Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (dir. Andrew Adamson, 2005)

We're entering the run-up to the release of two movies I'm ridiculously over-excited about; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. So I thought that, in the weeks before their releases, I'd have another look at each of the preceeding films in a bit more detail than I have so far (with the possible exception of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which I covered when it came out). Perversely, although Potter comes out first, on 19th November, and Dawn Treader on 10th December, I'm starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I grew up with the BBC television adaptations of four of the Narnia books, which I absolutely adore and, like Star Trek Voyager, will not hear a word against - you will not sway me on this (I'm sure posts on those series will follow at some point as well). But I also love the 2005 film, which is completely gorgeous and which impressed me right from the start with how strongly it placed Narnia within its historical context. In the books, the Second World War is not overtly present to a child reader (though an adult might notice some themes resonating with issues from that time). It is used mainly as a plot device to get the children into the Professor's house and then, from their point of view, largely forgotten for the rest of the series (The Silver Chair, in theory, should take place towards the end of the war, but in the real world sections of that book Lewis is clearly preoccupied with post-war education and the war itself seems largely forgotten). At the time Lewis was writing, this would not have been much of an issue - although his readers might be too young to remember the war themselves their parents and older siblings would be bound to tell them about it and, if they lived anywhere near London, they would still be able to see craters and damaged buildings from the wartime bombing.

This is not the case for modern viewers of the film, who may be three (or even four) generations removed from the war and who are unlikely instantly to understand the significance of evacuation, unless they happen to have covered it in school recently. This is why the air raid in the opening sequence is so important. The raid is actually historically inaccurate - the Pevensies would most likely have been evacuated during the mass evacuations of late 1939-early 1940, while the regular bombing raids on London did not start until the time of the Battle of Britain, in September 1940. Now normally, I come down like a ton of bricks on anything that includes inaccuracies or even biased emphases with regards to World War Two (a major pet peeve of mine resulting partly from the fact that both my grandfathers fought in it). But I think this minor inaccuracy is too valuable to complain about or lose. The important point for modern child viewers to understand about these introductory sections is that London is in danger and the children have been sent away (leaving their mother behind) to keep them safe from a very real threat. Actually showing a raid is a much more effective and dramatic way of getting this across than any amount of dialogue could be. The war continues to be present through references in the dialogue throughout the movie, which is very effective as a counterpart to the Narnian war the children are fighting.

Anyway, all that is by the by, as I'm supposed to be talking about Classics! Our first Classical encounter is, of course, with Mr Tumnus. As in the earlier BBC adaptation, Tumnus, although played by Scottish actor James McAvoy, is given a bog standard Received Pronunciation English accent (Micheal York, narrating the audio book, makes him Irish for some unfathomable reason - this would be less irritating if the Irish accent wasn't distinctly dodgey). Tumnus is a thoroughly middle-class ancient Roman woodland spirit, with a cave-home full of books and genteel furniture, so the accent makes sense. His physical appearance is exactly as described by Lewis (much as the sight is easy on the eye, poor McAvoy must have been freezing with no shirt on). We don't see the dryads and others described by Tumnus in a flashback, but we see fiery figures representing them, several of which seem to have animal heads, which is a bit odd. It's a brilliant scene, though, where the real danger Lucy's in and the creepiness of Mr Tumnus, potential child-abductor, is really strongly emphasised; Lucy is only saved by Aslan's intervention. Up until this point, Tumnus has had more in common with Bilbo Baggins than a wild Roman woodland creature, but here his wildness and dangerous side come to the fore.

The next time we see any Classical creatures, other than Mr Tumnus, is in the form of statues in the White Witch's courtyard. (People turning to stone is one of those themes that crops up in a number of different mythological traditions - maybe it's related to the tendency for rocks to look a bit like heads or faces sometimes). The first new creature we see in the flesh, as it were, is a Dryad who waves to Lucy as she, Peter and Susan make their way to Aslan's camp after the thaw. The interpretation of the dryads is particularly beautiful in this film, and quite original. Dryads are nymphs connected to trees - they appear occasionally in ancient literature but I suspect their popularity comes from later uses in early modern poetry and art. Usually, they are beautiful women (wearing varying amounts of clothing) who hang around near, or melt into, trees. In this case, however, the dryad is made up of the blossom of the tree, which is very pretty, and adds an extra reason for the dryad to have disappeared throughout the winter, when there are no leaves or petals to take shape from.

