The earlier works of a Narnia screenwriter

The earlier works of a Narnia screenwriter August 1, 2005

Four people are credited with the screenplay for the upcoming film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

One is director Andrew Adamson, whose only prior experience as a writer or director was on the first two Shrek movies (2001, 2004). Two others are Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, whose only credited film to date is the TV-movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004), which I have not yet seen.

That leaves Ann Peacock, who has three films to her credit so far — all of which are adaptations of stories about racism.

I happened to see Country of My Skull (2004), AKA In My Country, four months ago, and despite its occasionally interesting portrayal of the South African reconciliation process, I found it disappointingly banal. But it wasn’t until today that I saw A Lesson Before Dying (1999) and Cora Unashamed (2000), both of which take place in the United States and were made for TV. I am not quite as critical of these films as Adam Walter, who writes, with some justification, that both films are “dull racism melodramas oozing with sentimentality.” But they are, in their own ways, just as banal and disappointing as Peacock’s more recent effort.

A Lesson Before Dying at least benefits from the acting skills of Don Cheadle and Mekhi Phifer. Phifer plays a young man who witnesses a handful of quasi-accidental deaths in a grocery store, is caught taking money from the till, and is sentenced to death for the murder of those other people. His lawyer tries to get him off the hook by comparing him, in court, to a “hog” — because animals aren’t capable of planning robberies, see — but the tactic fails, and Phifer’s relatives call on a teacher played by Cheadle to visit Phifer and to convince him that he really is a man, and not the beast that the white lawyer said he was. There is no chance that Cheadle could get the man off death row, but he can encourage him to “die with dignity”, so that is what he does.

Cora Unashamed is a shorter film but feels longer, perhaps because it doesn’t have an imminent execution looming over the story and driving all the action like an urgent deadline. Instead, it feels like two or four separate episodes stitched together around some loosely shared themes, with a rather thin romantic back-story interrupting via flashback every now and then. It also doesn’t help that the stuck-up white mother, who doesn’t want her daughter playing in the mud with black girls or getting knocked up by Greek boys, is pretty two-dimensional. And, in this post-Planet of the Apes world, I don’t think any script should be allowed to include a scene in which a person, left to him or her self, falls to the ground and yells, “God damn you! God damn you to hell!”

Peacock won an Emmy — and a Humanitas prize — for her work on A Lesson Before Dying, and I guess it does have its strengths. But there’s nothing particularly inspired about either of these productions; and for what it’s worth, both films contain scenes that cast a questionable light on religious faith.

So I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad that the Narnia screenplay had been given to other writers after Peacock had her turn with it. I guess I’ll have to see that Peter Sellers movie now.

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