The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, American Adaptation
So last week I kept referring to the modern remake of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" as "the American version". The Americanishness of the version is probably disputable: the producer and co-screenwriter is from New Zealand, the children actors are from England, and according to IMDB the movie was filmed in the Czech Republic. But the movie was produced by Disney, and darned if this isn't one of the Americaniest book adaptations I've ever seen. Hold onto your hats: this isn't the book you've spent the last year reading.
I'll be fair: I actually want to like some of the changes here. It seems to me that someone on the script writing team felt that even the BBC version wasn't kind enough to Edmund, and they took great pains to make Edmund more sympathetic than he sometimes is in the book. Where I think this falls down, though, is that instead of playing up the fact that Edmund is a child, it seems like the screenwriters didn't feel like that was Manly enough so instead they played up that Peter is kind of a jerk. Oookay, we'll see how that goes.
But! Oh-dear-sweet-jumping-fried-okra, the screenwriters clearly felt that with Edmund wearing the totally-misunderstood cap, we needed a new Pevensie villain, so Susan is pushed into the spotlight with DOUBTING THOMAS and GREAT TEMPTRESS tattooed on her forehead at various moments. They've done this by taking Susan's general sensible advice scattered throughout the book to the tune of "gosh, this place doesn't seem so great, are we sure about this?" and twisted and turned this into Susan trying to push Peter into accepting deals with the devil. Despite the fact that Book!Susan was the first person to agree with Lucy that they had a responsibility to save Mr. Tumnus.
Dear Screenwriters: When you read a children's book published in 1950 and decide it's not sexist enough, you are doing it wrong.
But enough of my ranting; let's just dive in.
The movie opens with the Pevensie house being bombed because it's not enough to start with the children at the station, we need to dial this up to eleven! Only I actually like this, since the detail does really bring home that whole war-death-terror thing that should be in the background of the novel and yet somehow rarely seems to be. Edmund is established as being plucky and fearless and a little bit foolish as he's the one standing at the window watching the planes while Mother and Peter gather up the children into the bomb shelter.
Edmund allows himself to be herded to the shelter, but then bolts back into the house in order to save their father's photograph. Once everyone is narrowly-but-safely back inside the shelter, Peter tears into Edmund, calling him "selfish" and asking "Why can't you just do as you're told?" In a more nuanced movie, this would read like Peter freaking out because he nearly lost his brother, but all the simmering anger on the surface just makes it seem like this is a case of sibling rivalry that's about to boil over into a Cain-and-Abel story.
I'd like to say that this is handled well later, and that Peter and Edmund work things out and figure out how to co-rule and co-manage an army together. I mean, High King Peter may be "high king", but King Edmund is still king. He's not Prince Edmund or Duke Edmund. I would think co-rulership would be really hard, particularly when the only claim to ruling right is blood relation (so you just know someone is always thinking "you're only here because you're my sibling" and not "well, you were elected as representative of your people and can at least provide a unique perspective" or something). This being an American movie that wants very badly to get to the magic! and war! and hulk smash!, I don't think we get a lot of complex reconciliation, but I suppose there was a montage of the kids training later that might count. But I digress.
The kids are bundled into a train and Mother tells Edmund to "listen to your brother". The kids listen to the radio at their new home with concern and Edmund dourly notes that they might not even have a home to return to. I have to say, I like Realist Edmund; even if he's upsetting the others, it's easy to see why he's lashing out -- he's worried about his home and his parents being taken away in the blink of an eye.
Lucy stumbles into the wardrobe and... it's not night. I guess they wanted us to really drink in the expensive set. She screams in fear when she sees Mr. Tumnus, which somewhat changes the dynamics of the Lucy/Tumnus and Edmund/Witch parallel, but it's a nice reaction shot all things considered so I'll give it to them. And OH MY GOD, how much of a good idea was it to make James McAvoy our Mr. Tumnus? SUCH A GOOD IDEA.
I'm serious. He's noticeably younger than the BBC!Tumnus, and he's got that open, innocent James McAvoy face. He seems nervous and frightened by the little human Lucy, and it's terribly clear that he's never seen anything like her before and is genuinely concerned she might be some kind of trick or threat. This makes the relationship more egalitarian between the two, a little more realistic for me, and it's a nice piece of characterization.
Tumnus invites Lucy home and the two immediately strike up a painful bond over fathers who are dead-or-absent from war. Once again, we get a lavish piece of characterization as you can see on Tumnus' face that his father would not approve of him kidnapping charming fantastical creatures to hand over to the Witch. And this is completely ruined by the addition of Aslan's face appearing and roaring at him in the fireplace as he plays to Lucy. Okay, maybe it's just a representation of what Tumnus is thinking, but it just throws all the subtlety leading up to the scene onto the ground and dances upon it.
