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Welcome to My Animadversions About
C. S. Lewis.
Professor of English,
Bowling Green State University (Ohio).
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I saw all 3 hr. and 8 minutes of Kong three days ago. (Ok, I admit it, I missed about 6 minutes in the first third of the movie by dozing off on the longish "at-sea" sequence.) On reflection, my 2 hr. and 20 minutes in Narnia seemed very well spent when compared with the three rather bloated hours in Kongland, not that there were not some delights awaiting me. . .
Homage is an acceptable film genre, and Jackson's admiration for the old King Kong, depression-era NYC, the demise of vaudeville, and the campy aspects of pseudo-vintage-film-within-a-film-making is admirable, and well on display here. In fact, it almost accounts for the movie entirely. But 3 hrs. of "homage" may be more than any one human should have to take, no matter how well it is done. Jackson has in fact made Kong into what is a kind of Frankenstein movie, Kong/Boris Karloff as long lost dead friend, the only thing missing being the cigars. So, is Kong King or Not?
No, and what Adamson does with the CGI Beavers and Tumnus and Aslan seems positively seamless and underappreciated when compared with the frenzied unaligned, endless sequences in which this human or that one gets trampled by a T-rex or eaten by a giant arachnid. (Ugh--Lewis, who hated insects, would have walked out of this one faster than you can say "Fantasia.") No, Kong is meant to be outrageous, of course, and it is, but not in the way Jackson intended, and it is by its end, an unbecoming outrage, maybe even a gargantuan, epic miscalculation, fervently overpraised by critics and underseen by the millions by ordinary viewers: in short, The Heaven's Gate of Monkey Movies. (And: I simply don't like that many dinosaur-death-match scenes. How many of us do? We know for a fact how much Peter Jackson likes them. Very much.)
You've heard tell of movies for which word of mouth says, "The Special Effects are the reason to see it?" Not this one; there is such a self-indulgently lavish deployment of prehistoric zoology (Darwin gone wild) there is nothing left to put on an extended DVD set. Leaving Skull Island (and that's a cheat--we deserve at least one scene depicting how Kong gets to Ellis Island) has never been more welcome, NY here we come. And Jackson's re-evocation of Times Square and old New York is quite breathtaking--making me think: if only the movie were about vaudeville and the seedy types who populated the theatre district in the 1930s, and Kong just had a cameo appearance. That might be a movie worth seeing.
When cometh the climactic Empire State aeroplane battle, it slowly emerges into anti-climax suffering from one too many "crush the elevated train" shots. But it is just here that it occurred to me that I suddenly intuitively understood why Tolkien did not like Narnia, and, equally, why I prefer Narnia to Middle-Earth. It's the kitchen sink approach--too much of too many "good" but disparate things (defining "good things" loosely as what brands of nostalgia engage Peter Jackson's film instincts.).
Jackson writes and directs, you might say, with a skewered Lewisian temperament--the stance that Tolkien disliked: anything, any creature might emerge here (Spy Kids 2 especially suffered from this as well). But the defining difference is, Lewis controls it all with consistent theme, strong central characters, and a superior grasp of human nature and destiny. So does Adamson's Narnia.
Jackson may never be able to make a quiet film again, the kind, you know, with normal streets and sunsets and clever dialogue between one or two characters. The scale of his imagination demands that he must flood the screen with a cacophony of image and sound, where individuals must of necessity pale in significance to the broadest, boldest, most stretched, most magnified landscapes, species, storylines. Without a "grand narrative" to guide him, without Tolkien's discipline, Jackson surrenders storytelling to mere spectacle and screenplay to lists of animatronics and Andy Serkis impersonations. I have gotten all the way here and have not said anything about Jack Black, Naomi Watts, or Kyle Chandler (the only actor who seems to know he is in a movie, and thereby entertaining). That says a lot in itself.
Speaking of movies that know they're movies and loving it, if you have not seen Kong yet, save your money--and just buy and treasure Serenity when it comes out this Tuesday, December 20.
So we that's what we're left with presently, having moved from stories about the allegory, Lewis's alleged racism and misogyny, and the "scandal with Mrs. Moore" to "My Movie is Bigger than Your Movie" taunts. Stories about Narnia will linger on no doubt, but the wild ride that was pre-promotional and focused on "the controversy" will diminish, and we will return to more thoughtful consideration of Lewis's continuing legacy and the role he may play in reinvigorating conversation about the reality of Heaven and the necessity of resisting Screwtape and his kin.
