Parents who loved the Narnia stories as children will enjoy interpretation
December 12, 2005
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Dir.Andrew Adamson. Perf. Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Anna Poppelwell, WilliamMoseley, Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, and Jim Broadbent. Disney/Walden, 2005.
Director Andrew Adamson, his cast, and technical crewsfaithfully have interpreted to the big screen this story by C.S. Lewis,professor, author, and Christian apologist. Adamson’s film is an amazingaccomplishment for several reasons. First, a story set in an imaginary landwith mythical creatures places high technical demands on the film. Second,millions of children have been enchanted by the Narnia stories since the 1950sand their expectations create a high threshold of expectation for Adamson andcompany. Disney’s affiliations with Walden Media did not settle many Christianparents’ fears that the movie might not be in safe hands. In the final monthsand weeks prior to release, Adamson ran the gauntlet of a media frenzysurrounding a story and a writer grown dangerous in a polarized and polarizingage. Lewis remains a problematic figure because he is suspect in academia as amiddle-brow scholar. He is too Christian for a secular age and too secular forconservative Christians. In this context, it is a triumph that Adamson hastranslated this children’s classic. Parents who loved the Narnia stories aschildren will not longer be forced to endure low-quality visual storytellingthat left children and adults alike feeling cheated or tantalized.
Adamson adds to the story a prologue that begins with a London air raid. Readerswill remember that Lewis simply states that the children are being sent off tothe countryside to escape the German bombing campaigns which had terrorized London. A bit later inthat sequence, I’m not sure why we needed cricket and a broken windowpane toget all the children into the wardrobe rather than Lewis’s mechanism – escapingvisitors on a tour of English country houses. Sure, Adamson wants to bring theProfessor (Jim Broadbent) back at the end of the film. Another plot change occurs in the escape fromthe beaver’s lodge, but Adamson’s plot changes are mostly minor.
The opening sequence, however, is a wise expansion of thecontext which Lewis did not need to establish. Today’s children have littlecontext for Hitler, WWII, or the Blitz. Adamson gives children a framework forthe tale of four siblings in an imaginary world. For post-9/11 adults, theblitz scene sets up great sympathy for children in general and these fourcharacters. This sympathy could not be more Lewisian. Adamson’s choices drawout our most powerful longings – our desire for a world of safety. Of course,the film reminds us that the safety we want is neither available in this or anyother world, nor is it to be preferred. For as the four Pevensy children learn,too, struggles must be endured if life is to be meaningful. Still, our longingsfor the children may be the most powerful outcome of Adamsons’ choice to expandhis introduction. We long for Peter (William Mosely) to be victorious, forEdmund (Edmund Pevensie) to find a moral compass, for Lucy (Georgie Henley) tobe believed, and for Susan (Susan Pevensie) to trust in goodness.
Adamson’s opening also wisely builds a context for thismost popular of the seven Narnia tales by revealing the deep longing within eachchild’s heart. As the children board the train, we feel deeply Peter’s longingfor manhood. He is a boy-man who longs to be like his father. Edmund longs toprotect and love his absent father and to retreat from Hitler’s hordes backinto the world of childhood. Susan wants to be like her mother and struggles toaccept the world as it is. The oldest two are being asked for too much, really.They are asked to grow up. Lucy, the youngest sibling, is brimming withunselfconscious longing, because she simply takes each moment as it comes,openly and fully. She is too young to be sleeping away from her mother. Allthis we know before the children board the train.
For viewers under 13, what remains of this movie is anotherthing altogether. If the reactions of my children are any indication, youngerviewers simply revel in the lush scenery, sounds and sights of a world theyfirst encountered snuggled deep in the covers, book held close, savoring everyword, but rushing on to find out, too. In the theater, they raise their handsagainst the screen when the White Witch rides her sledge into the screen,straight at viewers. Their faces gleam when Aslan roars. They bare their teethwhen the White Witch is destroyed. The audiences in which I sat laughed at thebanter of Lewis’s beavers. Adamson preserves some good moments of Lewisiandialogue. Children I watched were terrified of the minotaurs and othercreatures in the witch’s army. They exult to recognize Father Christmas.
