Just in time for Hanukkah, Max DeCurtins re-views the smack-you-upside-the-head Christian allegory of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is perhaps not as delectable as either a Turkish Delight or Tilda Swinton’s White Witch.
It’s an unfortunate truth that anyone who spends any time in Boston – that is to say, more than two hours – eventually must contend with the MBTA. The MBTA stands out to different people for different things, probably chief among them its perpetual tardiness, the fascinating way in which it takes you at least 45 five minutes to go anywhere no matter the route, and its habit of ceasing to function for much of the winter. For me, when I think of the MBTA, I think of train cars 20+ years beyond their service lives; and I think of C.S. Lewis.
You see, almost any trip on the T will reveal ads plastered about from a particular church that has apparently decided to make quotes from C.S. Lewis, in which he declares not only the importance but also the legitimacy of his religion, the centerpiece of its marketing campaign. (Never mind that faith shouldn’t really need advertising, much less with the kind of pseudo-profound phraseology characteristic of way too many posts shared on Facebook.) At any rate, I find it fitting that I associate the T with the world of Narnia; after all, both stop working in winter. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is like the T: you want it to work, and sometimes it does, but not nearly enough to call it functional in any reliable sense of the word. When the T does work smoothly, it does a fine job of approximating what public transportation should deliver under “normal” circumstances in a city as old and gnarled as Boston, but most of the time it’s a marvelous example of How Not to Get Somewhere On Time. And when it fails, it fails in spectacular fashion. But everyone wishes the T would work.
I first saw Narnia with a few friends who, like me, had little recollection of the series of books. I certainly haven’t read the books since I was in elementary school, so I can’t say how closely Narnia hews to Lewis’ body of work in the series. The movie shares some of the classic escapist elements that we find in Harry Potter and some of the same heritage as Lord of the Rings – Lewis and Tolkien were colleagues, after all – and yet Narnia carries little of the merit that the former two possess. Its fantasy inherits from a different sort than Tolkien, though both he and Lewis make war a central component of their respective literatures (more on this later). Lewis’ story and the world of Narnia rely on much thinner base material than does Tolkien’s Middle-earth – and it shows. By the time we’d finished the movie, we’d stifled any number of snorted laughs and rolled eyes at the screen or each other at least once every fifteen minutes. We’d just witnessed a train wreck, albeit a train wreck with some very pretty railcars. Narnia sucks pretty hard as a movie, but not all the time and in every way. It doesn’t lack for some nice visual artistry and cinematography, and it has a musical score that honestly shouldn’t work but somehow does. I wanted to like the movie, but its flawed source material holds it back.
For those unacquainted, the first installment of the Narnia literature describes the flight of the four Pevensie children – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy – from the aerial bombardment of London, their life at the manor of Professor Kirke, and their subsequent discovery of the magical land of Narnia, which they access through the imposing, handsomely carved wardrobe that sits upstairs at Kirke’s fabulous manor in the English countryside. The wardrobe, sitting by itself in an otherwise bare room, is actually one of the things that Narnia sort of gets right: it feels a little like a character in its own right, but sometimes the simplest transitory devices work best. First Lucy, then Edmund, and finally Peter and Susan pass through the wardrobe—in ascending order of age, for those keeping score. Each of the Pevensie children gains access to Narnia only when they are willing to believe that there’s a world beyond the wardrobe, even though they cannot see it. Sound a little like a religious claim? That’s because it is.
I feel silly writing that Narnia suffers from a thoroughly religious subtext; most people familiar with the books and/or their author already know this, and those who don’t but know how to read between the lines will find the mapping inescapable. Once you see it, you see it everywhere (as is subtext’s wont). Aslan, meet Jesus. White Witch, meet Satan—or possibly Medusa, because the Witch’s wand turns people into stone just as Medusa’s stare does. Pevensie kids, meet the Apostles. Narnia is not exactly Heaven, nor is it Hell, but it’s a place that could be either hellish or heavenly, depending on who’s in power. It’s another realm beyond the world we know, and it’s there for the person with the right type of faith. Biblical references are at least partially responsible for the weakness of the story, but other narrative faults abound as well. There’s an almost comical premise for how all the Pevensie kids finally get to Narnia: they lose control of a cricket ball, which goes crashing through one of the precious stained-glass windows in Kirke’s manor house, inviting the irritation of Kirke’s housekeeper Macready. Let’s get real here – avoiding the punishment of the dour Macready for a mundane case of a cricket ball through a window really provides sufficient motivation for Peter and Susan to suspend their disbelief enough to be granted access to Narnia? It makes about as much sense as spilling a glass of milk on the floor and going, “Oh shit, I guess I’m ready to believe in Eternal Damnation after all.” This suggestion that anything mundane – and in fact perfectly explainable otherwise – could be just the push you need to believe in the promises of faith, and that those who believe in the promises of faith are rewarded, is something that Lewis wove throughout the Narnia series, and it’s one of the things that bothers me most about the church ads on the T that have deputized Lewis as their main marketing gimmick.
