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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 10, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Narnia

I love C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. I didn't read them till I was an adult, but I read them to my children, and I know that for many readers they are powerful stories -- as adult literature and as children's literature, as fantasy and as allegory.

The new movie of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is better than the book.

C.S. Lewis's close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, was every bit as committed a Christian as Lewis -- though he was always a bit annoyed that when Lewis converted to Christianity, he only became an Anglican and didn't go the whole way, as Tolkien would have viewed it, to Catholicism.

Tolkien was also annoyed by Lewis's efforts to write allegory -- fiction in which the characters are meant to represent something or someone else.

Lewis wanted to write fiction that carried the Christian message. He tried it first with his science fiction trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Whatever interest they might hold as allegory, they are not very good fiction, and not very interesting as science fiction, either.

Narnia was his second attempt, and the books were much more successful -- as fiction, and as allegory.

The problem with allegory is that it can so easily overpower the "surface" story. In fact, most allegories are thinly disguised moral lessons or theological discourses, as a character named "Christian" or "Everyman" visits places like "Vanity Fair."

You are invited to think about the ideas presented, perhaps receive them as sermons; but you are not invited to experience them as stories, or the characters as people you can care about.

Lewis did not fall into that trap with the Narnia books, or at least not as badly as Tolkien seemed to fear. If you know nothing of Christianity, they are still powerful stories -- you don't have to be able to decode the allegory in order to care. And if you happen to be a believing Christian, the allegory adds resonance that deepens the entire story.

If, however, you know something about Christian doctrine but don't believe in it, then some bits can been rather annoying -- you do feel preached at.

It's bound to be a personal thing. The core Christian mythos, the story of the voluntary sacrifice of a perfect innocent to redeem those he loves from destruction, is actually present in many, many cultures that have nothing to do with and indeed pre-date Christianity.

The story of Aslan the lion, who gives his life to save a remorseful traitor from execution, would seem (and is meant to seem) like the often-found story of the king who must die as the sacrifice to save his people.

Wonderful as I believe the Narnia books are, they suffer just a little from their allegorical nature. I believe that despite Lewis's best efforts, in the book the four children who are transported through a magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia are not very well-realized characters.

I suspect it has less to do with their allegorical roles -- for except for traitor Edmund, they are not particularly Christian, merely observers and peripheral participants in the Christian mythos -- than with the fact that Lewis was not particularly well-acquainted with children. His own upbringing had been painful; his experience at school awful; and he seemed to think it was enough to give each of the children one trait that set him or her apart from the others.

The movie does it better. The script, by Ann Peacock (In My Country, A Lesson Before Dying) and the team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers), subtracts almost nothing from the Lewis book, and adds a few very nice touches, establishing the children in their family and in World War II England far better than Lewis did.

The writers had the advantage that the Narnia books are short -- far closer to the length of a feature film than most novels, so that they could play the story straight.

Director-and-co-writer Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2) does a superb job -- indeed, a surprising job, for someone who came into the movie biz through computer graphics -- of drawing full, real performances from the four children.

It is the very reality of the children that allows this movie to transcend the weaknesses of the original material. Each does a good job of representing precisely what Lewis wanted them to represent -- but they also behave like children with a full range of human feelings. Georgie Henley is more than merely cute as Lucy; Anna Popplewell as Susan can be crabby but also more tender than Lewis makes her; William Moseley as Peter is quite moving in his portrayal of an older son who tries to bear more responsibility than is within his reach.

And Skandar Keynes, as Edmund, makes us believe both his crimes and his repentance. Astonishingly enough, we like him throughout, even when he's behaving badly. Most of his sins are almost -- not entirely -- inadvertent; but we can see his mind working. He has the depth-of-face, for lack of a better term, that allows us to see what is going on inside a character without being aware of the actor acting at all.

As the White Witch, Tilda Swinton is powerful and scary on a very personal level. Though the movie does come perilously close to being stolen by a pair of beavers, convincingly animated and delightfully voiced by Ray Winstone (Bors in King Arthur; Teague in Cold Mountain) and Dawn French (who plays, of all things, the fat lady in the painting at the Gryffindor door in the Harry Potter movies).

The animation is excellent: The beavers, the fox, the wolves, as well as the centaurs and many other impossible creatures, all seem real. Alsan himself is beautifully animated -- he even walks well; you feel, throughout the film, that Aslan may be loving, but he is not, in fact, a tame lion. And Liam Neeson voices him with exactly the right mix of strength and compassion.

In reading the book, I was only moved once, by the sacrifice of Aslan; in watching the movie, I was moved far more often, and delighted more often as well. I was already a believer in the Christ-story; the movie made me a believer in the people and creatures of Narnia as well.


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