|With interest in the upcoming Narnia movie reaching a fever pitch ahead of its December release date, this chapter focuses on representations of Lewis in film and Lewis's own thoughts on the medium.
Check back for more excerpts soon.
Note: Due to formatting issues, this chapter appears without footnotes. The original is fully cited.
C.S. LEWIS AT THE CINEMA
By James S. C. Baehr
C. S. Lewis’s world of Narnia and his own worlds of Oxford and Cambridge have come to life on screen over the course of the last three decades. The tragedy and triumph of Lewis’s own life story continues to inspire documentaries and dramatizations years after his death, even while his Narnian tales draw upon past small screen success and its own deep well of drama in the making of the new Narnia films. Perhaps the greatest irony involved in Lewis’s popularity in motion picture, esteemed Lewis scholar Terry Lindvall suggests, was his own ambivalence towards the film medium, particularly the work of Walt Disney a current patron of the upcoming Narnia release.
Lewis’s life has spawned several dramatic retellings, including the well-known Shadowland films and several projects currently in the pipeline.
In 1986, the Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation partnered with the BBC to create the first Shadowlands film a made for TV production that garnered critical acclaim. The work was written by William Nicholson and directed by Norman Stone. John O’Connor in The New York Times regaled the production: “‘Shadowlands’ moves crisply and runs for only 52 minutes. Yet it manages to be uncommonly moving. The performances are lovely… In its almost unassuming way, ‘Shadowlands’ packs an extraordinary emotional wallop." The movie was shown on PBS, CBS, A&E, and released on videocassette before the end of its run. It also served to inspire a stage play in 1990 that garnered Nigel Hawthorne the 1992 Tony for best actor on Broadway, and a big screen version starring Anthony Hopkins shortly thereafter.
Richard Attenborough’s cinematic release of Shadowlands also garnered praise. It earned William Nicholson an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Newsweek called Hopkins as Lewis “as penetrating as anything he's ever done…. It's a wonderfully unlikely, stiff-upper-lip love story. Bring a hanky." Still, some Christian audiences were unsatisfied with the ending of Hopkins version, and were a distraught Lewis appears to have lost faith in his tragic encounter with Joy’s death. In reality, Lewis’s faith proved strengthened and steeled by the deepest questions raised by the death of his beloved, as he discusses extensively in his memoir A Grief Observed.
While much of Lewis’s life remains untouched by dramatic retelling, new projects currently underway promise to illuminate even more of the beloved Oxbridge scholar’s existence. One of the prime catalysts for Shadowlands has been Norman Stone, a British filmmaker who shopped the story originally as part of a longer Lewis piece back in the 1980’s. I got a chance to sit with Norman and his crew on their last night of shooting the TV special C.S. LEWIS: BEYOND NARNIA outside of Oxford, England in November of 2004. “I sort of made a promise to the Old Guy when I got finished [with Shadowlands] that I’d come back and do the whole thing… 24 years later, I have that chance.” Stone’s docudrama, created in conjunction with producer Karen Pascal for the Hallmark Channel, focuses on the full arc of Lewis’s life, and the interplay between his creative work and the philosophy that drove his life. It features interviews with countless top scholars and friends of Lewis, but also includes portions of piercing dramatic recreation. “How do you tell someone’s life story in 43 minutes?” Stone asks, and answers:
The only way I know is to ask Lewis himself to do it. So I sit Lewis himself in a chair and ask him to look back on his life… Think of it as music, with four different melody lines harmonizing together. You have the experts, Lewis himself telling him his feelings, remembered images, and these dramatized moments. The whole thing blends together into a moving exploration. People have cried reading the script. At the heart of it all is a story. Stories and pictures with truth at the center is what I get off on.
The work of Norman, Karen and countless others proves that the exploration of Lewis’s own life continues, even as his fictional world of Narnia receives unprecedented attention.
Narnia at the Cinema
Though Lewis’s Narnia stories have never before made it to the big screen, they have spawned several widely viewed and much loved television versions. These include both animated and live action productions. If the new Narnia film ends up becoming the great success all predictions claim it will be, it will in large part be due to the positive legacy left by past tellings of Lewis’s grand story.
Few lovers of Narnia realize that the 1979 version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe “was the first animated full length movie made for television,” according to the Internet Movie Database. “All other previous animated television specials were one hour or less.” This television special was created by the Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation and the Children’s Television Workshop. Aired on CBS, the show was watched by 37 million viewers and won an Emmy Award.