The Dryad, by Evelyn de Morgan

At Aslan's camp we see a large gathering of mythological beasties, mostly fauns and centaurs because they make the most human-looking soldiers. I've talked about centaurs in Narnia before, both here and in my Narnia article, so I'll let them go for now, but it is interesting how military the fauns and centaurs look here, with all their matching red and gold armour. It fits with the much more war-centric, military feel of the film as a whole, which is probably due in equal parts to the changed international situation (since the BBC's version in 1988) and to the need for a big holiday blockbuster to have large scale battle sequences a la The Lord of the Rings.

The White Witch's gang of largely mythological minions whom she summons to her sacrifice of Aslan are suitably scary here. The hag creatures are particularly unpleasant and look rather like Furies. The minotaurs (plural as ever, though in Greek mythology there is only one) are prominent, as they are among the scariest of the creatures present and the biggest and weirdest. The Witch, who has looked suitably wintery for the film so far, now looks like she belongs in a much hotter climate (which, according to The Magician's Nephew, she does) and the scene is full of big flaming torches, so the scary qualities inherent in it are rooted in the force and wildness of the Witch and her army, not in spookiness. Among her minions are quite a few Cyclopes for some reason; although they're not as tall as Cylopes should be - they're nowhere near giant, being shorter than the minotaurs - their one eye is quite clearly displayed. I suppose the designers thought they would be a cool scary creature to include, as although the Witch's list of evil minions is quite extensive, including Ghouls, Boggles, Cruels, Hags, Spectres, People of the Toadstools, Incubi, Wraiths, Horrors, Efreets, Orknies, Sprites, Wooses, Ettins, and all whose evil works for her, Cyclopes are not among them. The designers have, quite fairly I think, decided that any creature from Greek mythology is fair game for Narnia and thrown in a few extras, which is rather cool.

That's not the only extra Classical reference in the film. Much, much earlier on, Susan insists on playing what Edmund quite rightly refers to as the worst game ever invented, getting her brothers to guess medical ailments or other complex terms she reads out from the dictionary. She reads out the word 'gastrovascular' and Peter correctly guesses that it derives from Latin before Lucy interrupts with the much better suggestion of hide and seek. As so often in popular culture, Latin is used here to demonstrate how boring and out of touch Susan is; Latin is held up as the dullest of subjects, scorned by everyone who isn't trying to sound clever. (It's all a far cry from the books, written by an Oxbridge scholar at a time when getting a good education meant learning Latin, in which Peter regularly swears 'By Jove!' as if he were actually a Roman).

Another big plus in this movie - Lewis' sexism has been surgically removed, so that Lucy should not fight because she's too little, and Susan has to suck it up and get on it with it. I honestly don't know what that hairy creature beside her is.

Returning to the Big Battle, Peter rides a unicorn for the final fight, a creature mostly associated with medieval art and literature, but which does have some Classical origins. Mostly, it just makes me think unkind thoughts that do not belong near a children's film. The most awesome thing about the Big Battle though, is another element of Greek mythology that, like the Cyclopes, has been added for the film - attack by phoenix. The Narnian phoenixes burst into flame while flying right in front of the enemy forces, which is really very cool and the most proactive use of the phoenix's special gift I've seen (normally, all phoenixes actually do is live for a very long time and occasionally burst into pretty flames, though Fawkes in Harry Potter makes himself useful).

The depiction of Cair Paravel in the film is one of the little things that really annoys me, as it looks rather more like a Georgian palace than a medieval castle, and I think Cair Paravel - with its turrets, and its dais for the royals - should be a medieval castle. The mermaids outside are very pretty and I believe, based on dolphins' tails - I'll talk more about mermaids when I get to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Then there are the costumes, which are far too obviously designed to be replicated in Disney stores - the BBC ones were much more tasteful. The crowns are absoutely gorgeous though. But I've gone rather off the point - which is that, although mythological creatures are kept in the foreground by having Mr Tumnus crown the children, the aesthetic of the last scenes has moved even beyond the medieval, never mind the Classical.

The film really is gorgeous, and although nitpickers might complain about the CGI, I like to use my imagination - it looks more than good enough for me, I don't need perfection. I like the added sequences, chiefly the melting river, which give the film a bit more action, and the music and cinematography are both absolutely beautiful. If only Mrs Macready wasn't given an Irish accent (she should be Scottish) it would be almost perfect. And Jim Broadbent will break your heart in the closing sting.

