Editor’s note: This Friday Prince Caspian will be released in theaters to much (primarily Christian) fanfare. Since many of the concerns which were raised about the first film will likely return in Prince Caspian, it is fitting that the first post in our week long discussion of the Narnia adaptations should be a look back at the most controversial aspect of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: the denaturing of Aslan.
On Friday, many Christians who will go see Prince Caspian will be doing so precisely because the Chronicles of Narnia is a “Christian” series, and central to the series’ Christian themes is the character of Aslan who operates as a Christ-figure. Among the various plot elements and characteristics that designate Aslan as a Christ-figure are his numinous qualities. The numinous, simply stated, is an experience of fear, dread, fascination, wonder and otherness, particularly in the presence of the divine. For Lewis, this experience was central to any Biblical understanding of God, and so when he created Aslan as a Christ-figure, it was fitting that he should have the other characters of his books respond with awe-ful fear to Aslan. He was the God of Narnia, and just like the God of this world, any real encounter with him is bound to be marked by reverent fear and wonder. In the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the numinous quality of Aslan’s character all but disappears, and with it Lewis’ conception of God.
The softening of the appearance and the character of Aslan suggests that Adamson’s Aslan represents what Lewis referred to as a “grandfatherly” God rather than the awful God of Lewis’s own belief (The Problem of Pain). As Jeffrey Overstreet stated in his review of the film, “This Aslan is essentially muzzled and bound long before the Stone Table scene.” Terror, a defining feature of the numinous, is missing from the film in two areas: the removal of lines from the book that reveal Aslan’s awful affect on the children and other characters, and the softened appearance of Aslan. As we shall see, Adamson’s Aslan fails to capture the love, majesty, infiniteness, power, justice, terror, and beauty of Lewis’s character. The adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe robs Aslan of his terror by altering Lewis’s text and failing to reasonably represent the numinous qualities of his character in a visual form. The result of this adaptation of Aslan is that his status as a Christ-figure is greatly diminished; instead of a representation of Christ’s love and power, we are left with what is essentially a tame cat.
Before we can examine the adaptation, it is important for us to understand the “numinous” and how important the concept was to Lewis. Perhaps the clearest definition of the numinous comes from Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain:
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fear that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’, and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it… This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.
In addition to The Problem of Pain, Lewis articulates a view of Christ that includes the numinous in a letter to a former student. In this letter, Lewis attacked any conception of Christ that excluded His terror:
Now the truth is, I think, that the sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus is a product of the 19th century skepticism, produced by people who were ceasing to believe in His divinity but wanted to keep as much Christianity as they could. It is not what an unbeliever coming to the records with an open mind will (at first) find there. The first thing you find is that we are simply not invited to speak, to pass any moral judgment on Him, however favorable: it is only too clear that He is going to do whatever judging there is: it is we who are being judged, sometimes tenderly, sometimes with stunning severity…(Have you ever noticed that your imagination can hardly be forced to picture Him as shorter than yourself)? (Lewis, The Letters 344)
This numinous view of God as encompassing both danger and goodness was essential to his personal faith. Lewis also identifies a “sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus” with a disbelief in the divinity of Christ. Thus, the rejection of Christ’s numinous qualities undermines His very nature to Lewis. Particularly, Lewis points to Christ’s judgment of humans as a sign of His power. As we shall see, the difference between Lewis’ book and Adamson’s film versions of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is primarily the way Aslan’s numinous qualities are presented.
In the book version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there are several scenes which depict Aslan reprimanding the children, effectively judging them. For example, when the Witch comes to Aslan’s camp and presents her case for her possession of Edmund on the grounds of the Deep Magic, Susan’s shocked question to Aslan results in a subtle judgment by the Christ-figure:
“Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”
“Work against the Emperor’s magic?” said Aslan turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again. (141)
This scene is removed from the film, along with other scenes of judgment by Aslan, which leaves the viewer to believe that Aslan is not in a position to judge those who follow him. This lack of sternness or discipline in Adamson’s Aslan seems to reflect the “sweetly-attractive-human-Jesus” that Lewis objected to in his letter. Lewis held a belief that Christ was a God who was both loving and dangerous, who judges everyone and strikes fear in those who merely imagine Him. This belief in the essential power of Christ can also be found in his depiction of Aslan; however, the film adaptation removes the judgments of Aslan and his numinous elements, thus undermining the deity of the character.