Recently, Ted Baehr had the chance to sit down at lunch with Phil Roman and Bill Melendez, two of the animators who worked on the production. Ted worked with Bill on a small portion of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when he was elected president of the organization that produced the television program. Bill directed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
“It was a labor of love,” Bill said about the making of the movie. “Everything about the project appealed to me.”
“You figured out a way to do it,” Ted told him.
“It was just a good project,” Bill replied. “I didn’t want to let go of it. It didn’t need a lavish production. I wanted to tell the story simply and directly.”
“He laid it out and made it very easy for the animators,” Phil recalled.
“Bill and Phil saved the project,” Ted explained to his companions, because the first director’s personal problems kept him from finishing the work. “Bill made it an award winning program.”
Bill believed the key to the program’s success was authenticity to the original. “I like to stick to the story and be as precise as I can be,” he said, “we do our job as best as we can, but we don’t fool around with the premise of the story.”
Interestingly, Bill began his work with Walden Media’s partner in bringing the newest version of Narnia to fruition: Disney. While at Disney in the 1930s and 1940s, Bill worked on Bambi, Pinocchio, and Dumbo, arguably several of the greatest animated movies of all time.
Both Phil and Bill said that getting a good story is as essential in animation as it is in live action movies and TV. “The problem of illustrating a story is part of the fun,” Bill said. “The hardest thing is sitting down and doing the actual minute drawings of actions and situations.”
The new computer technologies in animation (used extensively in the new Narnian films) don’t bother Phil as much as animators who prefer hand-drawn cartoons and hand-drawn animated features. “To me, computer technology is just another tool,” Phil said. “You still need an animator and a designer.”
“I work in a fun industry,” Bill concluded, “Everything I do [in animation] turns out to be a lot of fun. It ends up being a happy moment in my life. I’ve lived a great life.” Phil and Bill have also enriched the lives of all those who have enjoyed their animated Narnia.
The BBC and American production company Wonderworks brought to life four of Lewis’s seven Narnian Chronicles from 1988 to 1990. The productions included The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (combined), and The Silver Chair. The entire set, re-released on DVD in 2002, totals nine hours.
Directed by Marilyn Fox and written by Alan Seymour, the productions follow the book almost word for word. The children are played by Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook, Jonathon Scott and Sophie Wilcox.
Though well acted and well liked, the productions suffered from lack of funding. They were filmed for $16 million dollars, a small amount considering their dependence on fantastical sets and epic elements. As Randy Salas of The Minneapolis Star Tribune noted in a glowing review,
Skeptical young viewers weaned on today's glossy fare might not want to be bothered by this simple production. That's too bad, because these are fantastic stories vividly retold.
Other reviewers agreed. Nancy Churnin for Knight Ridder Newspapers claimed, “The heft of the story should pull them in. And once they're in, they just might want to read the books. The books, after all, are the real other-side-of-the-wardrobe, the place where the magical world of Narnia truly awaits.”
Fortunately, the small budgets didn’t translate into small audiences. By 1988, The Time of London noted that 10.6 million British viewers had seen the series. Consistently replayed over the airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic, that number must be exponentially higher today. The numbers who plan to flock to new “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” movie could well make it one of the top earning movies of all time.
The Next Narnia
The December 2005 release of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by Walden Media and Walt Disney will open the wardrobe door to the next chapter in the history of Narnia, but the project has been years in the making. The success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchise no doubt galvanized Disney to pick up the project for distribution. A recent New York Times article called the Narnia series “one of the last children's classics unexplored by cinema,” and asserted that “the potential rewards are huge” for the company financially. Disney has also enjoyed a partnership deal with Walden Media for several years now, including their dual release of the family film “Holes.” Behind-the-scenes excitement for this project, though, and its spiritual potency and popularity among evangelicals could be portents of an unprecedented release.
I recently spoke with Peb Jackson, who is affiliated with Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and the Purpose Driven Mission, shortly after his return from the set in New Zealand. “First and foremost, it was exhilarating and a profound privilege to have the opportunity to visit the set of this history-making film. When I got down there,” he explained, “virtually everything I witnessed and the majority of the people I was in contact with felt the same thing: there is something very special about this movie, unlike anything we’ve ever been a part of. Keep in mind, these are professionals with an incredible resume of some of the most successful films of our time.” Peb attributed this special sense to the broad familiarity that people have with “The Chronicles of Narnia”, even from childhood. One example is the celebrated director, himself, Andrew Adamson, who was introduced to the books as a young boy by his father who was a missionary in New Guinea.
