Sunday, January 08, 2006

Once a king or queen in Narnia...

The opening of the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a big mistake if the goal was to capture the interest of members of the audience like me—grown-ups who didn’t read and love the books as children.

In C. S. Lewis’ novel, it’s off-handedly stated, by way of quick exposition, that the Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, have been sent to live at the mysterious Professor’s house in the country to get them safely away from London during the Blitz. Lewis takes all of one sentence to tell us that and then pretty much forgets about the Blitz, London, and World War II to concentrate on his fairy tale undistracted by any messy intrusions by real life.

But the first fifteen minutes of the movie gives us the Blitz. We start in the cockpit of a German bomber, follow the planes into the skies over London, follow the bombs down to the ground and the Pevensies’ house, follow the family out into their bomb shelter, witness and share their terror, and then, almost worst of all, stand on the train station platform for the nightmare and heartbreak of all the many children separating from tearful parents they may never see again.

The reason this is a mistake as far as I was concerned is that I spent the rest of the movie looking for the parallels between what was happening to the children in Narnia and what was happening in the real world. I kept trying to find comparisons between the evil of the White Witch and her minions and the evil of the Nazis, and what I found was that the White Witch was trivial and uninteresting in her villainy.

Frankly, I just couldn’t care that snow was melting at last in Narnia while the Nazis were holding all of Europe and England was on the brink of surrender. And the stony fate of Mr Tumnus the faun was nothing compared to what was happening to the Jews.

Keep in mind that all the children I know who have seen the movie, including my own, and most of the adults too, loved it. And I enjoyed parts of it, once things were well underway. If I’d missed the opening because the popcorn line had been too long and walked in to the theater at the moment when the children were arriving at the Professor’s house I’d have probably thought it was what it was meant to be and what it was to my kids, a very well-done adventure story for children.

But not only couldn’t I forget the Nazis, I kept thinking about the conservative Christians to whom this movie has been marketed heavily and wondering what they were making of it. How did the Nazis figure allegorically for them? I haven’t seen any of the study guides that Disney distributed, nor have I talked to anyone whose Church’s Sunday School or religious education program used the movie as a lesson plan. I hope there was more discussion than the simplistic, and innacurate, Aslan is Jesus reduction.

Like I said, I didn’t read any of the Chronicles of Narnia when I was a kid, so I didn’t have the experience, or the fun, of coming upon the books unprepared and unprejudiced, as I did with the Lord of the Rings. Our 12 year old, though, loves the books and has been a fan for the last three years, and from talking to him and listening to his games and his conversations with his friends and his brother, I can tell you that it is possible for a smart, thoughtful, and religious kid to read the books without noticing or caring about the embedded “Christian” themes and symbology.

I read all the books as he picked him them up and, having come to them knowing what to look for, I can also tell you that in order to see the Chronicles as a Christian allegory you have to read backwards from the final two books, The Silver Chair and the Last Battle. The rest of the series is as Christian as the King Arthur stories, which is to say, its Christianity is almost besides the point. Aslan is not Jesus; he’s a Christ-figure, just as Arthur is a Christ-figure. But both the Arthur and the Narnia stories, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, are return of the king myths, which are not exclusive to Christianity, and it’s possible to read TLWW without thinking about its religious implications, and, as it has turned out, it’s possible to watch a movie adaptation of it without thinking about them either—for the simple reason in both cases that at least when he was writing TLWW, Lewis was far more interested in telling an exciting fairy tale.

So I suspect that in order to “teach” the movie as a “Christian” story, you have to impose an awful lot upon it and tease out hidden meanings and subtexts that aren’t in fact supported by anything actually on the screen. You have to train your students to forget what they saw in the movie theater in favor of what they learned in the classroom or from the pulpit.

This was decidedly not the case with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Critics complained that Gibson left the compassionate Jesus out of his movie; that in fact he left out all of Christ’s teachings. But his audience didn’t need to be told the backstory. They went to The Passion of the Christ the way Catholics attend the Stations of the Cross, to focus on one part of a grand story they knew by heart to remind themselves of what they believe Jesus suffered for their sakes. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe could not have anywheres the same emotional resonance.

“Aslan is Jesus” does not explain the White Witch.

And it doesn’t explain the Nazis.

By putting the Nazis in the movie the filmmakers, I think, were making the movie very difficult for Sunday School teachers. A good thing, actually.

I hope that lots of children were asking their teachers, pastors, and parents the question.

“Why didn’t Jesus come to stop the Nazis the way Aslan came to stop the Witch?”

But making trouble for Sunday School teachers isn’t a good reason for artistic choices, and I still wish the Nazis had been left out of the movie.

As for the movie as a movie, which for me always means as work of visual storytelling—director Andrew Adamson and screenwriter Ann Peacock fail to fix the biggest weakness of the novel The Lion, and the Witch, and the Wardrobe. What’s so special about the Pevensies that they get to become kings and queens of Narnia?

Their very lack of “specialness” is what makes them so endearing in the book and the movie, particularly Lucy.

But it also makes their cornonations inexplicable and, frankly, rather vulgar.

It’s become almost required that any discussion of Lewis’ great myth must include comparisons to his friend J.R.R. Tolkien’s greater one, which is unfair to both. There’s a big difference between trying to write a fairy story for children and an adult epic in prose. And it needs to be remembered that at the time Lewis began to publish his Narnia books, Tolkien had finished only The Hobbit. Lewis couldn’t have learned from Tolkien as much as Tolkien could learn from Lewis. But Lewis didn’t need to have read all of the Lord of the Rings in order to have realized that Lucy and her sister and brothers are Hobbits or like the Hobbits—outsiders whose very outsiderness is what allows them to come into a strange, magical world, defeat the resident evil, and restore order.

This is an old trope and it’s a feature in almost all the great works of children’s literature. Think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, just as a for instance. And an important part of it—the defining part of it—is that the outsider is not only not all that special, she doesn’t want to be. Dorothy wants to get back to Kansas, Bilbo and Frodo want to return to the Shire. (That their adventures leave them restless and itching to go on another adventure is another important idea.) In fact, the reason the outsiders are able to triumph is that they don’t want to become insiders. They don’t want to stay in the lands they’ve saved and rule.

The Pevensies aren’t plagued with a precocious vaulting ambtion to be kings and queens—Edmund thinks it might be fun, but he’s more interested in the desserts the White Witch offers than in the power she promises—but they accept with a fair bit of insouciance the news that they are expected to take their thrones and stick around to rule Narnia when Aslan leaves. This isn’t bothersome just because it violates the conventions of the myth. It’s bothersome because their kingships and queenships are unearned. Their valor in the battle against the White Witch’s army is a given not a requirement; the sons and daughters of Adam are royalty as soon as they step foot into Narnia.

The only way I can think of to have gotten around this, besides revising Lewis’ story to make what happens to them in Narnia more of a test of character, is to have shown that their experiences in Narnia somehow fitted them to be heroes and heroines back in the real world. There’s a hint of how this might have worked in the early scene at the train station when we see Peter longing to go with the soldiers shipping out to war instead of with his brother and sisters escaping to safety. A boy who was 14 at the time of the Blitz would have joined the fight before the war’s end, so maybe being a King of Narnia would have taught Peter how to be an ace fighter pilot in the RAF. But, like I said, I think introducing the reality of the war into the movie was a mistake to begin with. The filmmakers don’t bring it back in any other way either, as if they were glad to forget it too.

The movie doesn’t deal with another problem that’s a result of taking a book, where imagination fills all the gaps in the storytelling, and turning it into a movie where the it’s the job of the filmmakers to take over the work of imaginations. The White Witch isn’t really developed as a character in the novel and both her seductiveness and her evil are left to be imagined by readers.

Tilda Swinton is impressive as the Witch and she is formidable as a warrior queen when the battle finally arrives. But she is never seductive and she isn’t evil, only cruel and bad-tempered. This is all the script requires her to be. But while Lewis didn’t explore the Witch’s motivations in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he went back to her in The Magician’s Nephew and gave the screenwriter, the director, and the actress much more to work with. Jadis is vain. And justly vain. She is beautiful, talented, strong, physically brave, and intellectually courageous in that she is not daunted from learning the most powerful and most dangerous magical arts.

So she is understandably jealous of Aslan. Why should he rule the world and not her? She has every quality necessary to a hero queen.

Every quality except one.


That’s a lesson the Sunday School teachers would have had no difficulty with.

But it’s not in the movie. The White Queen is bad because she is bad. Jadis is Aslan’s enemy. Of course she’s evil.

Just what the world needs right now. Another argument that evil is simply opposition to the side we happen to be on.

(Cross-posted at The American Street.)


Post a Comment

<< Home