I have been struck by the early and consistent reactions of Christian bloggers and reviewers both at how respectful they have been, yet how measured and profound is their disappointment in how the three key issues I identified in my review on December 8th were handled--basically, the portrayal of Aslan, before, during, and after his first appearance in the last 3rd of the movie. Preparation is everything. This is the muted criticism resonating with sympathetic viewers everywhere, namely, how the filmmakers failed to trust Lewis's narrative at a crucial point, and embrace a theme I belabored in both of my Narnia books: The centrality of Aslan, his majesty and transcendence, and the essentiality of the Deeper Magic.
Magic, ah yes, that's what this world "knows" well; it's the deeper magic the movie needed to, well, "deepen." If only Aslan had been allowed to explain the difference. Now that can happen in the conversations that follow, of course, and maybe that is the hidden blessing. But it did not occur in the movie.
Our attention now can turn speculatively to Prince Caspian, and what will be done with its script, which is certainly unlikely to spin the same kinds of debates, since it lacks even the hint of allegory that LWW evokes, except from the residue of Aslan and Lucy's relationship. Caspian is very episodic--so maybe it plays well into Adamson's enigmatic cinematic canvas better than LWW. The cards have been played and we now know the dealers, the movers, and the shakers.
As I reflect on the past three months, I am astonished at how many reporters and newscasters made contact and included me in their canvassing of opinion, fact-seeking, and fact-checking. Here is a partial list:
Omaha World-Herald; Akron Beacon-Journal; LA Daily New; Sarasota Sun; Evansville Courier-Journal; Cleveland Plain Dealer; Tampa Tribune; Lakeland Ledger; Cincinnati Enquirer; Columbus Dispatch; Religon News Service; National Geographic; Christianity Today; Colorado Gazette; Findlay Courier; Toledo City Paper; Denver Post; Washington Post; Toledo Blade; Channels 11 and 13, Toledo; Channels 8 and 44, Tampa; Channels 3 and 5, Cleveland; as well as earlier TV reports in Fresno; radio in Cleveland, Fresno, Norfolk, and Tampa.This coming week's radio interviews with me include:
Old friends. Lucy, dear Lucy, played with grace and poise by Georgie Henley. And, wow, James McAvoy's Mr. Tumnus: total verisimiltude. If the movie stopped here I would be on cloud nine or ten. This Narnia is an astonishing rendering. An amazing proximity to perfection. So, ok, I admit I'm home. Adamson did what he said he would: make the movie his 9-year-old self would. And that means certain things get focus, get screen time, and others don't. It's what a 9-year-old remembers.
First moments: I am in tears from the opening sequence---the German bombers--the race into the bomb shelter, and this new emendation: Edmund clutching his RAF father's photograph in the broken frame--powerful; then the heart-rending railroad departure scene, the farewell to mother. Why the tears? I can't believe I'm here, and believing, this is so rich, it can't get any better than this, yet it does, in its subtlety and quiet pacing--the build up of the first 60 minutes is brilliant; we get to explore the house before Lucy goes in, before Edmund follows. We need this time, we need this seemingly pregnant pause, because once inside Narnia, once out of Spare Oom, the action and the landscape is "bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. . ." Moving too fast would spoil everything. And I'm not ready, I want to savor this, but, suddenly, then I am ready, for Edmund, and the Witch, for the betrayal. For the flight.
So, thanks, Andrew, for that first hour, for the well-placed humor and the light touch, for thereafter everything speeds up, gets darker, morning yet on creation day, and one by one, they come, first the Beavers, then the wolves, and the Witch's lair, The thaw, Father Christmas, and then, finally, Aslan. Aslan with Liam Neeson's lilting Irish tenor. Aslan's first joyous then haunted presence. And then Edmund's rescue, and the lull, and the Witch's boasts, then the sacrifice, and the lonely vigil, and then the climactic battle--more battle than the eye can take in with a phantasmagoric menagerie of bountiful creaturehood. A victory! Aslan breathing life into lifeless statues--Mr. Tumnus first! And a pleasing jolt after the credits have begun to roll. Narnia has indeed come, the wardrobe has kept its promise. The eye and the ear have their feast, the heart its reward. There is nothing to apologize for, and nothing to debate. When does Prince Caspian start filming?
