December 27, 2005

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

I took my two boys to see the Narnia movie last week, and enjoyed it extremely, and rather more than Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, even though I'm also very much a Tolkien fan. I also found it surprisingly moving; I really should have brought some kleenex. The kids liked it, too.

I've got a few observations; if you've not seen it you'll want to skip what follows. If you do read it, bear in mind that these are nits I'm picking.

First, "Morgrim". What's up with this? Why pass over a delightful name like Fenris Ulf, with all of its mythological overtones, for the bad fantasy name "Morgrim"? This is the only change I noticed that I really do not understand the purpose of. The name has no effect on the plot; it used only a few times; why change it?

(Update: I've just been apprised by the proprietor of the Tanneroth blog that the name is "Maugrim" (which is undeniably better than "Morgrim"--and that the name "Maugrim" has always appeared in British editions of the book. OK, so what's up with "Fenris Ulf", then?)

Next, it's clear to me that expectations of children have changed since Lewis wrote the book. In Lewis' book, the housekeeper occasionally gives tours of Professor Kirke's stately old house; the children are under orders to remain out of sight and sound at such times. The four kids hide in the Wardrobe, and so all travel to Narnia, because they are trying not to be seen. In the movie, by contrast, the children are playing cricket and Edmund sends the cricket ball through a stained glass window and knocks over a suit of armor. It's not deliberate naughtiness; it was a pure accident.

I understand why the writer and director chose not to go into the house-tour thing. That's a reasonable simplification; it was just a contrivance anyway, and one contrivance will do as well as another in this case. What I find fascinating is the contrivance they chose. The four Pevensey kids are all clearly good kids--Edmund's a stinker, but he's not an out-and-out black sheep. I'd have expected them to take responsibility instead of running and hiding.

Did the director put this scene in to underscore their immaturity so as to emphasize their growth in the rest of the movie? Or did he simply need a contrivance to get them into the wardrobe? I suspect the latter, and that's troubling. We need to expect better of our kids than that.

Similarly, I have trouble with Peter and Susan's attitude towards the prophecy and towards fighting for Narnia against the White Witch. Why is it that in Hollywood movies, the hero always has to be tempted to virtue? Peter can't display resolution, fortitude, courage, or altruism right out of the box; evidently that just isn't the way kids his age are. If he took up his sword bravely, that simply wouldn't be believable.

That may well be true these days; I fear it is, though I also think it reflects the prevailing Hollywood attitude that while there might be just wars you have to go off to them with "long faces", to use Lewis' own phrase. But if it is true now, it wasn't true when the book was written.

If Peter Pevensey was a real person, he'd have been just about the age of my father, or maybe a few years younger. When my dad was fourteen or fifteen we were at war in Europe and in the Pacific, the same war in which the bombs were dropping in England. He and his brother and a number of their friends all knew that they'd be going into the service as soon as they were old enough--and they devoted themselves to daily calisthenics, weight training, gymnastics, and (of all things) boxing so as to be physically fit and ready to go to war. Part of this was undoubtedly self-interest, in that they figured they'd have a better chance of surviving if they were fit. But they knew they were going to have a job to do, and they approached it seriously, with resolution, courage, and fortitude. And it served them well. My uncle commanded a tank destroyer and was among the liberators of one of the Nazi death camps; my father served on a destroyer in the Pacific. Both of them came back alive and well, and are still with us today. Even the boxing came in handy for my dad, though that's another story.

If The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe could be shown to cinema audiences just after WWII, I expect most of the moviegoers would have been disgusted at Peter and Susan's attitude. The Witch was clearly evil; Aslan was clearly opposed to her; it would have been their duty to do what they could. Today that attitude would be seen as unrealistic at best and jingoistic warmongering at worst. That's a problem.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 27, 2005 08:29 AM