April 20, 2006

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

If nothing else, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the more faithful book adaptations I can remember, without resorting to the tedious literalism that plagued the first couple of Harry Potter films. As a cinematic experience, it lacks the grand, David Lean sweep of The Lord of the Rings, casts of thousands and all that. As underwhelmed as I was by The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson could get the heart pumping. Andrew Adamson, to compare, manages to provoke a raised eyebrow now and then.

Nevertheless, I found The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a better-told story, even if I did ultimately relate to it more or less as an illustrated version of the book. Its narrative completeness springs from Lewis's more sophisticated grasp of the differences between good and bad and evil, which Tolkien doesn't much bother with and about which George Lucas (to pick one other relevant example) hasn't a clue.

Lewis understood the importance of personifying evil, and the difference between an evildoer and a basically good person who does bad things. It's hard to think of any movie recently that has depicted the latter as well as Skandar Keynes does with the character of Edmund. The former, by comparison, is easier, except that like the tree falling in the forest, good and evil remain metaphysical abstractions unless manifested though human behavior not clouded by insanity.

Perhaps Lewis's greatest insight in this respect was his observation, particularly articulated in The Screwtape Letters, that far from being coarse, sloppy, and ugly, evil is neat, tidy, and ruthlessly efficient, manifesting itself most profoundly as an smoothly-running organizational power.

On this account, The Lord of the Rings fails from the beginning. The "big bad" is so impersonal as to hardly be organic, not to mention badly dressed and incompetent. For all of the supposed majestic power of the Ring, except in occasional melodramatic inserts, we never see it tempt its keepers that way Turkish Delight tempts Edmund. And it is never clear what the bad guys exactly intend to accomplish besides entropy. Which philosophically is as informative as watching iron rust.

Lucas got it right in the first Star Wars movie. What makes Darth Vader such a compelling figure is that we can sense the passion behind his actions, and can see the gears turning behind the polished armor of the finely-tuned organization that he serves. But having no idea how good turns to evil, the only way Lucas could show this progression in later installments was to turn the young Vader into a feckless jerk. Fecklessness doesn't build empires, or lead thousands into battle.

As Peter tells Susan, "You're not trying to be realistic, you're trying to be smart." Lucas was trying to be smart, and he simply isn't that smart about human nature. And so what he ended up wasn't realistic, either.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Tilda Swinton as the White Witch takes us back to that early Darth Vader. She's really is smarter and stronger and better organized than everybody else. Truly smart antagonists are created by truly smart people, and Lewis was that smart. (Lucas just got lucky.) Though unlike Screwtape and That Hideous Strength, this isn't (unfortunately) the main point of the story. Yet for what is a fairly thin black-hat role, Swinton carries the part off extremely well. The narrative sags as soon as she's gone.

But it is Georgie Henley as Lucy Pevensie that makes the movie hum along. What an amazing young actress. Peter and Susan are pretty dull in comparison (and Susan gets quickly booted from the next volumes, anyway). I'll be looking forward to future installments just to watch Henley grow into the role.

The one thing that significantly detracts from the movie both cinematically and allegorically is its literal bloodlessness. Mel Gibson may have gone way overboard (though the briefest examination of his oeuvre—from The Road Warrior to Lethal Weapon—makes his obsession with the suffering protagonist hardly unexpected), but he's right that blood is key to the story. It's also inimical to a PG rating, and without blood, the penultimate scene in Narnia struck me as sterile and a bit glib.

What I did find quite surprising was the movie's overall visual impact. By so literally and convincingly couching Lewis's fable in the shapes and forms of Greco-Roman mythology, the movie illustrates the magnitude of Paul's syncretic effort ("Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you"). And its profound theological difficulties as well. Aslan's explanation of the core doctrine of Christianity still remains the best one going: it's heap big magic. Hence the appeal of fantasy.

I think it was a real discomfiture with this underlying reality that motivated early ham-handed—though comprehensible—efforts like the Gospel of Judas, and also fueled Joseph Smith's flirtation with Pelagianism throughout his life. It's a problematic paradox most often dealt with by being ignored. As the Catholic Encyclopedia bluntly points out, "Most, if not all, of these theories [of the atonement] have perils of their own, if they are isolated and exaggerated."

Safeguarding against a "merely juridical view of the subject," the Encyclopedia hastens to point out, is the Church's rich, ceremonial liturgy, ensuring that worshipers will not "forget the present and living reality of a sacrifice constantly kept before their eyes." In other words, the play's the thing. Or as Confucius said, "It is by the Odes that a man's mind is aroused, by the rules of ritual that his character is established, and by music that he is perfected." Good rules for movie making, too.

Related posts

Prince Caspian
The atonement of Pacifica Casull

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