In spite of rumors of substantial changes to the original text, Jackson stressed his observance of steadfast commitment to the production’s authenticity. “There was a tremendous sense of stewardship of the project. There seemed to be a pervasive resolve to be as true to C.S. Lewis’s great story as possible. Many people on the set including actors, technicians and assistant producers were very aware of the millions of “Chronicles” fans who have high expectations regarding this film. The producer, Mark Johnson, told Peb that even his sixteen year old daughter, a fan of The Chronicles said, “Dad, don’t mess it up.” Jackson also cited that Douglas Gresham’s presence on the set, C.S. Lewis’s own stepson, was an encouragement that Lewis’s vision will be guarded.
Peb also thinks the film could have the ability to turn viewers towards faith. For many people around the world, the story of Aslan as a Christ figure was the threshold to understanding the Gospel. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” may stand alone in the genre of film in facilitating the realization of God’s love and purpose in people’s lives. “It’s actually thrilling, as a follower of Christ, to think of the potential powerful global influence of this film,” said Jackson.
The films success will no doubt lead to sequels. One great irony of that expected success is Lewis’s own love-hate relationship with the cinema and Walt Disney, exposed in many of his writings, according to Lewis expert Terry Lindvall.
Lewis Love Hate Relationship with Film
Lewis’s scholarly passions were largely for a time before his own. As a late medievalist, he relished the world of knights, chivalry and courtly love. We see glimpses of that passion underneath his Narnian tales: in the knighting of the Pevensie boys, the hunting of the White Stag or the conflict between Narnia and Calormene that can be easily viewed as a crusading conflict between the Christian West and Muslim lands, Lewis’s love of the medieval gleams. For such a self-proclaimed “dinosaur” such as he, the cinema often proved a modern horror.
This view comes through at several points in The Chronicles, according to Lindvall. “In The Silver Chair, it is when she is in Underland, that Jill remembers the cinema,” he writes. “Earlier, Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is under the influence of the wicked White Witch. He announces with arrogance and glee that if he were king of Narnia, he would have a ‘private cinema.’”
One reason Lewis remained so wary of the film arts was his concern that they diminished imagination. Films would feed to the viewer preprocessed images instead of making them exercise and develop their own imaginative powers. As Lindvall writes, “It would freeze the lively and animated mind of the young viewer with predigested and marketed images of various literary characters and images. It would embalm the vivacious imagination.”
Another particularly relevant concern was that the original intentions of the authors were often run roughshod in attempts to make a film more visually dramatic. Lewis went to go see a film of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines at one point. The climax of the book occurs when the protagonists find themselves caught in a subterranean chamber with the threat of death by pitch-black starvation. In the version Lewis viewed, the filmmakers added volcanoes and earthquakes to the scene. Lindvall quotes Lewis frustration at these changes:
Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me.
These concerns of Lewis echo the concerns of many of his fans as they await the final edit of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe film. To Lewis, major alteration of an original text proved ruinous, even to increase cinematic excitement. His oldest fans will no doubt be on guard.
In the greatest of ironies, Lewis proved a particularly forceful critic of Walt Disney, whose childish renditions of the great legends often robbed them of their horrifying vitality. Lindvall notes that “he confessed that he remembered: ‘delighting in fairy tales. I fell deeply under the spell of Dwarfs--the old bright-hooded, snowy-bearded dwarfs we had in those days before Arthur Rackham sublimed, or Walt Disney vulgarized, the earthmen.’” Lindvall also recalls “when Jane Douglas, an American actress and playwright, visited him in his rooms to discuss dramatizing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he responded unyieldingly: “Aslan is a divine figure,” he had written on June 19th to discourage her, “and anything remotely approaching the comic (anything in the Disney line) would be to me simple blasphemy." Those who love this divine lion will also be watching this Disney version carefully.
Lewis’s concerns about film did not blind him from seeing its power or sensing its possibility. He was hardly wholly critical of the medium (See Lindvall sidebar). Nor should he have been. Films about Lewis’s life and the worlds of his imagination have inspired and empowered viewers everywhere, turning them towards the faith that Lewis himself held sacred. The potency of his imagination, whether expressed through book or film, will continue to transform lives and baptize the imaginations of generations to come.