Saturday, October 08, 2005

Andrew Adamson's Narnia

or, Why I Hope Disney’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is NOT Exactly Like the Book

Earlier this week, Time magazine ran an excellent summation of the specifically Christian allegorical elements that author C. S. Lewis crafted into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: atonement for human sin, the death of a sinless Christ figure and his triumph over death and the grave. The article further laid out a “sniff test” for determining if those Christian elements actually survive in the upcoming cinematic adaptation of the story. Four specific sentences which make the book’s Christian connections perfectly clear, the article claims, must make it into the movie for it to capture “the Christian character of C. S. Lewis's book.” Considering that Time is a mainstream publication, I was surprised by the article’s implication: that a litmus test exists by which the success of director Andrew Adamson’s adaptation can, should and will be judged.

I can’t blame Time for thinking that such a litmus test is important to the Christian community. Since the massive marketing campaign for this film began several months ago, its producers (Walden Media), distributor (Disney) and publicist (Motive Marketing) have held the line that job one for this adaptation is preserving “the spirit” of Lewis’ book: bringing the themes of the story to the screen, intact and unsullied. Adamson has even remarked that whatever themes one found in the book—explicitly Christian or otherwise—one will find them in the film as well. Michael Flaherty, president of Walden Media, also reassured Christianity Today this week that Walden has complete creative control of the project—not Disney.

This is accomplished mostly through the efforts of Douglas Gresham—Lewis’ stepson from his late and brief marriage to Joy Davidman—who protects the interests of the Lewis Estate, and advises not only Walden Media but Disney and Motive as well. Gresham is himself a staunch Christian and is even participating later this month in “Narnia Outreach Training” seminars, with Flaherty and Motive’s Paul Lauer, sessions designed to show Christian churches how the upcoming film can be used as an effective tool for evangelism.

So the Christian community, in both its love for Lewis and its zeal for proselytism, has an enormous investment in presuming that Adamson’s film will convey the Christian story as effectively as did the novel which inspired it. A great many Christians will in fact feel betrayed—and a very important handful of others will have a great deal of egg on their faces—if the film somehow manages to pull a fast one and downplay the Christian elements of the story. Time is unfortunately on pretty safe ground, then, in assuming that the Christian criteria which it laid out will be the standard by which much of the Christian community plans to judge Adamson’s film.

But there is another criterion that tends to get lost amidst the utilitarian evangelical rumble and the marketing scramble to mollify the religious community: as Time also observes, Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe must first be a good film. If it is not that, it will be useless both as art and as fodder for “outreach.” If audiences don’t enjoy the film, they won’t much care about its message. And at the risk of being called a heretic, I’ll assert that the film will only be good if it is uniquely Adamson’s.

Why Even Make the Film?
C. S. Lewis rightly observed that story-telling is an art. When it is done well, Lewis said, it “can mediate imaginative life”: that is, the plot casts “a net whereby to catch something else.” So the plot of Lion, then, is Lewis’ net; capturing the vitality of the Christian story is that “something else.” But Lewis was very clear that, in his mind, the story “worked” because it was a perfect marriage of form and purpose. “I wrote fairy tales,” he said, “because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say.” According to Lewis, this form has the power to “generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies.” And what he wanted to accomplish with his Chronicles of Narnia was to pare away the “obligation” and “reverence” we are raised to associate with the suffering of Christ: “Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”

So we might well ask: If Lewis believed that a work of literature, and a “fairy tale” at that, was the ideal form for what he had to say, why would anyone believe that a film could say those things just as well? Clearly, Lewis himself would never have dreamed of trying to convey Narnian themes in a Western novel, a drama or a pantomime—much less in a painting, a sculpture or a film. In fact, it’s a good bet that the film is the last art form he would have chosen.

“Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction,” Lewis wrote. “The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.” Lewis’ colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the The Lord of the Rings, elaborated: “In human art Fantasy is a thing best left to words, to true literature... The visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.”

Are Gresham, Disney, Walden Media and Adamson then dishonoring Lewis by attempting a cinematic adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Are they foolishly attempting to say what can only be said through fantastic literature? Yes, to a degree; but mostly no.

First, we must understand that the cinematic arts about which Lewis and Tolkien published their comments were not what they are today. Though by 1923 George Bernard Shaw could envision the day when the cinema would “form the mind of England,” in 1947 the art of film had barely managed to get through its infancy. Cecil B. DeMille’s and David Lean’s masterpieces—the burgeoning adolescence of the art—were still a decade or more distant, and the visceral success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings would have been literally unimaginable at mid-century. So the cinema that Tolkien and Lewis despised was but a mere shadow of the cinema of 2005—in style, substance and evocative technical potential.

Second, we must also remember that Lewis and Tolkien were fighting to legitimize an art form they loved and to defend it against “watchful dragons” of any variety—and in particular, a literary establishment that ridiculed and “depreciated” fantasy “due to the natural desire of critics to cry up the forms of literature or ‘imagination’ that they themselves, innately or by training, prefer,” as Tolkien wrote. And naturally, the same can be said of Tolkien and Lewis who, in their zeal for fantasy, depreciated the art of cinema—not because it is actually inferior, but because they preferred literature.