7 comments:

  1. Ooooh... you've taken over what I had planned to do to prepare for the 2 movies I've been looking most forward to all year!!! (specially after the rather disappointing movie summer).

    Although since I did the Potter movies for the last one
    http://crazycrishereandthere.blogspot.com/search/label/harry%20potter
    I had planned on reading through the books for this one! That was, until I came to Belgium for 3 months and due to suitcase limitations couldn't bring them with me! And now my friends (and the local public library) have provided me with enough reading material for the next 3 months...

    I love both Narnia films, in spite of the changes, in the same way I fell for the Lord of the Rings trilogy! They're just so well done, feel so real that you can't hold a grudge (about the changes) for long!

    I was very disappointed about missing out on Harry Potter in English, since I'll be spending the previous weekend (Armistice day is a holiday in Belgium, so 4-day weekend!) in London with my sister... forced to see it in French by 3 days?!?!? nooooo!!! But then I set up a visit at a friend's in Luxemburg the following weekend, and there they don't dub films and since both she and her BF are Potter fans... YAY!!!

    I'll have to hop on a train to Brussels to get Narnia in English though...

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  2. Cris, you should look at them all again too! I have to try to restrict myself to Classics-related stuff as much as possible anyway, you can cover everything!

    Hope you get to see them in English - I love listening to dubbed films to improve my language skills, but yours don't need improving, and you really want the first viewing to be in the original language so you can hear the acotrs' own voices.

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  3. Hi Juliette,

    Great review as always. I'm intrigued, though. I've never seen the film, but isn't the word 'gastrovascular' derived from both Greek and Latin?

    In that case, do they mention Greek in the film or, if they only mention Latin, does it say more about modern perceptions of Greek? If Latin is considered boring, perhaps Greek doesn't even register!

    Sam

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  4. Yes, it is - gastro from the Greek for stomach and vascular from the Latin for a vessel.

    I don't know whether this much thought went into it, but the conversation does probably reflect the education of the time quite well. Girls in the early twentieth century were unlikely to be taught Greek (they were lucky to be taught Latin in the very early part of the century). Boys probably would learn some Greek, but they might do so later on. So, for a question asked by Susan and answered by Peter, who is still quite young, you would expect them to focus on the Latin.

    From a modern point of view, though, I suspect this does reflect the fact that Latin is still pretty well known, even as something really boring, while Greek is often forgotten entirely!

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  5. Amazing post Juliette! I've always known you are a great CS Lewis/Narnia fan, and was curious as to what you've thought of the new films.

    The one reference that always threw me was how Turkish delight was used as the key device to tempt one of the youngsters. Our gelatin based national sweet seems to have taken on an 'apple of temptation' type symbolism that just feels so out of place in the whole Narnia Universe. It reminds me of Tolkien's 'evil men from the East' vs 'Good men of the West' for which I don't really care much! The East gets a bum wrap sometimes, despite its quite significant role in preserving the learning of the West.

    Kind Regards
    H

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  6. I liked your point about the one-off classical Minotaur becoming a regular species, 'plural as ever' - I guess they're just too cool a monster not to re-use, and once you've done the CGI for one you might as well reuse it and make lots. They're a recurring baddie in the 'God of War' videogames, for instance, and in Chronicles of Narnia I think they're proper scary.

    I do think the centaurs are a bit wonky. though. Fascinatingly (to sad old me), they're wonky in pretty much the same way as the centaurs in the early Xena episode, 'Hooves and Harlots' - there's something very wrong with the way the forelegs move. It's the same people doing them, I think! If you dig around on IMDb (see previous comment re. sadness) you can find all sorts of connections between Xena and the fantasy films shot in New Zealand later on - Lord of the Rings as well as Chronicles of Narnia. Xena went on for years, so the local film industry got good at this kind of thing.

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  7. @Gideon - I thought some of the scenery in Xena looked rather familiar! My favourite centaurs are the old BBC ones - film of a horse with film of a man plonked on top of it seems the most logical way to do a centaur to me, even if they don't quite match up properly sometimes!

    @H I always interpreted the Turkish Delight as a reference to rationing during the war - it's one of the sweetest, most sugary treats, so a child living on rations with hardly any sugar available might crave something like that. I'm sure part of it is the Eastern temptation thing as well though. My favourite Narnia book is 'The Horse and his Boy', which unfortunately includes all sorts of dubious and downright racist representations of the East (and some first class sexism as well) - though it does also feature Aravis, who is awesome.

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