And then they have Tumnus state that he's not an agent of the Witch; they're all under orders to turn humans in. Nice dodge on the whole "traitor problem" there, guys.
Back in the real world, Edmund tries to reduce the tension of Lucy's situation with a joke and Peter snaps at him to "grow up". Edmund looks taken aback and angry, and Susan calls out Peter. Then a very short time passes before nightfall, at which point Lucy sneaks off to the wardrobe, Edmund follows, and then we get Edmund's big scene.
WHICH HAS BEEN UTTERLY CHANGED.
Ha, no, really. The dwarf-driver leaps off of the Witch's sleigh and runs Edmund to ground while whipping at him. (It's unclear if the blows connect.) Then the dwarf leaps on the fallen Edmund, places a sharp dagger right at his throat, and then rears back to stab the boy. And then the Witch calls for the dwarf to wait, and gently -- without frightening Edmund or seeming terrifying at all -- asks him who he is and how he came to be in her realm. Edmund looks confused and explains that he doesn't rightly know, but his sister got in before and met a faun named Tumnus. And this is a very interesting change. Because, of course, we had to break out the magic candy in the book before Edmund provided this particular little detail that gets Tumnus into so much trouble.
And yet, despite the change in the placement of this detail to a time when Edmund is not yet enchanted, the surrounding details in the scene make him more sympathetic, not less. He's just been run down and nearly murdered by the driver, but the Witch has been nothing but kind and gentle. An adult might question what sort of person keeps a knife-wielding driver in her employ, but this child seems to genuinely believe that the woman before him has saved him. He's trying to honestly answer her question: I'm not sure how I got here, but my sister did and I can provide details and maybe we can figure this mystery out together?
The Witch pulls Edmund up into her carriage and because this is an American movie, she sits very close to him. Go ahead and say I'm reading too much into the scene, but to that I will point out that the modern "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" movie remake, which is set hundreds of years after the Witch's death (and which, in the book, she does not appear at all), has her specter repeatedly trying to seduce Edmund. *lolsob* Anyway, Edmund wolfs down the Turkish Delight and I just want to note that the dwarf driver eats some too. Well, shoot, now I'm going to have to wonder if he's a perfectly nice dwarf who's been long-bewitched with enchanted food.
Edmund and Lucy tromp out of the wardrobe, and my fan-theory that Edmund has to lie about Narnia is vindicated overtly when Lucy works out in her head that they were there for quite some time and asks Edmund suspiciously where he went and what he'd been doing while she was with Mr. Tumnus. So Edmund lies, Lucy cries, and Peter shoves Edmund hard. Oh, Peter, you thought I was rough on you, but who knew the screenwriters would make you so awful? Don't worry -- Susan's turn is coming!
The Professor scene! He's totally obviously been to Narnia before, and hams up the scene nicely. When Peter asks if they're just supposed to believe Lucy, instead of giving them his "Mind your own business!" advice, he tells them "She's your sister, isn't she? You're her family! You might just try acting like one." It sounds kind of harsh, but it's delivered with just barely enough gentleness that I kind of liked it. Ah, Jim Broadbent, you are probably the one person on earth who could make me sort of like Professor Kirke.
Anyway, the kids make their way to the wardrobe and this is a very nice scene because they're obviously being magically herded. Nice touch, but once again underscores my problems with the series when it comes to God and Aslan and Consent and Choice. They tumble into the snow and Peter bullies Edmund for awhile before completely stealing Susan's lines about both (a) borrowing the fur coats and (b) the logic behind why it's not stealing. THAT WAS SUSAN'S ONE ROLE IN THE BOOK: BEING THE SENSIBLE ONE! Oh, well, maybe I can console myself with her new important role as the Great Temptress of Doubting Thomasery.
The kids dig through Mr. Tumnus' house and read the arrest warrant. Susan announces that they really must go home and tells Lucy "I don't think there's much we can do" to help the faun. For those of you following along with the book, this would be the point where Susan said "I don’t want to go a step further and I wish we'd never come. But I think we must try to do something for Mr. Whatever-his-name-is -- I mean the Faun." Ha, that sounds like something a BOY would say! We in America know that girls aren't brave and courageous and strong willed! Then the kids schlep off to the Beaver home where Susan announces "Mom sent us away so we wouldn't get caught up in a war", which is a line that is both not-in-the-book and passive-aggressively guilt-tripping the other kids.
