January 12, 2006

Surprisingly Accomplished Adaptation

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
4 out of 5 stars

I grew up with the animated film and the BBC version, though when the latter was originally shown on terrestial television, I was only 7 years old. I loved Narnia as a child, and hadn't revisited it for a long time until my sister gave me a new complete set of the books for christmas last year. Being an analytical person by nature, I made certain to watch the BBC series again (digging out my old tape) before seeing the film, in order to compare the two.

I have to admit, the film is far superior to the BBC version. While I continue to have a soft spot for the BBC series, all nostalgia aside, the acting was terrible. All the children, with the exception of Peter (Richard Dempsey), were melodramatic almost to the degree of amateurs – I'm not surprised that they left the profession after making the series (to my knowledge, only Dempsey has continued as a successful actor). Barbara Kellerman, who played the White Witch, was equally horrendous, massively over-acting her part – she seemed to think she was in a pantomime. The puppet for Aslan was laughable, robotically jerking along, the mouth flapping open and shut in a bizarre attempt to approximate speech. The beavers were equally hilarious, in overlarge costumes restricting their movement meaning they had to shuffle along, arms held aloft like furry dinosaurs.

Having said all that, the effects weren't bad for 1988. As a child, I thought it was magnificent. But unsurprisingly, it doesn't hold up to the CGI wizardry of the new film at all (compare the beavers, or the cartoon griffin of the BBC to the fully realised depiction in the film). In addition, the acting in the new film is infinitely superior (although the 'Scottish' housekeeper was pretty poor), in particular Tilda Swinton, who at no point descends into ham acting, and the children are much improved. Lucy of the BBC series was all agape, treating the whole thing like a school play. Today's Lucy is actually capable of acting, along with the rest of the cast. Before I looked again at the BBC series, I would have laboured under the misapprehension that it was a work of genius, untouched by time. Believe me, its not – anyone who grew up with it and hasn't had a look since then, do so before imagining it an equal to the new film. It irks me to think a Disney film which has been touted as a Christian parable (though I would argue it is considerably less religious than the book, much to my relief – the overweening religiosity which plagued Lewis' writing doesn't poison the film) is a superior adaptation than the cherished BBC effort, but unfortunately I find it to be undeniable.

I still enjoy the series, because it was a part of my childhood and I'm extremely sentimental about these things – I'll be getting myself a DVD copy, if only to watch the cast reunion.

To go into greater depth on the film, there were numerous and significant changes to the plot of the book, many of which were positive. Firstly, the opening sequence; unsurprisingly for a children's book, Lewis didn't go into any detail about the horrors of civilians in warfare. This also marks the first instance of a new backstory provided by the script – Peter's treatment of Edmund. In the book and the series, Peter is generally cast as a mature, slightly over-protective older brother while Edmund is (for most of the book) an entirely objectionable little brat. In the film, Edmund is softened considerably, and in turn, Peter is made far less 'noble', if thats the word.

This is followed by numerous minor changes, such as the first entry into Narnia is caused by a hide-and-seek game – in the series and the book, Lucy's initial entry is due to exploration, not her search for a hiding place. The cricket is invented (perhaps to emphasise the 'Englishness' of the book?), as is the cricket ball through the window and knocked-over armour. Instead of Susan, Peter suggests taking the fur coats, and both Lucy and Edmund (in the opening two visits) are bereft of fur coats in the film whereas they were not in the book or series. Mr Tumnus wasn't wearing his iconic green coat, and one other little mistake is the White Witch's pigmentation – she should, as her name suggests, be a very pale white, not merely pale-skinned.

In addition, there were some pleasant little nods to those looking out for book references, with the Professor's apple (pointing to The Magician's Nephew, which focuses on the apple that the White Witch eats and that Digory brings back to his dying mother, later to plant it, becoming the tree from which the wardrobe is made), and the drawing of glasses and moustache on the lion statue (though I'm not totally certain of that, but seem to remember it from the book).

