Welcome to the final entry in the my series of articles on NARNIA. As stated in my first entry, there have been many film/TV adaptations of these works. Let’s review them all, one by one:
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (1967, ABC, TV series)
This black and white TV production has the distinction of being the first NARNIA film ever made as well as the most obscure. I only knew it existed because of IMDb, but no one I knew had ever seen it; it appeared to be a lost film. Of the ten episodes made, only two survived. Over the years though, some footage of the remaining episodes has made its way to YouTube and…well, what I’ve seen isn’t very good. The whole thing looks like a high school play with costumes made by the third grade class. Aslan is a guy walking around on his hind legs and doesn’t even pretend to be a lion. Everything looks like it was filmed on a stage with amateurish sets. Weirder still is how the whole thing is narrated by some character who I guess is supposed to be an amalgamation of The Professor and CS Lewis; the scenes keep cutting back to him in his office talking to us while smoking his pipe.
Final Rating: I can’t really rate this production as I haven’t watched it in its entirety. I’ll just say my opinion is not very high.
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (1979, dir. Bill Melendez, TV movie)
This was my introduction to the story. While on the whole enjoyable and a faithful adaptation, the animation is definitely very cheap with awkward movements. The character designs are pretty simple; more like notebook doodles. Edmund looks like Arnold from THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS. One criticism I always had of this throughout my childhood was that the characters all sounded American in what was supposed to be an inherently British fairytale. It wasn’t until adulthood that I learned the original voice cast had in fact been British, only to then be redubbed for the American market. Watching it again with the proper British dub, I did appreciate it a lot more. I also praise the music in this cartoon, giving the story a very Biblical feel.
Final Rating: 5/10 – A good intro to the series.
THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (1988, BBC, TV serial)
Four of the books were adapted into a serial for BBC. The result is a version many kids I know grew up with, infamous for its DOCTOR WHO style special effects.
This first entry is the weakest of the BBC, despite easily being the one most regularly seen. Okay, there’re some good things: the musical score is very gentle and pretty, Ronald Pickup has a great presence as the voice of Aslan, and the series is very faithful to the book, bringing just about every single scene and line of dialogue to the screen. Each of these positive attributes carried over into the later BBC entries. The production value being what it is, you eventually forgive them the quality of the visual effects (most notably the fake-looking Aslan, the Beavers whose suits don’t look anything like beavers, and the cartoon characters that populate Narnia with the rest of the gang).
The series makes up for this with acting, and Edmund and Mr. Tumnus in particular are very good. In fact, I know a large number feel the original Edmund is superior to Skandar Keynes. But there’re two clunkers. First is the White Witch; Barbara Kellerman does not how to do anything but overact, and every single line is screamed. “We shall sneak up suddenly and BUST UPON THEM!” Or how about: “Come to me, all EVIL!!!!” The campiness of that line’s delivery should go down in history with “No wire hangers, ever!” from Mommie, Dearest.
And then there’s Lucy. Almost everyone I meet who brings up this version always says: “Remember the fat girl that played Lucy?” I think the problem with the actress isn’t just that she’s chubby and buck-toothed; she just has a bossy attitude that comes through in the character people don’t like. And she’s WAY too old for the role. Lucy’s supposed to be like 8 or 9, and she looked 12.
Finally, the entire series is extremely slow-paced. I realize most BBC productions tend to be this way so that they can be extremely faithful to the source material, but I think 3 hours is just a lot for a relatively short book. Many scenes drag.
WEAKEST MOMENT: Each of the BBC entries has one scene that is laughably bad. In the case of LWW, it is when Giant Rumblebuffin is fighting against cartoon goblins, and simply shakes his hands in the air like some kind of fake karate chop. Oy vey!
Final Rating: 5/10 – I don’t think there’s much question that LWW is the weakest of the BBC series. Fortunately, they would improve, but as far as the story of LWW goes, I doubt I will ever watch this version again, as the new one has surpassed it in every single regard, except perhaps for Edmund.
