Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Esther and my Narnia Reviews

When The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movie came out, some friends asked my wife, Esther, to write a review of it. Later on when The Voyage of the Dawn Treader came out, I wrote a review of it which was published in Touchstone Magazine. Below are both our reviews, starting with mine.

My Review of Dawn Treader Movie

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is probably the slowest of all Lewis’ Narnia books, yet it is the richest and the most subtle. Unfortunately, the attempt to generate a blockbuster hit out of the story has resulted in a jerky succession of disconnected adventures.

To his credit, director Michael Apted has tried to bring continuity to the various adventures, yet he does this by introducing a story-line completely alien to Lewis’s book. The ship’s voyage is transformed into an apocalyptic struggle of good against evil, as the company on board the Dawn Treader must find seven swords and lay them on Aslan’s table to prevent an evil green gas from destroying all of Narnia.
I knew it would be hard, though not impossible, to convert The Voyage of the Dawn Treader into a movie, due to the book’s episodic nature. Yet it could have been accomplished. The pilgrimage theme – which combines a Homeric-type quest with elements of Augustinian restlessness – adds a powerful substrata of depth to the narrative. The various adventures the company experiences are given thematic continuity by being rooted in this spiritual quest for the Utter East and Aslan’s country. As the traveller’s approach the end of the world, the tension builds like a Wagnerian overture approaching its climax.
We know that cinema can capture this type of aesthetic richness because we saw it happen with Lord of the Rings.
I am not a purist. I realize that the move from a textual medium to a cinematographic one does sometime require structural changes. But I do think we have grounds to object when primarily themes are either reversed or subverted. Sadly to say, this is exactly what the three Narnia films to date have done with a number of important thematic motifs.
Take the example of kingship. In a review for Touchstone, Steven D. Boyer discussed Hollywood’s handling of kingship in the first two Narnia movies. Boyer observed that Lewis’s notion of kingship was rooted in a hierarchical view of creation which was itself grounded in his Christian outlook. Relationships, Lewis taught, reflect the hierarchical ordering that is embedded within the created order. The Chronicles of Narnia are infused with this understanding, not least because they draw upon the rich tapestry of medievalism, saturated with Spencerian imagery, lordly kings, submissive laborers, knightly virtue, and a complementarian rather than egalitarian approach to gender. In Narnia, everyone accepts his appointed position (everyone, that is, except grasping villains like the witch or Miraz) and not everyone’s role is the same.
Hollywood has tried everything they can to flatten out this dynamic from Lewis’ stories. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe movie, director Andrew Adamson commented that Lewis’s belief that females shouldn’t fight was “a sexist thing” and had to be changed because it “was very disempowering to girls.” Yet it wasn’t just the female characters who were liberated into Hollywood’s egalitarian utopia. As Boyer pointed out, the first movie presents maturity as Peter and Edmund learning to think independently even when it meant going against orders from those higher in the chain of command. This theme is accentuated in Prince Caspian, where kingship is reduced to the exercise of raw power. When Peter started a fight in the subway station, director Adamson revealingly explained,
“I always felt . . . how hard it must have been, particularly for Peter, to have gone from being high king to going back to high school, and what that would do to him, do to his ego. . . . I always thought that would be a really hard thing for a kid to go through.”
Apparently then, Peter demands to be treated like a king and his ego is suffering because he isn’t. To be a king in Adamson’s world is to wield power and put other people in their place. Throughout the narrative of Prince Caspian, Peter’s irresponsible - and at times even rebellious - attitude makes him part of the problem that must be overcome rather than Aslan’s solution. The power struggle between Peter and Caspian shows that even though Peter is back in Narnia, he hasn’t learned his lesson and still thinks of authority in terms of the enlargement of personal circumference.
In short, the movies have engaged in what Boyer has termed a “quiet, unobtrusive devaluation of humble submission to rightful authority”.
Boyer’s review was written before Dawn Treader came out, but unfortunately the latest movie continues this trend of distorting the theme of kingship. At the beginning of the movie when Edmund is called a “squirt” for lying about his age, his rejoinder is “I’m a king.” Even when he returns to Narnia and is once again a king, his sense of entitlement is not satisfied since he must play second fiddle to Caspian. The tension culminates with the nearly deadly conflict that Caspian and Edmund get into at Goldwater. By contrast, in the book there is a momentary tension between the two kings at Goldwater, yet it is not a defining theme in their relationship and it is not the climax of growing frustrations Edmund has had because of the ship’s chain of command. 
Moreover, because Hollywood’s Edmund yearns for a kingship rooted in power, he is susceptible to temptation from the White Witch (resurrected by the vaporous green gas) when she offers to give him control over all of Narnia.
I wish I could say it stops there, but it doesn’t. Having removed the delight in hierarchy and flattened the narrative into a clunky succession of disconnected adventures, Apted has apparently tried to reinsert depth into the story through occasional references to the children’s “destiny”, together with a recurring theme about self-acceptance. The latter is annoying at best and verges on psychobabble at worst.

