THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE
The connections between Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe go much further than mere imitation. The original authors of The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both good friends at Oxford. Tolkien and Lewis encouraged and critiqued one another in their writing endeavours, formed a writing group The Inklings, and even at one point collaborated on a never-completed writing project.
The associations also extend to the films of Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which both draw upon (or seek to draw upon) a New Zealand connection. With Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson put New Zealand on the map in terms of major filmmaking (and tourism) and enjoyed extraordinary success. The people behind The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe clearly also sought to exploit this connection. The director chosen for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was Andrew Adamson. Andrew Adamson is a New Zealander who began in the film industry in the visual effects department at Pacific Data Images, working on Joel Schumachers two Batman atrocities Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), among others, before graduating to co-director of DreamWorks hit animated film Shrek (2001) and its sequel Shrek 2 (2004). Andrew Adamson brought the entire production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe home to New Zealand to film. Clearly, in allowing him to do so, Disney seemed to think they could exploit whatever association that New Zealand had had in the public mind with The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson. Even further than that, Adamson managed to employ a number of people from Jacksons team, most notably the Oscar-winning effects and creature design whiz Richard Taylor and his Weta Workshop team.
While it was the triumph of The Lord of the Rings that allowed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to get off the ground, the film that almost certainly influenced The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, at least when it came to the marketing, was the massive success of Mel Gibsons The Passion of the Christ (2004). Gibson made The Passion of the Christ independently as a work of personal faith. Against predictions, the film became a runaway sensation. What the success of The Passion of the Christ clearly identified was that Christians made up a substantial percentage of the audience in the American heartland evangelical. The Passion of the Christ suddenly opened up a new market as far as Hollywood was concerned and created the notion of marketing campaigns that stepped around the usual routes (newspapers, tv, internet and theatrical trailers) and pitched and even previewed the films in churches to Christian audiences. It was this marketing strategy that propelled the utterly mediocre The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) to become a box-office hit.
This strategy has also been employed when it comes to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Here Disney employed a dual level marketing strategy where they cannily pitched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to mainstream audiences as a fantasy film in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings, while devising another entire strategy that promoted, previewed and distributed materials in churches across the world, playing up the Christian allegory aspect of the story. Indeed, this dual marketing stream, each seemingly independent of the other, was so successful that you could not find a single piece of mainstream promotion about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that in anyway told you about the Christian allegory aspect or even C.S. Lewiss background as a writer on Christian matters.
On the other hand, one is left wondering whether Disneys stratagem is one that actually works. In playing the New Zealand connection card, one wonders what it is (aside from some of the exceedingly generous tax breaks that the government granted big-budget filmmakers following Peter Jacksons success) that Disney imagined they would get from the country excepting hoping maybe that some of the mana the country held for Peter Jackson might rub off on their film too. One cannot help but wonder if Andrew Adamson would have ended up as the director of $180 million budget film like this had he not had a Kiwi passport and had Peter Jackson not been there before him. After all, Adamson was an animation director who had never worked with live-action actors before steeping onto the set of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Adamson was one of the co-directors on Shrek, which was a huge audience hit, but when he was the only of the two directors of the first film to return for Shrek 2, all of the humour of the original seem to collapse into cute, self-congratulatoriness.
And for all their eagerness to be regarded as a new market niche for mainstream filmmakers, these church-based marketing strategies make one wonder about the faith of the Christians that embrace these movies there does seem something oddly dubious in allowing ones faith to be exploited by secular market campaigners whose only desire is to sell movie tickets. And beneath all of this when one looks at the films in question, there does seem something hypocritical. Christian groups have been extremely active in trying to have the Harry Potter books regarded as ungodly because they supposedly promote an interest in the occult, yet when a similar kind of fantasy is wielded here it suddenly becomes something suitable to be marketed to the mainstream; the same groups have been heavily condemnatory of horror films, yet when the same clichés and theatrics are employed in a film like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the film is suddenly perfectly acceptable to be screened in churches because it is made by a Christian; the same groups are condemnatory of gore and splatter films and certain that they cause violence to happen in real life, yet when The Passion of the Christ was released with an R-rating because of its level of gore and splatter, the same groups protested to the ratings boards at the unfairness of the system in not allowing the film to be shown to children.
C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is an interesting figure. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lewis came to England at an early age. After serving in the trenches in World War I, Lewis graduated from Oxford and became a professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College in Cambridge. The crucial event in C.S. Lewiss life came with his conversion to Christianity in 1929, following suasion by seemingly incontrovertible argument from his peers (which apparently included his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien). Soon after this, Lewis began publishing with The Pilgrims Regress (1933), which was an account of his conversion. For those who come to C.S. Lewis as a writer of fantasy, it is some surprise to learn of the greater context of his writing namely almost everything that he published be it fiction or his considerably larger body of non-fiction is concerned with matters of Christian faith. These range from works of fiction like The Screwtape Letters (1942) and The Great Divorce (1945), which are debates about matters of the soul and damnation; the trilogy Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1946) a science-fiction series that takes place on Mars where the Fall from the Garden of Eden never occurred; and Till We Have Faces (1956), a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche that manages to wind in matters Christian; to works of non-fiction Christian apologetics such as The Problem of Pain (1940), Miracles (1947), Mere Christianity (1952) and Surprised by Joy (1952), among many others.
