The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, BBC Adaptation
A very great pet peeve of mine is when people complain that libraries -- bastions of free thought, higher education, and information readily disseminated to the masses regardless of wealth or privilege -- contain movies, as though the very idea is wasteful and expensive and entitled. I'm not going to convey my contempt for this complaint beyond a link to my post on ableism and hostility, but I mention that to mention this: my childhood library had the full BBC Chronicles of Narnia and it's been fascinating to go back and see just how much those movies colored my experience with the books. To the librarian who choose in my childhood to stock my library with this film adaptation: Thank you.
The BBC adaptation of "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe" was created in 1988, and like all adaptations it's an interesting mixture of source text and adaptation needs. There's the obvious stuff based on technological limitations: the Beavers are two adults in awkward beaver suits, Maugrim shape-shifts into a human whenever he needs to talk or interact with the other characters, and Aslan looks remarkably realistic for the time but is heavily limited in terms of movement. And this last change is absolutely for the better, but we'll talk about that later.
What strikes me about this adaptation -- particularly since I watched it after watching the American movie version, which we will discuss next week -- is how much the creators tried to adhere to the original text. Conversations are lifted almost verbatim from the books (though, amusingly, the subtitlers didn't realize that: when Edmund calls out "Pax!" to Lucy, the subtitlers perplexedly offer up "Hex!"), which makes it all the more interesting to look at the things they do change. How about I just throw down a numbered list, yeah?
- Edmund is less insufferable.
- Susan is markedly more important.
- Aslan is more gentle, tender, and vulnerable.
This last one, I think, cannot be underestimated in terms of importance. But let's dig in the adaptation and see what I wrote down.
The scene opens in London, 1940, as the children are loaded onto the train. I like that Lucy, who is supposed to be plain-looking, actually is. Peter has an astonishingly babyish face, and almost looks younger than Edmund, but for his height. Even so, he's still shorter than Susan which seems pretty plausible considering their ages -- it looks like Peter is a late bloomer while Susan is already on the cusp of puberty.
And this marks the start of an interesting pattern: though Peter is oldest and the "high king", multiple reaction shots throughout the series will go Susan --> Peter --> Lucy, a pattern that gives Susan an air of authority within the group. I almost get the impression that someone on the script team felt a little sorry for poor Susan and decided to fix the source material a bit. I'll give you two guesses as to whether or not I approve of this, but you'll only need the one.
Moving on, Edmund is quickly established as "bratty" while Peter yells a lot and seems like a snot. He even yells at Edmund for not liking the Professor, which is amusing because I don't really like the Professor at this juncture either. Edmund disengages from the argument to smile and note excitedly that he likes how spooky the house is. Susan looks relieved, and starts doing the dishes unbidden. My notes point out that this is probably because she has lady bits.
Anyway. Lucy makes her way to the wardrobe and everything goes about to text. She actually asks "Are you a faun?" (the narrative just asserts in the description that he is, with no reference in conversation) and this made me happy because it underlined that young Lucy has a classical education. Yay, 1940s Britain. Once Lucy is in Mr. Tumnus' house, she tries to leave, but he bribes her with cake, and this overt bribery is interesting because it has shades of TURKISH DELIGHT written all over it. I can't tell if they meant it to seem that way or not, but it's coming through loud and clear to me.
Tumnus provides some Narnian backstory and almost starts to complain about the Witch before he realizes what he's doing and plays music instead. The musical interlude sends Lucy into a dream sequence where she sees Narnia as it once was, and it's a nice touch to convey it that way instead of through a conversational infodump. Then Lucy wakes up and Mr. Tumnus cries and they bustle her back through the wardrobe. I can't help but be distracted by how much Mr. Tumnus looks just like Satan. I can only imagine what my conservative Christian mother thought of this series when I was a kid.
(I was going to give you a retro picture of Satan for comparison purposes, but then Google Image Search led me to this and now I can think of nothing else. When did Jesus become sexy?? His hair looks like he should be in a Pantene Pro-V commercial. Is this an American thing? I really want to know.)
Everyone reads their lines about Lucy and the wardrobe and Edmund suggesting that she's mentally ill. I love the addition that Lucy hits the wardrobe in frustration -- the gesture drives home that Narnia Rules are really dreadfully unfair. And then they all go off to play hide-and-seek later and Susan cheats by counting too fast. And it's such a small thing but I love it because it gives her all kinds of depth and flavor. I counted too fast when I was "it", too. Hide-and-Seek High Fivez, Susan!