The main change, aside from the softening of Edmund and staining of Peter, comes with the rush from the beaver's home. First, Edmund leaves with his coat – the suffering of his cold journey to the witch, without a coat, was dealt with at length in the book. The party follows Edmund all the way to the castle, rather than briefly searching then returning to the house. Mrs Beaver does not spend hours preparing for the journey, the wolves are right outside rather than coming to an empty house, and there is an escape tunnel. The pub is another new detail (though an entertaining one), as is the character of the fox (presumably based on the old fox at the christmas meal). Needless to say, the fox's role in tricking the wolves is a further fabrication. Finally, the flight down the river, a major sequence, is entirely made up, along with the wolf encounter.

A few religious details are missed out, such as Jadis' parentage (that she is the daughter of Lillith, 'first wife of Adam', doesn't crop up in the series either). More importantly, there is no mention of the 'Emperor-over-the-sea' of whom Aslan is meant to be the son, and who was the creator of the 'Deep Magic'. The stone table section is not hyped up into Christian iconography, but left relatively pagan.

Another important change is the children's reluctance to take up their quest – there is no such hesitation in the book or series. The little scene where the animals have a christmas meal, much to the witch's dismay, is missing, replaced by the cunning fox. Much to my pleasure, the sexist commentary by Father Christmas was modified – previously, he told the women that 'the battle is not for you', but this changes to a general lament about the horror of war. Susan and Lucy are shown to have skill with their weapons, and Susan even gets to kill a dwarf (the one notable sexist comment is Susan's epithet remains 'Gentle', compared to the rather more impressive titles of the men. However, I can see why the script writers chose to keep it, albeit I'd rather they'd been braver and changed it to something less patronising). The battle is much extended, but as there was little focus on this in the book, there is plenty of scope to add detail.

Probably a few I've forgotten there, but you get the idea. The film was far from faithful to the book, but as has been mentioned, it was a reasonable adaptation. Less religious, less sexist, and arguably more realistic in parts (dialogue of the children, for example).

As to the animated film, I'm at present too clouded by fond memories to make a reasonable judgement – I'll have to rewatch it and see if I'm still holding illusions about it as was the case with the BBC series. When I re-read the book, I had firm images of the animated feature in my head; I'd like to think it was better than the film, but we'll see how I feel after a repeat viewing.

Out of interest, has anyone seen the 1967 Narnia series? I didn't even realise there was an earlier live action version until checking through some old newspapers recently. Apparently, it was first shown on ABC television Sunday, July 9th 1967 at 18:15 starring Elizabeth Crowther, Zuleika Robson, Edward McMurray and Paul Waller as the children, Jack Woolgar as the Professor, Elizabeth Wallace as the White Witch, Bernard Kay as Aslan, George Claydon as the Dwarf, Angus Lennie as Mr Tumnus and Robert Booth as Maugrim. Ring any bells?

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  1. i agree with basically everything you said, although I didn't realize a lot of the things you mentioned that they left out of the book (s'been a while since i've read it), but it was impressive. I love the BBC versions mainly because of memories of childhood wonder and also the theme tune's awesome :D, but I'll agree that the film outdid the BBC ones. There's a 1967 one?! Have to go find that.

    12 Jan 2006, 12:33

  2. Hilmi Sonmez

    Would be great if you could find it – I've done a little research on the 1967 version, and found the following:

    In 1967, BBC television produced a ten episode series in black and white. Well-intentioned and deeply respectful of C. S. Lewis’ allegory, this dated, but charming, series focuses on the relationships of the four children and does a wonderful job addressing the epic struggle between good and evil from an adolescent’s point of view. In this series the children act like children, and their passages through betrayal, shame and competition to loyalty, honor, and cooperation are sweet. Lewis’ Christian symbolism is strong throughout the series, and the other mythological references—Lilith, Bacchus, and the like—were left intact. Not currently available in VHS or DVD format, this BBC production is the version many baby boomers remember as their first vision of Narnia, and the memories stand the test of time.

    by Dan R. Dick

    TV Serial of Book by C S Lewis
    A dramatization of C.S. Lewis's children's book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins on ABC Television this Sunday, July 9 at 6.15 pm. The serial, which will be seen throughout the country, has been adapted in 10 episodes.
    It is the story of four children who go to stay with an old professor in a remote country house. One day they find a large wardrobe in an empty room and discover that it leads into a fantastic country called Narnia inhabited by strange people and animals, and ruled by the White Witch who personifies Evil. The children join forces with the Lion, Aslan, and after many exciting adventures, the Witch is finally defeated.
    The four children are played by 12-year-old Elizabeth Crowther (daughter of the actor Leslie Crowther), Zuleika Robson, 14; Edward McMurray, 13; and Paul Waller, 15.The cast also includes Jack Woolgar as the Professor, Elizabeth Wallace as the White Witch, Bernard Kay as Aslan the Lion, George Claydon as the Dwarf, Angus Lennie as the Faun and Robert Booth as the Wolf. The adapter is Trevor Preston and the producer is Pamela Lonsdale.

