in mythology (or should I say that the other way around?).

That is clear from his Chronicles of Narnia. Here, not only do you meet Aslan (a Christ-like figure modeled on the messianic title, Lion of the Tribe of Judah), you also meet fauns, satyrs, Bacchus, centaurs, minotaurs and all other manner of mythical creatures. Lewis knew mythology inside and out. He studied it extensively before his conversion and he taught it at Oxford. This was no small part of his life.

But what it seems to me a lot of people are missing is that after his conversion to Christianity, Lewis subordinated this to Christ. Yes, he knew a "good yarn" when he saw 0ne and wrote one. And yes, as many commentators have pointed out, he did not start writing the Chronicles as an exercise in Christian allegory, but rather he simply started writing about a little girl going through a wardrobe into a land in winter and meeting a faun. And he liked it, as well he should have. It is a good yarn.

However, there's something more that people are missing. Lewis, for as much as he didn't like the Catholic Church (despite his close friendship with JRR Tolkien whose Catholicism permeates all of The Lord of the Rings), was heavily influenced by the Catholic Church in some of his thinking -- primarily that Christ is the fulfillment of all of the world's hopes and dreams, not simply the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. He certainly is that, but, as Michelangelo painted the Greek Sybils in his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, all the good that the pagan world every hoped for -- from Plato to Aristotle to Virgil to Buddha -- is found in Jesus Christ.

That is why Lewis can have characters such as Bacchus in his stories. In Prince Caspian, for instance, Susan and Lucy are with Aslan and come across a wild outdoor party with a young man and a bunch of girls, not a party as 21st century American adults think of, but a wild game and eating without manners. Here is their conversation:
"I say, Su, I know who they are."
"Who?"
"The boy with the wild face is Bacchus and the old one on the donkey is Silenus. Don't you remember Mr. Tumnus telling us about them long ago?"
"Of course. But I say, Lu--"
"What?"
"I wouldn't have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we'd met them without Aslan."
"I should think not," said Lucy.
It is Aslan who brings these mythical creatures into right order. It is his divine nature that brings them to the way they were created to be.

With that in mind, the abundant dualistic commentary on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is really off the mark. Lewis did not think in an "either/or," nor even in a "both/and" mode, but rather that the one (paganism) is subjected in truth to the other (Christianity).

So when it came to watching the film, it's easy to see that Andrew Adamson is not comfortable with the one being subjected to the other. It seems to me, rather, that he's more interested in the bottom line and does not effectively address the issue of who Aslan is and his overwhelming presence in the books.

The film is well shot and the scenery in it is stunning. The special effects are quite good, and it's clear that there is a lot of influence from The Lord of the Rings. (Of course, the film was partly shot in New Zealand, the same place as LOTR, and Adamson used WETA Workshop for a lot of the digital effets as well as things like the swords.)

***WARNING***
***PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD***

The storyline follows the book very closely -- the basics are there and I have no complaints about that. Interestingly, Adamson chose to focus a lot on the children's home life in London, something which Lewis hardly glances at. In fact, we begin with the bombing of London and the children getting out of the house as Nazi bombs fall. Edmund runs back -- against his mother's and brother's wishes -- to get a photo of their father, who is off in the war.

But when they do get to Narnia, Peter and Susan keep looking back wanting to get back to London. While in the book this does happen when they first get in, once they've gotten to the Beaver's house, that's long forgotten.

What I noticed most, though, is that there is something missing to the dynamics, a certain sense of longing, of connection to Aslan. When the Beavers first mention Aslan, there's no sense of awe and wonder on the children's faces -- they sit rather impassively, almost in a "So?" attitude -- completely opposite of what Lewis went into great detail to describe. The dynamics between Susan, Lucy and Aslan are low-key. I was left wondering what it was that was between them that they would stay with him, except for the fact that it was the plot of the story.

There is also an irritating aspect about Peter's character -- can no one in the Hollywood elite believe anymore that it is possible for a man to be single-minded in good character? Why is it that leading men are being portrayed as having so many doubts about their identity and should they do what they're supposed to do? Peter Jackson did this to the character of Aragorn in LOTR. Tolkien was clear that Aragorn knew who he was and what he was doing and where he was going. Jackson and his team of writers, though, would have none of it. Aragorn was portrayed as confused, perplexed, unsure of what he had to do and if he was willing to do it. They did an even worse job to Faramir, Boromir's brother. Tolkien was firm that Faramir was by no means tempted to take the Ring, but Jackson has Faramir not only wanting it, but kidnapping Frodo to get at it. Only later does he realize he's wrong.

