Thu, December 15, 2005

Narnia: An Expanded Beginning

I’ll now continue looking at the differences between the book and movie versions of The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I began with the introduction. In this installment, I’ll look at how the movie expands the beginning of the book.

The movie opens with the German Luftwaffe bombing London and eventually shows the evacuation of the children into the country. This seems a reasonable change—it takes the single sentence from the book “This is a story about something that happened to [the four children] when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids” and gives it a vivid setting that previous generations may not have needed. It also allows the introduction of the four children. From the beginning of the movie we see squabbling between the children and feel that they are motivated by a sense of loss—despite the bombs falling nearby, Edmund refuses to take cover in the bomb shelter until he has rushed back into the house for a picture of, we assume, their father. There is also a heart breaking scene as the children say goodbye to their mother at the train station prior to going into the country.

The train ride from London into the country seems one of the more joyful moments of the film, perhaps because of the music and colorful shots of the train—or perhaps just because there’s something wonderful about watching a beautiful brightly colored steam engine. We get to see other children being dropped off at a station and like the four children the audience wonders where they will end up. The wondering is underscored in the next scene as we see the four waiting at an otherwise empty station for someone to pick them up. There is a bit of humor as they scramble for their bags when they hear a car approaching and are then disappointed as it drives by.

They are picked up at the railway station by Mrs. Macready in a horse-drawn cart. Unlike the book, they do not meet the professor at the door of the house. Mrs. Macready in giving instructions to the children emphasizes that there is to be “no disturbin’ of the professor.” In the book, it is Mrs. Macready herself who does not want to be disturbed when she is showing people over the house.

The first scene of the children talking together in the house fits the general feel of the book, but the dialog has been changed—as in many other places in the film—to sound more like what children would say. Lucy’s complaint that the sheets of her bed were scratchy felt a bit out of character for her—she does not complain—but honestly she seems the most true to the book of any of the characters in the film. I found the changes in the children’s dialog to be an improvement in most cases. Instead of saying that Susan is always “trying to talk like Mother” as in the book, Edmund sarcastically retorts “Yes, mum.”

While this new expanded beginning to the story flows reasonably and the children come across as realistic, it starts the story off on the wrong foot. We are introduced to the story through a fearful evacuation and bickering between the children. This makes it more depressing and frightening than enjoyable. In contrast, the story in the book is significantly more playful:

They were sent to the house of an old Professor who lived in the heart of the country …. He himself was a very old man with shaggy white hair, which grew over most of his face as well as on his head, and they liked him almost at once ; but on the first evening when he came out to meet them at the front door he was so odd-looking that Lucy (who was the youngest) was a little afraid of him, and Edmund (who was the next youngest) wanted to laugh and had to keep on pretending he was blowing his nose to hide it.

As soon as they had said good night to the Professor and gone upstairs on the first night, the boys came into the girls’ room and they all talked it over.

“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”

“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.

It is nicer to start the story off on a positive note. Although the evacuation of the children from London is historically interesting and provides a context for their journey, I’m not sure how important it is to the story. What is relevant is that they were sent together into the country. Indeed, I know I didn’t think about the historical motivations for their visit to the Professor’s house until I read some early information about how the movie would begin. Instead I had always viewed it through the eyes of the children, much like a trip to visit my grandma—as an adventure!

Most troubling is that we are introduced to the characters and their motivations through scenes and dialog that were not created by C.S. Lewis. I was shocked to hear Peter condemning his brother “Why can’t you just do as you’re told?!” and see Edmund cowering with his beloved picture. From the beginning the movie goes out of its way to try to create excuses for Edmund’s choices (I’ll return to this in a later installment.)

The movie also changes the characters—in the book, Peter is the leader, a role he grows into completely as High King. In the movie we see more doubts. In the train station, Peter watches a soldier and we get a sense that he is almost old enough to go to war. This was not a motivating factor in the book but is significant in the movie—they leave one war only to be drawn into another. Another noticeable change is that in the book Peter, the leader, is the one who suggests that they explore the house. “And that was how the adventures began.” Instead, after a dull scene with “the worst game ever invented” the movie has Lucy suggest that they play hide and seek.

All of this worked out to make me uncomfortable with the movie from the beginning. While I recognized all of the characters and they somehow fit with those from the book, I wanted them to be more kind and pure. The changes just didn’t seem necessary. Perhaps verses from Philippians were echoing in my head:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.