    The Times, Tuesday 9th June, 1967

    It doesn't appear to be available any more; I had hoped the Warwick library might have an old copy, but no luck. However, it may be in an archive somewhere, or there is the risky option of eBay. Hopefully the interest caused by the recent film might bring some out of the woodwork.

    12 Jan 2006, 13:36

  3. Interesting – I didn't realise there was an earlier adaptation either. Would be fascinating to see it. Good review too.

    Just one other nitpicky point: I think the film was more faithful to the book than you realise. For example, in the book, the first entry into Narnia is because of the hide and seek game, although yes, the cricket is invented. Also in the book, neither Edmund or Lucy have coats in their first two visits there, and Mr Tumnus's 'iconic' green coat doesn't exist in the book either – all that's described is his red muffler. And I didn't feel Peter becomes that much less noble than he is in the book – a lot of those instances that occur between them are in the text, especially the place where he admits to Aslan that it was partly his fault.

    Of course, there are a few changes – but what I was trying to say was there are details that you've mentioned which are, actually, the same as in the original book, and I think they've got right in the film.

    12 Jan 2006, 15:21

  4. Hilmi Sonmez

    Possible – I'll have to double check the book, as I didn't have it next to me when I wrote that.

    I stick to what I said about Peter, however; from the start of the film until Edmund's return from the White Witch, he is generally not speaking to, but shouting at his brother. In the book, it was rather more mature – calm admonishments rather than all out patronising yells. In addition, Edmund is far more likeable than he was in the book – his actions are made out to be reactions against his older brother's treatment of him rather than just an unpleasant personality. I feel the path the Disney film pushes this relationship down is a well-trodden American theme – unruly teenagers with 'family problems', which I don't think is an entirely fair reflection on the book.

    However, having just argued about sexism with someone else, I'm not saying the film MUST be exactly like the book, and generally speaking I think the changes that were made were positive.

    12 Jan 2006, 16:14

  5. I remember a children's series in the late eighties, an animated version in the late seventies and a stage show of around the same time.

    12 Jan 2006, 17:08

  6. Hilmi Sonmez

    Right – Elizabeth, I checked, and you're absolutely correct on Mr Tumnus and the coats, so I take your point. But, I did at least get the bit about the first entry right. This is the initial journey into Narnia:


    … "Not for me," said Peter; "I'm going to explore in the house."
    Everyone agreed to this and that was how the adventures began. It was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places. The first few doors they tried led only into spare bedrooms, as everyone had expected that they would; but soon they came to a very long room full of pictures and there they found a suit of armour; and after that was a room all hung with green, with a harp in one corner; and then a kind of little upstairs hall and a door that led out on to a balcony, and then a whole series of rooms that led into each other and were lined with books – most of them very old books and some bigger than a Bible in a church. And shortly after that they looked into a room that was quite empty except for one big wardrobe; the sort that has a looking-glass in the [p12] door. There was nothing else in the room at all except a dead blue-bottle on the window-sill.
    "Nothing there!" said Peter, and they all trooped out again – all except Lucy. She stayed behind because she thought it would be worth while trying the door of the wardrobe, even though she felt almost sure that it would be locked. To her surprise it opened quite easily, and two moth-balls dropped out…

    No hide-and-seek, just exploring.

    While I could go into detail on Peter's conversation with Edmund, even I'm not so geeky as to copy out half the book. But only just… :p

    Phil – yes. BBC series began in 1988, animation was 1979, and there have been numerous theatrical productions over the past few decades. There was also a 1967 series in 10 parts on ITV (though it wasn't called that back then).

    12 Jan 2006, 21:25

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