And now, stay tuned for a second view, one that casts aside the raw innocence of that first, hungry viewing, and begins to allow oneself to put some distance between the sheer joy of the movie's existing at all, then permits space for reflection on three scenes that exemplify for me: what is left out, what is an interesting mistake, and, what is a twist that need not have been so. No need to read this before you go. Save it for after, after that smashing, wondrous, rush of spiritual adrenalin when Aslan is on the move. No harm done. This is a fantastic experience.
For a self-indulgent point of reference in canvassing my total response to Andrew Adamson's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, let me tell you which movies have done this for me. I need to point them out, so you can gather where I am coming from and what my standards are. I regard my first viewing of the following list of movies as astounding, amazing, viscerally captivating, totally enthralling experiences for all that the respective filmmakers accomplish in creating the consummate cinematic experience for the kind of genre, themes, plot, action, et al. they were attempting.
These movies are so close to perfect I have nothing with which to compare them were I to try to criticize or deny their perfection; so mesmerizing is their demonstrable screenwriting and cinematographic skills, so poignant is their care for their subject matters and characters, and so earnest is their empathy and respect for their audiences, that a second or third viewing can only diminish the impact of that very first viewing.
These movies create in me what C. S. Lewis calls in Surprised by Joy, "sehnsucht," that stab of joy, that intimation of eternity, that foretaste of heaven, that ineffable uplift into new realms of appreciation and insight into what makes life worth living and why aesthetic experience is worth the risk. As they unfold, each scene seems made just for me, inevitable not in the sense of predictability, but fitting in some cosmic order of being--the storytelling is just, true, and beautiful, in a word: divine. It's in the details, in the pauses, the well-chosen angle, the right amount of attention paid, the word aptly spoken by the right character at the right time.
So what films belong in such a category for this intrepid reviewer? (Don't choke or laugh; I am trying to give you a window on my standards of efficacy here.) My personal list includes these eclectic and eccentric choices:
I dare say that many, many viewers, sacred or secular though their orientation may be, will experience that first-viewing-momentousness. (Anyone who ever worried about a de-Christianizing of the plot can rest easy.) It may, in time, even against the grain, have that effect on me, when I next see it in a theatre without the false electricity of "being-with-the-people-in-the-special-advance-showing-who-get-to-see-it-first." But it hurts me not to be able to say unequivocally that it fits here, immediately; it causes me grief to admit that it does not fully present to me that impeccably, fully-realized, first-time-wonder and "perfect score." I must, then, explain to myself, and indirectly to you, why it does not.
First, were my expectations too high? Actually, my expectations were at a medium ebb; the trailers promised much, but I kept my enthusiasm in check. (How many of them did I see dozens and dozens of times? Did I exhaust my imaginative bank? And that video game, full of spoilers, why did I watch that?) No, Adamson's overall "9-year-old's" vision more than meets and exceeds my expectations.
Second, is my hesitation somehow connected to what is "added" to the movie? No, not exactly; it is more subtle than that. In fact, what is added to the movie as backstory, exposition, transition, or embellishment is very impressive, relevant, and moving. The scene with Edmund at the start, clutching his dad's photo--nothing is more poignant.
Third, do I simply know too much? Too much about Lewis, Narnia, the history of the production, the Disney-Walden Media coalition, the marketing strategies, the coming commodification of Narnian images and characters? To some degree, yes; I could not "enjoy" the movie the way I might have, and, in fact, did, The Lord of the Rings. I did find myself, unavoidably, almost unconsciously thinking, "I hope this happens, I hope this is not removed. . . " Oh, no! But that does not by itself explain my reluctance to say "Narnia is fully realized!"
I want the camera to linger ever so longingly in two specific scenes. I want to overhear some crucial dialogue that sets up the remainder, indeed, the significance of the movie. Two scenes! Two scenes that for me make all the difference between the superb, sublime total submersion into Narnia, and its pretender: governed by a slight, almost imperceptible backward glance to what-the-audience-will-think-if-we-stress-this-now that unravels for a few precious moments my required suspension of disbelief. A week later, this still frustrates me, distracting me during the movie by keeping me thinking about it until the very, very end of the movie (see "Twist" below), and making me grumpy in gathering my thoughts for this personal review. Waiting for what I needed, and eventually got in the very last scene, and the very last words of the movie--this took the total experience down a notch from ecstasy. What do I mean?
