20 December 2005

The Lion, the Witch and the Hypercritical Audience Member

And so to the main business of this blog today: picking holes in the current disnetic adaptation of C.S. Lewis's children's fantasy novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

First things first. It has to be said -- indeed, it probably can't be said emphatically enough -- that this film could have been far, far, far, far, far worse. The real-world sequences are not, for instance, updated to the present day or moved to Illinois. There are no songs. The Pevensie children are permitted to retain their English accents, and even more impressively so are nearly all the Narnian characters they encounter. Much of Lewis' dialogue, and almost all of the incidents the book describes, are transferred to the screen more or less intact (although one wonders, cynically, whether the Father Christmas scene would have made it had it not been such a heaven-sent merchandising opportunity). Even the child actors are rarely painful to watch, although there are occasions.

For those of us who worried that Disney would give us a wisecracking Buddy Aslan dispensing New Age wisdom in the voice of, ooh, let's say Eddie Murphy, this is not the film we dreaded.

In broad brushstrokes it is, in fact, remarkably well-done. Visually it holds up well, evoking a vivid landscape which corresponds with that described in the book. The CGI wavers a little when depicting some of the real-world animals -- the rhinos are particularly unconvincing -- but works very well when evoking mythical creatures such as centaurs or phoenixes. There are more chase-, battle- and general action-scenes than in the book, but that's entirely reasonable given the differing demands of literary and cinematic media, and both the larger rĂ´les for Mr and Mrs Beaver and the complete interpolation of characters such as the brave Fox and the minotaur and centaur generals make perfect scriptic sense.

The updating of the childrens' language, and the strenuous spelling-out of anything (christian symbolism excepted) which threatens to remain a subtext, are a good deal more annoying, but understandable in a film written for contemporary children. Even the battle scenes' obvious indebtedness to Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is conscionable, although something new would naturally have been more interesting.

But. Oh dear, but but but.

Opening the film with a sequence featuring Luftwaffe bombers over Finchley may have been intriguing as these things go (and comparable in its way to the brilliant beginning of Wilde, which momentarily fools you into thinking you've walked into a Western screening next door), but it immediately provoked a sinking feeling in me[1]. Had the film proceeded to cut from the skies over London to the four Pevensies in the countryside, as a scene-setting exercise explaining just why children were being evacuated in the first place, then this approach could still have worked. Instead, it segues into the air-raid action-sequence of the family taking refuge in its bomb shelter, and Peter having to rescue the errant Edmund, who has gone back into the house to collect a photo of his father.

This introduces us directly to three of the cardinal errors in the film.

Firstly, it obscures the very clear contrast in the book between the children's dreary, mundane lives as evacuees and their thrilling adventures in Narnia. It's clear, in fact, that 1940s London would be just as capable of providing them with excitment and opportunities for heroism as Narnia is. Later, the film treats rural England as a quaint enchanted kingdom in its own right, with heritage-centre scenery and steam-trains, twee costumes and performances and a general sense that this is a place where anything, up to and including magic wardrobes, might be found. The children's lives in the Professor's house should be as drab and oppressive as those of, say, the children in The Others, but the studio simply can't resist disneying the place up until it resembles Peter Pan.

Secondly, the sequence compromises the way Narnia changes the children, and Peter in particular. Peter isn't a hero until he is called upon to be one: his feeling of responsibility for his brother and sisters is absolutely genuine, but untried by any real adversity or danger. He grows in Narnia, and his slaying of the wolf Maugrim to protect Susan is the point where he becomes an adult, or -- as Lewis would presumably have put it -- a man.

The film attempts to make this point through the entirely cack-handed scene on the iced-over river, where Peter is given an altogether-too-explicit moment of choice, which goes on far too long, and opts for what one might consider a creatively pacifist solution rather than killing Maugrim on the spot. The idea is presumably to demonstrate Peter's growth by showing him dithering here, then decisively killing the wolf later on in the film... but since we've already seen him displaying physical bravery in rescuing his brother, the message ceases to be about taking adult responsibility and becomes "When you're grown-up, you'll realise that sometimes it's necessary to kill people". (Or, I suppose, "wolves", not that I find that very much more palatable.)

