Sowing seeds of doubt in a Narnia fan’s mind

I have an anecdote. But first, an excerpt from my review of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

In addition, the film gives the Witch more stature while dialing back the stature of Narnia’s Christ-figure Aslan . . . just a notch or so. . . . Aslan loses some of his warmth and ironic humour, especially when the Witch boldly approaches his camp and demands Edmund’s life. Here, it is Aslan, not the Witch, who loses his temper.

Second, a similar point, made at greater length, courtesy of my friend and colleague Steven D. Greydanus:

Perhaps the single gravest change to the story is one that greatly empowers the Witch at Aslan’s expense. It is simply the eradication of the whole motif of the Witch’s overt fear of Aslan. This is absolutely crucial to the book’s emphasis on the utter lack of parity between the omnipotent Aslan and the powerful but limited Witch. The whole vision of good and evil at work in the story turns on the fact that the Witch is never even close to being a rival or threat to Aslan, any more than Lucifer to Christ himself.

The filmmakers, perhaps motivated by a misguided dramatic notion of needing the villain to be a credible threat to the hero, eliminate practically every indication of the Witch’s fear of Aslan from the story — in the process jettisoning much of the point Lewis was making about the nature and relationship of good and evil. . . .

The problem of the apparent parity of Aslan and the Witch is nowhere more glaring than in the parley or summit meeting, which the film begins and ends very differently from the book. In the book, Lewis makes a point of having the Witch send her Dwarf to beg safe conduct from Aslan before she will dare to approach him. In the film, by contrast, we’re told that the Witch has “demanded” an audience with Aslan, with no mention of safe conduct requested or granted. In fact, the film depicts her fearlessly entering Aslan’s camp on a royal litter with her dwarf acting as herald proclaiming her arrival, rather than as emissary begging safe conduct.

The end of the parley scene, a highlight of the book, is even more glaringly changed. In the book, when the Witch expresses doubt whether Aslan will keep his word, he lets out a terrible roar, striking the Witch’s dumb with terror and causing her to flee abjectly for her life. In the film, since the Witch has come in a litter, she can’t very well pick up her skirts and head for the hills, as Lewis had it; instead, she merely looks a bit shaken and sits down kind of hard before being carried off. Lame.

Even during the parley, the film subtly undermines Aslan’s control of the situation. In the book, when the Witch brings up the Deep Magic, Aslan remains supremely calm, even toying with the Witch (“Let us say I have forgotten it. Tell us of this Deep Magic”), causing her to begin shrieking angrily about the Stone Table, the sceptre of Aslan’s father, the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, and the World Ash Tree.

In the film, on the other hand, it’s Aslan who gets angry, snarling, “Don’t tell me about the Deep Magic! I was there when it was written!” This is an interesting line, but Aslan now seems merely indignantly assertive, rather than supremely in control. (In interviews, Tilda Swinton has spoken of not wanting to portray the Witch getting angry and “hot under the collar,” which she felt would only diminish her character. Ironically, no one seems to have noticed or cared that Aslan was diminished in precisely this way.)

And now for my anecdote.

Two nights ago, an acquaintance of mine was reading a chapter or two from the book to a 7-year-old boy — she was, in fact, reading the bit with the parley scene — and when she got to the part where the White Witch picks up her skirts and runs, the boy interjected, “What happened was, the Witch sat down in her chair…”

At that point, I had to pipe up and say, “No, the film changed that.”

“Oh,” he said, but I wasn’t sure he fully grasped what I was saying. I wonder if I have challenged or disturbed someone’s notion of reality, now. I mean, y’know, if he can’t trust what he saw in the movie with his own two eyes, well, then, what can he trust?

FWIW, I do own the DVD of this film myself, but I think I shall try to keep it far, far away from my children until they have read the book (or, for that matter, until they have seen the earlier adaptations of the book, which are considerably more faithful).

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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