“We have nothing if not belief,” says Reepicheep, and the movie is pretty clear that the type of belief that is required is belief in ourselves. When Lucy is tempted by vanity and uses the spell in the magician’s book to make herself beautiful beyond the lot of mortals, the lesson Aslan teaches her is to accept who she really is. Nor is this any trivial matter: Aslan says to Lucy that the entire reality of Narnia for the other Pevensies depends on Lucy learning this lesson. When Lucy does get it, she is then able to pass on what she has learned to the stowaway girl (that’s right – a little girl snuck on board the ship after her mother was destroyed by the vaporous gas). When the girl says to Lucy that she wants to be like her, Lucy replies, “No, you want to be like yourself.”
This theme of being yourself can become painfully didactic at times, and just when you think it’s over, you have to endure Carrie Underwood punctuating it all by singing
When you feel like giving up because you don't fit in down here -
      fears crashing in,
close your eyes and sing:
We can be the kings and queens of anything if we believe,
its written in the stars that shine above,
a world where you and I belong
    where faith and love will keep us strong,
exactly who we are is just enough
there's a place for us
Okay, okay. The only problem is that in Lewis’s Christian vision “exactly who we are” is never just enough. Every Narnia story has a sub-theme about sanctification, with one or more of the characters having to grow into the type of maturity which involves not accepting who they are, but becoming something better. The theme of self-acceptance in the movie is relatively innocuous since it really only finds concrete focus in Lucy’s struggles to want to be as beautiful as Susan. Yet the subtext is not that Lucy’s vanity should be overcome because it is wrong, but because Lucy isn’t being true to herself.

The Dawn Treader movie thus perfectly reflects a society that has made self-actualization the sonum bonum. Within this inversion of Christian ethics, redemption is achieved through shedding the expectations generated by all external standards. The solution is to ignore those standards and learn to focus on ourselves instead. As Carrie Underwood explained in an interview about the theme song she co-write for the production:
[Lucy’s] kind of trying to find herself. Instead of worrying about being the best Lucy she can be she kind of tries to live up to this other expectation that she has. And I feel that we all - especially women – do that quite a bit. We’re always striving to be better, to be like someone else, and we should really just focus on ourselves…

Just focus on ourselves? The only problem here is that it is not Lewis’s vision. In his essay “The Sermon and the Lunch”, Lewis wrote powerfully against the lie that we need to just be ourselves. Lewis concluded the essay with the forceful assertion that “It will never be lawful simply to ‘be ourselves’ until ‘ourselves’ have become sons of God.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader joins a pantheon of other films in which the redemption motif is found within ourselves. Within such a schema, man is placed at the centre and God – in this case Aslan – becomes an irrelevant fixture. The Aslan of the recent movie is little more than a motivator, certainly not the savior he is within Lewis’s series.

In Lewis’s book, Aslan is terrifying. When Lucy is tempted to vanity, her sin is overcome by fear of Aslan’s wrath and Lewis doesn’t hesitate to say that Lucy “became horribly afraid”. By contrast, Hollywood’s Aslan helps Lucy to find the source of strength within herself.

Or again, in the book, the salvation of Eustace from a dragon back into a human occurs through an excruciating application of Aslan’s claws – an experience that Eustace described as hurting more than anything in his entire life. By contrast, Hollywood’s Aslan is too tame to even touch Eustace. He does not strike fear into sinners nor does he use suffering to restore them to health. Though Eustace does apparently repent, it happens after being pumped up with motivational psychology from Reepicheep about being an extraordinary person.

In the book when they were caught in the grip of the Dark Island’s curse, Lucy prays to Aslan and he comes to them in the form of an albatross and breaks the spell. Though an albatross does make a brief appearance in the movie, their escape happens because Eustace lays the seventh sword on the table. Aslan does not bring deliverance as an external force just as he does not bring conviction by pointing to a transcendent standard.

In David Wells’ book Losing Our Virtue he described the paradigm shift that occurred when morality lost its transcendent reference point and relocated itself to the world of the internal and psychological. Within the new paradigm, the self becomes our only means of understanding the world while self-violation becomes the ultimate crime. Salvation for all of us thus becomes a matter of self-actualization - finding that place where we are liberated to be comfortable with ourselves. Again, this ethic of the self is described well by Carrie Underwood, who commented on the song she composed for the movie, saying,

Even when things don’t seem so great there some place that you’re powerful and you’re beautiful and you’re all the things you strive to be, there’s a place where you’re in charge in a good way…
In a “good” way? Unfortunately, when the self is our only standard, there is no way to differentiate what is actually good.

