At last, the Pevensies have reached the silver screen. What a joy to see Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—the four siblings of C. S. Lewis's beloved The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe—brought to life so vividly. After all of the rumors, the fretting about literary fidelity, and the angst about religious agendas, we can praise director Andrew Adamson and his fine young actors for developing these "Sons of Adam" and "Daughters of Eve" into three-dimensional, engaging characters.
There they stand, at a train stop in the middle of nowhere, luggage in hand, fidgety and nervous. Their mother has sent them away from bomb-blasted London due to the Nazi threat, and they're on their way to a safer place in the country. Wasn't someone from the mansion of Professor Kirke supposed to meet them here and take them away to their new wartime refuge?
But they're no more nervous than Lewis's countless fans who worried about a faithful adaptation. Could Adamson pull it off? Would the film measure up to the hype and expectations? Are these Pevensies like the children of the book? And above all—did they get Aslan right?
Back at the train stop, watching the road for any sign of help, young Edmund frowns, checks his I.D. tag, and says, "Perhaps we've been incorrectly labeled."
Indeed. Many mainstream journalists have treated the movie as a sort of pending terrorist attack, but this movie cannot be dismissed, like so many preachy "Christian films," as religious propaganda. And the anxious faithful can relax, as Adamson has done no serious injury to the narrative's basic outline of sacrifice and redemption. "The lion's share" of Lewis's meaningful story remains intact.
Adamson, who also directed the Shrek films, was never much interested in the religious implications of Lewis's narrative. He, like Lewis, was caught up in the wild imagination of a timeless fairy tale, which happens to be full of references to the pagan mythology that Lewis found so rich with reflections of the truth. The film, which was made under the watchful eye of Lewis's stepson Douglas Gresham, is best enjoyed as a symphonic and delightful fantasy. It's a kaleidoscopic vision of fanciful and colorful creatures, fantastic landscapes, and laugh-out-loud surprises.
Into the Wardrobe
The film literally opens with a bang, as Adamson smartly starts by depicting the German air raids on London. In that chaos, Adamson establishes the Pevensies' four distinct personalities and temperaments in quick, efficient strokes, even before the train carries them out of London.
Once inside the mansion of the mysterious Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent, perfectly cast), Adamson unfortunately skips their exhilarating exploration. He's too eager for the hide-and-seek game that sends Lucy burrowing into the coat-stuffed gateway to Narnia's wonders.
What happens next is one of the most enchanting sequences in the history of fantasy filmmaking. For a few minutes, everything is exactly as it should be. Mothballs. Fur coats. Snow crunching underfoot. Prickly needles of evergreen. This chapter is lifted beautifully from Lewis's description, ushering us into his wonderland with exquisite grace.
Here, young Georgie Henley, playing the role of Lucy, reveals that she's the film's greatest treasure. If eyes are windows to the soul, Henley's soul is super-sized. Without her vibrant personality and mischievous grin, Narnia would lose its lifeblood. She makes Lucy's awe and delight contagious. (Her glee is quite real: In a stroke of genius, Adamson arranged for Henley to be carried onto the dazzling wintry set blindfolded, and the cameras caught her actual response to its beauty.)
Lucy, still wide-eyed with wonder, then meets Mr. Tumnus the faun, played by James McAvoy. In an endearing turn, McAvoy gives the faun delicate humor and a haunted heart, and his interaction with Lucy is both charming and portentous.
Adamson gives each child a clear and separate journey. Lucy will lead them, as fairy-tale children so often do, into a world of discovery, and her faith will be richly blessed. Susan (Anna Popplewell) will learn that logic and "too much thinking" can prevent her from apprehending miracles. Peter (William Moseley) is insecure and easily exasperated, whereas in the book he was a natural leader; like Peter Jackson's melancholic Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he must rise to seize a sword and lead the charge against evil.
Above all, rebellious Edmund (Skandar Keynes) benefits from the revisions. The boy's obstinacy now seems to spring from a reasonable source—he's distraught over his father's wartime absence. His attempts to discredit Lucy's discovery of Narnia are given new motivation and vitality, and his betrayal of his siblings stings, swells, and aches for most of the film.
Turkish Delight, of course, baits Edmund to his fall, served up by the magisterial tempter of this frozen wonderland, the White Witch. Tilda Swinton plays the Witch with admirable restraint and intelligence. In spite of her outrageous costumes and an annoying dwarf attendant who desperately needs a throat lozenge, she's an effective seductress—it's believable that a naïve troublemaker would accept her cold comfort. Like Palpatine delivering sugar-coated lies to Anakin Skywalker, the Witch fools him with what he can't get elsewhere: flattery and promises of power.
A mere amusement park?
It's odd, however, the way that Edmund gets from place to place. In the novel, he makes a torturous journey to reach the Witch's castle. But here, Narnia's landmarks feel about as far apart as Disneyland's amusement park rides. The castle's just a couple of city blocks from the beaver dam, which is a quick stroll from the lamppost, which is just around the corner from the hills where Aslan's entourage awaits.
