Review: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
The Narnia movie was splendid.
I went into it with very high hopes and a lot of trepidation. The hopes were confirmed, and the trepidation was unfounded.
(I'm going to try to mostly avoid spoilers here, but I'll probably say a few things that some people might construe as small spoilers. I was going to say that didn't matter 'cause presumably everyone's read the books, but then Lola told me she hasn't read the books yet, so I suppose there may be others in a similar situation.)
There was certainly plenty in this movie to nitpick, were one so inclined. And my Critical Brain was certainly whirring away to itself in the back of my head throughout the movie, thinking about mythology and special effects and political issues, and raising an eyebrow at the reaction of the rest of my brain.
Because the rest of my brain was enthralled, in unalloyed wonder and delight.
I cried a lot during the movie--sometimes at beauty, sometimes at sadness, sometimes just from the pleasure of recognition. This wasn't quite the Narnia of my mind's eye, but it was very close.
I found the movie extremely true to the book, one of my favorite adaptations ever. I do appreciate it when a movie based on a book tries to duplicate the book as closely as possible, but sometimes (I've especially felt this way about the first couple Harry Potter movies) the result can feel a little lifeless, a little like the movie isn't bringing much of value to the experience. (But then, I wasn't thrilled with the Harry Potter books, either.)
But this Narnia movie managed to update and interpret and shift here and there, mostly in ways that made it work better as a movie (and/or work better for modern audiences), while remaining very true to the spirit and sense of the book. (As with The Princess Bride, I'm inclined to say this is just about the best movie that could have been made from the book.) For example, the climactic battle (glossed over in about four pages of the book) takes up quite a bit of screen time, but they do a fine job with it. Another example: there's a scene in the book in which two of the children are talking with the Professor; that scene is three pages of dialogue in the book, but condensed to maybe half a dozen lines in the movie. And there are a couple of interesting bits in that scene that the movie left out--and yet, the movie scene conveys everything it needs to, and it gives very much the same feel as the scene in the book, as well as quoting a couple of lines verbatim, without feeling the need to copy the entire scene in the book exactly.
And I felt that way about most of the movie. It doesn't always adhere to the letter of the book, but it very much (imo) adheres to the spirit of it--except for a little bit of de-emphasis of the Christianity, and a little bit of modernizing here and there.
There were many opportunities for things to go horribly wrong, but the movie took none of them. Part of my reaction was simple relief, letting go of the tension over whether the movie was going to be bad in any of a number of different ways. (For example, I was sure from the previews that the talking animals were going to be horribly unbelievable, but in the movie itself I found most of them totally believable. And some of the hybrids, especially the centaurs, were so natural that I just about forgot there was anything strange about them.) But that relief wasn't all of my reaction by any means.
There are three things I think you should bear in mind when attending this movie (or, for that matter, reading the book):
- Lewis didn't mean the story to be a Christian allegory per se; he meant it to be something like what the Christ story might've been like in a world of talking animals and mythological creatures. I find that both more palatable than exact-parallel allegory and more interesting; knowing that was what he had in mind let me not focus so much on the Christian elements as I might have otherwise. The Christian elements are certainly there (and even central to the story), but it never feels like a bait-and-switch; they're not pretending to tell us a pure fantasy story while secretly sneaking in a Christian sermon. I think that fear of bait-and-switch was part of why I felt so betrayed as a kid when I finally recognized the Christianity in the book (while watching a climactic scene from an animated movie version, after reading the series twice and not noticing the Christianity); I didn't realize that that wasn't what Lewis was doing, and it took me a couple years to get over my distress and recognize that the books are good regardless.
- Narnia is a hodgepodge of elements and beings from a wide assortment of traditions and mythologies. Don't worry about it. Let it be what it is; don't try to analyze it, don't try to make it into a coherent unified system like Tolkien's. It's kind of a dream world in some ways, though a very solid-feeling one.
- More generally, try to turn off or bypass your critical brain. This is not a movie--or, indeed, a book--that rewards adult cynicism. Relax into it and let it bring out your childhood sense of wonder.
I got a fair bit of that from an interesting National Geographic article about Narnia and the movie (which does contain some smallish spoilers for the book and movie); it's partly about Lewis's hodgepodge of sources (and the disagreement between him and Tolkien about whether that was a valid approach), and partly about WETA trying to get the look of the movie right. Two particularly interesting quotes from Richard Taylor, creature design supervisor for the movie:
[The Minotaurs] actually have the most beautiful armor of any culture in the whole of Narnia.
(That armor was apparently created by WETA using an Italian Renaissance technique called repuso.)
And, regarding the difference between fauns and satyrs:
[Tumnus] can't be seen as the naked-chested male leading the little girl down the forest path to his home[....] His character must transform any form of overtone toward male predatory feel and become so childlike that you accept him[....]
Kam suggested a possible way of thinking about the distinction between Lord of the Rings and Narnia: she suggested that the Tolkien books evoke sense of awe--a sort of intellectual appreciation, mixed with adult emotional engagement--while the Narnia books evoke sense of wonder--a more childlike appreciation, with emotional engagement at perhaps a more fundamental level. I could quibble with the terms, but I think the distinction is an interesting one, albeit not quite that clear-cut. (I would say that there's a mix--that there's also some intellectual appreciation of Narnia to be had, and some childlike wonder at Middle Earth.) And although I liked the LotR movies, I mostly didn't love them.
I didn't realize, until I saw this movie, how much the book of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe meant to me. I've got all sorts of political complaints about it--but it really connected with my sense of wonder as a kid, and the movie brought that solidly back. Partly that's a nostalgia thing, but it would have been trivially easy for them to make a bad movie that made me nostalgic for my childhood sense of wonder without actually making me feel that wonder. The movie they actually made got it right.
I hate to lavish all this praise on it, because I know I'm setting y'all's expectations too high, and you'll probably be disappointed. So I'll note that although this was probably my favorite movie of at least the past several months, it doesn't come close to my all-time top ten or even top twenty list. I thought it was lovely and compelling, but not the apotheosis of modern filmmaking or anything.
And you may disagree with me about how good an adaptation it is, especially if you're such a big fan of the book that you've memorized all the dialogue or something.
But I do think it's an awfully good movie, and I liked it quite a lot.
I don't know what they're going to do with the rest of the books. I always found Magician's Nephew a little weak (though the Wood Between the Worlds is perhaps the strongest image for me of all the series), and it will be very difficult for them to do The Horse and His Boy without coming across as racist, or The Last Battle without bringing a whole lot more Christianity into it. But after this movie, the creators have built up a whole lot of author points for me; I'm willing to trust them to get the rest of the series (or however many more they decide to do) right.
Btw, there's a fascinating (and spoiler-full) article, unrelated to the movie, about what order to read the books in. I agree with the article's conclusion that both of the standard orderings have value, but I'm still strongly inclined to recommend (to any who haven't yet read the books) starting with Lion/Witch/Wardrobe rather than with The Magician's Nephew, simply because I think Lion is a better book and a better introduction to Narnia. I think if I'd read Nephew first I might not have bothered with the rest of the series; it has some good stuff in it, but it doesn't have nearly as much sense-of-wonder (for me) as Lion does.