Edmund follows Lucy into the wardrobe and comes out into the other side and the setting is so wonderfully different. Lucy's Narnia was night, yes, but it was covered in cozy lamp light and looked like something out of a Christmas card -- warm and inviting and pleasing. Edmund's Narnia is bright day, with blinding snow and gnarly trees and the whole thing seems immensely creepy. When the Witch drives up, Edmund looks genuinely terrified, and with good reason -- she's already frothing at the mouth screaming and gesticulating at him.
When she starts conjuring food and drink and Edmund starts stuffing his face, the whole effect is incredibly creepy. Edmund's color, posture, and movements change noticeably as he eats, and the actor does an incredible job of making him seem to metamorphosis into another person entirely. And there is a nice touch when the Witch swears him to secrecy because she adds: "If your sister has met one of those fauns, she may have heard nasty stories about me. Fauns will say anything, you know." This is a line that Edmund later says in the book, so when he issues it here in the adaptation, it seems natural and flows well: he's repeating what he's been told.
When Edmund and Lucy join up, Edmund is initially nice to Lucy, but Lucy blurts out that the Witch hasn't hurt Mr. Tumnus the faun for letting her go. Edmund looks uncomfortable, and when Lucy enthuses about telling the others, he worries aloud that the the older two children will be on the side of the fauns. Lucy blithely asks whose other side they could be on, as the fauns are "the only people we know here".
After Edmund lies and Peter yells and Lucy cries, we have the scene with the Professor. Notably, he lies through his teeth when the children ask if Narnia could be real; the Professor says, "That is more than I know." Haha, Professor, you are the worst! Then he issues his opinion that it is "perfectly obvious that [Lucy] is not mad", which is particularly funny since the children have been shown taking their dinners apart from the Professor and interacting with him not at all, so clearly he has a great pool of evidence to draw from. And then the children run off to hide from McCready in the wardrobe and Peter pushes Edmund and yells, "Never shut yourself in in a wardrobe, stupid."
The children zip over to Mr. Tumnus' house and survey the wreckage. One thing of note is that Susan is getting to say pretty much all her lines, despite the fact that they're clearly the most throw-away lines in the book -- stuff like "I don't know that I'm going to like this place after all." They left that in. And it doesn't feel like a bad adaptation decision, like they just couldn't bear to cut anything -- it really does feel like someone on the adaptation team was bound and determined that Susan was going to have a part in this story. And the actress delivers the lines with verve and determination and it's a thing of beauty, considering that of all the characters in the novel, she has by far the fewest lines.
Mr. Beaver shows up and name-drops Aslan and there's a neat little musical reaction shot with all the children looking like it's Christmas day, but with Edmund looking profoundly uncomfortable like he's the only one who realizes that means they'll have to hug Aunt Mildred. Then they all tromp off to the Beaver dam, where Mr. Beaver singles out Peter-and-only-Peter to come help him catch fish while Edmund looks stung, Mrs. Beaver singles out the girls to help with dinner while Edmund looks annoyed, and Susan and Lucy literally shove their coats on Edmund and proceed to ignore him. Haha, narrator, saying that Edmund only imagined he was getting the cold shoulder. BBC SAYS YOU ARE WRONG.
And then when Edmund earnestly asks if the Witch will turn Aslan into stone, Mr. Beaver laughs at him and tells him "what a simple thing to say!" which is in the book and which is at best calling Edmund ignorant and at worst an ableist insult. And it's a line that is delivered with such overt rudeness that I'm left wondering how I didn't notice it in the book (I thought it was something the BBC added until I checked) and then I have the exact same thing happen when Peter says-- after Edmund has left -- that "he is our brother after all, even if he is rather a little beast". That's in the book too, but it took having an actor deliver the line to really drive home what rotten people these are. At least Peter is a kid; the actor delivering Mr. Beaver's lines seems to understand that there's no excuse for him, so he just delivers the awfulness with gusto and we lurch through the scene as best we can.
Then Edmund gets to have an internal monologue with Ghost!Edmund or Conscience!Edmund or something. And it's probably just because Ghost!Edmund is translucent, but I can't help but notice that Edmund's face is flushed and red from the exercise and the residual effects of the Turkish Delight and Ghost!Edmund's face is pale as snow, and it's an interesting effect because the Turkish Delight really is supposed to have wrought a physical change, but now we're back to the unfortunate implication that White is Right. Someone really needs to reverse this trope; there's no reason why Turkish Delight can't make Edmund pale and sickly.
Anyway, Edmund tells Ghost!Edmund that the Witch isn't going to hurt his siblings and that she's been nothing but nice to him, or at least nicer than the others have been. And, amusingly, this is true. But Ghost!Edmund retorts: "Nice to you?! She's a witch!" *sigh* And then Ghost!Edmund notes that it'll be getting dark soon and Edmund retorts that he's "not afraid of the dark", only his voice is quivering and he clearly is and it hits you all over again that THIS IS A CHILD and it's all the sobs forever. And then Ghost!Edmund says that they don't like the look of the Witch's house and Edmund looks stricken and says "It's too late to turn back now" and it really is and the Beavers could have saved him because he's been slipping and sliding and lost for what seems like ages. (The American version, being American, jazzed this up a bit.)