Esther's Review of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe Movie

I liked what Esther wrote so I thought I'd share it here:

Two nights ago I went to see The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe at the cinema. Having loved and grown up with the Narnia books, I hoped that somehow, given the right directing and artistry, together with present day technology, Narnia might be able to be reproduced on the big screen.
So were my hopes realized? Sadly, I have to say they were not. But the real grief was that all the raw material was there pregnant with possibility, yet the opportunity was missed. The technology was there to give beauty and texture, the acting was there to give depth and warmth, the digital animation was there to bring Lewis’ unique mythology to life. Yet despite all this, the movie failed because it was given the theme of a different story - different to the story Lewis told in his book.
On a very basic level, when Lewis’ words have been retained in the dialogue, they are often disconnected from a context that can give them meaning. Numerous references, passing phrases and allusions are either left dangling or resolved in prosaic ways. Hence, many of the nuances that make up the world of Narnia, as given us by Lewis, have either been omitted or replaced. At first this may not seem very important and I may be accused of being pedantic. However, I’m not hankering after a slavish copying of the book word for word. Scenes do not necessarily translate well from page to screen and the deft and wise hand of an artist is needed to try and bring the essence of one medium over into another.
However, in this case the effect has not been to convey Lewis’ world but to reduce it and flatten it and at times obscure it altogether from the world he created.
Nowhere is this reductionism more apparent than in the character of Aslan. In the book he is the pivotal character. Aslan is the present, pulsing, breathing reality behind everything whether he is directly referred to or not. Every person or animal, whether good or bad, does what he does in response to Aslan. In the book, as soon as the children hear the name of Aslan, everything changes because he becomes their focus. Peter’s nobility is strengthened, Susan’s gentleness is given wisdom whilst Lucy’s love and joy find their true home . For Edmund, however, Aslan’s name fills him with horror because sin recognises and hates that which claims authority. All are subject to Someone Greater, all respond to the frightening demands of Perfect Love and Goodness.
However, in the movie, it is not Aslan but the theme of family loyalty and solidarity that pulls the narrative along. Aslan is made subservient to this theme and as such, Alsan’s value is reduced to being merely utilitarian.
So we find that in the movie it is not Aslan who motivates but rather the children’s relationships with each other. The movie is instead the story of healed family rifts and Peter’s change of attitude towards Edmund. This is not the story which Lewis wrote. In the book the children were drawn into Aslan’s Realm. They are called by him and fight under him. All that Aslan calls them to do is for the sake of others so that the whole magical and joyous realm of Narnia might be recovered from the grip of Winter and the Witch’s cruel rule. Why else is winter without Christmas miserable? Winter is coldness and death. Christmas is the Aslan\Christ coming to save the Narnia, to restore it to the glad world he’d made it to be. But in the movie we do not see anyone being jolly and making merry as the spell is broken. The contrasts between the captured Narnia under the spell of winter and the warm glad free Narnia of Christmas cheer and spring abundance is never shown. In the book the Witch sees some animals enjoying a Christmas meal and recognises that such an activity strikes at the very heart of her dominion. Lewis knew that eating, drinking, abundance and fun are at the centre of a redeemed world. He knew that warmth and homeliness and laughter, enjoyed together in Aslan’s free realm, are what we long for in our own world. In Lewis’ Narnia the Dark Side knows the power of Aslan. The Witch forbids his name to be used, she recognises Aslans authority and power over her and she hates it. Her terror is real. Yet in the film we only see cold perfectly controlled scorn.
Such themes as Narnia’s release and the return and reign of the rightful king would, however, have been out of place in a movie that makes the children’s journey of self discovery the unifying principle.
In the book, Aslan brings thematic continuity so all the tensions and resolutions, as well as the growth and development of each character, occur in relation to him. However, in the movie, Aslan’s relationship to the children and how that changes them is not pivotal. In the book it is Aslan who brings clarity, it is because of him that one’s duty is made clear even if it is very hard. But time and again, the movie missed opportunities to focus on the children’s choices as acts of obedience and in relation to Aslan as the Great King. In the film we are made to focus more on Peter’s internal struggles with Edmund. In the book after Aslan has talked to Edmund after his rescue, the simple uncomplicated and straight forward statements of “I’m sorry,” and “that’s alright”, wash away the past and restore the children’s relationship. The movie, however, omits this and complicates the whole process by focussing on Peter’s problem with Edmund. We are denied the joy and simplicity of confession and forgiveness.
Right from the start of the children’s adventure in Narnia the film fails to establish Aslan at the hub. In the film Mr. Beaver does not tell the children the prophecy about Aslan being the one to release Narnia nor are they told he is a lion. The children do not convey fear and trepidation. The context of Edmund’s subsequent mockery in drawing on the stone lion is now lost. It is lost because we have not seen Edmund’s preceding horror when he learned Aslan was a lion. We do not see that because of his treachery the type of fear produced in Edmund is one of cowardice and hatred not the trembling joy that the others feel.
So because Aslan’s powerful presence does not move the movie along and is not related to by the children as both the source and the desire we, the audience, do not feel him as such.
Aslan is simply not big enough. He is not grand enough, beautiful enough, nor terrible enough. The story, in the film, does not hinge on him. He does not by turns make us tremble and then laugh in open-hearted gladness. We do not see or feel the greatness of his joy or the depths of his sorrow, the fullness of his love or the fierceness of his anger. Aslan is not frightening, wild and wonderfully good all at the same time. Nor does his great heart for Narnia and its subjects, as realized in his sacrifice, overwhelm us. He is far to understandable and predictable and – dare we say it – far too tame a lion. How can such a lion be terrifying enough to invade our hearts?
And here we see that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is robbed of its depth if it is reduced to simply copying the plot. Many Christians have been satisfied with the movie simply because the main idea of Aslan’s death and resurrection has been maintained. But Lewis was always at pains to say that the book was not an allegory, it was more than that even if Aslan was Jesus.
Lewis knew that he could condition an openness toward God by giving us another world. Lewis, by taking us to this other world, enables us to understand our own more clearly. By giving us symbol, metaphor, fairy and myth, we are given reality. In so doing, Lewis helps to realign our spiritual compasses – Narnia brings us back to reality and clears away the confusing fog of the modern mind that tries to complicate our world.
We can meet Christ through Aslan, not by watching a re-enactment of the gospel narratives but by meeting a Lion who loves and saves an entirely ‘other’ world. So though it is the same love it is not the same story - it is Narnia’s story.
In Narnia one can meet face to face truth and love, wonder and terrible beauty, not just a plot but the essence of a way of seeing and believing, of living and loving through that plot. It is in Christ that true meaning is found. In Narnia we are able to touch and live and enjoy this meaning through a story. As we breathe the clear air of Narnia, the true story of this world, its essential story, is made clear and living for us. Aslan undoes us, his wildness and his goodness invade us and we would be nowhere other than between his paws in fear and trembling and yet with unspeakable joy. But Disney has tethered Aslan. The Aslan of the movie never captures us and so he does not take us beyond the movie theatre. The Disney Aslan remains on the screen, he does not invade our hearts, our world and our living and turn them all upside down with the demands of his great love.
Part of the way Lewis conveyed his poetic vision of life was through metaphor and through the nuances of poetic symbolism and courtly etiquette. Since Lewis shows in his other writings, such as The Allegory of Love, that chivalrous themes and symbols are pointers to higher realities, we should not be surprised to find Narnian culture saturated with such images. It is just too much to expect the director of Shrek to even understand the poetic imagination and the glory of metaphor. In fact, Adamson seems intent on eliminating all the subtle nuances that point to these symbols and images. Regarding the Father Christmas scene, Andrew Adamson writes that
"[In the book], Father Christmas says, ‘I do not intend you to use it because battles are ugly when women fight.’ I thought that was very disempowering to girls, the fact that you get a tool and you’re not allowed to use it. I think C.S. Lewis wrote this book before he met Doug’s mother. I think there are a lot more strong female characters in his books after he met Doug’s mother. ‘Battles are ugly affairs’ made it more of a universal thing and not a sexist thing. "

