Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe | Not Quite a Movie Review | James Como | December 7, 2005
All my life Ive loved movies, but only at age twenty did The Chronicles find me. Ive spent much mental energy paying close attention to both, and now that they have met and that Ive witnessed that meeting I am thrilled. We could get picky, but we would be picky indeed to fault this book-to-movie; such pickiness would say more about us than the meeting.
Like most people Ive more often suffered over than been delighted by this sort of transmutation. In moving from printed page to my mind, the book becomes my own; and I know that you, another reader, have your own book too. Certainly our mental books overlap, but the differences between them are a big part of what keeps us talking. In moving from the printed page to the screen, however, the book must first hit my eyeballs and my ears. Two senses are assaulted, and that is no small thing. Twenty-five hundred years ago, Aristotle wrote in his Rhetoric that to be persuasive one should "set it before their [the audiences] eyes." (He didnt say "ears," but he didnt have amplifiers.) He was right then and hes still right, which is why movies are so irresistible: heavy-handed or not, spectacle up there on that big screen makes all the difference. (And note well: in his Poetics Aristotle included spectacle as one of the five major features of dramatic poetry.)
As I watch the book-to-movie I may be (in truth, I usually am) swept away but no longer, as with my mental book, when the movie is done. Moreover, you and I and all of us will have seen more or less (though never exactly) the same spectacle, so our talk changes. We no longer discuss author Xs book but director Ys movie; we no longer talk about our own mental books the one weve taken solitary walks within and lived through but about our shared spectacular experience.
The point: if we cherish the book, if we regard our mental book as what the author closely intended, and if the director gets that wrong or worse, betrays it well, then, we want to throttle the director, who is undoing not only author Xs cherished world but our very own mental book as well. Worse: now with Ys betrayal out and about, anyone who had not read the book but has seen the movie will get it all wrong. These . . . these turnips . . . will not know that Y is a knucklehead, or worse.
Why, then, has the Narnia movie thrilled me? Faithful both to the substance and spirit of the book, it overdoes nothing. This matters enormously, for the great danger of lavish spending on the production of a movie with epic promise is excess. In this case, though, from deep meaning to sheer spectacle with the effect of talking and exotic beasts somewhere in between we behold ordinateness: this movie is fitting.
That is a lot not to have to worry about: a great relief, given my not-inordinate worry. How unlikely an accomplishment is this absence of excess in how very many ways the movie should have been seriously overwrought, given all the temptations of greed, proselytizing, and vanity, and all the risks of writing, casting, formal complexity, and technical innovation how unlikely an accomplishment this ordinateness is I leave for each of us who love the books to marvel over and to give thanks for. I do thank God, and all the people who labored. And without quite knowing exactly what he did or how he functioned, what he contributed or (more importantly) what he prevented we should probably thank Lewiss stepson and a co-producer of the movie, Douglas Gresham, and I do.
All of which is not to say there has been (or is) nothing at all to worry about. Along with Lewiss Narnia (and our mental correlative) and the movie, there is the Twilight Zone Narnia the Narnia of publicity, marketing and media chatter which bears little relation to either of the first two.
Over here we have a schizophrenic sales pitch: on the one hand an Evangelical Narnia, with its study guides designed to awaken every sleeping dragon that Lewis had sneaked past, and on the other a perfectly non-Christian Narnia that, according to a version of one Gresham interview, couldnt offend the most devout secularist because there is nothing Christian about it. Over there we have venomous conflict and willfully wrong-headed criticism: the opportunistic Philip K. Pullman (the Christophobe of His Dark Materials fame) and a few smart-aleck New York pundits with really loud megaphones. And bit further away barely discernible but no longer merely on the horizon we have a tarted up Narnia, including a new Narnia tale "inspired" by C. S. Lewis, a simplified version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a growing pile of trivializing merchandise. In short, the books and the movie have become both a goldmine (and we really must ask of C. S. Lewis Pte Ltd, the copyright holder, How much is enough?) and a battleground.
In truth, however, although Lewis had an indisputably Protestant cast of mind, he did not have an Evangelical one. He limited his religious thinking, writing, speaking, and witnessing strictly to those venues he thought appropriate; he had many Catholic beliefs and practices; and it is doubtful he ever would have referred to himself as having been "born again." Furthermore, we know that he did not set out to write Christian propaganda when he wrote The Chronicles. In other words, unless you are of Pullmans febrile ilk, you really dont have much to worry about; and if you dont believe that then just ask the many thousands of people who love Narnia and who arent Christians and who dont see its Christianity and who dont care that others do. If Lewis was a commando, "behind enemy lines" as he put it, surely his battlefield was less the culture-at-large than the heart of each of his readers.
In that light, I note finally Lewiss great accomplishment with Narnia. We recall his famous late-night talk with Tolkien and Dyson in 1931, the one that resulted in Lewis realizing that a myth could remain a myth and still be a fact. What Lewis has done in The Chronicles is to re-mythologize Christianity, re-locating our response from the intellect to the imagination. That is, with his fairy tales and we do well to recall that, according to Lewis, "sometimes fairy stories may say best whats to be said" Lewis has restored that stage just before facticity, or its potential, breaks through, that stretch of time when the longing evoked by the myth as such still beckons pure. Let everyone who sees this movie feel that, and then let each of them wonder . . .
T. Como is the editor of Remembering
C. S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him, just released
by Ignatius Press, a collection of twenty-four reminiscences and impressions
from friends, students, and acquaintances of C.S. Lewis.
He holds advanced degrees in medieval English literature
(Fordham University) and in Language, Literature and Rhetoric (Columbia
University) and is Professor of Rhetoric and Public Communication at York
College of the City University of New York, where he has taught for over
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