Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Narnia: Maybe This Time

Narnia is my home away from home.

The summer I turned 14 (or maybe it was the summer after) I spent Friday nights with some of the best in the world, swimming, laughing, eating, and studying/discussing The Chronicles of Narnia book by book. Sure, I'd read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), but before then, I'd never delved more deeply into the canon. Each week, we read one of the seven books, took a quiz, and discussed the novel particularly the religious and moral themes and insights. At the end of the summer, there was a final, very in-depth exam that, once passed, made you an official Knight of Narnia. I confess I never finished the exam (thought I still have it in a box somewhere).

To this day, those summer nights remain a shining memory amongst the angst of my teenage years.

Imagine my utter glee when I first heard the news that a feature film was being made of LWW, which a franchise of the entire series planned should the first film prove successful. Of course the combination of a beloved children's book brought to life on screen and the Christmas holiday made it a smashing success.

I loved the movie of LWW for many reasons. I was involved with the grass roots marketing campaign for the film, which was very exciting, so I was invested from early on. And they got a lot of things right in this movie. Tumnus, the Beavers, Father Christmas, the White Witch, the general sight and feel of Narnia. I've a few pet peeves; I wouldn't be me without them. I'm not crazy about Liam Neeson as Aslan, especially not the same year he was Raj Ah Gul in Batman Begins – added to Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars: Phantom Menace, that's too much mentoring from one man – but he does well enough. Also, it's hard to get a centaur right (no one has yet that I've seen) and after years of watching moviemakers try, I've decided it's the whole head thing. Horses' heads stretch out from their bodies; on a centaur the man/woman head stretches straight up and it just looks wrong. But while they softened the Christianity, they didn't jettison it completely and that counts big with me. I know Andrew Adamson (director and co-producer) loved the book as a child and was committed to doing it right and I think that shines through.

I was excited about the next installment, Prince Caspian (PC) because I wanted to see Narnia explode beyond the Christmas story even the uninitiated knew something about. But here's where Disney and Adamson (back again wearing multiple hats) went way off the reservation. PC has a slow start with dual stories running simultaneously, which is not how the story originally unfolded, though I have to allow that there probably wasn't any better way to reveal the two stories cinematically.

In the book, when the four slightly-older Pevensie children (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) return to a much older Narnia, they rescue Trumpkin, the dwarf who was sent to find anyone who responded to the magical trumpet's call for help (I'm skipping a lot because I really don't want to go too far into the plot here). Trumpkin spells out Caspian's back story to the Pevensies. Having Trumpkin tell the story of Prince Caspian to those who portend to be his rescuers doesn't make for an engaging film; it's the "show, don't tell" storytelling ethos. So Adamson shows us Caspian's story first and has him blow the trumpet, not after being surrounded at Aslan's How and effectively reaching his lowest point as its written in the original book, but during his initial escape from King Miraz's castle.

By doing this, the film looses the rich context of the Pevensie's journey. It's during this journey that the essence of the story is explored, that of choosing the right path even in the face of great objection and even harassment from those that matter most to you. This is what Lucy experiences when she maintains that she could see Aslan and he was directing her to go another way. Peter's bullheaded desire to reestablish himself as a king of Narnia rears up here, not in a trumped up pissing match with Caspian. In the film, this journey isn't given nearly enough opportunity to explore these once and current kings and queens of Narnia.

Because the Pevensies deal with these themes en route, they are already in their Aslan mindset when they finally arrive at Aslan's How. In the novel, their arrival occurs as Caspian is being confronted by the witch and the hag, when the Pevensies storm the darkened central chamber and kill the baddies. In the film, it's the Pevensies that face off against those traitors who would resurrect the White Witch, effectively denying Caspian his own revelatory moment to "do the right thing" when alone and under great pressure and almost certain death, Caspian stands up to the evil denizens and irrevocably aligns himself to follow Aslan's way.

It's a pretty awesome moment, actually. In the book. In the film, the replacement confrontation between Edmund and the essence of the White Witch is engrossing, but the themes are well trod. Edmund made his choice long ago and has risked his life for that choice to prove it. The White Witch holds no more threat or enticement to him. This scene only goes to show how much Edmund has grown and how he has managed to surpass Peter in mien and bearing.