When the Beavers explain that all people react with fear and trembling to Aslan, we can see Lewis’s concept of divine fear:
“Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver…”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”The Beavers claim that the sight of Aslan is enough to fill even someone who supports the king with terror. This power to evoke terror in all creatures is an essential quality of Aslan as a Christ-figure. When Adamson adapts the dinner scene with the Beavers, this entire discussion about the power of the image of Aslan to induce terror is completely removed. The question of Aslan being unsafe, but good is moved to the end of the film and altered to suggest a quite different reading than Lewis seems to have intended here.
In the film, these famous lines are spoken by Mr. Tumnus rather than by Mr. Beaver, and the overall tone of the conversation is quite different than in the book. In Lewis’s version the tone is serious as the children are worried whether or not this Aslan character is dangerous. In the movie, however, the tone is melancholy and wistful as Lucy comes to deal with Aslan’s departure. Instead of being concerned for her life, Lucy is sad that her friend has left. Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that Aslan will return, “’but you mustn’t press him, after all, he’s not a tame lion.’ ‘No, but he is good.’” Tame is used here by Tumnus in reference to Aslan’s decision to come and go when he pleases. Not being tame does not suggest, in this use, being dangerous or unsafe as Lewis evokes in his novel, but instead a kind of freewill. Adamson has effectively removed all aspects of Aslan’s power and terror, which changes the character from a numinous Christ-figure to a sort of mythical hero.
Perhaps the most striking passage in Lewis’s book is when he describes the first time the Beavers and the children see Aslan. In this description, Lewis uses language in such a way as to clearly identify the numinous quality of Aslan:
But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly. (123)
For Aslan to be truly powerful, and truly representative of Christ, he must evoke a sense of dread in the other characters and the reader. Both the “good” characters and the bad are afraid of Aslan in the book. The numinous effect of Aslan upon the characters foregrounds Aslan’s power, terror, and mystery, his divinity. This is not the case in the film version.
In Adamson’s version of this same scene we find no real evidence of the numinous at work, and therefore no sign of Aslan’s goodness and terror. In his attempt to visually render Aslan, Adamson loses the numinous power of the character. When the children go to meet Aslan they are afraid at first, but when he walks out of the tent Lucy immediately smiles and Susan and Peter’s faces reflect a sense of peace rather than dread. This reaction is logical given the appearance of Adamson’s Aslan, but not Lewis’s. There is a certain beauty, grace, and perhaps majesty in Adamson’s creation of Aslan, but there is no sense of danger. When Aslan first walks from the tent, he has an almost a lazy look on his face, as if he had just been awoken from a nap. This is a far cry from the frightening image that Lewis gives us in his book; rather than fill the children with awe, Aslan’s presence simply puts them, and the viewer, at ease. This change hinders the story in two areas. First, it leaves us with only the goodness of Aslan, significantly altering his status as a Christ-figure by stripping his appearance from its numinous attributes. The goodness we are left with is strikingly similar to what Lewis describes as “a senile benevolence” in his book The Problem of Pain:
By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we might be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven.”
Second, Aslan loses much of his complexity by being only terrifying to the antagonists. In Lewis’s version, everyone fears Aslan, in Adamson’s it is only those who are explicitly opposed to him. Reducing the conflict to pure good and pure evil, Adamson not only alters Lewis’s intentions, but also severely diminished the complexity of Aslan.
In C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the construction of Aslan as a Christ-figure is complex and is directly dependent on Lewis’s understanding of the numinous. Goodness, power, and terror are all aspects of Lewis’s Aslan. These qualities can be seen in the Beavers’ description of Aslan, in his affect upon the children, in his appearance, and in his willingness to reprimand the children. In addition, Lewis’s own belief in Christ included this very same idea of a powerful, dangerous God who is judge –qualities which describe the numinous. By crafting Aslan as a Christ-figure, Lewis’s story goes beyond the typical construction of a fairy-tale hero: everyone fears Aslan, both the good and the bad. This complexity is part of what makes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe such a compelling book. In the film adaptation however, Aslan is no longer numinous, and therefore is no longer a complex character or a Christ-figure in the way Lewis would have conceived of the term. Adamson removes the scenes which involve Aslan reprimanding the children, thus suggesting that he is not the judge of them; the image of Aslan is tamed down so that there is no sense of true terror when the children meet him; and Mr. Beaver’s famous claim that Aslan is good but not safe is altered to mean that Aslan is good, but not controllable. These changes to Lewis’s text all work in conjunction to present the viewer with a very safe lion, and a grandfatherly God, “who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’” (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 31).
If we intend to watch Prince Caspian in order to see Lewis’s brilliant portrayal of the relationship between God and man, we will likely leave very disappointed (or mislead), unless this latest film gives Aslan the awe-inspiring qualities found in Lewis’s books.