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The Witch, the Wardrobe, and What Else?

Other Articles:

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)
So, one of the things I did over the Christmas holiday was to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with a group of old friends in Michigan. This is a sort of tradition, to see the latest Christmas blockbuster with these friends, which reached its apogee during the Lord of the Rings releases. We were all huge fans of the Tolkien and C. S. Lewis books as children, and the advent of the new Narnia film seemed like heaven, with six more sequels hopefully to come. We were not disappointed and agreed that the movie, by and large, is a major success, if perhaps not to the same degree as the Lord of the Rings films. The box office numbers -- the film displaced King Kong this week -- seem to indicate that American moviegoers share our opinion.

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 bigoted attack article in The New Yorker, which was biased and completely missed the point. Philip Pullman's critique of Narnia is smarter than Gopnik's -- and I like Pullman's books, too -- but still characterized principally by anti-religious bias.)

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeIf 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.
Skandar Keynes as Edmund Pevensie, Chronicles of NarniaLater 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.

Tilda Swinton and Skandar Keynes, Chronicles of NarniaThe 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.


Anonymous said...


I was cruising to see what bloggers are doing by way of book reviews and found your piece on Narnia. I just blogged on the same subject yesterday . . . I disagree with you on Pullman -- he makes my skin crawl -- but you are so right that it's silly to attack Lewis as a Christian propogandist!

Take care :-)

jfl said...

i hope that book doesn't steal my point for a future book: that lucifer was the first democrat and a figure that actually embodies the american spirit like few other figures in the spiritual realm.

jfl said...

reading gopnik's 'review', i must say that i don't take as much issue with it as charles. that is, in part, because i am of course *not* a catholic - but not just. there are a few instances which i dislike because they are perhaps it bit too enthusiastically touting his personal viewpoint (which is what he accuses CSL of) or because they are a form of sophistry. for example:
accusing l-w-wardrobe of "racism" because the nasty characters are dark and have slanted eyes may be correct in the most technical meaning... but is utterly meaningless given the time/circumstance. evil is and has always been "other" and for the less travelled, less 'globally tuned' (esp. at the time of writing) that's what 'other' is.)

to think of a lion as a weird, non-christian, even anti-christian, symbol and figure makes no sense. king-of-animals, sign of royals and nobility... how better to symbolize jesus? as a fish? (it would be an excellent symbolic move, i'll grant.)

and did aslan really "exasperated generations of freethinking parents"?? that's just going a wee bit too far.

other than that, gopnik's is a fairly unsympathetic (i use these two words deliberately together) account of CSL and narnia. i haven't seen the movie (for all we know, neither has gopnik -- he spends not even one sentence on the film... but then i guess it was not supposed to be a review of the film) and can't say anything about that. until then, however, gopnik's article can be taken as a good (skip the first four paragraphes, perhaps) anti-dote to taking to LWW too seriously as a christian film or book.

i myself did not grow up with CSL and only read LWW when a girlfriend insisted. i was 20 or so... read it, liked it, thought it was familiar because i had read "The Brothers Lionheart" by astrid lindgren - she of "Pippi Longstocking"'s fame. i don't think i spent a second on thinking of it as a Christian allegory... i was back in the child's mind and merely took it for what it was. of course, "The Brothers Lionheart" (and "Mio, My Son") could probably be accused of christian allegory, too... but that doesn't matter much for children finding a good read.

ultimately and as always, the target of the rant is not the obvious... not, in this case, CSL or LWW or the film -- but the audience that reacts to LWW in ways that gopnik does not approve of. just like french intellectuals don't despise american culture, really... they dispise that their countrymen eat it up with both hands and as fast as they can. just like the iranian leader does not dislike beethoven, he merely *fears* how his people could react to it. etc. etc.

Charles T. Downey said...

Great comments, Jens! It's very good for me to have your viewpoint for balance.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks to Kirsten and Lin, too! We hope you will come back to Ionarts often. As for everyone's comments about Lucifer, Milton's version of him in "Paradise Lost" is one of my favorite literary characters. Ever.

Anonymous said...

"...bigoted attack" eh? How did you see it that way?

I am not a particular fan of the Tolkien or Lewis series and so I was merely scanning this post when I saw your reaction to Gopnik's piece. But it was enough then to prompt me to scan Gopnik's review and I didn't catch any sense of bigotry, though maybe it simply went over me.

So with all sincerity, what did he say to suggest that he is (I presume you are saying) anti-Christian?

jfl said...

i think there is a tone of general dismissal of christianity (or any religion, for that matter) in gopnik's article - and if not vitriol towards those who wish to see LWW as a christian allegory, so at least disdain. "anti-christian" (charles opinion and/or rhetorical device) is not too far from that, i guess.

Charles T. Downey said...

David, I clearly overreacted, since Jens's initial reaction was close to yours. I think Jens's comment above is right on the mark.