I decided to take a risk this week. Being the unofficial start to summer, I took a new look at something that has been a sacred part of my summers since I was at least thirteen. I decided I was ready to watch the movie version of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
What could possibly be risky about that, you might ask? Well, for one thing this is a Unitarian-Universalist blog, and C.S. Lewis was a Christian who strongly defended the theology of the trinity. I still feel a bit like an usurper when I use Mr. Lewis’ writings for my personal spiritual guidance. I find I have to pick and chose what I am moved by and truly believe with what I have to just accept that I can’t quite agree with. I don’t know if Jack, as he was called by his family and friends, would appreciate the uses to which I have put both his apologetic writings or his fiction.
But, as I have said, Narnia moved me in a way that the Bible, and even later theological works by brilliant Unitarians and Universalists never did. In that way, I have something in common with Mr. Lewis who explained the same sort of feeling when he read ancient mytholgies compared to the New Testament.
It took me over five years to be able to watch the film version of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I knew a Hollywood retelling would never match the visions I created when I was a girl. I can forgive this in most book to film translations, but not Narnia. Narnia was sacred.
The short version of why this is so is that these stories were my only comfort as a teenager when I started to suffer months and eventually over a year-long stretch of insomnia. It was something I tried my best to hide from my family, but most nights I just laid in bed trying to concentrate on anything aside from the flashbacks of an event that occurred while I was thirteen, and the creeping depression that was starting to consume my life. The hours between when I was expected to be asleep and when I was confident my mother and step-father were unconscious and unaware were the hardest.
But, in the midnight hours, I would be able to escape into Mr. Lewis’ magical world that I had first visited as a child. There I would find some real comfort. I’d average one to one-and-a-half books a night, so it is no exageration to say that I have read the Chronicles (all of them) at least a hundred times. The advantage of rereading these same stories even when I had gone weeks without sleeping was I also didn’t have to necessarily *see* the words through my bleary eyes.
It was years after those sleepless nights, when I was somewhat recovered, that I saw the film version of Shadowlands for the first time. Thus, I was introduced to C.S. Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, through a Hollywood retelling of his childhood. Though not exactly the same, I could relate to the tragedy of Douglas watching his mother die of cancer, because I had been about the same age when my grandfather (and the only father I had) died of the disease.
Two images from this film pierced my heart deeply. The first is early on, when young Douglas spies a wardrobe in the Oxford professor’s attic. The wonder and hope on the boys face is almost painful, even before we witness him knock fruitlessly on the back of the wardrobe and hear him tell C.S. Lewis, “I knew it was just an ordinary wardrobe.” Second, in the near final moments of the film, when young Douglas and Jack are sitting next to each other and confessing for the first time their sorrow at losing Joy, mother and wife to the two of them. The pain is so real it was like watching myself as a young girl explain that I wished I could speak to my grandfather again.
Douglas Gresham went on to become a writer himself and is co-producer of the film series. I know these seven books *very* well, so any detail that was changed from page to screen would not go unnoticed. I waited five years to see the first film, because I was afraid of changes that might be unforgivable. But, in the end, I broke down and watched it out of curiosity and hope that I could trust in Mr. Gresham’s oversight. After all, he had more at stake with this book than I did. So, although I know Mr. Gresham is not the only person responsible for how wonderful The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie is, I would love to be able to thank him personally for not only his part in the film, but for showing me that the young boy who lost his mother and his stepfather at such a fragile grew up to be a man who carries the true spirit of love and triumph from Narnia in his heart.
There are dozens of details in the film that I was impressed by. Surprisingly, those that most impressed me were actually changes from C.S. Lewis’ original text. I rejoiced in these changes either because they managed to stay true to the spirit, if not the words of the book, or they fixed something that was wrong. Here are some, which fittingly for Memorial Day, all speak to he Horrors of War:
C.S. Lewis began his story explaining that four children were sent to the country “because of the air raids.” As a child who has not learned much or anything about World War II, you could either easily gloss over this sentence, or be confused by it. The film leaves nothing to be misunderstood. Showing the children in a house being shook to its foundations and Edmund risking his life to save “Dad” a photo of the Pevensie father who was absent, assumedly in the war himself.
The irony that the children were sent to a house in the country to avoid England’s war, only to find themselves in the center of Narnia’s also bloody and savage fight is not lost on the characters of the film. There is greater emphasis on the children’s, and especially Peter’s, self-doubt and desire for safety. As Peter confesses to Aslan, “I’m not who you think I am,” and the Great Lion responds “You’re Peter Pevensie…” So are all great triumphs and tragedies experienced by real people who do not know their own strength.
Even the animals of Narnia are more revealing of their personal loss from the evil of the Witch’s war against nature. Mr. Beaver’s cry of “my best mate” when discovering a stone statue showed a vulnerability and hurt that the war-ready creature lacked on the page.
Mr. Tumnus also gets his say as to why wars are worth fighting. While Mr. Lewis revealed Tumnus’ death through Edmund’s eyes when he sees a statue of a faun and wonders if it was his sister’s friend, the film leaves no doubt. We see Mr. Tumnus alive and still concerned for Lucy’s safety. We share Tumnus’ disgust at Edmund’s betrayal. Yet, his greatest moment comes when Jadis asks him if he knows why he was her prisoner. His reply: “Because I believe in a free Narnia.” Though it is easier to understand the Narnia’s wish for the end of winter and Christmas, which seemed to be the main causes of unrest in Lewis’ text, freedom is really what they were fighting for. Hooray for Mr. Tumnus’ bravery in stating this fact to the witch, and hooray to whoever wrote the words into the film’s script.
And, one other very significant change: the character of Professor Kirke. The film has not one but several scenes which reveal just how much the old man knows about the wardrobe and Narnia. I realize that even the author probably didn’t know this when The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was written, but it always bothered me that the Pevensies never seemed to understand who they were talking to, even in the last pages when the professor tells them they’ll know when they see someone who has had a similar experience to thier own. The best correction of this is in the last seconds, when in response to Peter’s statement that he wouldn’t believe where they’d been, the Professor tosses him an apple. *Wink, wink* to all you Christians and those who’ve read the Magician’s Nephew.
Speaking of which, I sincerely hope they do a film version of the Magician’s Nephew, because I’ve been proven wrong about Hollywood ruining Narnia. There’s some things they could clean up in that film, too. I still think it’s impossible to make a film of The Last Battle, however.
For those of you who have never read the seven Chronicles of Narnia, you’re truly never too young or too old to enter this magical world. For those of you who like me, are holding back on seeing the films because of loyalty to the books, give them a try, and you may be surprised.
For Mr. Gresham, thank-you for your wonderful gift to the world. Who knew how fitting a film it would be for Memorial Day as we reflect on the horrors of war, and remember those who are no longer with us.