The problem here is not simply that Adamson has tried to create a politically correct Narnia and then legitimise it with the classic what-he-really-would-have-wanted-his-book-to-say appeal, but that Adamson’s approach is essentially reductive. It is reductive because he is trying to get rid of transcendent themes such as a chivalrous society where men are manly and fight to protect woman. Similarly, the whole way in which family solidarity is made to replace loyalty to Aslan as the children’s motivating factor is another move away from transcendent themes to two-dimensional, empirically accessible themes. This approach has the effect of flattening Lewis’ Narnia, like turning something that is in colour into black and white.
None of these failures should really come as a surprise in a production made by the person who has been responsible for bringing the Shrek movies to us. While Shrek I and Shrek II are inverted fantasies that poke fun at the fantastic imagination and invert Christian symbolism, Narnia was Lewis’ way of celebrating his belief that the baptized imagination, as incarnated in myth, stands at the heart of a true understanding of our world. In fact, it was partly a result of the mythic imagination of MacDonald that Lewis was converted to Christianity. Both Lewis and Tolkien developed a philosophy of myth that informed their vision of the entire world. What is needed in a director of the Narnia movies is not someone who merely understands Lewis’ philosophy of myth intellectually, but someone with the same poetic imagination and heart – someone who would be able to bring Lewis’ same spark of magic into the movies.

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