Not only could Lewis not separate his faith from his literature, he could not separate the concomitant narrow attitudes toward women from his literature either. Susan hardly ever seems like more than a naysaying future housewife and, if I remember the other parts of the Narnia literature correctly, she basically loses any ability ever to return to Narnia as soon as she’s grown up enough to be interested in boys, or at least enough to be aware that society had expectations of her. (Shortly after meeting Aslan, Susan rhetorically asks Lucy, “We used to have fun together, didn’t we?” Lucy chimes in: “Yes, before you got boring.”) Lucy, I would venture, doesn’t even figure into Lewis’ thinking except to provide gender balance among the Pevensie children and to play the role of the unquestioning believer. When Susan and Lucy get ambushed by Maugrim, they cower up in a tree, and apparently it’s Peter’s job to come running in with a sword and save the day. In fact, pretty much the only example we have of a physically strong, independent female who fights is the White Witch, but of course she’s the villain, so that’s not exactly flattering.
Tilda Swinton, as the witch, turns in perhaps Narnia’s only compelling performance, and while Jim Broadbent and James McAvoy do dispatch their roles well enough, the parts don’t appear in most of the story. And as much as Liam Neeson can be . . . Liam Neeson, one can’t help sometimes but wonder why he occasionally goes for the limpest, driest of roles (here’s looking at you, Qui-Gon Jinn). The rest of the personnel frankly don’t rise above forgettable, possibly because their characters run into the limitations imposed upon them by Lewis and/or the thinness of his story. Mostly this means the Pevensie kids, but it applies equally to the various legions of talking creatures that inhabit Narnia. Peter and Edmund, for example, have something of a fraught relationship as brothers, a perfectly fine opportunity for a bit of character exploration and development, but sadly Narnia leaves this bit under-addressed (it’s suggested only in momentary flashes that Peter and Edmund really do have brotherly love underneath it all). It doesn’t help the credibility of Peter’s character either that William Moseley has a Justin Bieber-level case of baby-face.
Narnia not only suffers from an overbearing religious subtext and generally leaden acting within under-developed characters, but it fails to address the main thing that shaped both Lewis and Tolkien as writers: war. Very little real discussion of war, death, and the reasons that either might be justified or not justified happens in this movie, which is honestly a shame. Even ten years ago, one could hear plenty of talk about war, as we do today (the 2016 presidential election notwithstanding), so it certainly would have been a relevant subject to explore in some depth. I don’t buy the argument that it’s inappropriate for the target audience, namely, children and tweens/teens. If Inside Out can manage to communicate, to this same target audience, an abstraction of identity and the idea of memories having mixed emotions, surely some of the philosophy surrounding war and death isn’t out of the question.
Moreover, Narnia perpetuates something that really gets my goat when it comes to escapist fantasy: the Pevensie kids end up back in the real world, after all that’s been said and done to establish this fantastical realm. Why go back? There’s literally a whole magical world out there in which the Pevensie kids have a greater destiny than the one that awaits them in the real world! That’s one thing that made escapist fantasy so attractive to kids like me: in the place to which you escape, you have a greater destiny than to suffer social awkwardness in school and a boring job as an adult. The premise that people in the real world need to believe that another world exists as a condition of that other world’s existence also brings with it the implicit value judgment that the real world is “better” somehow. Maybe it’s just me, but I really dislike this notion and the influence it exerts over escapist fantasy, meaning the kind of story that starts out in the real world but later shifts to the fantastical world. The whole point is the escape, and how the escape elevates us from a humdrum existence to a significant existence. If Peter Pan left Neverland and returned to London, he’d just be a boy – no more, no less. He would grow up and live a good, but probably unremarkable, life. Having the Pevensies leave Narnia – and having them cut off from it as they grow older and lose their capacity for faith, as happens later in the series – strikes me as anti-climactic and more than a little unfulfilling. Still, I don’t necessarily blame Andrew Adamson for this; he made a choice to adapt Lewis’ book, not rewrite it. And while, as I’ve said, Lewis’ flawed material accounts for most of what makes Narnia a mediocre movie, I also stated at the beginning that not everything about the movie is bad all the time. The music is one example.