This may be the real secret of Narnia. Like rare adults whothemselves endured childhood tragedy, Lewis understands children and theirlongings. So, in Narnia, boys may be kings and girls may be queens. Childrenare believed. Adults are allies. Heroes are terrifying and good. During oneviewing I attended, several children responded audibly to Aslan’s roar:“ALL-right!” and “Awe-some, ABso-LUTE-ly awesome!” In the world of Narnia,children’s instincts can be trusted, but Lewis always makes those choices comewith real consequences and Adamson lets that message come through strongly,too. Edmund, after all, has been dragged away to danger by his desires forTurkish Delight and for foiling his older siblings. The chewy-fruit candy neverlooked so delicious as in this movie. Of course, more important is that everyten-year-old-boy who watches this movie will come away wanting to grow up to bean honorable and truthful man like Peter the Magnificent and Edmund the Just.Every girl will want to be Valiant and Gentle. Of course, Lewis’s 1950s genderexpectations, for example, so off-key today, are modified in the film by theaction sequences, which give the Lucy and Susan plenty of chances to showcourage and strength, too. Each of Adamson’s characters seems fully real andhis props have the look of authenticity – as if each object, costume, and scenepopped out of our collective imaginations about Narnia.
If the movie and its story were taken at this level,Christian parents would find nothing to be alarmed about in an entertainmentuniverse for 10-year-olds which is too full of crude humor, sexual innuendo,sloppy thinking, and bad-faith stories in which children get rewards withoutstruggle or consequences without real justice. In this way, this movie is amust-see and must-buy choice. Friday-nights on the sofa will be good for a longwhile if Adamson and company keep up this kind of storytelling by preservingLewis’s tales intact.
Of course, the movie is a fantasy and takes place inLewis’s liminal world which preserves many shadows of the actual world, butmixes in so much more, too, such as Renaissance images with classicalmythology, Christian symbols and pagan legend. It was this quality to which thestory’s first critics responded. Lewis gives us a story that is childish in itsfaith and dreamlike in combining bits of this and that. On this abstract levelthe film has created a stir. Churches and Christian leaders spent a lot ofenergy leading up to the film trying to systematize the New Testament shadowslurking in the story. Beyond a single conversation or discussion, reading thisfilm or the book on which it is based as allegory simply doesn’t work verywell. The allegory begins to break down and damages the story children love. AsSalon.com’s Laura Miller pointed out in her Dec. 7 critique, if the “religiousright is hyping” the movie as allegory, millions of unbelieving viewers willfeel that they are being coerced or that a beloved childhood story has beenripped from them in a violent appropriation. In contrast, Christian reviewerssuggested that viewers perform a litmus test on the film – if Lewis’s passagesabout the “deep magic” were excised from the film, then the film is not Christian,these writers argued. Of course, such tests might be accurate in a strictsense. The passages suggested as tests do, indeed, establish the universal lawsof Narnia allowing for Aslan’s resurrection if he sacrificed himself to redeemEdmund and set up the redemption of Edmund by Aslan’s self-sacrifice.
The truth of these two views of the film and storynotwithstanding, both approaches are seriously flawed. Narratives do not bendto utilitarian desire quite like this. Either-or thinking doesn’t quite work.(I suspect this is why Jesus often used parables – little stories – to teachhis most difficult pupils, but that is a subject for another review.) Like mostplayful fantasies, Lewis’s story allows the “both-and” option in which thingsare taken as they are even while they contain a slightly familiar qualityfor children who know the Gospel story. Second, Lewis vigorously if not alwayseffectively denied that he was writing an allegory. Perhaps Christian leaderscontinue to push the allegory because we want to justify our interest in theseextra-canonical writings and we feel a bit of residual guilty for indulging in thefantasy of a world redeemed by a lion’s blood. This is a deep-seated, Christiandisdain for fiction – which in Americagoes back at least to our earliest authors, when missionary tales, history, andautobiography were the readings sanctioned beyond the bounds of scripture – andit is as misguided as it is understandable.
Much like Lewis’s book and Adams’smovie, I respect my children enough, remember enough of my own childhood, andthink enough of Jesus’s admonitions to his disciples about children to believethey can, indeed, distinguish between these worlds and these truths. In fact,if my two boys are any measure, it seems children are expert in such things –weighing the truths learned today against those learned yesterday. When theycatch a parent in some silly hypocrisy, for example, say a stolen cookie beforedinner, the family laughs because we see their skill for what it rightfully is.When the same child catches a parent in some serious hypocrisy – lying,cheating, indulging in road rage, or whatever – childish faith in the parents’values begins to be damaged. Lewis and his story recognize and respect thisskill in children and the result, like Adamson’s film, is a story to whichchildren will return again and again. When I teach Narnia to universitystudents, many of whom last read Narnia years earlier, many quickly andintuitively grasp the limits of allegory and the appeal of Lewis’s story. Tome, this is a most important quality of Adamsons’ work – the film respects thechildren who people Lewis’s tale as well as the children who will be watchingthe story on the big screen.