Edmund mocks one of the statues, Ghost!Edmund calls him out on it, and they don't do the mustache scene.
Mrs. Beaver's silliness is played to an almost absurd degree here -- she's not just packing food essentials, she's packing tea and sugar. And she frets extensively over the sewing machine. And then just stands there, thinking if she's missed something. It's not a very good delaying tactic, it makes her look ridiculously ridiculous, but it's in the spirit of the book, so... yeah.
Edmund goes through all the wow, this was not a good idea at all bits in the Witch's home, and his inner voice yells at him for a bit. Nothing really new there.
Then Santa shows up to give the three children presents and darned if he doesn't look completely out of place in this movie. I mean, he's always seemed out of place to me in the book: Narnia has... Christmas? Because it has Christ and Mass and Saint Nick and... what? And he's there to... dispense... presents? Because... why? I mean, they don't even use them until they get to Aslan so... why not have Aslan give them? So I've never really been on board with the Father Christmas thing. But here, now, he looks monumentally awful -- the sleigh and the trappings look like they drove in from a completely different set and the tonal shift from "forced march at night, fearful about the Witch, oh, here's Father Christmas" is just whiplash inducing.
But it is nice to see Lucy sass-talk Santa on the whole "here's a knife, don't use it thing," and she is surprisingly assertive. None of this "I think I could be brave enough" hogwash -- it's "I'm sure I'd be brave enough". And Santa is a jerk about it because it's in the text but at least they excised the "battles are ugly when women fight" line. THANK YOU, BBC. And then Santa gives them breakfast, which just underscores how narratively useless all that "let me pack some food" stuff was.
Oh, how much do I love the BBC Aslan? SO MUCH. He looks like a lion, with none of that standing on two legs nonsense, and they've completely cut his having a crown and a retinue of symbolic symbols huddled around him. He looks like a shepherd more than a king, and this makes him more regal, not less. Because of the technological limitations, he moves slowly and gently and this makes him seem careful, wise, and considerate. And, best of all, his voice actor sounds like he's on Quaaludes -- he's incredibly relaxed. BBC has utterly excised all the fearful, growly, wild parts that Lewis wrote in.
I APPROVE OF THIS CHANGE.
Another interesting thing here is that there are black satyrs in attendance on Aslan -- by which I mean, black men costumed as satyrs. On the one hand, there's a possibility for unfortunate implications -- they're essentially servants, and while the "stand at attention there" job might be pretty prestigious in Narnia, it's not something a lot of kids will probably pick up. And there's no black women among the hoards of dryads and nymphs, which makes me sad because why does no one ever do dryads with skin the color of their trees? And, of course, as satyrs the men here are playing sexualized beasts. So... yeah.
On the other hand, I'm not sure the American version has any people of color, so... yeah. *sigh*
Anyway, Peter and Aslan go off to chew the scenery and when they are summoned back for the fight scene, Susan does not dangle from trees. Seriously, she called for Peter and then Peter comes and there's a fight. At no point is Susan menaced while the flying creatures hang back from helping her by the orders of Aslan; the whole thing is treated like a dual between Peter and Maugrim. And this is such a radical change from the book, in an adaptation that is remarkably true to the source material, and I just know it's because someone pointed out that the whole scene makes Aslan look awful.
And then Aslan knights Peter and he doesn't do the ridiculous "hand [the sword] to me" scene in the book which would require a lion being able to stand and probably have opposable thumbs. No, he knights Peter by placing his chin on each shoulder, which looks for all the world like Aslan is giving Peter cat-kisses. And it is awesome. No, seriously, it looks totally right and tender and kingly and... lion-y. And I just am blown away by how much I'd rather worship this Aslan than the one in the book. And it's all because of a few key changes.
The flying creatures follow the surviving wolf back to the Witch, and a gryphon picks Edmund up in his talons. My first thought was that traveling like that would hurt, but someone thought of that because the gryphon immediately lowers Edmund gently onto a Pegasus and Edmund grins into the bright night sky and this is awesome too.
When the Witch shows up to demand Edmund back, Susan says "Aslan, can't you do something?" And Aslan says "Work against the Deep Magic?" And it's almost exactly like in the book but BECAUSE the flavor text about "something like a frown on his face" and "nobody ever made that suggestion to him again" is gone, it sounds so much better. He segues immediately into telling everyone he will talk to the Witch alone, and because we aren't told that he's upset at Susan's suggestion, it almost seems like they are linked -- like Susan suggested "can't you do something?" and Aslan said "you mean like working against the Deep Magic? I don't see how unless... IDEA!"
