Before reviewing the films, I need to be upfront: Tolkien had it right about his friend’s wonderland. Narnia is a horrendous mishmash of a fantasy world, a hodgepodge, a sophomoric blend of different myths — Norse dwarves, Greek centaurs and fauns, Santa Claus + Christ — its over-arching Christian allegory betraying a woeful lack of imagination. In my youth I just couldn’t stand the Pevensie kids, but even then I was aware of Lewis’ creative laziness. The books didn’t come with maps, and even if they had, the world was too superficial and underdeveloped to appreciate. Narnia had nothing on the richly textured places I was inhabiting as a teen — Middle-Earth, The Land, Earthsea, Pern. It was an afterthought, forgotten as soon as I put the books down.
So I’m surprised to be enjoying the film adaptations. They’re not Lord of the Rings by any means, but impressive all things considered — certainly better than the Harry Potter films (two of which I slept through), and I’d take them over a train wreck like Willow any day. Andrew Adamson and Michael Apted have made Narnia entertaining enough that I can forget why I hate the place.
For the most part anyway. The Pevensie kids are still insufferable snots, except for Lucy who’s impossible not to love. In the books she drew no sympathy from me when she was ridiculed and disbelieved, but now I feel for her. Her character dominates differently on screen, in contrast to her bratty siblings. Oppositely, the White Witch is a frightening piece of work, played very convincingly by Tilda Swinton. With Lewis’ witch I could only imagine a caricature, but Swinton’s incarnation is anything but (I was glad to see an evil witch with blond hair for a change), oozing fascist ice with glares and intonations. And the CGI Aslan looks like the real thing; Liam Neeson’s voice was made for it.
The climactic battle between the forces of Aslan and the White Witch, described by Lewis in the space of two paragraphs, is appropriately drawn out, more gritty than you might expect in a PG film, and it doesn’t hurt that CGI works wonders these days with arial views and other effects. Though if you’ve seen the vastly superior Lord of the Rings films (which were PG-13), this stuff is pretty substandard. Where The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe really triumphs is in the parallel “passion” climax, where Aslan allows himself to be humiliated and killed for Edmund’s treachery. It’s rather intense (for kids), and while the Christian allegory is intrusive, the emotional power makes up for it.
The second film is even better — much better, in fact — for its darker tone, less obvious biblical allegory, and the way it pushes more envelopes in a PG context. Adamson takes more liberties with Lewis’ text to good effect. There’s a particularly chilling scene where Caspian is tempted by the shade of the White Witch; and the business of Lucy seeing Aslan but having a hard time convincing the others is handled much better. There were gratuitous rip-offs of the Lord of the Rings films, but strangely enough they didn’t bother me, probably because they were just so spectacular. Jackson’s flood at the ford was superseded with a vengeance, and the Huorns were also outdone in a climactic tree-attack. I should say that Aslan’s How was my favorite set piece: antiquated, dark, and haunting as hell.
The dark moments in the first film don’t compare to those in the second, as noted by a reviewer: “Times are dark in Narnia, and that’s reflected in Prince Caspian’s almost shocking violence. I don’t remember huge amounts of mayhem being visited upon humans in the first film, so the fact that this movie’s comic relief is a throat-slitting mouse should tell you how much the ante has been upped.” For a children’s film Caspian is pervasively violent. The battles go on and on, though of course that’s the story: the Narnians are fighting to take back their home from invaders. (With regards to Reepicheep: he delighted me to no end. It’s of course ridiculous — even in the context of a children’s fantasy — that a mouse wielding a sword the size of a needle could decimate human warriors left and right. But no matter, the scene in the woods where he kills Caspian’s pursuers is hilarious.) Less magic, more savagery, less fate, more uncertainty — especially without Aslan around for guidance until the very end — makes the second film dramatically superior.
Many critics disagree with me and favor the first film, though the The New Republic is a refreshing exception:
“In technical terms, Prince Caspian is an improvement on its predecessor in almost every sense. Yet, like the book on which it is based, it lacks much in the way of deeper resonance. It is a considerably sharper entertainment than the first film, but little in it aspires to do more than entertain… The dialogue is crisper, the sets and staging more spectacular, the pace more lively (despite one or two plot twists too many), and the action sequences far more riveting. It may still lack the narrative depth and complexity of Jackson’s Tolkien films, but those are difficult qualities to conjure in a film whose cast is made up almost entirely of teenagers and talking animals… The final act is more satisfying, too, striking an elegiac note of opportunities past, friends departed, dreams outgrown. Prince Caspian may be less full of innocent wonder than its predecessor, but it is a smarter, better film. Like its young stars, the Narnia franchise has, for better and worse, grown up.”
Perhaps it’s the “deeper resonance” of the first film that holds it back slightly. Perhaps Lewis should have been striving for plain story value all along. I’d rather take Aslan at face value, on his own terms as a primitive lion-deity, instead of a “supposition” of what Christ might look like in a child’s fairy land.
Speaking of which, Aslan has always been a curious Christ-figure. He approves warfare and even glorifies it. This is a crusader’s deity whose subjects are ever ready to take up the sword and kick ass. There’s not much about turning the other cheek in Narnia, moments of warrior-mercy notwithstanding (like Peter and Caspian refusing to slay Miraz). Don’t get me wrong: that’s not a complaint (my complaint is not about the kind of Christ-figure Aslan is, only that he’s a Christ-figure to begin with). I’ve made clear in my series on the medieval crusades that the crusaders have been overly maligned, and that Jesus’ words themselves were pressed into a warrior mindset. I just find it curious that Lewis chose to fashion a Christ-figure for children in this image. It’s hard to get a lion out of a lamb.
Which segues perfectly into the third film, which if faithful to the book would have at least given us a glimpse of the “Lamb of God”. At the end of Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian and the kids come to Aslan’s country and are confronted with a bleating sheep who invites them to a meal of cooked fish, obviously calling to mind Christ and his disciples in Jn 21. The lamb then turns into Aslan, who tells a despairing Lucy that she can never return to Narnia and must learn to know him by his name in her own world (i.e. Jesus). The same happens in the film, but without Aslan first appearing as a sheep, no doubt to tone down the Christian imagery for popular consumption. But the fact remains that only in the book of Revelation is Christ depicted as a feline warrior — “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev 5:5) — the lamb being the more abundant symbol (Jn 1:29,36; 1 Pet 1:19; Rev 13:8).
In any case, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader takes as many liberties with the text as Prince Caspian, though not half as wisely. Of the seven books, this was one I actually liked, for the same reason I adore The One Tree in the Thomas Covenant series. Sea voyages to exotic lands carry an introspective power that makes epic battles seem trivial. Gone are bad-asses like the White Witch and Lord Miraz; here you don’t need them. The film, however, offers the pointless substitute of a malevolent green mist that whisks people away and enslaves them. Caspian’s quest for the seven lords has become a quest for their seven swords, which must be placed on Aslan’s table to banish the mist — cheesy to say the least. It’s faithful to the book’s theme of fear and temptation, but in a way that tells more than shows, and the action-packed injections dilute the effect and make the island visits seem rushed. The final scene in Aslan’s country is admittedly grand, emotional, and — blasphemous as this comparison sounds — reminiscent of the Grey Havens.
So despite my hard feelings for the books, the films are mostly impressive and allow me to suspend most of my dislike for Lewis’ creation. The second film is an outstanding adaptation of an uninspired book; the first is is also impressive; the third is a botch of a powerful story as Lewis told it. Using the 5-star system:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — 3 ½
Prince Caspian — 4 ½
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — 2 ½