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Friday, July 18, 2014

Review: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Part III)

Okay, so I’ve made a long-winded argument as to why I think The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a fairy tale and not a fantasy or religious allegory, and I’ve spoken at length on Edmund’s portrayal in both the book and the 2005 film. I promise my re-reads of the following six books will not be this verbose (I don’t think I could manage it even if I wanted to), but here are the rest of my assorted observations.




Peter and Susan

Re-reading The Lion, it occurred to me just how bland Peter is as a character. He’s the emblematic eldest brother: the designated leader and spokesman with built-in fighting skills and an infallible understanding of right and wrong. He’s the Boy Scout who becomes a High King, and in the context of this particular story, being the first makes you perfectly capable of being the latter.

As I’ve already argued, The Lion is fundamentally a fairytale, so this one-dimensionality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though you can tell the film thinks that his characterization needs a bit of beefing up. Unfortunately, they decide to go with the Reluctant Hero trope, one of the more tedious arcs you can put any character on (we know they’re all going to embrace their destiny by the end, so why beat around the bush?)

The quality of ambition has been well and truly designated as evil within the annals of Hollywood, but too often it gets mixed up with leadership. There’s nothing wrong with a character that is ready and willing to take responsibility over a situation, but unfortunately the filmic Peter comes across as indecisive and preoccupied with getting his younger siblings back to England (as opposed to the book where he, and even Susan, quickly commit to the task of saving Mr Tumnus, after which there’s no turning back).

It’s difficult to see why the Narnians would follow him into battle, and when your prospective king is a pre-teen, you really need to showcase his leadership qualities as early and often as possible. I know the immediate rebuttal to this is “but he needed an arc!” – yet I’d argue that sometimes it’s okay to let the characters be fully-formed. The added tension with Edmund was enough to make Peter a more interesting character, as was his blink-and-you’ll miss it moment at the train station when he catches the eye of a soldier only a few years older than himself. Again the film-makers expertly hone in on the theme of the children being shipped away from one war only to get caught up in another, a juxtaposition that never seemed to occur to Lewis himself.

To put it all another way, Edmund’s pep-talk to his older brother on the eve of battle was a great moment for Edmund (demonstrating that he’s now mature enough to cede authority to someone else), but not so great for Peter, who by this stage should have embraced his role completely (the death of Maugrim would have been a logical turning-point for him).

Then there’s Susan, who will always be dear to my heart, partly because she’s most like me, and partly because her eventual fate (y’all know what I’m talking about) makes me passionately defensive of her. I’ll have more to say on the whole “lipsticks and nylons” debacle when we reach The Last Battle, but at this point I can only say I was rather chilled to notice just how early Lewis was in foreshadowing where she ends up.

I remembered her as a worrywart who vocalized her loud dismay at their various plights (“we never should have come” and “I wish we’d never come” are lines that pop up often), and as someone who based all her arguments on logic and reason (it’s she who points out that wearing the coats in Narnia isn’t stealing as technically they’re not even taking them out of the wardrobe – I’ll always be miffed that the film gave this line to Peter instead).

But Lewis didn’t take a particularly kind view of those who depended too heavily on logic and reason, and the film turns Susan into a fully blown stick-in-the-mud. Not only does Peter steal her reasoning over the coats from her, but the film also erases her vote in favour of rescuing Mr Tumnus (“I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we’d never come, but I think we must do something for Mr Whatever-his-name-is”) and her instinctual understanding that something is wrong with Aslan (“the feeling affected Susan so much that she couldn’t get to sleep when she went to bed.”)

Instead the film a) has her question Mr Beaver’s ability to speak even though she’s just walked into a forest through the back of a wardrobe, and b) has Lucy wake her up just before Aslan takes his march to the Stone Table.

For the record, I Anna Popplewell’s casting was perfect (finally, a Susan with dark hair!) and she manages to make most of her material amusing or understandable instead of whiny or irritating. Sometimes her sceptical nature works in the character’s favour, often being used to lampshade some of the more ridiculous aspects of Lewis’s story (pointing out that the prophesy “doesn’t really rhyme” and declaring on Father Christmas’s arrival that “I’ve put up with a lot – but this...”)

Best of all, the film actually lets her USE that bow and arrow to take out the Witch’s Dwarf – a character that disappears entirely from the book well before the battle and whose fate goes unaccounted for.