Peter could have delivered the new line, of course, since he's not too keen on this whole prophecy business either, but when you want false equivalency between a bombing raid and a fantasy campaign, it's best to have a GIRL on-hand.
Edmund ducks out the door and when his absence is discovered, Peter immediately announces "I'm gonna kill him" and Mr. Beaver says "You may not have to" and explains the whole Witch-thrall thing, with the implication that the Witch will totes do the job for Peter. And this is MILES AND MILES OF CLASSY but it's reasonably close to canon so I should maybe just be grateful that Peter didn't also kill Susan for being A Girl. Haha, no, I am not bitter about this movie at all!
Anyway, they actually do try to chase after Edmund which is a Very Sensible Addition, but they crest the ridge only in time to see Edmund walk through the closing gates. And then Susan tells Peter this is "all your fault!" which is kind of true, but... yeah. And then Edmund draws mustaches on stone lions and the Beavers herd everyone into a secret tunnel and the wolf scene is gold. ALL THE WOLF SCENES ARE GOLD. And there's... a fox. For no good reason except that later Edmund will try to save the Fox's life to drive home that Edmund is Not Evil. (Susan is!)
The Witch tosses Edmund into prison where he meets Mr. Tumnus. That's new, but kind of nice... until the Witch shows up and tells Tumnus that Edmund "turned you in for sweeties" which is a complete lie because Edmund mentioned Tumnus well before food was brought out, but the movie seems to think it's true. Does no one error-check the final cuts of these things? I swear.
And then Father Christmas shows up! And because this is the EXCITING AMERICAN VERSION he actually chases them through a plain while the children run for their lives. Haha, that Saint Nick! What a jackass, am I right? And Susan looks totally nonplussed to see him, which THANK YOU because (a) that was a really jerk thing to do and (b) she knows she's going to get screwed, presents-wise.
Father Christmas starts the kids' presents with Lucy, the youngest, which is only fitting really. He hands her the knife saying "I hope you don't have to use this" and makes a sad face to break your heart. When Lucy says she thinks she could be brave enough, his face gets even sadder and he says "I'm sure you could. But battles are... ugly affairs." Oh, Americans. It's like you get that telling girls that they shouldn't fight in war is sexist and controversial, but you can't get that completely changing a brave character in order to be The Great Doubter of Temptressness is maybe side-stepping a pothole to fall off a cliff.
Nick gives Susan her bow and tells her it doesn't easily miss. She quirks her face at him and asks what happened to the whole "battles are ugly affairs" thing. He laughs and says that while "you don't seem to have a problem making yourself heard" here's a horn to blow on. OH SNAP. Santa called Susan out for her snotty behavior that is totally out-of-character and not-in-the-book. You screenwriters really are edgy with a capital EDGE.
MORE ACTION! MORE EXCITEMENT! MORE AMERICANISM! The kids get to a GIANT MELTING WATERFALL and Peter and the Beavers announce their crackerjack plan of having everyone leap over giant slick melty ice to get to the other side. And this makes a great deal of sense, given that they've been walking almost all night, and numb and tired and sore, have on indoor house shoes with minimal tread, have never done anything like this before, and are children. Ten points to Gryffindor!
Susan asks everyone to wait a minute before they go tearing across ice. Peter snaps at her, and Susan recoils mumbling "I'm just trying to be realistic." Peter cuts back: "No, you're just trying to be smart. As usual." And Lucy gives her a look of opprobrium that shames Susan back into line.
AND NOW THERE ARE WOLVES! Mid-ice-floe-jumping-scene Susan admonishes "If Mum knew what we were doing..." and Peter snaps back that "Mum's not here!" And then it's RAINING WOLVES which is like raining men but not anywhere near so fun. Peter pulls his sword. Maugrim tells him to put it away and makes an offer: the children can leave, all four of them, and the Witch will give them safe passage. This is a new detail, of course, and has been added so that we can have a TEMPTATION SCENE. Will Peter take the offer and leave the Narnians to their fate or will he stay to help?
And I said "Peter" there, not "the Pevensies" because this scene is so totally about Peter, Our Great Savior. Susan immediately flings herself into the role of the Great Temptress here, telling Peter to put down his sword and that "maybe we should listen to him!" while Maugrim chuckles in a way that is NOT OBVIOUSLY EVIL AT ALL. "Smart girl," he purrs (I know what purring is now! Is this right?) Maugrim tells Peter this isn't his war; Susan shouts "Look, just because some man in a red coat hands you a sword, it doesn't make you a hero! Just drop it!!" And then Peter, brave and kind and true, triumphs over Satan, I mean Susan, and uses his sword to break the ice and wash all the wolves away. WOOHOO!!
