Adam Gopnik, Prisoner of Narnia (The New Yorker, November 21)
William Booth, The Roar Over C.S. Lewis's Otherworldly Lion (Washington Post, December 8)
A. O. Scott, Two Wars of Good and Evil (New York Times, December 9)
Anthony Lane, New Frontiers (The New Yorker, December 12)
Laura Miller, Far from Narnia (The New Yorker, December 26)
I was disappointed and a little surprised to see so many critics come out against the movie before it was released, because of the Christian allegory in Lewis's book. (The worst of the worst was Adam Gopnik's
If anything, the movie de-emphasizes Lewis's intentional mixture of Christian and pagan. The centaurs, fauns, and a loving and joyous portrayal of Father Christmas are all there. However, Aslan the lion is reduced from the magnificent central role he enjoys in the book to something much more normal. Lewis describes Aslan as the "son of the Emperor-over-the Sea," and the great lion is an immense figure in the book, evoking joy and power. Having just reread the book after seeing the movie, I was struck by how much of Lewis's characterization was omitted by director Andrew Adamson. When the four children first hear the name of Aslan spoken -- merely the sound of his name -- something curious happens:
None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning -- either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into the dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.Later in the book, when the children and the Beavers finally meet Aslan, they have another reaction that is filled with awe:
People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan's face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found that they couldn't look at him and went all trembly.In the movie, Aslan is well realized in CGI, but there is nothing of this terrifying presence, least of all in the somewhat soft murmuring of Liam Neeson, who late in production replaced Brian Cox as the lion's voice. I still enjoyed the movie very much, but I have no patience for anyone who would criticize it as only a Christian propaganda tool. If it were such, Adamson would have preserved Lewis's more overtly Christological characterization of Aslan. I, a Catholic, am open-minded enough to tolerate both Lewis and Pullman. I am not sure that the same is true of the champions of secular humanism, whose intolerance of anything Christian -- even something as innocently so as the Narnia stories -- is inflexibly rigid.
The film took some liberties but by and large is faithful to the book, even to very small details, like the titles of the books on Mr. Tumnus's shelf, the conversation of reconciliation between Aslan and Edmund, and the mice gnawing at Aslan's bonds at the Stone Table. The Beavers -- favorite characters of mine as a child -- and other CGI creatures are all beautifully realized. (Sadly, Giant Rumblebuffin, another great character, did not really make the cut into the movie.) I mentioned in my DVD review of Aria last year that I thought Tilda Swinton would be an excellent White Witch.
She was that, if perhaps a few notes shy of the perfectly malicious creature -- a vicious brute under a veneer of refinement -- Lewis depicted in the book. As Edmund looks at her, riding in her sledge in the book, her skin is disturbingly white, like bone. Tilda Swinton is appropriately pale, but she is too impassive, as she is -- eerily so, at times -- in many of her other films. She is malevolent and menacing, but not as palpably cruel as I pictured her when I read the book. Her bulky costumes are intended to augment her size, because Lewis describes as inordinately tall and really a demonic creature -- the child of Lilith -- only masquerading as a human.