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Since Prince Caspian opens tomorrow and because I just made a 14-hour drive back to Atlanta yesterday, it seemed like a good time to revisit the first Narnia film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After last week’s responses to the two reviews of Iron Man, I thought it also might also be a good time to examine the whole idea of a Christian response to culture. Quite frankly, I was amazed at the level of elitism that was directed at the reviews, especially the respondent who asked why a reformed website would review and waste time on such “pablum.” We’ll discuss this more in the coming weeks, but for now let this rerun of the LWW review serve as the warning shot for a more in-depth study over the next few weeks....
In case you haven’t heard, C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was made into a movie. And it was released…on December 9, 2005. And it pulled in over $67 million in its opening weekend. Not bad for a fifty-year-old story about talking animals and magical furniture. Between this movie and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Hollywood has received a huge year-end boost that was desperately needed in a year of constant slump in box-office ticket sales. Not that this should be any big surprise. Michael Medved has been saying for years that family-friendly movies consistently outpace R-rated movies in revenue. Hollywood knows this; it’s not about money, it’s about cultural influence and statement. But The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has roared to the screen with not only the money, but the statement as well.
Movies adapted from books will always die a thousand deaths on the horns of the “faithful interpretation” debate. Since the book comes first, it is always the standard, and if the movie deviates from the book in any way, it becomes a major source of irritation for the literary faithfuls. But what needs to be remembered in these cases is that books and film are two different mediums. Books can inform the reader what a particular character is thinking, but a movie needs to communicate this through facial expressions or other visual cues. Books will always be able to provide better detail than a movie ever can, which is generally limited to about two hours to tell its tale. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW) however, is a book that is short enough to be told within this two-hour window. Just like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from earlier in 2005, LWW follows the book quite closely in its translation of the written word to the big screen. However, I would compare the film version of LWW to the New International Version of the Bible. The NIV follows a thought-for-thought translation philosophy (dynamic equivalence), while a translation such as the New American Standard follows a more literal word-for-word translation. Lovers of the book-form are always looking for the NASB ideal in the movie translation, but they usually end up getting a paraphrase like the Living Bible. LWW strikes a healthy balance and gives us a thought-for-thought translation that is very faithful to the book in the major details.
LWW opens by adding more context to the book’s opening words: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air raids.” The opening sequence shows an entire fleet of bombers closing in on London and dropping their bombs on the city. The children are roused from their sleep by their mother (Their father is off fighting in the war.) to escape to the safety of the bomb shelter in their backyard. We get the first inkling of Edmund’s headstrong and rebellious attitude here. When he insists on running back into the house to retrieve a photo of their father, Peter has to run in after him. When they get back to the bomb shelter, Peter demands of Edmund, “Why can’t you just do what you’re told?” Although not in the book, this beginning to the movie beautifully sets the stage for the children being sent to the country home of the Professor, as well as Edmund’s animosity toward his older brother.
Later in the movie, when the children are informed by the beavers of the prophecy of the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve and their role in the coming war between Aslan and the White Witch, an overwhelmed Susan declares, “Mother sent us to the country to avoid war, and here we are getting involved in one anyway.” This is a point that the movie version of LWW makes a bit clearer than the book. The war between good and evil was being waged in London—in the “real world”—and the children were sent away to the country to be kept out of harm’s way. But the war between good and evil knows no boundaries. In the human world, the children were being protected, but in the Narnia world they are the long-awaited “protectors.” We may try to escape the war, but it will find us, one way or the other—neutrality is not an option.
Another interesting parallel that the book knows nothing of is when Edmund is walking around Mr. Tumnus’ cave after the Witch’s police squad have hauled him away. He steps on a broken picture of Tumnus’ father, who as we learned earlier was also in a war, just as the children’s father. Tumnus and Edmund have much in common: both have high respect for their fathers, both are caught in situations that their fathers wouldn’t approve, and both are soon to become captives of the Witch. Although their motives are completely opposite, they find themselves in similar situations as prisoners of war. The evil side in war is never opposed to using deception and outright lies to further its advantage. While Tumnus is imprisoned for his goodness and unwillingness to bow to the Witch, Edmund is imprisoned for believing her lies and taking her at her word.
The battle sequence at the end of the movie is intense, but nowhere on the level of The Lord of the Rings. Gore is basically non-existent in LWW; the idea is there without actually showing it. As in the book, biblical allusions are everywhere in Narnia, but only to those with “eyes to see and ears to hear.” Watching this movie will not make anyone a Christian, but Christian themes are evident throughout to those who wish to see them. From Aslan’s breath bringing the stone statues to life (John 20:22), to his sacrificial death on the stone table, to Susan and Lucy being the first to see him after his resurrection (Matthew 28:1), LWW is a biblical allegory. Not so much because it was intended this way, but because of the staunch commitment to Christ by its author. As Lewis himself stated, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” For Lewis, separating his Christianity from his literary endeavors was not only impossible, but unnecessary; he was not attempting to sanitize his fantastical world of any Christian similarities.
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out “allegories” to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.
Notice that Lewis didn’t deny the Christian themes, he just wanted to be clear that this wasn’t his original intent, but he simply couldn’t prevent the sun from shining in his writing. So what we are left with today is a great series of books that reinforce the Christian worldview of the author and an accurate and entertaining film version that brings us into Narnia once again, reminding us of the ever-present war between good and evil. LWW shows us that we turn a blind eye to this war to our own peril. We’re a part of it…whether we like it or not.