Peter Pevensie is shown just the same way. He keeps wanting to go home. His mother told him to keep an eye on his three siblings and he's taking that charge seriously -- so seriously that he doesn't want to stay in Narnia, and he certainly doesn't want to lead an army against the White Witch. In the heat of the battle, he yells at Edmund to get the girls and go home, something which the Peter that Lewis portrayed would never have done.

This seems to be a misplaced feminism -- the man watching out for the home front sort of thing. While that may be OK in another story, it falls short here. That's because Lewis's Peter is concerned about honor and virtue and winning the battle for Aslan, to whom he has sworn fealty. There is no "I don't care about a prophecy" attitude at all. Aslan has won over Peter's heart and Peter will do what is needed to save Narnia from the White Witch.

What is also disappointing is that there is no clear Christian theme here. Oh, some lines come out, but it is not the overarching theme. In fact, some things get downplayed. After Aslan has been raised and the stone table split in two, Lewis has Aslan say, "It means, that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation..." In the film, that line about "a magic deeper still" is missing and he only talks about the deep magic. Which means that we have a dualistic outlook here -- two gods of equal strength who are at war with each other. And that is definitely not what Lewis had in mind.

Was there anything good about it? Oh yes -- the battle scene was terrific. Borrowing some techniques from Peter Jackson, Andrew Adamson makes an excellent battle. The creatures on the Witch's side look a lot like Orcs from LOTR, but, hey -- how many evil-looking creatures can you come up with? The battle kept you in suspense, which was quite an accomplishment considering you already know how it's going to turn out.

The character of the White Witch was played to icy and chilling effectiveness by Tilda Swinton. She personally has an enigmatic beauty about her, something which she used to great effect in playing the witch, because while you were attracted, you knew subconsciously that there was something evil about her that you could not quite put your finger on. No wonder Edmund felt the attraction.

Edmund was well-played as a brattish sort of boy who couldn't stand his family by Skandar Keynes. William Moseley's Peter would have been good, had it not been for the direction Adamson took him in. Anne Popplewell's Susan was OK, but Georgie Henley as Lucy was much better done. However, there was, as I said before, that certain spark that was missing in their relationship with Aslan, which was due to scripting and directing, more than their acting abilities.

All in all, it's a good yarn. But while it's being marketed by the same people who marketed The Passion of the Christ, this isn't something that is anything on that order. Remember that this is Disney, and Disney has one thing in mind -- the bottom line, not the truth of Jesus Christ.

2 comments:

Mark Lickona said...

Tom:

Nice work.

I had heard rumours that the makers of this adaptation (and the holders of C.S. Lewis' estate) were concerned to make Lewis' works appealing to many more people than "just Christians" (e.g., the Harry Potter set--this might explain the quasi-Manichean dualisms you've detected--or the Jackson LOTR set--funny how Jackson's Gandalf the White seemed more like a D&D refugee than a figure of the Resurrected Christ).

As if anyone needed to apologize for Lewis' Christianity, so winning are his stories.

Was there fear of giving offense? Or of oppressing the viewer? Would children have been offended or oppressed by an awe-inspiring, Christ-like Aslan? Of course not. Children naturally desire God--for one thing, they desire their parents to be God, i.e., God-for-them--which is why nothing shatters faith like divorce. No, it's guilty (divorced?) adults who needed to be "defended" here.

And of course beyond the defensive (and possibly pagan) deconstructions of Lewis' Christianity as incarnated in Narnia, there seems to be at work here the general sort of Hollywood deconstruction of all things traditional, e.g., the traditional observations on the particular inclinations/geniuses of man and woman, the model of the pure-hearted man of purpose, etc.

And why does Hollywood deconstruct? Guilt and animosity, perhaps--but if so, I suspect it is a guilt and animosity which those in charge honestly believe the whole world shares. Guilt projects. (Freud wasn't wrong about everything; Percy recognized that.) People on the inside will tell you that all Hollywood cares about is money. It's true. It's just that they are tragically out of touch with their market. Otherwise The Passion of the Christ might have taught Hollywood that the most lucrative Narnia would have been the most potent and undiluted Narnia--potent and undiluted in its Christian mythology. Trying to make Narnia into Potter/Jackson's LOTR will only result in a neither/nor, i.e., something altogether typical, something not at all magical--something not all that successful.

Hilko said...

Great piece! There's a definite 'tension' in my local church on this whole issue, akin to what happend during the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings hypes. It surpised me, as I had hoped that Lewis would be above suspicion.

The issue of "using magic/myth/fantasy at all", is really just the surface problem. The deeper issue is whether Lewis was correct in his approach to paganism. The extreme black/white thinking in my circles is quite aggravating in this respect.

Very good read, anyways, and a very interesting issue to discuss. I've taken the liberty to quote and translate parts of your post in my personal blog (www.munandu.com), with a link to this one. If you wish for me to remove any references to your blog, leave a message.

Hilko