And yet most of the time she exists as Peter’s “shoulder devil”, someone who is constantly nagging and second-guessing him, with lines such as “just because a man in a red coat gave you a sword doesn’t mean you’re a hero” and “what have you done?” when Lucy goes missing. She’s sacrificed – at least a little – to Peter’s character development, a nay-sayer that he has to surmount, one that he eventually shuts down when she argues over the river crossing and is told: “you’re not trying to be realistic, you’re trying to be smart – as usual.”

Yes children, don’t try to be smart whatever you do – especially when it involves listening to your older brother’s fairly ludicrous plan to cross a dangerous river that nearly gets you all killed. Considering what the books eventually do with Susan, perhaps all this is justifiable foreshadowing – but like I said, I’m an apologist when it comes to – Lewis’s attempts to make me dislike her only made me more indignant on her behalf.

Yet for all of this, I think that the film’s strongest aspect was its portrayal of the Pevensie siblings. I don’t even have anything to say about Georgie Henley as Lucy as she was so perfect for the role, and though I’ll probably be lambasted for this, I think William Mosely, Anna Popplewell, Skandar Keynes and Georgia Henley were infinitely stronger actors than Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, and Peter’s tearful hug of Edmund after the battle had more emotional resonance than anything depicted in the Harry Potter film franchise.

The Rest of the Film...

On the other hand, I think the film gravely mishandled Aslan and the White Witch. It’s not just that I’m not a huge fan of CGI or that Tilda Swinton’s blonde dreadlocks were absolutely nothing like the black hair/red lips combo that made the White Witch so iconic, but that they miss some pretty fundamental points that Lewis was trying to make about the nature of good and evil.

This review sums it all up more eloquently than I ever could, but suffice to say that in attempting to portray the White Witch more of a threat (that is, eliminating her fear of Aslan among other things) all they really achieve is making Aslan seem less powerful than he should be.

There are other problems in the general tone. Although the film very much comes across as Bedknobs and Broomsticks meets Harry Potter, you can tell they were reaching for the grandeur and scale of The Lord of the Rings, something that doesn’t quite fit the more “cosy” fairy tale atmosphere of this particular tale (Peter Jackson is making a similar mistake in his adaptation of The Hobbit). Not helping is that many of the locations are obviously sound-stages, and much of the green screen is just dreadful.

Chalk it down to the unlucky timing of the film's release, but the inclusion of the prophecy comes across as a tired old cliché in the wake of other recent Chosen One fantasies – Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Lyra from The Golden Compass, the BBC’s Merlin, even Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland all surround their protagonists with themes of destiny and prophesy, passing off their untried heroes as the ONLY ONES that can possibly save the world despite their complete lack of interest, talent, ambition, responsibility or all of the above.

By the time Mr Beaver was rattling off the same old lines to the Pevensie sibs, insisting that they’re special because they’re special, they feel like the latest in a very long line of child-heroes who (by this point) really need more going for them than promises of a great destiny to justify the world revolving around them.

Would it have worked better to simply drop all mention of the prophecy? Not sure. As I argue here, I think that Lewis meant the children (and the corresponding prophecy) to act more as heralds of Aslan’s return than participants in the White Witch’s destruction. But the film seems a bit unsure what to do with the prophecy, for in their attempt to elevate the importance of the Pevensies’ presence in Narnia (Father Christmas credits them, rather than Aslan, with his return) they only draw attention to the fact that they seem rather arbitrarily chosen.

There’s also a lot more action inserted, which has its pros and cons. Obviously there was no way they were were going to miss filming the Big Badass Battle Sequence between Peter and the White Witch; this was a complete no-brainer, especially since it takes place almost entirely off-screen in the book. Edmund benefits most from this decision. His successful attempt to destroy the White Witch’s wand is related in hindsight in the book, but depicting it in real time gives him the chance to take his redemption to its logical conclusion, face the Witch from the opposite side of battle, and set up the effective scene between all the siblings when Lucy’s cordial revives him.

But other bits earlier in the film’s run-time don’t quite work as well. Perhaps I could understand the added excitement surrounding the wolves attacking the Beaver’s damn (in the book the Pevensies are long gone; in the film they narrowly escape via underground tunnels) or the replacement of assorted Narnians’ outdoor feast with a singular fox and an extended river sequence, but honestly – I preferred the suspense of the book to the action of the film, where the Beavers have to rely of stealth and strategy to out-manoeuvre the Witch.