The score sounds unlike almost any other score I can call to my mind’s ear, but what’s interesting is that I remembered the music in very broad terms over the course of ten years, while most of the acting and dialogue had long since vacated my brain. To be honest, I don’t know what I think of the music in Narnia. It’s a bit of cocktail: some Celtic music, a little basic orchestral underscoring, and a hefty dose of pop. It’s surprisingly good and yet somehow uninspired. About that hefty dose of pop: the beats – what Hal Sparks’ Queer as Folk character lovingly called the “thumpa-thumpa” – certainly do make themselves heard and felt, which by most measures should have been enough to trigger my pop allergy. (For those that missed it, The Atlantic has a fantastic recent article on commercial pop.) And yet. It kind of works in Narnia? I think? Certainly the popified and the “exotic” music sound far more polished than the straight-ahead orchestral cues, but composer Harry Gregson-Williams seems out of his element when trying to stitch together larger sections of material. But overall, it’s relatively coherent. Most of the main themes divide neatly into compact antecedent and consequent phrases, and they tend to reappear without much development. The whole point of leitmotifs is to develop them, to add the nuance that hints at complex emotions; the music is transformed just as the characters are. Still, much of the score for Narnia features lush harmonies and orchestration, with quite respectable use of non-standard orchestral instruments such as the trad flute, the hammered dulcimer, and a folk violin (possibly with sympathetic strings). Mr. Tumnus’ “Narnian lullaby” gives its solo melody to a muted trumpet, showcasing a classic technique for making standard instruments sound exotic by blocking or altering the sound leaving the instrument. It’s effective, as is the film’s single use of pre-existing music, the popular rendition of the song – now almost a century old – “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” by The Andrews Sisters. We hear this as the Pevensie kids play hide-and-seek, but when Lucy first enters the upstairs room and spies the draped wardrobe, the song distorts, echoes, and fades out, a sonic representation of the wardrobe capturing her attention, and ours. It has an almost overwhelming potential to sound cliché, yet somehow it doesn’t. The score, like the movie, isn’t especially daring or original, but it’s not terrible and provides ample material to be reused in the following movies in the series, which is honestly a big part of its job—at least, if the series is to have any artistic cohesion. I frankly surprised myself when I concluded that the score counts among the better things about Narnia. Apart from this, some sweeping cinematography, and amply atmospheric CGI landscapes, there’s not a whole lot to recommend the film.
Narnia isn’t so terrible that I wouldn’t consider idly watching it again, especially if someone else elected to see it, but it’s hard to see ten years later how it deserves the 76% fresh rating it enjoys on Rotten Tomatoes. Ah, well. I suppose it’s all relative, right? If the MBTA worked normally during three out of every four trips, we in Boston would see that as a mild success. It still wouldn’t get rid of the church ads, though.
I realized only after a couple of re-views that it’s pretty unclear (perhaps intentionally so) whether the Pevensies’ father is actually alive or not. Adamson should have played this up a little, as it could have added something interesting to the movie.
Man, does this story date itself: Turkish Delight, a type of gelled confection dusted in powdered sugar, used to be hugely popular in Europe but most likely would have been difficult to obtain and expensive during wartime. My lone surviving grandmother likes to talk occasionally about the rationing of staple foods during WWII, and something like Turkish Delight, especially if made with more exotic flavorings, would have been a rare treat.
Did J.K. Rowling steal the idea of a steam engine train out of London from Lewis? The more I consider it the more plausible it seems.
When Father Christmas shows up randomly and gives the Pevensie kids their weapons, I literally wrote in my notes: “IS SANTA AN ARMS DEALER NOW?!?!”
Do you think any of the secret police dogs ever peed on the lamp post?
I’m guessing that C.S. Lewis probably never envisioned this scenario: