The Disney Lion-Tamers Take on Aslan
I had, at best, mixed feelings when I read in the Times a week ago about Disney’s plans to release a movie version of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe later this year. I usually like Disney. But I’ve always been dismayed by Disney’s versions of classic English kids’ books.
The originals of Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins, and even Winnie-the-Pooh have a certain tart, satiric, occasionally surreal quality that suggests slightly scary depths underlying the charm and humor. That edge is missing from the Disney movies and their multifarious spinoffs (theme park attractions, picture-book adaptations, cartoons for TV, etc. etc.).
As everyone knows, English kids’ authors tend to be a little weird. Lewis Carroll, though no pedophile (that’s a scurrilous rumor most scholars consider baseless), was obsessed with puzzles, games, and wordplay, worked on math problems late at night to fend off “impure thoughts,” and took brilliantly atmospheric photos of his friends’ prepubescent daughters dressed as peasant maidens or fairy-tale heroines.
I don’t know as much about P. L. Travers, but I gather that she was a follower of the mystic Gurdjieff (and dropped subtle references to his teachings into the Poppins books). As for A. A. Milne, I’ve heard interviews with his unhappy son Christopher, the real-life model for Christopher Robin, who apparently spent a lifetime trying to live down his storybook incarnation.
Walt Disney of course had his weird side too (perhaps anyone who devotes his life to entertaining children must be a little eccentric). But the Disney studio unfortunately tends to eliminate the strangeness from the classic English stories. They Americanize the language and attitudes (which eliminates much of their distinctive appeal) and substitute sugar wherever the original recipe calls for salt or vinegar.
Interestingly enough, C.S. Lewis himself offered an opinion about Disney’s moviemaking style. It appears in (of all places) Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, an explanation (and justification) for modern readers of the style, form, and content of Milton’s epic poem. Lewis makes the point that a work of art based on mythic themes or stories “ought not to attempt novelty in respect of its ingredients.” He continues:
That strange blend of genius and vulgarity, the film of Snow-White, will illustrate the point. There was good unoriginality in the drawing of the queen. She was the very archetype of all beautiful, cruel queens: the thing one expected to see, save that it was truer to type than one had dared to hope for. There was bad originality in the bloated, drunken, low comedy faces of the dwarfs. Neither the wisdom, the avarice, nor the earthiness of true dwarfs were there, but an imbecility of arbitrary invention.
(I interrupt to point out the reference to “true dwarfs.” Lewis isn’t talking about real people with glandular problems. He was so steeped in old books that, for him, they were reality. He’s referring to the dwarfs of ancient Germanic myth, the ones adapted by his friend J.R.R. Tolkien in his Middle Earth books. Anyway, Lewis continues:)
But in the scene where Snow-White wakes in the woods both the right originality and the right unoriginality were used together. The good unoriginality lay in the use of small, delicate animals as comforters, in the true märchen style. The good originality lay in letting us at first mistake their eyes for the eyes of monsters. The whole art consists not in evoking the unexpected, but in evoking with a perfection and accuracy beyond expectation the very image that has haunted us all our lives.
This passage from Lewis, which is interesting in its own right, evokes my worries about what Disney will do with The Chronicles of Narnia. For me, the best moments in the Narnia books are the most mythic—things like the meadow at the edge of the world in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the travelers (and the reader) are greeted by a lamb who turns out to be another incarnation of the lion-god Aslan. Will the Disney screenwriters and animators have the taste and talent to somehow capture these haunting but practically-indescribable scenes in visual form—or will they follow the path of least resistance and revert to their more usual “vulgarity”? Will Aslan, as lion or lamb, end up being cute rather than awe-inspiring? (As Lewis always insists, he's supposed to be a wild lion, not a tame one.)
I think the Disney folk are trying to bring a degree of seriousness and authenticity to the Narnia stories. The Times reported that they are conscious of the esteem that millions of Christians have for Lewis and are eager not to alienate a large and politically powerful constituency. In artistic terms, they have the benefit of walking in the footsteps of Peter Jackson, who did a better job with Tolkien than I dreamed was possible.
But having seen how Disney flattened the other writers I’ve mentioned (decades ago, admittedly)—and knowing that the “imagineers” are already muddying the waters with plans for a “theme park presence” based on the Narnia books—I’m not optimistic.