Over the last few weeks, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe stirred up more hype and suspicion about Christianity's uncomfortable relationship with Hollywood than any film since Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ almost two years ago. And, like Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Narnia has raised concerns amongst fans of the book as to whether this would be a faithful adaptation. Thus, it's no surprise that both of these previous projects are being referenced in the reviews of director Andrew Adamson's film.
But is it a good film? Do Adamson's revisions to Lewis's story really matter? Is the film spectacular and groundbreaking, or merely workmanlike? Does the film speak to newcomers as powerfully as it does to those who already know the story? Is it overbearingly "Christian"?
Reviews in the mainstream or religious press are yielding many and varied opinions.
Made under the watchful eye of Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham, Adamson's movie is an enjoyable, symphonic, and delightful fantasy. Few disagree with that. It's a kaleidoscopic vision of fanciful and colorful creatures, fantastic landscapes, and laugh-out-loud surprises. Almost all critics are praising the performances of the actors, especially Georgie Henley, who fills young Lucy with tangible awe and wonder.
But when it comes to whether or not the film is a sufficient reflection of Lewis's beloved book, that's where critics differ.
"Everything is just as you imagined it, only better," raves Adam Tillman-Young (Relevant). "Old fans and newcomers alike are certain to be satisfied…"
Certain to be satisfied? Almost all of the other film reviewers in Christian publications are, to some extent, dissatisfied. They find plenty to praise, but a good deal that is lacking.
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Adamson's film … is neither as daring nor as visionary as Jackson's or Gibson's films. Nor is the screenplay … 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."
He adds, "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. … The facts speak for themselves, and the truth is that the filmmakers have taken significant liberties—some good, some bad, some indifferent."
He goes on to spell out just how far the film strays from the book.
Similarly, Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) chronicles the film's missteps. "Alas, fairy tales are not what they once were, and the newest dramatization of Lewis's story … reflects the ambivalence of our age. It also reflects the perceived need for 'realism' in film, a 'realism' that is more about emphasizing human flaws and epic battles than about recognizing true strength of character."
Chattaway continues, "Granted, it is no crime if a movie makes changes to the story on which it was based—and not all the changes here are for the worse. But Christians have a special attachment to the Narnia stories; Aslan not only represents Christ, he is Christ in Narnian form, and much has been made of the book's apologetic and evangelistic potential and, therefore, of the film's as well. But it is precisely on those points that the film is weakest."
Meanwhile, at my own blog, Greydanus and Chattaway (and others, including me) got into a spirited debate about the film's merits—or lack thereof. The conversation, which I've called "Narnia Smackdown," was started by Barbara Nicolosi of Act One: Writing for Hollywood, who says that anyone who prefers Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films to this Narnia movie is "smoking crack." Ouch.
In a roundup of four critics' opinions at The Matthews House Project, Michael Leary says, "Adamson undermines Narnia by playing with its delicate balances of power. His Aslan simply isn't the sort of thing that his White Witch would ever be that scared of. Truth be told, it would take little effort to turn the quickly paced descriptions and dialogue of [the book] into a screenplay. The film has been lauded for its faithfulness in this respect. But I guess adaptations are more than mere transposition of dialogue, they also involve the evocation of an author's moral imagination."
Several authors contribute alternate views on the same site. David Downing, author of Into the Wardrobe, says, "It's an odd feeling to want to love a movie, but to find oneself only liking it. I wasn't disappointed … but I wasn't enthralled either." Similarly, Louis Markos says, "Oddly, though Narnia is itself very much at the center of the film, the movie is almost more realistic than it is magical. … I did not really get the sense of Narnia being alive." Taking a more positive tone, James Como says the film is "faithful both to the substance and spirit of the book." And Paul F. Ford raves, "From beginning to end I was captivated. … Everyone in front of the cameras and behind them … deserves praise."
Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "It feels intense for a PG movie. … And the climactic battle scene and chase sequence will likely frighten more than a few kids. The Witch's cruelty to Edmund is harsh, and the humiliation and killing of Aslan will bring a tear even to an adult's eye. So this is not a tame movie. But in the words of Lucy, it is 'good.' … Adamson has deftly captured the thrill and splendor of Lewis' stories and preserved the essential allegory at the heart of Narnia."
