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N. D. Wilson

The Taste of Different Fears

When I was two, I was inclined to certain misbehaviors in my bath. If memory serves, I believe standing up and fiddling with the knobs was involved. And splashing. During one particular bathing experience my mother had to leave the room briefly. So, she relied on my older sister, who was not yet five, to occupy me.

"Tell him a story," my mother said. And my sister did.

"Once," my sister said, "there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids."

She was reciting, and she recited from the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to somewhere around Lucy's second passage through the fur coats. The rendition was abridged, but she hadn't done the abridging. Our cassette tape had. Ian Richardson, narrator, had read an abridged version to us so many times that my sister had a sizeable chunk of it word for word.

The film … well, the film isn't just abridged, and it isn't read by Ian Richardson.

Sitting in a Hollywood screening room, waiting for my advance glimpse of the Disney/Walden rendition of talking beavers and a forest-infested wardrobe, I have a lot of time to think about my relationship with Narnia. I wonder if I am capable of liking any film adaptation. Will I simply spend the entire time noticing small changes, unable to see the film apart from its inspiration? Probably.

Two was a good year for me. I sat through my first readings of Narnia, both abridged and unabridged. I sat in my highchair after dinner and listened to my father read to us as his father had read to him. That year I was introduced to both Lewis and Tolkien. My mother questioned my comprehension, but my father, ever optimistic, pointed out my red and sweaty cheeks, which made their appearance during scenes of battle.

I was marinated in Narnia, and I've been on a slow-roast ever since. I have no way of estimating how many times I have passed through those books, only how recently the last reading came—just last month. I love my mother, and I love Narnia. And if anyone chooses to show me an artistic rendition of either, they can expect criticisms. They can expect me to limber up and become a thorough and enthusiastic picker of nits.

Andrew Adamson, who brought us Shrek, Shrek II, and Shrek in the Swamp Karaoke Dance Party, is the director. Tell me that's promising.

But the story is far from ruined. The primary conflict remains virtually intact. The Stone Table scene is phenomenal. Aslan is effective and easily believable, and Lewis' Christianity has a loud presence. While book-readers like myself might be prone to stress and quibble, I expect this film to have nothing other than a deservedly positive reception in the broader evangelical world.

The film begins where it must, with German bombers over London. The opening sequence also gives us early tension and differences between Peter and Edmund, with Peter why-can't-you-do-what-you're-tolding his younger brother, a question which will serve as a bookend for the entire film.

The texture of the opening act is strong, and the casting works well. I find myself relaxing a little in my seat. But I wait for the inevitable, for some shifting of motivation, some change in dramatic tension that patronizes Lewis' original. That change does not come for a long while. But it does come.

Lewis himself had complaints about film adaptations. He was a lover of virtually every adventure story that could "introduce the marvelous or supernatural," including such prose-tripe as Voyage to Arcturus:

Unaided by any special skill or even sound taste in language, the author leads us up a stair of unpredictables. … He builds whole worlds of imagery and passion, any one of which would have served another author for a whole book, only to pull each of them to pieces and pour scorn on it. The physical dangers … here count for nothing: it is we ourselves and the author who walk through a world of spiritual dangers which make them seem trivial."
—Of Other Worlds, "On Stories"

This "marvelous or supernatural" was in fact what he strove to achieve in all of his stories, and is the common attribute of every story he admired critically, from King Solomon's Mines to Paradise LostParadise Lost. And it was the film version of King Solomon's Mines that bothered him.

Lewis complains that the producer of the film, "for me, ruined the story." This narrative ruin came about through the substitution of one danger for another, and that substitution of danger was an outworking of a literary paradigm of excitement. "Where excitement is the only thing that matters kinds of dangers must be irrelevant. Only degrees of danger will matter. The greater the danger and the narrower the hero's escape from it, the more exciting the story will be." Lewis goes on to explain that different kinds of dangers produce different kinds of fear—fear with awe, fear with horror, fear with disgust, numbing fear, and a quivering almost pleasurable fear. The imagination responds differently to these fears. They change the personality of a story accordingly.

While I notice simple shifts in description—Why does the white witch have blond dreadlocks? Where are her red lips? What happened to the charismatically, seductively, dangerously, beautiful Jadis? What happened to her palace? Why is it made entirely of icicles?—I finally come to the first shift in danger, the first place where the writers felt Lewis lacked "excitement."

The children are in the Beavers' house, and Edmund has left them. In the book, we immediately sense betrayal. Peter wants to follow Edmund, but the Beavers make him see the folly of this, and they all trek off as quickly as possible (leaving behind Mrs. Beaver's sewing machine). The children must trek stealthily, always listening for the bells of the witch's sleigh behind them (the wolves were sent to the Stone Table to discover if Aslan really had returned and to cut off the children if necessary). If you have ever done any sneaking with the fear of followers and ambushes, if you have ever attempted any stealthy and yet speedy treks across the park, across the lawn, or simply shifting hiding places from the bedroom to the hall closet, then you know this tension, this sensation of breathless, bottled-up, speedy caution.

But for the film, such understated tension isn't exciting enough. The children follow Edmund to the witch's ice castle, only then deciding to run back to the dam, pack up, and leave. Rather than sending the wolves ahead to the Stone Table, the witch sends them directly to the Beavers' house, and we have our necessary excitement.

The children are inside the house when the wolves begin tearing through the walls. I sit, wondering how the writers expect to believably get them out and all the way to the Stone Table with wolves on their heels. But the writers hand us a minor deus ex machina, and Beaver confesses to his wife that he has a secret tunnel that leads to Badger's house. We are then off on a wolf-chase climaxing on thin ice beneath a thawing waterfall. The waterfall tumbles, the ice shatters, and everyone washes down the frigid river, but nobody drowns, and because Spring is coming, there is no danger of hypothermia.

Certainly, this is more "exciting." But it produces a different danger, a different taste. Like MSG-ridden Chinese food, everything tastes a lot, but all the same. The market of tension becomes glutted, decreasing the value even of our primary conflict.

For myself, I flinch with every minor change of hair color, motivation, and the lack of gifts for the Beavers. I have trouble with the inflation of tension (though not of the battle). Peter's character is too conflicted (he just wants to get Edmund and go home). But at the same time, this film was lovelier than I expected it to be, frequently beautiful, and while it does get a bit distracted, it still communicates the best of what Lewis has to offer.

My own son is three. He knows the story, but Narnia is not yet concrete enough in his imagination to survive such a film. My nephew, son to my sister the bath-bard, is in first grade and is already doing laps through the Narnia Chronicles. When he sees the movie, I expect him to find frustration in the variances. Knowing him, and knowing his mother, his frustration will probably be greater than my own. I never knew any part of it word for word.

N. D. Wilson is a Fellow of Literature of New St. Andrews College and the managing editor of Credenda/Agenda magazine. His first novel for children will release in Spring 2007.

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