However, C.S. Lewis will always be remembered for his Narnia childrens books, which consist of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), The Horse and His Boy (1954), The Magicians Nephew (1955) and The Last Battle (1955). In understanding C.S. Lewis, one must realize that the real context of the Narnia books is not so much their appeal as fantasy stories, but rather that Lewis wrote them as allegorical tales preaching aspects of Christianity in the guise of childrens stories. Thus, the lion Aslan is an analogue of Jesus Christ; the White Witch represents Satan; and Edmunds temptation by Turkish Delight is about sin. The subsequent Narnia books took up various other aspects of faith, which became increasingly more explicit as the series went on with Lewis eventually writing allegorical versions of The Books of Genesis and Revelations and creating figures that were crude caricatures of atheists and rationalists. The Narnia books have been increasingly criticized in the modern era for containing elements that are racist and sexist and for their implicit class assumptions.
The Narnia books had previously been filmed by the BBC as three mini-series The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, & the Wardrobe (1988), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (1989), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair (1990). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe had also been previously filmed in a ten episode live-action tv series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1967) and as an animated tv movie The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe (1979).
In various discussions prior to the opening of the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I realized that people who had read the Narnia books fall into three camps those who had read them as Christian works because they were believers; those who had read them as children and enjoyed them unaware of any religious allegory; and those who had discovered the real nature of the stories and switched off after realizing that they were being preached to. Andrew Adamson deliberately avoided commenting on any aspect of the Christian allegory in interviews and would at least appear to be making the film from the point of view of someone in this second category a person who simply enjoyed the books as a child. This makes writing about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe difficult more than once one has been urged to view the film as merely a fantasy and to stop trying to see it in any other context. However, this proves impossible you cannot look at a work and discard the authors original intentions and even if one did so, the ardent zeal of Christian evangelicals to accept The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as theirs and Disney to market the film to Christian audiences, makes this aspect of the film impossible to ignore. Certainly, the Christian allegory is something that is never particularly overt in the film, although there are undeniably times that make you wonder about Andrew Adamsons lack of interest in such like the scene of Aslans resurrection and the breaking of the Stone Table as the two girls lie over his dead body, which contains unmistakeably conscious resonances of Mary and Mary Magdalen witnessing Christs resurrection from the tomb.
For all the hype surrounding the film, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe emerges as little more than Lord of the Rings Lite. Certainly, the children give reasonable performances, especially Georgie Henley as Lucy, and come across a good deal more likeably than they did in the 1988 BBC tv version. Alas, the problem with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is Andrew Adamson himself. Perhaps it is Adamsons inexperience as a live-action director, but the film seems infected with a blandness. Part of this seems to lie in the films deliberate pitch to family entertainment that nothing be regarded as too scary, that no real blood or death be shown. However, this also extends to the characters who seem dreadfully nice but have little depth beyond what is brought by the actors inhabiting them on screen.
The location work is expectedly lovely, even occasionally lavish, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe never particularly flies as a fantasy film. Andrew Adamson aims for, but crucially fails to achieve, the epic flourish that Peter Jackson gave The Lord of the Rings. There is nothing in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that holds the sheer thrill and exhilaration of sequences like Gandalfs facing the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring or the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers. Adamson tries hard, but a sequence like where the children face the wolves on the melting icepack of a river falls completely flat the sequence seems contrived in its drama and the end with children riding out on a shard of ice seems entirely unconvincing, even faintly laughable. The climactic battle sequence does array some visually impressive scenes of armies lined up and various mythical creatures engaged in combat, but none of it comes with a sense of awe or dramatic enthrallment.
For all the substantial amount of money that has been lavished on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Andrew Adamsons background in visual effects, there are times that the effects look tatty. The central character of Aslan is certainly highly convincing, but the beavers look like no more than B-budget CGI effects, while the makeup job on the White Queens dwarf assistant Ginnarbrik is thoroughly unconvincing.
One came away feeling that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should have moved one but that Andrew Adamson through inexperience, lack of ability to command actors or whatever failed to deliver it there, for instance, seems surprisingly little tragedy in any of the scenes of Edmunds corruption and especially in the sacrifice of Aslan, which after all is supposed to be the equivalent of Christs death on the cross. Instead, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is merely a nice film that produces some effects that look pretty, but fail to move on any more substantial a level. Indeed, for all its impoverishment of budget, the BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe managed to hold together with more dramatic effect than the film here does.
All principal parties involved teamed up again for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008), followed by The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010). The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was parodied in Epic Movie (2007).
After directing Prince Caspian, Andrew Adamson next went onto Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away (2012) and the non-genre Mr Pip (2012).
Walden Media, the Christian-based production company that co-produced The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with Disney, went onto make a number of other fantasy, many of these containing Christian messages pitched to family audiences. Walden Medias subsequent films include the remake of Charlottes Web (2006), Bridge to Terabithia (2007), Mr Magoriums Wonder Emporium (2007), The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007), The Water Horse (2007), City of Ember (2008), Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008), Nims Island (2008), Tooth Fairy (2010), The Giver (2014), A Dogs Purpose (2017) and The Star (2017).