18 December 2005

One Lion to rule them all

It's been, oh, probably ten years since I last read C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia — I did read all of them, some more than once, and enjoyed about half — more recently, I've read many reviews and discussions of the new film and the old books. I'd like to respond to a few published thoughts, and record a few of my own (with the caveat that my memory for the original texts is patchy at best, so take my claims with a pinch of salt thrown over your shoulder). Which is to say, to the extent that it's possible to post spoilers to a film like this, I will try to the utmost to do so.

Andrew Adamson's new film is not the first time Narnia has been on screen. The low-budget made-for-TV 1988 production is really quite wonderful, and clearly motivated the current rendition. I've never seen the 1979 cartoon — is it any good? Hopefully, Adamson and WETA will also produce remakes of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (presumably as two separate movies this time) and The Silver Chair, as well as my favorite book of the series, The Horse and His Boy. Adamson has masterfully updated the 1988 movie, replacing its motley mix of live action, animatronics, and animation with a variegated blend of live action, animatronics, and (now computer-) animation.

Part of me had hoped for some new and radical reading of Lewis' original fable. Such hopes, of course, could only be realized by a small independent film company — Disney is much too conservative, and American audiences cling to their literal interpretations of original texts. Besides, Aslan's Passion is already a radical rethinking of an original fable. C.S. Lewis used The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to come to terms with his own burgeoning Christianity (J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic since his mother converted when he was eight, takes the credit for helping his friend and colleague see the light). Part of me would also like to read a book report comparing Lewis' Narnia with the His Dark Materials trilogy by atheist and church-critic Philip Pullman: Lion is infinitely more magical than Compass, and differences in writing quality can be attributed to the age ranges of the intended audiences; but the extremely rushed Amber Spyglass is infinitely better than the sorry excuse that was The Last Battle.

After Peter Jackson's epic experiment in condensing and editing more than a thousand pages into ten hours, the generally positive reviews have applauded Adamson's faithful translation of two hundred thin pages. Eric at Speaking Natalie correctly writes that "they didn't change anything ..., but they did add things": Adamson's decision to start with the 1940 London air raids, which Lewis mercifully omitted, has been much-discussed (I found it emotionally moving, and at the same time of inferior animation quality). The Rings-inspired battle sequences are also new — I enjoyed some of it, thought that most was boring, felt the air-raid reprise lacked panache, and found Aragorn extremely out-of-place.

Eric raises the issue of Peter's character, and to his comments I'll agree: Adamson improved upon the book by allowing Peter to be flawed as an older brother. It's now much more meaningful when he admits that "[Edmund's betrayal] was partly my fault, Aslan. I was angry with him and I think that helped him to go wrong." What Adamson leaves out is Lewis' dislike, and Peter's revulsion, of battle. Only a split-second of screen-time allows Peter to look disgusted after killing Maugrim, and he's too steely (and adroit) in battle — I'd much rather this description of one-on-one fighting:
Then came a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare. He was tugging and pulling and the Wolf seemed neither alive nor dead, and its bared teeth knocked against his forehead, and everything was blood and heat and hair. A moment later he found that the monster lay dead and he had drawn his sword out of it and was straightening his back and rubbing the sweat off his face and out of his eyes. He felt tired all over.
Michael Nelson, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education in the review I linked to, defends Lewis against Pullman's claim of the former's "sadomasochistic relish for violence" by arguing that Lewis, who fought in the trenches in World War I, understood violence as "nothing romantic," and that children who read Narnia encounter "their first unglamorous act of violence, the first to make them doubt that killing, even when it has to be done, is something to celebrate." I'd ask only that Adamson live up to that tradition.

To the other Pullman critiques that Nelson counters, I say only that Rings is infinitely worse. Lewis may have allowed the good, Christian Narnia to be light-skinned and the generally evil, heathen Calormen to strongly remind readers of northern Africa (Adamson thankfully left out all other humans); Tolkien describes all those dark-skinned southerners as evil and characterless. Just as insidiously, Tolkien's races fight primarily as races — orks and urukai and hobbits each pick sides, and few have character development — whereas if memory serves me correctly Lewis allows his motley crew of animals and mythical creatures from varius mythologies to fight on both sides (as in all wars, dwarves fight dwarves and cheetahs, cheetahs). The number of women characters, even minor ones, that appear in the entire Lord of the Rings you can count on one hand; in Narnia, girls are brave instigators of geopolitical upheaval, even if they are bound by early twentieth-century norms. In short, Nelson has picked himself a straw punching bag.

The new Chronicles of Narnia provides nothing new, except a chance to go to the movies and discuss Narnian lore (for a detailed introduction, see the Wikipedia entry), and ponder questions like "In a land where animals can talk, why would the good Kings and Queens go stag-hunting?". I think I will reread The Horse and His Boy, and wait for a big-budget epic film adaptation of The Golden Compass. I'd also like to see Dealing with Dragons done big-budget, but that may have to wait, for all that it would adapt well.

4 comments:

J. Fugue said...

It's been ages too since I have read them, and I can hardly even remember the plot of most now. I think Voyage of the Dawn Treader was my favorite, but it has been far too long now.

I agree that probably the biggest change between the book and the movie was the relish of battle. I think that the director of the movie (Adamson was it?) tried to emulate some of the other movie epics of recent times, especially the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's the only thing that I felt made the movie feel a little fake, as I liked some of the other changes made - as you mentioned, the bombing raids at the start of the movie and Peter's foibles.

Personally, though, I'm not certain if Dealing with Dragons would make a good movie. I thought it was a wonderful book, but I'm not certain I would like a movie based on it.

Anonymous said...

I'm just curious -- why do you think that The Last Battle was so bad? It wasn't my favorite (the allegory was a little blunter than it could have been), but I felt that the paradisal scenes at the end were well done.

Theo said...

Anonymous: My memory of Battle is that it is pretty poorly written, compared to the rest of the series, and a little heavy-handed. Some scenes were fine, and I'll be the first to agree that ending an epic series is hard (The High King was also a disappointment --- Alexander draws way too heavily on Tolkien for my tastes --- and I'm nervous about Harry Potter VII), but I felt the bulk of the book lacked the whimsy of earlier books.

Fugue: I agree that Voyage was wonderful --- it certainly had the best _chapters_ of any of the books, and I'm a fan of The Odyssey; I don't think it held together too well as a single _novel_. As for Dragons, I'd be very nervous about lots of movie versions of it. I'm imagining what travesty a Disney made-for-TV version could be (remember Alice?). But if a company with experience doing epic translations tried its hand, and didn't change much, then they'd find a rich imagery in Wrede's texts. Cast it well, market it like Harry Potter, and find a director who's well-versed in the lore and committed to a faithful translation.

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