But there are deeper problems here. Insofar as the movie adheres to Lewis's text, it's a knockout. But as Adamson wedges in original action sequences, he willingly sacrifices far too much of Lewis's most essential dialogue. Peter Jackson had no choice but to severely abbreviate The Lord of the Rings in order to contain it in feature-length chapters, but Adamson's challenge was quite the opposite. Lewis's story is short, simple and concentrated—every episode, every line counts.
For no good reason, conventional adventure spectacle replaces the joys of long, memorable sequences like the melting of the witch's dominion, a woodland Christmas party, and the thawing of prisoners. Adamson's more excited about inventing a frantic fight with wolves on a frozen river, and 20 minutes of elaborate, Jackson-esque, CGI warfare, as if to ensure there's enough material for a video game tie-in. Lewis, preferring beauty to violence, only gave the war a page or two.
Those who don't know the book won't find anything amiss. Those who do will realize that Adamson's excisions do more than just quicken the pace—they change the nature of important characters.
The beavers, vividly voiced by Ray Winstone and Dawn French, are a cartoonish but likeable pair. But they're robbed of significant lines that build our apprehension of meeting Aslan and help us understand his kingship. The book's devotees will be dismayed to find that Mr. Beaver is denied his famous speech about Aslan's power and authority: "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you." (Tumnus and Lucy echo this sentiment later, but it doesn't serve the same purpose.)
Meanwhile, our dear, benevolent Professor has been reduced almost to a bit role, with many of his key lines of dialogues seriously abbreviated or outright dropped. It staggers the imagination as to why he's been minimized to just a couple of grandfatherly interjections. An expanded "special edition" is in order.
A diminished Aslan
As for the character we've all longed to see—Aslan—let's face it: He's not the Aslan who gave that novel its bold and beating heart. He's given a voice of nobility and gentleness by Hollywood's favorite warrior-mentor, Liam Neeson. Thanks to the animators, he's a beautiful sight, if not quite as convincing as the CGI characters in Jackson's Middle-Earth. But Adamson, working with Emmy-winning co-writers Ann Peacock, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely, has severely altered Aslan's presence and power in the script.
While other characters' roles have been expanded, the lion's appearances are painfully brief. He doesn't have the time onscreen to earn our affection and awe the way we might have hoped. And scene by scene, the writers consistently skirt the issue of Aslan's authority, eliminating most references to his history, power, and influence. Aslan's father, the Emperor-beyond-the-sea, is never mentioned. Instead, the lion waxes philosophical like Obi-Wan Kenobi, mentioning the Deep Magic that "governs" his "destiny." Huh?
Just as Aslan's majesty has been diminished, the strength of the Witch has been upgraded. She bears little resemblance to the sorceress who made Mr. Beaver declare, "If she can stand on her two feet and look [Aslan] him in the face it'll be the most she can do and more than I expect." In the novel, Jadis went into terrified hysterics at the mere mention of Aslan's name—here she barely flinches. When they face off, she's fearless. Did Adamson make the White Witch a more threatening villain to increase suspense? That's a practical idea. But Lewis would have objected. This Aslan is essentially muzzled and bound long before the Stone Table scene.
Still a success
It is a shame to have lost any of Wardrobe's wonderful resonance. But in spite of some grave errors in judgment, Adamson's film is still an admirable success. Let's keep things in perspective: It was once rumored that other filmmakers were moving the story from London to present-day L.A. after an earthquake, casting Janet Jackson as Narnia's Witch, and packing Narnia's streets with wisecracking critters à la Madagascar. Adamson and company should be commended for respecting Lewis's imagination as much as they did.
Lewis described a story's sequence of events as "a net whereby to catch something else." While Aslan's intimidating power and glory has escaped them, the filmmakers have "caught" the essence of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And they've blessed the holiday season with a first-class family film that will stand tall after Lewis's detractors have spent their feeble arrows.
With its story of a savior who suffered the consequences for others' sins, and whose power proved greater even than death, this meaningful myth reflects rays of hope into a culture paralyzed by the chill of unbelief, where many really would prefer a winter without a Christmas. Those who respond to the movie's roar by running to Lewis's book will find Deeper Magic in its pages. Meeting them there, Lewis himself will lead them "further up, further in."Discussion starters
- Discuss the different personalities of the siblings at the beginning. What are their various strengths and weaknesses? What do they need to learn?
- Which of the children are you most like at the beginning of the story? At the end? Discuss.
- In the early scenes between Lucy and Tumnus, what provokes Tumnus to confess his evil to Lucy? Why doesn't he turn her in to the Witch?
- Compare the way in which the Witch lures Edmund into serving her, and the ways in which Satan tempts us. Why did Edmund follow her?
- Is Aslan stronger than the Witch? What evidence does the film give?
- In what way is Aslan's story like Jesus' story? Do we need a savior, or can we save ourselves? Has a mere human being ever been able to overcome death?
Note: Dig into the film even more with our Movie Discussion Guide.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The film is appropriate rated PG for battle sequences and frightening moments, including the disturbing ceremonial murder of a central character—though there's no blood or gore. There's also a violent battle scene near the end, reminiscent of the battles in the Lord of the Rings films—though not as graphic. There are some scary creatures in the Witch's army, and her legion of wolves are also rather frightening. Young children may be troubled by some of these scenes and images.
Photos © Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 12/15/05
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."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.