Third, Tolkien and Lewis were raised on books, not on television. “Having grown up as readers of the printed word,” says British editor Lynne Truss, “we may take for granted the processes involved in the traditional activity of reading... We read privately, mentally listening to the writer’s voice and translating the writer’s thoughts... Holding the book, we are aware of posterity and continuity. Knowing that the printed word is always edited, typeset and proof-read before it reaches us, we appreciate its literary authority.” Further, Truss concludes, “All these conditions for reading are overturned by the new technologies.” Those of us raised on TV, in fact, understand the language of movies as implicitly as that of books, and when we pay for our ticket, we—like Truss’ book-lovers—“have a sense of investment and pride of ownership, not to mention a feeling of general virtue.” Lewis and Tolkien had no such feelings for film. In fact, as Turner Prize-winner Rachel Whiteread observes, fellow Brits such as Lewis “have an innate respect for writing or anything literary, but not for the visual arts.”

To a degree, then, Lewis’ objections to film need not be taken as gospel today. Still, even if we grant that Gresham and Adamson are not dishonoring Lewis by proceeding in spite of his outdated and biased objections, we may well be concerned about the advisability of trying to import Lewis’ Narnian themes wholesale into a film. We may love the Chronicles for what they have to say, and how they say it. But should we even ask Adamson’s film to do the same? Is Adamson wise to insist that it will?

Room for Adamson’s Unique Vision

If we deny film its status as a unique art form, or if we deny a film director the right—even duty—to communicate his own personal ideas through his art, then we have our answer. Disney’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can and should say nothing more or less than what Lewis did in his novel. If, however, we grant Lewis the authority to say that “sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said”—if, that is, we grant that all art forms are not created equal—then we must admit that movies are ideally suited to say certain things and poorly suited to say others. Film, for instance, is a very dangerous medium for pieces of propaganda such as Triumph of the Will or Fahrenheit 9/11: it is too powerful.

A key difference between a book and a film is the element of control. Ingmar Bergman, the legendary Swedish film director, said that when we watch a film, we put aside “the will and the intellect.” We enter into a contractual agreement, he says, to let a film’s director manipulate us with words, images and music. For ninety minutes or more, we are captive to the director’s spell, a spell that is very hard to break. How many films, after all—even bad ones—have we ever physically walked out on?

Books, however, are different. Though even a fantasy’s success is dependent on what Tolkien called “secondary belief”—a giving over to a story’s “inner consistency of reality”—the reader is, by nature, in complete control of when that belief begins and ends. Rarely do we read an entire book in a single sitting. In fact, when I first read The Lord of the Rings I put the book down for days (well, maybe hours) after I read of Gandalf’s fall into the abyss. Only after my curiosity got the better of me did I pick it up again. And more often than not, I actually fail to finish a book that I have begun.

So Adamson would be very unwise (and not much of director, really) if he didn’t realize that his film will have much more visceral power than Lewis’ book could ever hope to muster. The firestorm over Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ would surely have convinced Adamson of that, even if he knew nothing of his craft (which, obviously, he does). So even if he were determined to convey the same Christian themes that Lewis did, he would necessarily be required to temper the presentation in some way lest the film become more of a polemic than entertainment.

Adamson has a very fine line to walk in this respect, because it appears that a significant portion of the “grass roots” which support the marketing of his film are intent on using it as nothing more than a tool for proseletizing—and yet the very audience these Christians want to evangelize won’t come close to the film if it’s got even a hint of propaganda to it. Again consider Fahrenheit 9/11: how many Republicans went to see that film, let alone found it persuasive?

So for my part, I sincerely hope that Adamson’s film presents a unique vision of Narnia, one that none of us quite expects. In that way, it will hopefully be effective for all of us, not just a utilitarian few.

What Can We Then Expect?

First, the trailers for the film make it pretty plain that the simplicity of Lewis’ initial tale has been supplanted by an epic scope. Adamson has said in interviews that this has been deliberate because he wanted to capture the feeling of the entire Chronicles in this film, not just the tip of the hundred-year iceberg that was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Naturally, the film must also compete in the marketplace with The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. So a presentation along the lines of a BBC special just won’t cut it.

Second, sufficient plot and dialogue details have been “leaked” to demonstrate that we would be wrong to expect slavish fidelity to Lewis’ text. Jadis’ sledge, for instance, is hauled by polar bears. And when the Pevensie children first meet Mr. Beaver, Peter tries to feed him, thinking he’s a wild animal; the mammal replies, “Well I'm not going to smell it, if that's what you want."

Finally, unless Adamson has nothing of his own to say, we can fully expect—yes, even demand—that this film will convey something of the director’s own ideas, even if we don’t like what he has to say. At the very least, as was the case with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, the thematic ways in which the film and book differ will only serve to enhance the original author’s ideas, not detract from them.

Who knows? In spite of watchful Lewis-loving dragons and their criteria-toting clipboards, Adamson could even have something worthwhile and unique to say—something that might strip the hush-toned reverence from our love of Narnia and make it for the first time appear in its real potency. Could he not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I think he could.