Nathaniel Bell (CBN) says, "Lewis' work, for all its richness, somehow loses some of its savor from the journey from page to screen. Perhaps we have been glutted with too many Harry Potters and Lemony Snickets to fully appreciate the sight of dwarfs, giants, and centaurs charging into combat, but the climactic battle between good and evil lacks the requisite gravity." But he also praises "the physical handsomeness of the production … the vibrancy of the characterizations … and the thematic implications of the story."
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) isn't thrilled. "Ultimately, [the movie] is a niceadaptation. Not dazzling, not dull—but a pleasant film using 21st-century technology to tell a 20th-century story about a time out of time and place out of place."
Josh Hurst (Reveal) says the problem is obvious—Wardrobe is not supposed to be "an action/adventure flick. C.S. Lewis … was big on characterization, good old-fashioned storytelling, the richness of language. Adamson seems more concerned with making a sleek, family-friendly holiday blockbuster, heavy on suspense, PG-rated violence, and wisecracking animal sidekicks. Yes, it's Lewis fans' worst fear—Adamson has essentially Shrekified Narnia." Aslan, he notes, has been reduced to "a mysterious but limited sage" who "never quite reaches the level of roaring power that is so vividly described in the book."
Hurst concludes, "Adamson has not only made a mess of Narnia, but he hasn't even managed to make a particularly compelling adventure film."
Andrew Coffin (World) says, "Fans of the great lion … will be happy to learn that the lion is strikingly animated and voiced … and ultimately is presented in the film clearly as a Christ figure. However, attentive Narnia readers will notice scriptings that weaken him in relationship to the White Witch, shifting the focus from Aslan's redemptive power to more generic themes of family, leadership, and compassion."
But he concludes that the movie "is served wonderfully by Lewis' singularly devout imagining. Mr. Adamson's film, although in many ways wonderfully conceived and realized, suffers from competing interests, not all of which were conceived by Lewis' orthodox imagination. Yet through it all, Aslan's fearsome roar is still powerful enough to be heard over the din."
Greg Wright (Hollywood Jesus) writes, "Gresham is perhaps unfortunately correct in claiming that the success of the movie will hinge on the appeal of the story, not on the craft of the film's director—for the strength of this movie is the story, which is effectively enough told, if in a journeyman-like fashion." Wright suspects that most viewers will be satisfied, even though he is "disappointed" that this is merely "a good film rather than a truly groundbreaking one. … There's just not enough about it that's really unique."
Kenneth Morefield (Viewpoint) describes it as "a glossy, pretty, spectacle that is, above all things, consumer friendly. An artistically and spiritually safe lion for a spiritually tame (sub)culture."
Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) writes, "This movie is a faithful adaptation and provides high quality, wholesome entertainment. You may not get everything from the movie that you get from the book, but the essence is there."
Stephen McGarvey (Crosswalk) says, "Although it doesn't meet the standard of an 'epic' film, it is certainly enjoyable to watch and largely true to original story."
Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) say, "Long beloved as one of the most meaningful of Christian books, The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe has now become one of the most beloved of films. It is a gift to all of us."
Mainstream critics offer a wide variety of opinions, especially concerning the film's echoes of the gospel.
Steven Hunter (Washington Post) says it's "well told, handsome, stirring and loads of fun. It's also, for mordant ironists, a rich vein of psychological ore revelatory of the beloved 'Jack' Lewis, as he nicknamed himself, who wrote children's classics by night, taught and lectured on medieval English lit at Oxford and Cambridge by day and, by very late of night, dreamed of spanking various ladies of his acquaintance." He quickly adds, "Well, we shall speak no more of that little quirk."
Chris Barsanti (FilmCritic.com) says, "Although Narnia doesn't lend itself well to the cheeky pop culture reference-o-rama that Shrek did, it shares those films' same treacly sentimentality and market-researched plasticity."
Stephanie Zacharek (Salon) writes, "I'm not sure the Jesus imagery in Narnia is any more overt than what you get in E.T. (he does, after all, have the power to heal and to rise from the dead). … But the most 'Jesusy' section of 'Narnia' is one that's played so powerfully—it's moving and staggering at once—that it can be read on any number of levels. I think, more than anything else, it speaks to our capacity for compassion, and if that's not nondenominational, I don't know what is. If certain religious groups want to lay claim to compassion as a brand, that's their business. But it shouldn't interfere with anyone's pleasure in 'Narnia,' or, for that matter, in C.S. Lewis' books."