Oh, and Lucy nearly drowns. But that's not Peter's fault, and it's not like she was that important anyway.
Back in not-even-remotely-in-the-book-land, the Witch's wolves capture the nice Fox. The Witch threatens him and Edmund tells the truth about the Stone Table only in an attempt to save the Fox's life. At this point, it's amazing to me that Aslan doesn't at least try to argue the point on Edmund's traitorousness. It's be hard to be less traitory at this point.
Steering this back on track, we get to Aslan. Peter takes the blame for Edmund joining the Witch. Then they put the girls in dresses. I mean, they've always been in dresses, but these are the dressliest dresses ever dressed in. And the girls have a splash fight after Lucy calls Susan "boring" because girls are naturally catty. Whatever. The wolves show up and both girls are treed. Because this is AMERICAN!Aslan who cuts down trees with a single mighty breath and destroys evil-smelling daises with a single raise of his mighty left eyebrow, he growls and downs one of the wolves so that he can then call off the centaurs and force Peter to fight single-handedly. Gee, thanks, Aslan. And when it's all over, Susan gives Aslan a Look. Oh, Susan. I don't care if you are the new Narnian Satan, I love you.
Edmund is rescued by the power of Zany Antics and since we've decided that canon is for British people and pedants, Peter announces that he's going to send the other three home while he fights. Edmund objects that they can't leave the Narnians alone to suffer. Susan hops up to practice her bow and arrow skills. Oh, Susan, you still think you have a chance to USE them. And then Edmund practices riding and says "Whoa, horsie!" and the horse says, very dignified, "My name is Philip." HAHAHAHA. Does it trample established canon that Talking Horses do not deign to be ridden? Yes. Is it awesome anyway. YES.
The Witch shows up and demands Edmund. You know the drill by now. Funny enough, all I could think -- courtesy of National Geographic -- is that those leopards would be totally uncomfortable in a big crowd like that. No, really, it's in my notes and everything. As well as the statement "ugly = evil, of course" which I'm sure refers to the Witch's army and an amusing note that this is where I turned to Husband and said chirpily "this movie is PG!" and he shook his head in astonishment. IT'S A CHRISTIAN ALLEGORY AND THEREFORE GOOD FOR CHILDREN!
Nice touch: Lucy tries to use her healing cordial on Aslan. It's the wrong place for that particular Chekov Gun, but I like that they put it in. Shame she still forgets to use her knife. Also a nice touch: The girls use the dryad-flower-wind-people-things to communicate to the boys what happened to Aslan and why the girls won't be at the battle. Although possibly there was a better location than the boys' bedroom for a flower woman to materialize. C.S. LEWIS IS NOT HAPPY.
And it pleases me to no end that Edmund is the Pevensie in charge of motivational speeches, because it means he gets to talk some more. But it is a little strange that Peter is in charge of the cavalry and Edmund is in charge of the infantry. Where is Philip?? I loved him. And Peter gets a good quip here when Random Centaur Guy says "Numbers do not win a battle" and Peter says "No, but I bet they help." Oh, Peter. Here is a motivational hug.
And because this is an AMERICAN FANTASY MOVIE, the Narnian army is made up of a sea of white centaurs and white fauns with a white king on a white unicorn fighting... black minotaurs and Asian-esque dwarfs. *sigh* I suppose I should just be grateful that the WHITE WITCH (who seems actually LESS white than Peter in this scene) has white tigers and polar bears as part of her whole winter theme.
|If I told you one of these people was a White Witch of Winter, would you honestly pick the one with sunny accessories?|
To distract me from the racism, I will note that white tigers are at an evolutionary disadvantage because they generally aren't born in wintery snowy areas and they stick out like a sore thumb when they're trying to hunt. They're apparently not all that rare, but just about every zoo has a pair because they bring in sexy donor money for the species that actually do need help. Or so my local zoo says. And when I looked all this up to verify that I wasn't misremembering, I found out that white tigers have an increased risk of scoliosis. OH MY GOD, you guys, my new animal is totally a white tiger.
Though now we're quite coincidentally back to the Witch's army being deformed.
Anyway. Aslan resurrects and solemnly says that "if the Witch knew the true meaning of sacrifice, she might have interpreted the Deep Magic differently" and this is a total dodge on the whole HAHA THERE WAS AN UNDERLYING CLAUSE WE NEVER SHOWED HER issue of silliness that has always surrounding this whole setup. Works for me. And they cut out the romp and we cut back to the EXCITING BATTLE...
...and all the girl centaurs are archers. There is no girl centaur on the frontline; they are all archers.
Oh. (It was either this or a 2000-word screed riddled with profanity.)