Look, I can forgive a failed, mid-film castle invasion scenario shoe horned into the story to add risk and cost to our character development and I even enjoyed the requisite end battle too, (though don't get me started on the river god apparition and its blatant and bad rip off of Lord of the Rings). C.S. Lewis' style doesn't help the modern filmmaker either; like Tolkien, he liked to describe a battle in retrospect, following the "oh my God, I can't believe what I just saw happen" narrative style. And thank God they got Reepicheep's tail sacrifice correct, or heads would have rolled. But while LWW was so faithful to the material while effectively cutting and parsing down for the modern audience (though I missed the lion, reanimated from the White Witch's stone garden, repeating reminding other Narnians that Aslan said "we lions." Little things), PC went way too far off the reservation for the purist and yet did not manage to commit to it enough to bring in the newbies.

Disney apparently had a similar reaction to PC, though probably more over less healthy box office returns compared with LWW than content adaptations objections). The studio had enough of something to discontinue the franchise. This is not a bad thing. The Chronicles of Narnia have real risk and real cost in its short pages and trying to express that while keeping it Disneyfied and gentle enough for kids is a fine line that is rarely walked successfully. Just look at PC

Despite my dislike of PC (I don't own it, the ultimate thumbs down) I was disappointed to think that none of the other novels would get their shot at a red carpet premiere. I'm actually not looking to see all the novels adapted. I'd be happy to get through the first four, rounding out the film franchise with The Silver Chair. The Last Battle is cataclysmic, but I won't be overly disappointed if it doesn't make the cut as the story is less rich what with the donkey impersonating the lion and that annoying ape. Plus, there's a reason not too many people remember The Horse and His Boy (read it and find out) not to mention some potentially dodgy cultural issues with the Arabic-like villains. And while Narnia's origin story in The Magician's Nephew could be a fun stand alone, I think seeing Narnia emerge through LWW is more poetically potent. But I really want to see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (my ultimate favorite) and The Silver Chair unfold on the screen so long as they do it right.

Fortunately, the franchise was picked up by Fox, which normally would send me into tizzies of discontent, but for this one, anything not Disney is pretty good. Adamson is taking a back seat, serving as producer but ceding writing and directing duties to others. Michael Apted is directing. Among other things, Apted was responsible for directing duties on three of the best episodes of the first season of Rome and that field was a competitive one as nearly every episode was mind-bogglingly fantastic. The point is he's done more than Shrek (sorry Adamson) before coming to Narnia. Experience counts.

There is one major character shake up. Eddie Izzard, of whom I am ridiculously fond, was the voice of the warrior mouse Reepicheep in PC. Via IMDB.com, he will now be voiced by Bill Nighy. OK – I had a whole paragraph here about how great Bill Nighy is, but when searching for the link below, I discovered via NarniaFans.com that he's been replaced by Simon Pegg. Shame, it was a really good paragraph.

Reepicheep is sacrosanct. After Aslan, he's the one Narnian you do not want to miscast.

Do not mess with the mouse.

Izzard was great, playing the charming humor and dedication of the big, loyal warrior in the tiny body like an endearing version of Shrek's Puss in Boots without the tomcatting around, pun intended. But in Dawn Treader, Reepicheep becomes more, oh, so much more, and ultimately is the heart and soul of the story.

Simon Pegg will be great too, I'm sure of it. He's a closer match to Izzard's voice than Nighy and he'll definitely bring the funny; we'll have to see how he does with the more serious and poignant aspects of Reepicheep. But I was really looking forward to hearing Bill Nighy's humor, his talent, his plumy voice in Reepicheep, my favorite character of the Narnian saga.

Where am I going with all this? Right here. The new trailer for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The first time I saw it I gasped, and a few seconds later gasped again, and then literally clutched my metaphoric pearls. I saw Reepicheep in the bow of the row boat, I saw lilies in the water, and I saw a wall of water flowing upside down.

"Return to magic. Return to hope. Return to Narnia," the tagline exhorts.

Oh yes, please.

I think, I think, maybe this time they got it right. On December 10th, we'll all find out.

Further up. Further in.


  1. Wow, long post, but worth the read. I had not yet seen the trailer, and I too am a BIG Narnia fan (although I did not discover it until I was in college 1978-82). Looking forward to the movie.

    Curious to know if you have ever read Lewis's space trilogy? My favorite is book 2, Perelandra, in which embeds his brilliant apologetics in brilliant dialogue between Ransom and Weston.

  2. Hi Richard! Thanks for leaving a comment. Yes, my post tend to be on the lengthy side. Imagine what I must be like in person. Yikes!

    I did try to read the Space trilogy many years ago, were talking teenage years, but failed to really get into it. That may have been the adolescent mindset though and for a while now I've been thinking of giving it another shot.

    I'm a big fan of Screwtape, Great Divorce, and Surprised by Joy; it'd be interesting to see Lewis' keen thoughts and apologetics framed in a fiction setting. Thanks for the recommendation!