PRINCE CASPIAN AND THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (1989, BBC TV serial)
The second BBC miniseries combines two books, and come off feeling like two separate movies rather than a whole.
Most everyone I know agrees the PRINCE CASPIAN segment has problems, primarily because the entire book is crammed into less than an hour. Whereas the other entries are all very slow-paced, PC is the opposite. By changing the structure of the book, the entire first 20 minutes are dedicated to Caspian, who is hardly developed. 5 minutes in and he’s already on the run for his life. Next the movie switches over to the Pevensies who’re thrown into Narnia, but they get very little to do before its time for a battle. So in conclusion, NO CHARACTER really gets developed very well, and by the end of the 50 minutes, we’ve met about 10 new characters whom we hardly know. I think a non-book reader would have hardly understood the story.
On the positive side: Caspian and Miraz both act very well in their limited screen time. Trumpkin also gets a few funny lines. And the badger Trufflehunter is done A LOT better than the Beavers from LWW.
WEAKEST MOMENT: The ABSOLUTELY MOST laughably bad scene in ALL of the Narnia BBC serials occurs in Prince Caspian when Dr. Cornelius reveals that he’s part dwarf to Caspian. Despite the fact that Cornelius is blatantly a dwarf from the moment he first appears, and is even the same height as Caspian, apparently no one in the castle seems to notice this. Great guards you’ve got there, Miraz. So how does he reveal that he is part dwarf? By taking off his hood! Caspian’s eyes widen and go: “You’re a…!” Wow, I never knew that seeing someone’s bald head would reveal that he is a dwarf. I realize the series had a small budget, but it’s not asking much to reveal that he’d been standing on clogs or was doing something else that made him seem taller, rather than revealing his bald head, which is the most irrelevant thing! Ov vey!
The remaining episodes are an adaptation of THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, and in doing so suddenly the entire miniseries improves tremendously, mostly because the story of VDT focuses less on battles and visual fx and more on adventure, scenery, and discovery. The acting again is great. Eustace is great, and so is Caspian, played by Samuel West as a confident and articulate young king, sort of a PRINCE VALIANT type. Stealing the show is Warwick Davis as Reepicheep. Yes, his costume is ridiculous, but you come to accept it after a time. And at a well-plotted two hours, this is the only time where the pacing is actually perfect!
WEAKEST MOMENT: There is still one laughably bad scene in VDT, and it’s when Eustace first discovers that he is a dragon. The problem is that they try to film it EXACTLY as its written in the book. He wakes up, hears dragon noises, and assumes there is one beside him, then sees his reflection in the lake and realizes he has become a dragon. Great on paper, looks stupid filmed. The camera shakes around as it is his POV, then looks into the lake, and sees what’s supposed to be his reflection, but is obviously a fake image of a dragon superimposed on the shot of the river! Oy vey!
Final Rating: 6/10 – Together these two adaptations make an amusing miniseries, but the final entry would prove to be the best.
THE SILVER CHAIR (1990, BBC, TV serial)
This one’s always been the best of the BBC adaptations, hands down. Similar to VDT, this is due to the story being a quest, which adapts well to film, and there is less emphasis on battles or visual fx, but more on adventure and discovery. The climatic scenes involving Rillian imprisoned in the silver chair make for compelling drama. I also think the costumes and sets improved this time around, especially in the Underland Palace.
The cleverest conceit of this adaptation is the idea of the bewitched Rillian wearing an iron mask, something that wasn’t in the book but works BRILLIANTLY on film. Obviously they HAD to do this so that the audience wouldn’t recognize him at first, but it just adds such a great visual touch to the tormented character. Indeed, the role of Rillian is really a three part performance: 1) A naive romantic youth in the flashbacks, 2) An angry and tormented knight while bewitched, and 3) A more mature and valiant version of the first stage after he is freed.
Camilla Power is very good as Jill, making the character very headstrong and likable (which Lucy wasn’t). She’s also very pretty. Eustace is good again. Warwick Davis (who previously was Reepicheep and this time is Glimfeather) and Big Mick (as Trumpklin) are also good again, but sadly there is less of both. Barbara Kellerman (playing a different witch) totally overacts yet again, and THANK GOD that there is also less of her this time around.