The statue scene! Aslan does Tumnus first, which is kind of a nice touch. And back to the battle where a flying gryphon is stoned, crashes, and shatters on contact with the ground. ENJOY EXPLAINING THAT ONE TO LITTLE SUZY, PARENTS! Edmund leaps into the fray, after being told that King Peter told him to flee, and snapping that "Peter's not king yet". These two will co-rule together in SO MUCH HARMONY. And then the fight with the witch has expensive special effects that are actually pretty silly looking. And then the Witch fights with TWO SWORDS because IT WORKED FOR STAR WARS and Peter does that Matrix-backwards-ducking thing that looks like it would be heck on the ol' spine while the two swords whip in slow-motion through the air where his neck used to be and THIS LOOKS SO SILLY. I mean, it looks American. And exciting!
Then Aslan arrives and eats the Witch. And you get to stare into her eyes and then Aslan's mouth and teeth come at the camera. And this is AMERICA! Where Justice is both visceral and messy!
And then I wrote this in my notes:
"Susan didn't get to shoot anyone. [swear word redacted]
Oh. She shot the dwarf."
And that's pretty much exactly what happens: someone on the development team remembered that they had that whole archery montage thing, so the dwarf pops up like a little wooden duck at a shooting range, menaces the children, and takes an arrow for his troubles. Never has a Chekov Gun gone off with such a whimper.
Then the kids are crowned in a palace that, according to my rigorous notes, is "not handicap accessible". Which is apparently my adorable shorthand for "at the top of a steep cliff and with a crap-load of stairs". You have to feel sorry for the wizened old ambassadors; maybe this is why the Narnian government is run entirely by small children. And then the children are given their Magnificent / Just / Gentle / Valiant titles now, as children, which is of course totally ridiculous. But! Not so ridiculous as the lion in the crowd who is still bearing a pencil mustache.
And if anyone must deliver that awful "not a tame lion" line, at least James Mcavoy can work it. But now I have to ask if it's just me or does he have sexual chemistry with everyone on earth (and most inanimate objects)? Because I don't think he was going for a sexual chemistry vibe with 8-year-old Lucy, and yet there it is. Heaven help us if he and Joseph Gordon Levitt ever star in the same movie together, as the universe would explode from awesomeness.
The ending is totally banal, except that Edmund stops his horse and asks with a very concerned tone "you alright, Philip?" and the horse pants and says "I'm not as young as I once was." Awwww. They became friends and are hunting together as comrades. So sweet! And then they kids tumble out onto the floor and Professor Kirke walks in and says "Oh! There you are! What are you all doing in the wardrobe?" and Peter says he wouldn't believe them and Kirke says "Try me!" and it's SO SWEET.
This movie is something like a third the length of the BBC adaptation and yet this deconstruction felt unweildly long. Part of it is all the changes, I think. I don't even know where to start.
I know I've made a lot of jokes about American remakes here, but a lot of that is meant to be humorous. I love my country and we can definitely bring a lot of money and polish to a film. This movie, and the war in particular, had an epicness that the BBC version simply couldn't easily bring to the table, and the special effects of the talking beavers and wolves and lions was wonderful. If I'd seen this movie as a child, I'd have probably been satisfied.
And yet... and yet.
It's one thing to take liberties with the plot to heighten tension, but it's important to step back and look at what new tapestry you've woven when you're done replacing all the threads. I totally understand wanting to heighten tension with the reasonable and realistic decisions to make regarding whether or not the children want to get involved in all this war business. And yet taking a character who was established in the book as brave-if-quiet and turning her into a very vocal proponent of the very-clearly-wrong-choice is problematic enough on its own, and especially when you take into account the established stereotypes of women in movies as too loud, too vocal, too smart-aleck and stupid (as when Peter derisively calls her "trying to be smart"), too cowardly, too fearful, too meek, too tempting to give up the right cause and join the wrong.
There's no reason this had to be Susan, let alone all Susan. Lucy could have expressed fear; Peter could have expressed doubt. All three of the children could have been both brave and frightened at different moments. They could have been strong when the others were weak, and weak when the others were strong. We could have seen how their personalities would twine and thrive on each other as co-rulers. We could have had nuance.
But filmmakers -- or, I should say, some filmmakers -- don't like nuance. One character is brave; another is cowardly. ALL THE TIME. And the brave one is the oldest, the strongest, the most male. And the cowardly one is the woman, who passive-aggressively snipes and guilts and tempts and undermines. And I am so freaking sick of this.
This adaptation of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" isn't a bad adaptation. But it's one that perpetuates modern American cinema issues with gender and race, and that makes me sad.