As someone who enjoys both writers, the key point to me about C.S. Lewis has always been precisely that he’s not Tolkien. Narnia and Middle Earth represent two fundamentally opposite ways of approaching the fantasy genre – one linguistic-historical, the other theological. Tolkien’s world is richly-imagined, almost baroque; Middle Earth is a true cornucopia of detail, an alternate universe of culture and myth and history and language so compelling, that in it’s greater context the characters themselves seem almost like afterthoughts, as though Tolkien was simply using them to explore his larger fantasy. Narnia, by contrast, is a much flatter country, more idea than place, a flawed, inconsistent world (how, for example, can you go hunting in a world where the animals are your subjects) whose very thinness makes it magical. Lewis, it seems to me, spares the bare minimum amount of effort into making Narnia credible – his concern is primarily with larger questions of faith and morality, not with the details of some mythic world that is, to him, little more than a convenient setting for his moralistic story. What makes Narnia compelling, if at all, is not the wealth of detail, but their very sparseness, so that the few details that Lewis does put in (that glorious lamppost growing out of the earth, for example) shine out in all their sublime glory.
In the end, though, the magic of the Narnia Chronicles is less about Narnia and more about the key characters – about Lucy and Aslan and Edmund and Peter. It is Tolkien who is interested in the grand sweep of events, Tolkien who is trying to create a new epic; Lewis’s book is little more than a simple fable, a book for that ephemeral quality of mind that we call childhood, and the difference between the two is the difference between myth and religion. That Tolkien’s is the grander work, that Tolkien himself is the more compelling, more talented writer, is, to me unquestionable – but comparing Lewis to Tolkien is like comparing some pristine country inn to the Ritz-Carlton; if there’s a book that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should be compared to, I would think it’s Peter Pan, not Lord of the Rings.
This is a point that’s completely wasted on the makers of the new movie version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In their telling of it, Lewis’s story looks and sounds exactly like the Lord of the Rings, and suffers terribly in the comparison. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not a long book, and is more aptly described as achingly simple than grand, but the makers of the movie have stretched it out into a two and a half hour melodrama, and the result is a movie that grows exceedingly long and incredibly thin. Mere lines in the book take up five to ten minutes on the screen, so that the momentum of Lewis’s imagination lags badly, and the worst things about the book – it’s sentimentalism, it’s lack of coherent logic, things that are easily glossed over in the simplicity and understatement of Lewis’s writing – get blown out of proportion here.
The result is a film that can only be described as dreary. The battle scenes seem fake, the heroism of the children is undermined, and Aslan converted into a tangible lion rather than a sort of overarching presence, is diminished. Part of the problem is that the book is more verbal than visual – Lewis has a great gift for conveying things to your imagination that cannot be expressed visually. In the book, for instance, the retreat of winter from Narnia is an event of absolute ecstasy, to read the description of it is to experience a quickening of the pulse, a lightening of the heart. In the movie it’s just a lot of silly special effects.
Not that the movie is a complete failure. The parts that still work are the parts where the special effects are laid aside and the characters become the focus. Georgie Henley does a wonderful job as Lucy Pevensie, and her simple, feeling nature is even more the centre of the film that it was of the book. In general, the performances here are good (Jim Broadbent puts in a wonderful cameo as the professor) and if the film makers had just not tried to put in so many special effects, had only managed to shake off the ghost of LOTR, this could have been a good, if not great, movie.
As it is, it’s one long yawn of a film, best avoided, or (if, like me, you have to see it because it’s Narnia – no matter how crummy) then fitfully slept through. There is a deep magic in Narnia, but you won’t find it in this film.