Action rather than suspense also means that too many things are either rushed or glossed over. I was sorry to lose things such as the giant Rumblebuffin and the over-excited lion being restored to life in the Witch’s castle (why director Andrew Adams choses to depict only Tumnus being restored back to life and leave the rest of the transformation sequence off-screen is a mystery for the ages) but also the symbolic beauty of Narnia’s passage from winter into spring, which it gets replaced with not one but two stand-offs with the inexplicably American-accented Maugrim. I swear, when I saw this in the theatres, I heard a little boy impatiently say “just kill him!”

Neither is there any sense of the effect Aslan has on people – no deep shiver in the children when they first hear his name, no hesitation when they approach him for the first time – and, as I’ve already mentioned, no sense that the Witch is deeply afraid of him (forbidding mention of his name, averting her eyes, parlaying for safe passage). And it’s utterly unforgivable that they cut Aslan’s heart-breaking request for Lucy and Susan to put their hands in his mane so he could feel their presence on his walk to the Stone Table. Why would you omit this? Why?

And though I loved the emphasis that the film places on its WWII setting, Lewis’s story doesn’t really allow for it, making the film feel a tad lopsided in regards to its beginning and conclusion. For instance, Edmund gives his mother a rather cold brush-off when she kisses him goodbye at the train station, a development that is left hanging since we never see her again. Mr Pevensie’s fate is also unaccounted for, though the time is taken to establish that he was away fighting. When the children return through the wardrobe at the end of their lives in Narnia, it’s much more apparent that they’re not only returning to their childhood bodies, but also the absence of their parents and World War II.

When you write a war story – any war story – the tale ends with said war coming to a close. That’s not the case here, and the film feels rather incomplete as a result (as opposed to the book, where the war was just an excuse to get them out into the country before being dropped entirely). I’m not sure how well it would have worked, but perhaps the film could have ended with Mrs Pevensie joining her children at the house, just to give the film a greater sense of coming full-circle.

Miscellaneous Observations (of both book and film):

No review of The Lion is complete without mention of Father Christmas’s notorious line: “battles are ugly when women fight.” What to make of this? Why are they ugly when women fight? Aren’t they ugly enough all by themselves? Are they somehow “glorious” when women are standing on the side-lines? Is the comment sexist? A sign of the times? Irrelevant?

This line has been debated to infinity and back, and I can’t imagine that there’s much more to say about it.

Well, perhaps one more thing. Regardless of how Lewis himself felt about women in battle, it seems decidedly odd from a Doylistic point of view, to give Susan and Lucy weapons (the bow and the dagger) but choose not to have them use either one within the story. Granted, Susan does win at archery against Trumpkin in Prince Caspian, but over the course of this book, only the horn and the cordial have a narrative purpose. The bow and the dagger are Chekhov Guns that never go off, not even in self-defence (which is presumably why Father Christmas handed them out in the first place).

And it is interesting to note that it's not only the 2005 film that choses to omit this line, but also the BBC television adaptation from back in the 1980s. In that one Father Christmas tells the girls “I do not mean you to fight in the battle” but doesn’t give them the infamous reason why.

That said, having chosen to avoid the sexist implications of “battles are ugly when women fight”, it’s rather disappointing for the  2005 film to compensate by inserting the casual sexism of Edmund complaining that he’s been given a girl’s coat, only for Peter to pointedly reply: “I know.” Because implying his brother is a girl is an insult, get it?

Oh, and what are we to make of Mrs Pevensie calling Peter “good man” at the train station, but fare-welling Susan by saying “be a good girl”? Hmm...

***

Would it be fair to say that Deep and Deeper Magic are somehow analogous to the Old and New Testament, with the Deep/Old Laws being all “fire and brimstone and death to traitors” and the Deeper/New Laws comprising mercy and resurrection and selflessness?

Whether it is or not, I would argue that as a device, these two concepts are the weakest part of the story. Although Aslan’s sacrifice is deeply moving and the chapter in which he is killed utterly harrowing no matter how many times you read it, the author’s justification for them both is rather weak.

It’s as though Lewis knows he wants to do his own version of the crucifixion (and in doing so, to temporarily take Aslan out of the fight), and so desperately searches for a way in which to do it. He needs something that is bigger than Aslan to briefly stymie him, and so out of nowhere we get the sudden introduction of the Deep Magic and the Witch’s claim on Edmund’s life. You can almost feel the authorial fiat at work and (not withstanding the legitimate suffering that was involved) discovering that Deeper Magic counteracts Deep Magic is rather like a Diabolus ex Machina getting resolved by a Deus ex Machina.