Christopher Tookey (The Daily Mail) raves that the film is "a wonderful, colossal, stupendous film that should entertain anyone of any age, nationality or religion. It is not just a 'must see' but a 'must see again and again.'"
And Kirk Honeycutt (The Hollywood Reporter) says, "What is lightly sketched in the novel, where much is left to the imagination, blossoms into full-blown, richly detailed life in the movie."
But Nick Schager (Slant) rants, "Despite Adamson and his three fellow screenwriters' thorough attempts to whitewash the story's more religious features, the film still never manages to fully escape its roots as a spiritual parable." (Schager does not go on to explain why he would want a film to sever itself from the roots that enriched it with such lasting significance in the first place.)
Schager continues, "And the devout … will find significant Christian undercurrents to latch onto, primarily because Lewis's narrative was a model of unsubtle New Testament symbolism. … To say that it's all more than a bit simplistic and heavy-handed would be a severe understatement. But there's no denying the unintentional hilarity of Aslan's overwrought death scene, in which he's bound, shaved, mocked by a screaming mob, and killed in some sort of surreal anthropomorphic PG version of The Passion of the Christ."
Hilarity? Indeed, the film has some shortcomings, but Schager might be the only critic who finds Aslan's death "hilarious."
Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian) stands up for the film: "It unfolds the slim book into a rich visual experience that is bold and spectacular and sweeping, while retaining its human intimacies. I can't see how it could be done better. Perhaps Mel Gibson would have preferred Aslan to be whipped with barbed wire for 30 minutes before the main event, but Adamson handles it with finesse."
But in the same publication, Polly Toynbee turned in what has become the most widespread review of the film—an elaborate expression of hatred for the Christian faith. Regarding Aslan's redemptive act, she writes, "It does not make any more sense in C.S. Lewis's tale than in the gospels. … Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to? Poor child Edmund, to blame for everything, must bear the full weight of a guilt only Christians know how to inflict, with a twisted knife to the heart." She calls Aslan "an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come.… Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan."
Meanwhile, Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) praises the movie: "This is a film situated precisely on the dividing line between traditional family entertainment and the newer action-oriented family films. It is charming and scary in about equal measure, and confident for the first two acts that it can be wonderful without having to hammer us into enjoying it, or else."
For those seeking something besides Aslan's big screen kingdom, here's an alternative: Syriana, director Stephen Gaghan's complicated thriller about oil, corruption, and intrigue starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jeffrey Wright, and Christopher Plummer.
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "a shame" that the film "carries such potential to be one of the year's best, when it falls short because Gaghan tries too hard to streamline the story and make it unconventional. The result is a movie that causes more confusion than controversy, when really its primary objective should be to communicate effectively. Syriana is nevertheless interesting and worth watching, despite the fact that complete comprehension of the film seems just beyond the reach of the viewer."
Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Syriana offers a bleak yet eye-opening look (albeit from one director's perspective) at how countries and corporations are determined to protect their oil interests. At its core, it is a scathing indictment of how oil and the money and influence it generates corrupts everyone who seeks to control it. Almost every character experiences erosion of his integrity at some point—even those who are trying, on some level, to do the right thing. So it's a profoundly pessimistic moral picture that's painted onscreen, as it suggests that much of what we depend upon in government and business isn't just eaten away at the edges, it's thoroughly rotten."
He concludes, "Syriana will cause those who see it to ask, 'Is it really that bad?' I can't answer that question. But I can tell you it's a question worth wrestling with—though I'm not sure any of us need to see a film as violently despairing as Syriana in order to begin grappling with it."
Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) writes, "This is a better than average movie, but you may not agree with all of its politics. Whether you take the proposed ideas and scenarios as absolute fact or not can be a side issue, and you can instead notice the things that are presented as being valuable, namely: humanity and honesty."
Mainstream critics are impressed, but they're also struggling to sort it out.
More reviews of recent releases
Pride & Prejudice: Josh Hurst (Reveal) poses the questions that had Austen fans worried: "Staging yet another remake of a Jane Austen novel? One that has already won the love of so many through its five-hour BBC adaptation? One that stars Keira Knightley? Madness! It seems like the kind of film that should have failed before it even got off the ground. But it didn't. On the contrary—it's one of 2005's best films."
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