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Monday, December 12, 2005

Over-long ramble about the Narnia fillum

Initial disclaimer: I do not know if this is a good film or not. Having read the book many times, and listened many more times to a very good BBC dramatisation (the script, as far as I recall, simply is the dialogue from the book - I think it's this, though I have it on some rather old cassettes), all I can assess is whether or not the film is a good representation of the book. Unfortunately, it is not. While the story is perfectly intact, the conversations are often considerably altered, the characters are drawn a little differently, and there is a good deal more action and comedy added in. These may seem like foolish complaints about a film, as one might expect precisely these sorts of changes to accompany a change in medium, but nonetheless: if you love the book, you will probably feel short-changed by the film. There are many good things. The Pevensie children are very well cast and well acted, Tilda Swinton is a splendid White Witch, and for the most part the design is very appropriate. However, the changes made are ones which, it seems to me, strike at the heart of the book.

Some of the most significant conversations are all but dropped. The Professor is made to be a funny old chap, not the disconcertingly clear-sighted man of the book. His 'mad, bad or good' conversation with Susan and Peter about Lucy and her claims is trimmed beyond recognition, and serves to make the Professor seem eccentric rather than penetrating. The greatest loss, I think, is in the Beavers' house, which scene is considerably shortened. No hint is given of the mysterious chord struck in the hearts of the children at the mention of Aslan's name. The splendid discussion of whether Aslan is 'safe' has quite gone.

"Is -- is he a man?" asked Lucy.
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion -- the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he -- quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver, "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver, "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

The explanation of the Witch's ancestry is also absent. This is in some respects a fair enough cut. Audiences now may just be confused by reference to the tradition about Lilith, and it highlights Lewis's use of a mixter-maxter of myths which, as is often remarked, is perhaps the weakest element of Narnia. (I think it worth noting, however, that it is an element at its most evident in this book - it affects the others very little, if I remember rightly.) However, what is lost along with this is one of Mr Beaver's best lines:
'But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that is going to be
Human and isn't yet, or used to be Human once and isn't now, or ought to be
Human and isn't, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.'

(Google found rather a good take on that line here. Haven't had time to scout around and see if the site's generally good.)

And finally (since a litany of omissions will no doubt bore you all), Father Christmas's words as he hands out the presents have been reworked. In the book (should you need reminding) the gifts are given to Peter then Susan then Lucy. Susan is told that the bow and arrows are not intended for use in the imminent battle. Lucy is given her dagger, with the hope that she will not need it; when she says that she 'thinks she could be brave enough', Father Christmas replies that 'battles are ugly things when women fight.' I suppose that this was cut out of regard for women who serve in the armed forces, but the change was not handled very well. In the film, Lucy is given her gifts first, and Father Christmas's remark changed to something like, 'the thick of battle is ugly indeed'. When Susan is given her bow and arrows, she asks, 'What happened to the ugliness of battle?' (or something like that; I don't remember exactly), to which Father Christmas offers no reply beyond a bit of a laugh. Then Peter is given his gifts, with the book's exhortation that they are 'tools, not toys.' All of which is rather unsatisfactory: why is Lucy meant to consider battle ugly, when Susan and Peter are allowed to wield weapons?

Any one of these cuts, had it been handled well, might have been reasonable; but taken together, you can no doubt see that the film is becoming rather intellectually rather anaemic. All but lost is the notion of someone's being Good without being cuddly (it is introduced at the end, briefly, from Mr Tumnus's mouth, but without the same impact). The suggestive hint about the significance of true human nature is gone, and with it any hope of explaining why humans should rule in Narnia. (The book doesn't really explain, but one at any rate gets the sense that there is an explanation, and that it has something to do with the nature of humanity.) That line from Father Christmas really implied a good deal about both the possibility and the limitations of just war. But no, the film just offers a confused glance towards pacifism before going full steam ahead with the fighting (which it treats, it must be said, very well).

The greatest and saddest loss is that of any mention of the Emperor across the Sea. He simply doesn't come into it. Neither, then, do we get that bit where - after the Witch has announced her claim upon Edmund's blood, and Aslan has confirmed her right to traitors - Lucy wonders if one could work something against the Deep Magic:
'"Work against the Emperor's Magic?" said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.'
What is added is a different sort of suggestion that Aslan is somehow subject to this magic. In the film he says to Peter something like, '... the Magic which orders all of us who rule in Narnia...' - sorry, I don't remember the exact words, but it was something which sounded as if Aslan and Peter related to the Deep Magic in the same way; without the knowledge that Aslan is the Emperor's Son, this belittles Aslan, it seems to me. With the loss of the Emperor's presence, the Magic also becomes impersonal and seems perhaps even arbitrary.

(I might also add that the Stone Table didn't seem to me to be stark enough, nor its cracking sudden and terrible enough... but this is in part an unfair criticism of the film for not conforming precisely to my imagination.)

All in all, then, a great deal has been lost which makes the Narnia books so profoundly charming. The great simplicity of the characters and story is rather blurred by the addition of extra scenes. Difficult and disconcerting ideas encountered by the children are obscured or lost. It may well be a smashing film for kids - I'm not capable of watching it as such - but it is not a good translation of Lewis's book.