But the real star is Tom Baker as Puddleglum, though it’s perhaps good casting more than good acting as he’s essentially just playing DOCTOR WHO. And underneath all that, he’s actually a very brave companion, and his speech to the Witch makes you want to cheer.
Alas, nothing is perfect, and this entry still has problems. The production value is still what it is, and the pacing becomes a problem again (a full 3 hours on a rather simple book). There is one scene that LITERALLY DID make me crack up at its corniness, which is when Eustace tries to stop Jill from falling off the cliff and ends up falling himself. What makes it so funny is the fact that you don’t actually see the cliff they’re standing on, and it was obviously just filmed over a hill. But I will forgive them that, since I realize that with their budget, there probably was no alternative way to film the scene.
WEAKEST MOMENT: When our heroes arrive at the committee of the Owls, and we’re staring at a bunch of cartoon eyeballs in the dark. Oy vey!
Final Rating: 7/10 – In conclusion, the BBC serials were a worthy attempt at adapting Narnia, and most of us who loved Narnia as kids and had no other film versions will look back at this series with nostalgia. And then, along came Walden Media.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (2005, dir. Andrew Adamson)
For years, many of us wondered when NARNIA would get a real film adaptation: a true Hollywood feature film that would be on par with other book franchises, especially once the HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS films took off. Finally, in 2005, one was coming, thanks to a director named Andrew Adamson, who had helmed the first two SHREK films. Yes, that’s right, his last name literally was Son of Adam. What could be more perfect!
Produced by Walden Media and distributed by Disney, the first big-screen version of NARNIA was, in my humble opinion, an absolute home run of a film! Everything about it was great, from the child actors to Tilda Swinton to Liam Neeson as Aslan to the iconic lamppost in the snow to the special fx. One interesting choice was the casting of Mr. Tumnus; he was usually portrayed an older man, making him feel like a kind uncle to Lucy. This time he was portrayed as a young man, no older than 25. This added a certain creepy dynamic to his attachment to Lucy, which added tension.
I was surprised that many criticized the film for being “too Hollywood” and feeling like “LORD OF THE RINGS-lite.” I thought this was a much bigger problem for the sequels, but this first film found the perfect note of whimsy and serious action. Sure, some of the moments of philosophical discourse with the Professor were cut in favor of original action sequences such as a chase through the ice, but this is nitpicking. On the whole this is a very faithful adaptation with additions that actually enhance the story. For example, the film starts with a lengthy opening showing London under attack and children being sent away. This fleshed out the reality of the children’s world and broadens the scope of the story. Another added scene featured Edmund meeting Mr. Tumnus while imprisoned in the Witch’s castle. This short scene fleshed both characters out further.
The score by Harry Gregson-Williams is also very good, especially the lullaby Mr. Tumnus plays on his flute. The soundtrack also featured three original songs. Two of them, “Can’t Take It In” by Imogene Heap and “Wunderkind” by Alanis Morissette, are pretty good while the other, “Winter Light” by Tim Finn, doesn’t really fit with the film. What was weird was an extra song entitled “Where” by Lisbeth Scott was also included, despite neither appearing in the film nor being a completed track. It’s only two minutes long, and later on, a longer version was released as a single. For my money, the full version of “Where” is the best song of the bunch and the only that truly captures the feel of the NARNIA books.
Final Rating: 10/10 – This is the best adaptation of LWW, and also the best NARNIA movie ever made! Nor was I the only one to think so. The film was a global sensation and one of the highest grossing films of 2005! We all awaited what would come next…
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (2008, dir. Andrew Adamson)
…and then the series jumped the shark big time!
Everyone got overconfident with this one, seeming sure that a direct sequel featuring all of the cast would be a hit. As I mentioned before, I already considered PRINCE CASPIAN the weakest of the seven books, but I had so much confidence in the Walden Media team that I was sure any changes they’d make to the story would be great.
