First impressions of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which reaches movie theaters this weekend:
Is it any good? Yes, the movie is very good–a solid piece of entertainment in its own right, and fans of C. S. Lewis will regard it as faithful to his book in every important respect. A few plot elements are dropped and several others are added, but each decision makes sense for a movie that’s trying to tell a story in two hours.
What’s new, pt. 1: In the book, Lewis says that the Pevensie kids “were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.” That’s why they wind up in a big house with a strange wardrobe. When Lewis wrote, the evacuations were fresh in many minds and he didn’t need to say much else. That’s not true today, and so the film adds some helpful historical context. The first image is of a German bomber as it flies over Britain.
What’s new, pt. 2: Edmund is the bad egg, of course, and in the book there are indications of this even before he becomes a Turkish Delight junkie. The movie relies far more on Edmund’s sibling rivalry with older brother Peter as a factor in his treachery, and far less on Turkish Delight.
What’s new, pt. 3: There’s a chase scene through a tunnel, an attempted crossing of an icy river, and an encounter with Father Christmas that initially reminded me of how the hobbits first came into contact with the ringwraiths in The Lord of the Rings–it’s a sleight of hand, of course, but an effective treatment and not in the book. Also, after Father Christmas gives presents to the Pevensies and sleds off, Lucy turns to Susan and says, “Told you he was real!” It’s a wonderful line–not in the book, but a clever addition that advances the book’s theme of faith. Another new line comes from Tumnus, imprisoned in the witch’s castle–he says something that recalls Braveheart.
What’s new, pt. 4: J. R. R. Tolkien famously didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia. “It really won’t do, you know,” he told a friend. One of his main objections was the way in which Lewis mixed different mythological traditions into a Narnian stew. The moviemakers revel in this, fleshing out creatures described only briefly in the book and adding new ones entirely. This may have required their greatest feat of imagination. Think of it as multiculturalism, in the best sense of the word. Personally, I liked it. When I watch the movie again, one of my priorities will be to notice more of these details. Also, the climactic battle scene includes griffins that drop boulders on the witch’s army–they are the mirror image of those German bombers at the start of the film.
What’s new, pt. 5: We get our first glimpse of Aslan early on, in the fireplace of Tumnus’s lair. In the book, we don’t hear about Aslan until the Pevensies get to the beaver dam (and we don’t see him until after that). The passage introducing him is one of the most memorable in the whole Chronicles (“None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do…”). It really can’t be rendered on film and our moviemakers don’t even attempt it here. That’s a wise decision.
It’s funny: The movie has a lot of humor–much more than the book, in fact. “You’re a Daughter of Eve?” asks Tumnus when he meets Lucy. “My mom’s name is Helen!” she replies. (Also new: In the books, we don’t see the mother, as we do in the film, and Lewis never names her.) And I can’t tell you how pleasant it was to sit through a film aimed largely at kids and not hear a single burp or fart joke.
The acting: The four actors who play the Pevensie kids are excellent, especially the girls. (But will they grow up too fast for Narnia sequels?) Tilda Swinton is brilliant as the White Witch; James McAvoy is outstanding as Tumnus. Kiran Shah, as the witch’s dwarf sidekick, kept reminding me of Deep Roy as the Oompa Loompa in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake.
Cool tribute: In Professor Kirke’s house, we overhear a news report on the radio. The voice belongs to Douglas Gresham, who is Lewis’s stepson. It is a fitting family tribute to Lewis, who delivered radio addresses over the BBC during the Second World War. These were later collected as one of his most popular books, Mere Christianity.
The music: Not immediately memorable. And did they have to include a song by Alanis Morrisette? The last time I heard what she liked to do in movie theaters, I wanted to turn off the radio.
The credits: When the credits start to roll at the end of the movie, stay in your seats. There’s a final scene worth watching.
Will your kids like it? The movie is rated PG, appropriately. A few scenes are meant to startle. There is combat and violence, much of it fast and loud. The film is by no means gory–we don’t see the witch actually kill Aslan, for instance, though we do know exactly what she did with her knife. I took my entire brood to a screening last weekend. My eight-year-old boy, who has had the book read to him three times, said the other day, “it was so good, I can’t stop thinking about it.” My six-year-old daughter, who has had the book read to her twice, called it “perfect” as we were walking out of the theater, although later she added that she didn’t like it when Aslan was killed. Of course, she’s not supposed to like that part. It may be worth noting that the scene is like a Star Wars cantina set in the netherworld–full of scary monsters and vicious animals up to no good. A susceptible kid might suffer nightmares. My four-year-old son, who is a budding monster-movie aficionado, squirmed a lot during the film and said he wanted to go home. Later, he said he liked it, especially “when the lion roared really, really loud.” In truth, he was probably too young for the movie, but only because he’s kind of young for movies generally. The biggest problem was keeping him quiet, as it was during last summer’s March of the Penguins.
The best part: We can hope, realistically, that the movie will inspire a whole new generation of children to devour The Chronicles of Narnia.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France He is author of the upcoming A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..