Out of the wardrobe

The wonderful world of C.S. Lewis is ripe for a film adaptation, but Justine Picardie is sceptical.

It had to happen, didn’t it? The Chronicles of Narnia will be released soon as part of the next series of family blockbusters, taking over from where The Lord of the Rings left off. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has even been filmed in the Ring trilogy’s territory of New Zealand, with many of the same creative team working on its visual effects. This time, though, there’s a different director: Andrew Adamson, the New Zealander responsible for Shrek and its sequel.

It’s likely that Narnia will prove as profitable as Middle Earth. A new franchise for Disney, with six episodes to follow, is presumably as alluring a prospect for studio executives as the Harry Potter series. Personally, I’m finding it difficult not to be a bit sceptical, although that won’t stop me joining the rest of my family in an orderly cinema queue. We fit the demographic audience profile, after all (mum and dad and two children; four tickets, please, plus popcorn and drinks).

It’s not that I’m expecting the film to be bad – how could I, as a fan of the wonderful Shrek? But even so, it’s going to be hard to let go of my own imaginary version of Narnia: a world that seemed entirely real to me and millions of others, when I discovered C.S. Lewis’s books in childhood. As the daughter of atheists, I didn’t realise his stories were Christian allegories. Nor did I know of his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien or that they discussed their work with fellow academics at Oxford University in a club known as the Inklings.

What I did know, however, was that the Narnia books came far more vividly alive for me than The Lord of the Rings (which tended to find fans among the boys at my school). Apart from anything else, it was a girl who discovered Narnia, stumbling upon it through a mysterious wardrobe filled with fur coats – a girl named Lucy, who, along with her older sister Susan, shared in just as much of the subsequent adventures as her two brothers, Edmund and Peter. (The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, seemed to me to be mostly about men, aside from the occasional intervention by a female elf.) It is Lucy, in fact, who knows the White Witch to be evil – unlike Edmund, who is led astray by the witch’s addictive supply of Turkish delight. And it is Lucy, too, who is given a dagger with which to defend herself, as well as a bottle made of pure diamond containing a remedy – should she or her friends ever come to harm – made of the juice of a fire-flower grown in the mountains of the sun.

I believed implicitly in Lucy, just as I believed in the truth of Aslan – the lion who saves Narnia (the lion who saves us all). When I lost a milk-tooth, I knew it was Aslan who came padding silently along the night-time street and up the stairs into the darkness of our first-floor London flat. I never saw him but I knew also that it was not the tooth fairy but Aslan who left sixpence under my pillow; and it was Aslan I waited for with my sister inside our bedroom wardrobe, hoping a door would open to the other side.

In adulthood, I have returned to Lewis’s books in times of heartbreak or distress (I can think of no better companion in hospital waiting rooms or during the long hours of those sleepless nights when it feels as if no one else in the world is awake). And as a writer, I have also found myself revisiting Narnia, using it as an oblique reference or starting point for my own books and still marvelling at Lewis’s ability to evoke our need to escape, as well as to find ourselves.

However, my sons have shown less passionate attachment to the Narnia series – in part, because they have been as beguiled by other, newer, though for them equally magical landscapes (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Harry Potter, Roald Dahl). But also because they belong to a generation for whom computer screens have replaced wardrobes as a door to another world.

All of which means that they are perfectly placed to watch the Narnia films: they are already interested in the stories, but not primed to dismiss the celluloid version as incomparable to the original. Nor will they share my grumpy-old-woman irritation that Tilda Swinton as the White Witch has been given blonde dreadlocks, instead of dead-straight raven black hair. My children have grown accustomed to seeing adaptations of books they have cherished, remodelled and turned into film. They remain more or less unmoved by the fact that the Harry Potter books seem to them rather better, on the whole, than the subsequent films (as does Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). After all, as my older son points out: “Sometimes it works the other way, and a film can be better than a book, like it was with The Lord of the Rings.”

That they are apparently untroubled by the transition of printed word to film does not necessarily mean that they are less engaged than I was as a child with the narrative power of magical fantasies. Books have remained more important to them than computer games (some of the time, at least). And, like me, my sons have not needed a traditionally Christian upbringing to believe in the endless battles of good against evil described by Lewis and Tolkien – the forces of darkness always at the ready to extinguish the light, yet innocence prevailing, against all the odds. In this respect, I am sure we are not alone. The boundaries are sufficiently blurred between us, as parents and children, to allow the Disney executives to feel they have invested wisely in another kidult blockbuster, a reassuring return to a story of unimpeachable moral integrity from a golden age of British literature, complete with centaurs and fauns.

It takes Hollywood money – lots of it – to rebuild this very English Eden: $US100 million ($132 million), apparently, and counting. Even so, however big the budget, I’m still not quite sure how the film wizards are going to conjure up an entirely convincing Aslan – a talking lion who is not just God-like, but God incarnate: the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Liam Neeson is the voice of Aslan, after early speculation that the part was going to Brian Cox. The lion as an Irishman? Well, C.S. Lewis was from Belfast and although he left Northern Ireland for Oxford, he returned for his annual holidays. The topography of Narnia is supposed to be based, in part, on the Mourne mountains of County Down.

Trivia, all of it, I know, but that’s the thing about Narnia: it possesses its fans from childhood onwards and its details emerge again into the light, decades after a first reading. I’ve just rediscovered this passage, for example, close to the end of Lewis’s final instalment of the Narnia books, in The Last Battle: “In Narnia your good clothes were never your uncomfortable ones. They knew how to make things that felt beautiful as well as looking beautiful in Narnia; and there was no such thing as starch or flannel or elastic to be had from one end of the country to the other.” Disney’s wardrobe department, I presume, has already taken note.

Justine Picardie’s new book, My Mother’s Wedding Dress, is published by Picador. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will be released on December 26.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
Oct. 15, 2005
Justine Picardie

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 17, 2005.
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