Monday December 19, 2005

The Lion, the Witch, and What Have You

Saw TCoN:TLtWatW (note: no Oxford comma in the official title) yesterday with The Wife.  Capsule review: meh.  Various other random thoughts after the jump.

Let's be clear: I was entertained by the movie, just not impressed.  The acting is all pretty good, especially by the standards of child acting.  Tilda Swinton was creepy and seductive.  Liam Neeson did fine as Qui-Gon Lion.  (Or is "Li-on Jinn" funnier?)  Unfortunately, I spent a lot of the movie thinking about (a) how it compared to The Lord of the Rings and  (b) the Christian allegory.

There's almost no point in comparing the Chronicles of Narnia with Tolkien—they're clearly aimed at different audiences.  Tolkien was trying to write mythology, while Lewis was writing for kids.  That doesn't have to be a put-down—I'm actually a fan of children's books that don't talk down to the reader—but Lewis' stories strike me as a little too cute, and the nerf ending, where everybody comes back from the dead, was a little too cheerful.  I read TLtWatW when I was a kid (and again a couple of years ago), and I think I also read Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle, but I remember almost nothing about the later books, whereas Tolkien has stuck with me all these years.  The Narnia movies were clearly conceived as a followup to Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, to fill in the yearly Christmas Epic Fantasy release window they pioneered.

In watching the movie yesterday, I was repeatedly struck by how Tolkien's handling of the concept of kingship was much more satisfying than Lewis's.  I mean this on two levels.  In the first place, I'm an American and respect for monarchs has been bred out of me, so the author has to somehow overcome my natural reaction to monarchy as a system of government ("How'd you get to be king, then?"), rather than assuming I'm going to go all moist when the Magic Lion tells Peter, "you are the first-born and you will be High King over all the rest".  In the second place, an author has to convince me that the particular character who becomes king is likely to make a good one.

Lewis gives me nothing to work with.  Peter and the other Pevensies are just kids, and they're no more qualified to be kings and queens than any other goofball with an RP accent (I'm looking at you, Chuck Windsor).  Worse, I have no idea what exactly it means for the children to be kings and queens after they sit in the thrones at Cape Canaveral.  What kind of power does that give them?  Do we really expect children will rule wisely over a world they've only been in for a few days?  And, as The Wife pointed out after the movie, who exactly are they going to marry when they get older?

Tolkien did a much better job, in part because of the way his story, famously, "grew in the telling", so that even he didn't know who Aragorn was at first.  He starts out as the gruff-but-lovable Strider, who proves himself to be first a good man, then a brave warrior, and then a successful war leader before we're expected to swallow the idea that he's going to be king.  What's more, we're shown that the Steward of Gondor is crazy before he kills himself, leaving a power vacuum that somebody has to fill.  I'm not saying Tolkien wasn't an enthusiastic monarchist—he clearly was—but I found the way he built up to Aragorn's kingship way more palatable than Lewis's arbitrary prophecy.

The other thing that kept pulling me out of the movie was the Jesus allegory.  Holy cow, I'd forgotten how blatant it was.  See, there's this guy who was around before the beginning of the world, who was involved in the very fabric of its creation (you say Deep Magic, I say Logos).  He sacrifices himself for the sins of another (after being abused and ridiculed by the guards) and in so doing breaks the ancient rule of blood sacrifice and replaces it with a new law that reverses death.  His resurrection is witnessed by two women, and after sticking around to finish up some current business, he leaves, but with the understanding that some day he will return.  I don't have any objection to allegory per se or Christian allegory in particular, but it was distractingly prominent—I spent the last third of the movie thinking, "Oh, that's another Jesus parallel..."  It's hard to get into a story when the bones of the plot keep showing through like that.

To summarize, then: I liked it, but not a lot—more than I've like the Harry Potter movies, I suppose, that's saying something.  I'll probably see the sequels, if they do them.  But I wasn't blown away.

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Nope, I was much more entertained by the various Harry Potter movies/books. I actually cared when bad things happened to the main characters, unlike in Narnia, when I had to roll my eyes at the sound of sobbing coming from the teenage girls behind us. Yawn.

The kid who played Edmond was good, though. I really wanted to kick his teeth in. That's acting.

Posted by: The Wife at Dec 19, 2005 6:07:24 PM

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe contains no Jesus *allegory* per se.

Lewis writes:
"If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, 'What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not allegory at all."

Aslan in Wikipedia

Posted by: Roland at Dec 20, 2005 12:01:15 PM

I think it's still an allegory, C.S. Lewis's explanation notwithstanding. An allegory is a kind of metaphor where the events of a story have a symbolic level of meaning. While the symbolic level of meaning in Narnia might describe what Jesus would be like on another planet, that's still a symbolic level of meaning, hence Narnia is still an allegory.

And I'm not exactly sure what Lewis means when he denies that Aslan represents "the immaterial Deity." That's really kind of silly - *of course* Aslan represents Jesus - that's sort of the point of the allegory. I suspect Lewis may be trying to split hairs here by saying that Aslan does not represent Jesus, but he represents someone *like* Jesus, but who isn't Jesus, and he's taking part in a gedankenexperiment involving another planet...but (a) I'm not buying it; and (b) even if I did, it's *still* an allegory. :)

Posted by: Andrew at Dec 20, 2005 5:27:46 PM

I agree. I say it's broccoli and I say the hell with it. I loved the first book or two when I was young, but even at that tender age I got more and more annoyed with the later ones: "Oh, I get it, it's Jesus. Been there, done that. I thought this was going to go somewhere new and interesting."

Posted by: language hat at Dec 22, 2005 7:34:53 AM