Yet the film, despite some great moments, never quite comes together. It ends up having all the same problems of the book (Miraz and the Telemarines being lackluster villains, focus more on battles than any real sense of magic) only to inherit new problems. For everyone who complained about the previous film being too Hollywood, this is where it really became a problem. I do think Adamson and his writers had their hearts in the right place, but they seemed to have a very textbook idea of how to make a Hollywood movie. For example, in the book Caspian is a little boy, but that’s not going to sell tickets at the box office, so Caspian is changed to a heart-throb 19-year old (played by Ben Barnes, one of the blandest actors in the world). The book also starts out slow with backstory and exposition. Well, we can’t have that, can we? So instead the movie begins on what is actually chapter 5 of the book, just for the sake of starting with an action scene. Well, you get the idea. The romance between Caspian and Susan is played up. The Telemarines are all given these campy Mediterranean accents that are extremely distracting. And just overall, the tone of the film is so serious and bleak. I kept thinking that if CS Lewis were to see it, he’d say “Dude, even I didn’t mean for the story to be taken this seriously!”
In spite of all these points, there are lots of little moments I liked, in particular the wonderful character of Reepicheep, voiced by Eddie Izzard, Peter Dinklage as the curmudgeon Trumpkin, Tilda Swinton’s amusing cameo, and the especially great Warwick Davis cast against type as an evil character. Davis is also the only actor to appear in both the BBC NARNIA and Walden Media NARNIA series.
The music is also good this time, and once again there are four original songs on the soundtrack, but three of them are so bland they don’t even matter. The other one, however, is entitled “The Call” by Regina Spektor, which I love! It’s used awkwardly in the film, right after Susan and Caspian share a kiss, making it feel like a SHE’S ALL THAT moment. But once I started listening to the song on its own, I realized how beautiful it was and, just like “Where,” manages to actually capture the feel of the books. “The Call” remains the best of all the songs in any of these films.
Final Rating: 7/10 – Worth seeing for NARNIA fans, but where did the magic go?
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010, dir. Michael Apted)
And for a lot of moviegoers, the series apparently ended there. I’m serious; I’ve met a few people who never even knew they had made a third movie! Or even if they did know about it were only vaguely aware of it when released.
After the lackluster response to PC, plus the fact the kids were getting older, no one was sure how to proceed with the series. Disney left the franchise entirely, leaving 20th Century Fox to pick it up from Walden Media, and Michael Apted to take over as director while Adamson merely produced. Clearly the series was going to need to go in a new direction in order to survive. Did it succeed?
First the good points: VDT is definitely stronger than PC, having a lot more magic and heart, plus a fun performance from Will Poulter as Eustace, and Reepicheep, this time voiced by Simon Pegg. Apted is also a superior director to Adamson and this shows at times. Caspian returns, but I found it amusing that his Mediterranean accent was phased out until he’s almost entirely British-sounding. Peter, Susan, and the White Witch all get nice cameos. And once again, the score is great, featuring the original song “There’s a Place For Us” by Carrie Underwood, appearing over a beautiful end credit sequence of Pauline Baynes‘s original illustrations. The song isn’t as good as “The Call,” but it’s in that vein.
But the overall problem is still there: this team of filmmakers have a very Hollywood way of thinking. So rather than the simple, whimsical tone of the book, VDT has big action scenes, a tacked-on villainous force trying to take over the world, and some plot about magic swords all needing to be put together or something that wasn’t in the book. In general the movie is just adequate. Whereas LWW was memorably good and PC was memorably mediocre, VDT just left very little impression with anyone. It was a sequel that didn’t really add anything, nor needed to be made.
Final Rating: 8/10 – See it once, I guess.
Will there be any future NARNIA films? According to this article, not for a while.
Well, Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, I’ve had a nice stroll down to Cair Paravel with all of you, seeing the vistas of that dream world where it’s always winter, but never Christmas. Now my trilogy of articles is complete, but join me next time as we go on a journey to a world even more fantastical: the world of Kevin Smith!