Monday, December 12, 2005

The Chronic Ills of Narnia

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

As someone who enjoys both writers, the key point to me about C.S. Lewis has always been precisely that he's not Tolkien. Narnia and Middle Earth represent two fundamentally opposite ways of approaching the fantasy genre - one linguistic-historical, the other theological. Tolkien's world is richly-imagined, almost baroque; Middle Earth is a true cornucopia of detail, an alternate universe of culture and myth and history and language so compelling, that in it's greater context the characters themselves seem almost like afterthoughts, as though Tolkien was simply using them to explore his larger fantasy. Narnia, by contrast, is a much flatter country, more idea than place, a flawed, inconsistent world (how, for example, can you go hunting in a world where the animals are your subjects) whose very thinness makes it magical. Lewis, it seems to me, spares the bare minimum amount of effort into making Narnia credible - his concern is primarily with larger questions of faith and morality, not with the details of some mythic world that is, to him, little more than a convenient setting for his moralistic story. What makes Narnia compelling, if at all, is not the wealth of detail, but their very sparseness, so that the few details that Lewis does put in (that glorious lamppost growing out of the earth, for example) shine out in all their sublime glory.

In the end, though, the magic of the Narnia Chronicles is less about Narnia and more about the key characters - about Lucy and Aslan and Edmund and Peter. It is Tolkien who is interested in the grand sweep of events, Tolkien who is trying to create a new epic; Lewis's book is little more than a simple fable, a book for that ephemeral quality of mind that we call childhood, and the difference between the two is the difference between myth and religion. That Tolkien's is the grander work, that Tolkien himself is the more compelling, more talented writer, is, to me unquestionable - but comparing Lewis to Tolkien is like comparing some pristine country inn to the Ritz-Carlton; if there's a book that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should be compared to, I would think it's Peter Pan, not Lord of the Rings.

This is a point that's completely wasted on the makers of the new movie version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In their telling of it, Lewis's story looks and sounds exactly like the Lord of the Rings, and suffers terribly in the comparison. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a long book, and is more aptly described as achingly simple than grand, but the makers of the movie have stretched it out into a two and a half hour melodrama, and the result is a movie that grows exceedingly long and incredibly thin. Mere lines in the book take up five to ten minutes on the screen, so that the momentum of Lewis's imagination lags badly, and the worst things about the book - it's sentimentalism, it's lack of coherent logic, things that are easily glossed over in the simplicity and understatement of Lewis's writing - get blown out of proportion here.

The result is a film that can only be described as dreary. The battle scenes seem fake, the heroism of the children is undermined, and Aslan converted into a tangible lion rather than a sort of overarching presence, is diminished. Part of the problem is that the book is more verbal than visual - Lewis has a great gift for conveying things to your imagination that cannot be expressed visually. In the book, for instance, the retreat of winter from Narnia is an event of absolute ecstasy, to read the description of it is to experience a quickening of the pulse, a lightening of the heart. In the movie it's just a lot of silly special effects.

Not that the movie is a complete failure. The parts that still work are the parts where the special effects are laid aside and the characters become the focus. Georgie Henley does a wonderful job as Lucy Pevensie, and her simple, feeling nature is even more the centre of the film that it was of the book. In general, the performances here are good (Jim Broadbent puts in a wonderful cameo as the professor) and if the film makers had just not tried to put in so many special effects, had only managed to shake off the ghost of LOTR, this could have been a good, if not great, movie.

As it is, it's one long yawn of a film, best avoided, or (if, like me, you have to see it because it's Narnia - no matter how crummy) then fitfully slept through. There is a deep magic in Narnia, but you won't find it in this film.


Blogger Cheshire Cat said...

This is a surprise, you're usually so charitable in your film reviews. I enjoyed the movie. I don't remember the book very well, but it did seem the filmmakers had put a lot of effort into a faithful rendering.

The sparseness is much of the charm. Even when made visual.

How could you mention Jim Broadbent (who gets maybe a couple of minutes?) and not Tilda Swinton? Georgie Henley is good, but Swinton's is the dominant performance. Not that she could possibly mess it up, the role is perfectly cast. She's the Platonic ideal of pale and chilly. When Edmund goes of in search of her, maybe Turkish delight is not what's uppermost in his mind... The boy has good taste.

And what about the Aslan-Witch dynamic? There's a strong element of S & M to the whole thing, from the sacrifice to the final violent showdown. That kind of thing really appeals to kids, but I wonder if it comes through in the book as it does in the movie.

A nice furry bunch of quibbles we have today... But the gnarliest of them all is re. the writing. Tolkien the better writer? Mythmaker, I grant, but surely... Scale must count for little. This is not a subjective thing; true my memories are dim. However.

3:38 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Cat: Waal, okay, so maybe I was exaggerating a bit. But only a bit. The trouble I had was precisely that there wasn't enough sparseness. What was with all those panoramic battle scenes?

Yes, I think Tilda Swinton was pretty good, but as you said, that was more about casting, plus she had the role written for her - what I liked about Broadbent was that he had barely a few moments on screen and he still managed to breathe life and warmth into the character - made it work even for people who hadn't read book one and didn't know the background. Swinton managed to recreate the vision of the witch I had reading the book, Broadbent enhanced it.

Oh, and I do think Tolkien is the better writer, not just because of the mythmaking, but as you say that's just my own subjective bias.

P.S. In the interest of disclosure, I should say that I didn't much care for the LOTR films either. If anything, I think The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe does a better job of being true to the letter of the story than the LOTR movies, which simply butchered Tolkien's story to shreds.

10:18 AM  
Blogger C. Andiron said...

Witchcraft is forbidden by the moral law (as opposed to civil or ceremonial) on 2 counts:
a) Gentile nations are punished for this transgression in the OT.
b) It is affirmed as sin in the NT as well (Rev 21).

C.S. Lewis was also an inclusivist, theistic evolutionist, and had a low view of inerrancy (Reflections on the Psalms), and was heavily influenced by the occult.

Please try to do a little research before endorsing this vile filth.

12:50 PM  

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