***

I like that the film fleshed out the character of the Witch’s Dwarf a little more, not only giving him a name (Ginarrbrik, which actually sounds like something Lewis would have come up with) but also giving us some closure on what happened to him (I’ve already mentioned that his fate goes undisclosed in the book; here he’s shot dead by Susan with a well-aimed arrow).

Believe it or not, the children’s last name is never mentioned in this book, it’s only in Prince Caspian that they’re identified as Pevensies. Likewise, the Professor is not Professor Kirke, but simply the Professor. As such, though he comes across as nothing more (or rather, nothing less) than a wise old sage in the book, the film clearly plugs into The Magician’s Nephew when it comes to his surprised/delighted/wondering reaction to Lucy’s story. It’s a nice bit of acting from Jim Broadbent, who had a very limited amount of time to capture an entire book’s worth of backstory.

Ray Winstone and Dawn French are great choices for the Beavers, conveying marital warmth between them as well as their own distinct personalities. In the book they more or less disappear from the action after the children reach Aslan’s pavilion, but in the film at least Mr Beaver is present in the battle and at Edmund’s side for its duration. I also quite like Mr Beaver’s suspicious “enjoying the scenery, are we?” to Edmund when he spots the twin hills where the Witch’s house lies – it’s an organic development from the book Beaver’s claim that: “the moment I set eyes on that brother of yours I said to myself: ‘treacherous’.”

By comparison, I’m fairly neutral on Liam Neeson as Aslan – he’s fine I guess, but nothing truly awe-inspiring.

There were a lot of lovely little details in the film that I enjoyed: Mr Tumnus shaking his legs free of snow when he returns to his house with Lucy, Mr Beaver slapping his tail on the frozen river to test its durability (which is what real beavers do), that there are women-centaurs (centaurettes?) among the archers with Edmund in the battle, that the fauns have specially designed helmets to fit around their horns, and that the siblings are squabbling as they retreat back into the wardrobe, only to pick up the exact same argument when they return to their own world so many years later.

The film actually manages to plug a plot-hole in the book: that Lucy tries to heal Aslan with her cordial, only for Susan to point out that he’s already dead. Unfortunately, the girls forget that Lucy has a dagger that they could have used to cut his bonds; though perhaps that would have stolen the thunder of the mice.

Another addition that I really love is Aslan’s presentation of the Pevensies to the Narnian court with the words: “to the glistening eastern sea/the great western wood/the radiant southern sun/the clear northern sky” which sound exactly like something that Lewis would have written, and helps tone down the Narm that comes from Aslan rather pre-emptively giving them the titles of the Valiant, Just, Gentle and Magnificent (in the book these titles are given to them after several long years of rule, here it seems a bit too early for such monikers).

The crowns are another nice touch: the girls get floral coronets while the boys get more typical-looking crowns; but the eldest two have theirs made of gold, whilst the younger ones have silver. So technically they’re all unique, but they’re also divided by age and gender.

Finally, Lewis was rather wonderful at what TV tropes would call Cryptic Background References, which encompass the variety of fascinating and intriguing off-hand comments that make Narnia feel like such a rich and vibrant place.  For example: that the Professor’s house was also the site of many other strange occurrences, that Lucy’s cordial is made of juice from the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun (the what in the where?), that the Stone Table is an ancient edifice that has apparently been used for sacrifice in the past (“that is where it has always been done before”), that Dwarfs are referred to as “sons of Earth”, that the law of the Deep Magic is inscribed “in letters as deep as a spear is long on the fire-stones of the Secret Hill” as well as “engraved on the spectre of the Emperor-Beyond-the–Sea”, that the mice are moved by some mysterious impulse to chew Aslan’s body free of its bonds.

The film gets in on the act as well, with Tumnus hinting that his father died in a war (perhaps one that was initially fought against the Witch when she first invaded Narnia), Aslan making an early appearance in the flames of Tumnus’s fire-place (after his music conjures up images in the flames), and the Witch’s cup exploding into snow when the Dwarf throws it against a tree (suggesting its empty, unsavoury nature).

Though the world-building obviously never comes close to what Tolkien achieved in his life-time, Lewis was gifted at making Narnia a place of real beauty and intrigue; adding just the right tantalizing details at just the right times to deepen the reading experience. Mmm, such things are like ... well, what I imagine Turkish Delight should taste like.

I'm looking forward to finding more of these little nuggets as the books go on...

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