Sunday, December 18, 2005

disappointment with narnia

Now that I've seen the new, live-action version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I better understand what critics like Polly Toynbee have been saying.

Toynbee, writing in The Guardian, is one of a few critics I've read lately who accuses the movie specifically and Narnia in general for supporting a militaristic interpretation of Christianity, viz. Christ as the fierce lion Aslan rather than as a meek lamb. Toynbee specifically linked the movie to the ongoing war in Iraq and suggested it offered a spiritual justification for the presence of coalition forces there.

This entry contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie and intend to, stop reading now.

The movie begins during the London blitz of World War II. Starting here, a few days or weeks before C.S. Lewis' book does, gives moviegoers some context for why the Pevensie children are at Professor Kirke's house in the first place. This is all the more important when you consider how removed children in 21st-century America are from the blitz, especially compared with the English children who were Lewis' immediate audience.

More importantly, though, it provides some important insights into the characters of the Pevensie children, particularly Peter and Edmund. Their father, it appears, is away from home and serving in the British military. It's his absence that makes Peter the bossing sort of older brother that we see elsewhere in the story, and it's Edmund's resentment over Peter's efforts to assume their father's role that leads his act of betrayal later in the story.

But as important as this is for context and character development, it does a lot to bolster claims that the movie provides spiritual justification for Bush's war on terror. For American audiences, particularly here in the shadow of Ground Zero, images of an invading force dropping ordnance on the innocent residents of London can't help but conjure images of 9-11 and the carnage unleashed when the jets flew into the Twin Towers.

Suddenly the horror of World War II is real to us. We don't just understand the fear that drove the children from their homes out to strange houses in the countryside, we feel it ourselves. And of course it's in the idyllic English countryside, where the movie reminds us repeatedly that they have fled to escape World War II, that the Pevensie children are swept up into another battle, in Narnia, between Good and Evil.

The movie reinforces this connection repeatedly. Both Susan and Peter complain that they just fled one war and don't want to enter another. Peter, mindful that he's already assumed his father's role in protecting his siblings, resists assuming his father's role as a combatant, and by the time all is said and done, it's impossible not to see the war the Narnians are fighting against the White Witch and her evil invading forces as a parallel to the one England is fighting with Nazi Germany, nor even to the one the United States is in with the insurgents in Iraq.

That's a connection I've never made in at least four separate occasions when I've read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." I realize that's just my experience, and it may not be true for other people who have read Lewis' children's books, but I can't help but feel a little saddened to see the movies making that connection at all.

While the battle between Good and Evil is central to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," in the book it's clear that the physical battle is hardly the main event. For the main event, we turn to the events on the Stone Table on the eve of the battle, where Aslan takes Edmund's traitor's death upon himself and so fulfills the requirements of the Deep Magic. It is there that Lewis lingers, and after the Stone Table is broken and Aslan is restored to life, Susan and Lucy celebrate his resurrection, putting flowers in his mane and thrilling at his impossibly glorious resurrection.

The movie shifts this focus away from the spiritual victory and toward the earthly one. The Beavers and other talking beasts of Narnia are more excited over the Pevensies' arrival than they over Aslan's approach, and it's as though they and not he are credited with bringing Narnia its first springtime in a century. Throughout it all is the growing expectation that Peter will lead an army to victory against the White Witch and deliver freedom to Narnia; even as he walks through the White Witch's castle and restores all those she has turned to stone, Aslan urges Susan and Lucy to find every statue they can, since Peter will need all the help that he can get.

Peter's battle against the Witch and her army, in other words, is the climax of the movie, and his ascension to the throne with its siblings is its end. Aslan's sacrifice on the Stone Table is just a step toward that goal. And why not? It is the children who are the stars here, not just of the movie, but of the story the movie tells. The Aslan of film is less than the Aslan of the books. He's big, but he's not larger than life. In fact, you can't help but get the impression that he's been waiting for the Pevensies to arrive, rather than their arrival simply serving as a forerunner of his return.

Still, if the movie fails at transferring some of the nuances of Lewis' book to the silver screen, it surpasses him in character development and turns the Pevensie children into more fully developed people, with pasts and futures that can be seen from the vantage of the present. In her talk with Professor Kirke echoes the voice of an older Susan who is more concerned with popularity and appearance than with Truth; in her resistance to the weight of the Beavers' expectation we can see the future Susan of whom Peter one day will say "My sister the Queen Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia."

And if Peter falls easily into his role of the bossy oldest child, and Edmund into the role of resentful and overshadowed younger sibling, the movie's Lucy expresses an easily seen childlike faith in the impossible world of Narnia, just as she points to the arrival of Father Christmas as vindication of beliefs held in her own world.

The more I think of the movie, the more disappointment I feel over what Narnia lost in its translation to the big screen. It's not that it's a bad movie, but it never really captures the feel of the book. Most of the pleasure in reading Lewis' book lies in its simple charm. A lot of the charm got lost amid the spectacle and pageantry as the filmmakers turned a G-rated book into a PG-rated movie.

This is not the Narnia that I fell in love with fifteen years ago, nor is it the Narnia I want my children to remember.

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