SCENE ONE: WHAT'S LEFT OUT
When The Beavers are explaining to the children that "Aslan is on the move," the movie must, musn't it?, give proper heed to the startling revelation that Aslan is not a man, but a lion, and that he is "not safe, but he is good." I want this scene to linger a moment or two, to let me ponder, and to rest in wonder. The mystery of Aslan must be preserved, nurtured, and the children, and the audience, need to be reminded of this, however subtly, at least once, maybe twice before He is revealed in the first climax of the tale as he emerges at first sight from his regal tent. This, in fact, does not happen; Mr. Beaver is content to call him the King. There is no Susan, no Lucy, piping up, clearing her throat, worry or trembling in the timbre of their voices, asking, "but is he quite safe?" I need the majestic, otherworldly, transcendent Aslan to be hinted at here. Else, when they do meet him, it seems, well, rather perfunctory, and not the bracing, fear-inducing, and awe-inspiring encounter the original creates. I want build up, I want suspense, I want Aslan to be, well, Aslan: "terrible as an army with banners."
SCENE TWO: THE MISTAKE
Aslan is risen! Hurrah. But listen closely to his explanation of the witch's downfall: she misinterpreted the deep magic , he says. No! Aslan, what about the deeper magic? Why is that written out, skipped? Aslan's explanation is that the reason good has triumphed is that he has the superior understanding; true, but that's not what's at stake here: it's his superior LOVE that dispenses grace and mercy to the unworthy. It's the deeper magic beyond time, not the proper hermeneutics issued within time. It's not what's written on the stone table, rightly interpreted, that saves; it's the unmerited favor of a Lover who will not let his beloved alone to die. I sighed, I was saddened by this expunging of the core value of Narnia: Aslan saves because, Son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea, He loves his creation and each creature as his own, and thus lays down his life for the one and the many. (Now, I admit, the substitution for this, in effect, is the Queen's whisper to Aslan before she slays him: "so much for love." But I do not want to hear this irony from Jadis; I want to get my irony from her demise and in the words of Aslan.) That's the deeper magic: the wonder of agape love.
REDEEMING THE TIME: THE FINAL, ARTFUL TWIST
This final scene, in its final words, spoken inexplicably by Mr. Tumnus (and not Mr. Beaver), redeems the movie for me, and almost pushes me into the ecstasy I came to experience. Almost. Lucy and Mr. Tumnus look over the balcony and watch the singular Lion King loping along the beach, headed to-where? Tumnus tells Lucy, worried about seeing Him again, "He's not a tame lion, but he is good." I cannot tell you how much I needed that line to be said, and so much sooner, somewhere, though I'd preferred it much, much earlier. Yes, Aslan is good, and yes, he is not tame, but much more spiritual capital could have been expended in showing rather than expressing this statement. Why is it postponed? Because the 9-year-old does not need it here or there, it just needs to be in there, somewhere, and the ending is as good as any place. But not for me.
I know more needs to be said in praising this magnificent achievement--I cannot deny that it is not a tame wardrobe, after all; Andrew and Doug have kept their promise. So lest I appear ungrateful for their Narnia, let me underscore that it is compelling, richly detailed, and full of passion for sheer diversity of creaturehood and the beauty of Lewis's originally Northern Ireland landscapes. The movie makers have been vigilant in not "spoiling" anything that the experienced Narnia reader would want to celebrate, and I trust Andrew implicitly to make the next ones in the series ever so skillfully. I confess I was particularly impressed with Lucy and Mr. Tumnus for their genuineness, their pathos, and their longing for justice--I won't quite ever get their opening encounter out of my head, or heart. So, yes, I will see this movie again and again, and I will proudly recommend it to all audiences, all the time.
But that longing for completion, for perfection, for the Utter East, won't quite go away. Aslan's country. He is not a tame lion. He is not safe, but he is good. Maranatha.
One week to go, and the press is being unusually cooperative and respectful of the incoming cultural missile known as Andrew Adamson's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (I mean "the press" excluding The New York Times and the The New Yorker--and all the non-Rupert Murdoch newspapers in London and Sydney, of course.)
Today's (Dec. 2) USA TODAY carried a balanced cover story on Narnia by Erik Brady (ok, yes, they quoted me) and The Chronicle of Higher Education's December 2nd issue carried an unusual, full-length rebuttal to Philip Pullman's ongoing viciousness about Narnia. PBS has done a commendable job of introducing and profiling Lewis to readers and viewers (especially impressive is Alan Jacobs' participation.) And new story angles are emerging--like the publication of a note capsuling Lewis's fear that animated or cinematic versions of Aslan would be blasphemous. So lots to comment on, plus Christianity Today's listing of top Narnia/Lewis books of the year. Let's get started.
