Narnia: No Fundie Epic
There are a lot of reviews and blog postings about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe today. The movie won the weekend box office race by a lot, so it has a chance to be one of the big hits of the holiday season. And because of its peculiar status in today's religious/cultural wars, I want to share some of my reactions after seeing the picture yesterday with Mary-Jo and our grandson Jakob (age six).
(1) I'm with the majority of reviewers in rating the movie "good but not great"--not on a level with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, to make the obvious comparison. The movie features excellent acting by the quartet of children who must carry most of the action. Its biggest flaw is the weakness of the presentation of Aslan. The animation is amazing--I thought Aslan was depicted in part by a real lion and was surprised to learn that he is totally computer-generated--and Liam Neeson's voice works very well. But the character doesn't get enough time on screen or enough powerful scenes early on to make believable the depth of grief suffered by the two human girls (Susan and Lucy) when he dies.
(2) The picture is remarkably close to C.S. Lewis's book, retaining both its flaws and its strengths. For example, the early scenes in Narnia featuring the faun Mr. Tumnus are too cutesy (more like The Wind in the Willows or even Peter Rabbit than Lord of the Rings), just as they are in the book. The character of the Professor is also very arch, just as he is in Lewis's treatment. But then, as in the book, the gradual deepening of tone as the conflict with the Witch is played out is handled well, though of course neither book nor movie ever attains the grandeur of LotR.
(3) I was pleased that the movie makers avoided some pitfalls that a Hollywood production might have been expected to fall into. For example, halfway through the book, the character of Father Christmas appears. He is a harbinger of the end of the Witch's reign (which has been characterized by a hundred years of winter with no Christmas), and he gives the four human children the weapons and tools they will use to help win the battle over evil. Now, in costuming Father Christmas, I imagine the film makers were tempted to pander to their US audience by decking him out in the snowy-white beard and red fur-trimmed suit worn by the American Santa Claus. They resisted this temptation, instead presenting him as the traditional English image of Father Christmas, with gray beard and brownish-gray suit. So I don't imagine our grandson Jakob knew who he was--but then, he didn’t appear troubled or puzzled, either.
(4) As for the religious iconography that has made the movie so contentious (and led the Disney marketers to dream of a Passion-like box office success among evangelical audiences), it was handled very much as C.S. Lewis handled it--carefully walking the line between being over-explicit and over-subtle. Anyone steeped in the Christian story can scarcely miss the Christ-parallels in the story of Aslan's death and resurrection. (Aslan even "harrows Hell," much as Christ did in medieval legend, by rescuing those who have been frozen into death-like statues in the Witch's castle.) On the other hand, after returning from the dead, Aslan becomes a warrior-king and leads the free Narnian army to victory in battle, which is very unlike the Christ of the the New Testament. And both C.S. Lewis and the film makers thankfully passed up the oppportunity to make the parallels too explicit, which would have ruined the tone of the fantasy. For example, there is no "last supper" sequence prior to the lion's killing, which would reduce the story to being merely a veiled retelling of the passion narrative rather than an independent story in its own right.
So I'm relieved to report that the movie makers (despite Disney's marketing ambitions) have not tried to transform Narnia into a fundamentalist epic. Instead they've remained true to Lewis's rather quirky, personal, donnish vision.
In both book and film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe skirts but just avoids the flat and stilted effect of allegory (in which A = X, B = Y, C = Z in formulaic fashion). What Lewis intended, and largely achieved, is a story that suggests religious doctrine only by expressing truths about life itself that are naturally shared by Christianity. Thus, the story of Aslan deals with the nobility of sacrifice and the triumphant power of love over death—realities that Christianity (in Lewis's view, and mine) expresses more fully than any other world-view but that every mature world-view recognizes in some fashion. So, to the extent that the stories of Narnia are "true," they point toward Christianity much as Norse myth, the Bhagavad-Gita, Kafka, and Tolkien do.
I've been surprised to read over the past few weeks the comments of many people who read the Narnia stories in childhood or even as adults and never noticed any parallels to Christian scripture until they were recently pointed out in the press. Together with my viewing of the picture, these observations suggest that it's perfectly "safe" for anyone of any religious persuasion (or lack thereof) to watch The Chronicles of Narnia or take their kids to see it. The experience will not be like having fundamentalist dogma forced down your throat. The movie is a pretty good fantasy, which you'll like if you like that sort of thing. I do, and I did.
Tags: Narnia, C.S. Lewis, Christianity