Did they do it this way on purpose? I don't know. But I love it. Basically, I love this book once all the narrator moralizing and editorializing telling me this is how you are supposed to interpret this stuff is yanked out. Huh.
And also: Edmund gets lines. More than one. He keeps talking, even after the book cuts him off for good.
Aslan dies and is revived and because this is from Britain in the 1980s and not America in the 2000s, the scene is over and done relatively quickly with a minimum of torture. And then Lucy, who is awesome, flat out rebukes Aslan saying that they cried all night long but he knew it would be alright. NEVER CHANGE, LUCY. And Aslan looks as uncomfortable as an animatronic lion with no facial gestures can look and admits that he thought it might work this way but that no one has ever actually done it before, so he wasn't sure.
And this addition? Makes Aslan vulnerable in a way that Book!Aslan simply is not. And I love it.
They zip over to the Witch's house and Aslan brings everyone back from stone. The silliness with the Giant and the Handkerchief and the Silly Lion is completely cut because someone at the BBC realized that it totally guts all tension and just drags out needlessly. And then Aslan shows up at the battle and instead of pouncing on the White Witch and apparently tearing her throat out (which is how I interpret the book), he instead lets out a roar and an earthquake occurs and she falls to her death.
Which is probably another technological limitation, but it's amazing how a well-placed technological limitation can improve a character because I like "makes earthquakes that accidentally kill people" Aslan more than "leaps on people and savages them, even though doing that earlier would have been a good deal more convenient" Aslan. Just saying.
Edmund gets knighted too, with the Aslan kisses, but I'm annoyed that the girls aren't given any recognition. Whatever. Then the kids grow up and HERE IS WHY I THOUGHT THEY WERE IN THEIR THIRTIES AT THE END because boy-howdy but those full beards make the men look old to me. How old is King Edmund there?
And they completely cut that the Pevensies are hunting one of their own subjects (the White Stag), and they cut the premonition that they all ignore anyway, and they cut Peter being proud of the fact that he never changes his mind on things no matter what, and what I am saying is that BBC KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING. Or at least they did in the 1980s. And they all walk out of the wardrobe, and Peter feels for his missing beard, and I cried.
Or Is It?
Okay, okay, I have a few more rambles.
I loved these books when I was a kid. I don't have a lot of childhood memories, but one I do have very clearly is sitting on my pink bedspread on a rainy day eating Ritz Bits cheese sandwich crackers and re-reading these books for the up-teenth time. My boxed set was worn and yellow with age when I finally let it go in favor of the e-Book versions.
I didn't notice problems with the series, at least not that I can remember, until I was much older. The last three books weighed heavily on me and I recall avoiding them when I re-read the series. I'd read only the first four, which -- probably not coincidentally -- were the only four that the BBC ever did. And it's interesting to me to see how the BBC version clearly overlaid itself in my head over the existing text, such that certain bits were edited and corrected.
Aslan was gentle and kind and wise and never, ever frightening or scary; Susan was tall and bright and clever and was the first person in every reaction shot because her opinion mattered. When the book conflicted -- when the children were afraid of Aslan or when Susan spoke fewer words than anyone else -- my brain discarded these things as irrelevant or incorrect.
And... I don't know how I feel about that.
When I left "The Hunger Games" this weekend, I praised the movie for being "the movie of the book" as opposed to the usual American adaptation treatment. I said to Husband: "They've finally understood that fans don't want special twists endings or new scenes. They just want the book, in movie format."
The BBC Narnia adaptation is one of the closest-to-the-source adaptations I've seen in my lifetime. Conversations are lifted almost verbatim, even little things like the marmalade roll and the huge lump of butter at the Beaver dinner table are faithfully included.
And yet, with a few tiny, key changes... it's almost a different story. The sexism directed frequently and often at Susan is almost completely excised. Edmund, the great betrayer, is adamantly portrayed as a child, not responsible for any supposed treachery and certainly not deserving of death. Aslan, who is at times in the book capricious, frightening, and frownful, is here only gentle and kind and wise and... measured. Careful. Thoughtful. He doesn't defend the Deep Magic, he considers it. The changes are amazing subtle and yet the result is fantastically different.
This is what I needed as a child. This is the story I needed to hear and know. A story where children are children -- not adults deserving death and darkness. A story where god is approachable and warm and understanding -- not an unknowable being who could turn and destroy you with one paw if you asked the wrong question.
It's not the same story, and I don't think anyone on the adaptation committee was ignorant of that. But it's the story I needed, and I'm glad it existed at my library when I was ready to hear it. So there's that.