I think there is a sense that mainstream (i.e., non-coastal media outlets) want to get behind something that the public wants to like and embrace; most of the vitriol has flowed from the usual suspects. Hence, my 50-something interviews with various newspapers from Omaha to Tampa have convinced me that reporters want to generate generous stories that try to articulate the multi-layered appeal of Narnia (Christians, fantasy-fans, and non-religious folk can agree--it's a great tale) and the enduring legacy of Lewis (despite his quirkyness, Jack is someone just about everyone can [and should] "like."). What movie reviewers will do is something else, of course, and no amount of piety or lack thereof (I admired Roger Ebert's against-the-grain, stalwart defense and undisguised affection for The Passion of the Christ) can redeem a movie that is not well-made. But every indication we have is that Adamson has delivered to us a wonderful, creative, "indigenous" Narnia, created out of his childhood imagination and not for adult literary critics with all sorts of -isms in mind to validate. Hurrah!
Let's hope that in its enthusiasm for a wholesome and Christ-centered tale, the church does become so overbearing (everyone should discover or rediscover the late Joseph Bayly's parable, The Gospel Blimp, for an object lesson in trying too hard) that it deters people from viewing the movie for fear they are attending either a tedious sermon or a boring lecture on symbolism. (Almost every interview I have granted has in one way or another started with a variation of, "So, tell me about the hidden meanings of Narnia. . .") That is part of "the buzz" surrounding the movie's release: "what did you know and when did you know it--about Narnia?" When you think of it, that is a very unusual combination of bated breathless anticipation and self-fulfilling prophecy. I do not think the movie can fail if Andrew Adamson did indeed make it with his 9-year-old imagination intact and his adult cinematic skill set. So, church, relax. Lewis's winsome and glorious vision will come through.
JACK AND THAT LETTER
Making the rounds as a "new angle" is this letter Lewis put on the back of a postcard to BBC producer Lance Sieveking, who was interested in creating a television version of The Magician's Nephew. (I read this note this past Spring at the Wade Center, the wonderful collection of Lewisian materials in Wheaton, Illinois.) Lewis said absolutely not, that the radio broadcast was quite enough, worrying that a TV Aslan would look like a tame pantomime--a "two men in a horse suit" kind of look, not unlike the one Shift concocts in The Last Battle. (Now, if he had seen the BBC TV version that eventually got made in the 1980s, and shown in the US as a "Wonderworks" broadcast, I am sure he would have felt justified.) But that was then and this is now. And even the Disney Co. at which Lewis demurred in his expressed disappointment with Fantasia has far surpassed itself in creative and evocative skill since then, even in losing Pixar. So I don't for a minute believe that if Lewis saw this Narnia that he would find it "blasphemous" or in any way dismissive of the imagination or his own dreams.
I do think he would recognize the two experiences--cinematic and literary--as two distinct kinds of aesthetic epistemologies (see my argument about the movie Serenity and my surmising that Lewis would have liked it); and, of course, they are. But as cinematic prowess and narrative control continues to accrue to individuals like you and me (insuring the possibility of "intentional authorship"), the process itself yielding to the individual moviegoer/maker the way the constructing of books and stories yields to writers and readers (imagine doing what you can now do at your desktop or mine with Photoshop, iMovie, and a digital camera compared with even five years ago), some of our worries over "ruining Narnia" can be relieved. Displacing Narnia, now that is a distinct challenge, but then no self-respecting lover of any well-loved book that I have known ever believes that a movie version can improve upon or erase the pleasure and purpose in what Lewis called the first reading of a momentous work. Adamson's Narnia is different from Lewis's Narnia--and from mine. And that is the way it should be.
I am happy that Jerry Root listed two of my Narnia books among his favorites for the December issue of Christianity Today, but let me list my top three Narnia books. Each of them does something different, compelling, and insightful; and thus all are worth having in your library simultaneously:
I will talk to you next on Thursday at midnight, when I post my Narnia movie review. Don't worry--I will pre-label any spoilers.
If there are any Cincinnati readers, I will be speaking three times this weekend in your region:
Trinity Lecture Series (Trinity Reformed Episcopal Church; 5920 Butler-Warren Rd., Mason, OH 45040). I will be speaking twice at the church facility (Fri., Dec. 2nd, 7PM; Sun., Dec. 4, 9:30AM) and at a special book-signing event at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore (Sat., Dec. 3rd @ 7PM; 9455 Civic Centre Blvd; West Chester, OH 45069; 513-755-2258)