Thirdly, Edmund. Edmund is the book's triumph, and one of Lewis's greatest achievements in fiction: a character who freely chooses a petty evil over loyalty to his family, and who pays the price in terms of guilt, if not of blood-sacrifice -- but, crucially, with whom the reader can sympathise throughout. In the book, he's motivated, obviously not by an appetite for Turkish Delight, but by dislike and envy of Peter, and specifically of his brother's popularity and authority among their sibling social circle. In the film this is mangled by hints that he feels the absence of his father more keenly than his siblings, and that all he needs to sort him out is actually a stronger authority figure -- which he finds, as do all the (non-evil) characters, in Aslan. His treachery, for which he should be fully responsible, is trivialised as adolescent confusion brought on by an absent father-figure.

In the book, when Aslan reunites Edmund with his siblings, admonishing them, "there is no need to talk to him about what is past," Edmund apologises solemnly to each of them, and they all shake hands. It's a bit of an English moment, admittedly, but a powerful one. In the film, there's no need for him to apologise. He's just a crazy mixed-up kid.

So far then, the message which has come through in the film might be summarised as follows:
1. England is quaint and magical, and the sort of place you might want to go on vacation, when there isn't a war on.
2. Sometimes you have to slaughter your enemies, and to think otherwise is immature.
3. Kids need their dads, or else they may turn for guidance to unsuitable older women, and who knows where that may lead.

So much for the first ten minutes.

I'm being flippant, naturally, but I have some serious problems with the presentation of the children's characters, and with the underlying politics. Perhaps my biggest issue connects to point 2 above -- the utter lack of any glimpse of blood.

When Peter kills Maugrim in Lewis' book, his sword is "all smeared with the Wolf's hair and blood". When Edmund is injured in the final battle, he is "covered in blood, his mouth was open, and his face a nasty green colour". Lewis is not squeamish about presenting violence, and more importantly its consequences. His Father Christmas has understandable reservations about handing over weapons to children.

I'm not suggesting that Lewis was any kind of pacifist -- he definitely wasn't. But he took war seriously, having served in one himself, and did his utmost in his books to teach children that they ought to do likewise.

The film, on the other hand, is positively blithe. We don't see Peter's befouled sword, or Edmund's wound, or even any evidence of the death-blow the Witch has dealt to Aslan. Even the German air raid is merely very loud, rather than harmful to anybody's health. The final battle -- quite unlike the brutal affairs in The Lord of the Rings -- seems to proceed in the manner of a play-fight, without death-blows or gaping wounds or severed limbs or gushing gore: the nearest we get are the positively hygienic (and, in most cases, temporary) demises of those whom the Witch turns to stone. (I'm guessing the shattered griffins might present a problem, but it's not one we ever see.) Here, War is Fun. Even the girls get to join in.

The film is faithful to the text -- remarkably so. But in even a direct reading of any text, one interprets it. The film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brings to its reading of Lewis a 21st-century-American popular agenda about which I can't help but feel profoundly uneasy.

The novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is atypical among the Narnia books, in rather the same way that The Hobbit is an atypical Middle-Earth book. Compared with the later books it's simplistic, lacking in both the creative complexity and the imaginative coherence of the world Lewis later builds up. Stylistically, too, the author's finding his feet, talking down to his readers far more than he will in later volumes. Although Edmund's moral struggle is internalised, it has none of the depth of the dark night of doubt experienced by Eustace and Jill in The Silver Chair, or the complexities of good faith married to bad religion in The Last Battle.

It is, in a word, the easiest of the Chronicles of Narnia to adapt for children and get right. I have the unpleasant suspicion that, as these film adaptations continue, they'll veer further from the text of each of the books, while parting company ever more definitively from their spirit.

[1] It also got me thinking along the lines of "What if the White Witch got into England through the wardrobe, and teamed up with the Nazis to take over the world?", which I don't think can be what the scriptwriters had in mind.

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