Tips for a New Narnia Movie from an Amateur Lewis scholar/fan

I believe that eventually someone is going to make a new Narnia movie because the last ones failed to satisfy. I think the central problem of making a book into a movie is to stay true to the heart and story of the book, while still making an actual movie and not just a book-on-film. Here are some suggestions.

  1. Realize that Aslan is the heart of Narnia, the whole reason for writing the books. Consequently, Aslan must be depicted in a certain way in order for the movies to come to life. (Details tofollow the outline!)
  2. Realize that visiting children do not behave normally in Narnia, and should not be depicted as behaving normally. There’s a reason for their behavior. They are stand-ins for the reader, and they behave like a child behaves in his own imagination while reading a book.
  3. Realize that despite his popularity, St. Jack is still basically a misunderstood eccentric – even a bit of a crank. No deeply conventional person can truly become his creative partner. And no fan wants to see him whitewashed.
  4. Realize that for Lewis, the most important thing about any story was its quality – its “isness.” The quality of Narnia is book-medievalness. It is the sort of fabled medievalness that one mentally generalizes after reading lots of stories, poems, and history about medieval times, ranging from serious history to artifacts of the time to fairy stories.  This quality saturates every character in Narnia and seduces every outsider who enters. Modernity cannot survive in Narnia – not in the faintest mode of thought or speech. See point 3.

Now to elaborate.

In The Voyage of the Dawntreader, Aslan tells the children why they have been brought to Narnia. They’ve been brought so they can get to know him, Aslan, and having done so, be able to recognize him in the form he takes in their own world. Since the children in the books are stand-ins for the reader, besides being characters, it seems pretty clear that this is not just Aslan telling children why they fell through a picture into another world, but also the author telling the reader why he wrote the books. For the reader, reading the books is analogous to entering Narnia.

Many Christians will want to insist on Aslan being Christ or an image of Christ. And for people reading with a Christian theological consciousness it certainly works. However, when becoming the creative partner of C. S. Lewis, one must respect his creative parameters. He left this analogy to insinuation and did not insist on it, and the filmmaker should not insist on it either (although he will want to remain culturally sensitive to the close identification between the two characters, Aslan and Christ, in the mind of many fans.) However, Aslan can also be seen as an embodiment of certain virtues – lordliness, feirceness, sacrifice, democracy, kingliness, lovingkindness, sportiveness, humility, justice, and wisdom. And, most importantly of all to Lewis, realness.

For both Lewis and Tolkien, spiritual or higher reality should never be wispy. It is characterized by its increased “realness.” It is more vivid, more energetic, more eager, more swift, more agile, more intelligent, more responsive, more creative, and more alive. Consequently, Aslan must be depicted as the most sensitive, alive, energetic, powerful, willful, and vivid of characters. His voice most modulate and flow and rise and fall and express every feeling and thought more tellingly than any other character. His face must be more, not less, expressive than the others. He must encompass both certainty and mystery.

It may seem improper to some for St. Jack to have written a series of adventure stories just to teach children about virtues. This is to misunderstand, as Brian and Jonathan misunderstood, the type of connection felt by the Lewis crowd between the virtuous trinity. It was precisely to avoid a teaching approach to virtue that he put these virtues in the form of an adventure story.

For Lewis, the essence of being a good person was to honestly and thoroughly prefer good to bad, to the point of turning to good and doing good even when tested. This preference for good reflects man’s nature as a critical being – a person who at the heart of him constantly judges and appraises, saying “yes” or “no” in varying measures to everything he encounters.

What, in turn, is at the heart of this preference that is at the heart of human goodness? It is precisely an aesthetic act – the act of enjoying.

To return to Aslan, whether he is Jesus written into the story in the cloak of a Lion, or whether he is simply the aggregate of Christly virtues, the whole point of the stories is for children to enjoy Aslan by going through adventures with him in their imaginations, so that when they meet with like persons and virtues in the real world (perhaps Christ himself) they will find themselves preferring those persons and virtues to others. It is moral education by means of the aesthetic imagination through the medium of literature. Change that to “the medium of film” and you’ve got Narnia, The Movie. For the first time.

To that end, the first endeavor of a proper Narnia movie must be to make Aslan attractive to children. He must be deeply, excitingly enjoyable. They must, well, lionize him. They should go home pretending to be him.

A lot more imagination, then, has got to go into the next film Aslan. I suggest first of all that one of his primary characteristics as an animated character should be his morphing ability. In the books he can morph from a tabby cat to a regular lion to his own massive self. He can walk upright like a human or run on all fours like an animal. Like Lewis commented about the animals in The Wind in the Willows, his animal mask must sometimes grow very thin, almost revealing the man beneath.

I suggest that when he is walking upright his body – though never his head – should grow almost manlike in physique. When he goes on all fours he should explicitly morph back into a more beastlike lion.

His face should be extremely expressive. His mane should even be somewhat expressive – like an anime character’s hair.

Not only his design, but his part in the story, should be more vivid and exciting. He should be the hero that must go through agonies, triumph, and receive his desire. Especially in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the children should not be treated as quite the main characters. There is no need to invent conflicts and dilemmas and character growth for them. They are spectacles through which the viewer sees, and loves, The Great Lion.

Which brings me to my second point. The children, when they arrive in Narnia, immediately get caught up in Narnian concerns. They do not worry about what is going on at home. It is not that they are enchanted – far from it. Rather, Narnia becomes, for the time being, more real to them than the home they left behind – just as the imaginary world in a book is more engrossing to the true reader than what is going on around him. He is not anxious to leave. His primary anxiety is to acquit himself admirably. If, like Edmond in LWW, or Eustace in Voyage, he experiences a different sort of desire, that is a sort of illness of the imagination. It needs to be cured. For Lewis, it would have been no admirable behavior for a child to be faced with the imaginative world of Narnia, and to be worrying about Mum and Dad. What an unadventurous child that would be! More importantly, what a deceived child. For Lewis, the imaginary world held forth, in a clarity not available in the mundane world, the things permanent and therefore really mattering. Any sane person would become caught up in it and prefer it to grown-up worries – that is to say, worries that are necessary in this passing-away world but still unnecessary to the appreciation of that end for which mankind was created.

As for the third point, a politically correct Narnia would be an abomination. Yes, girls fighting in battles generally makes those battles uglier. Not because women are weak or secondary to men or lacking in courage, but because they are largely fiercer and more wild once brought to that extremity; because their fighting instinct, rarely activated and even more rarely trained, is given to them to defend helpless children at the last necessity, not to learn war as an art and a way of life. And therefore women who must fight comprise a force to de-civilize war. And war, in a medieval world, is exceedingly civilized. That is half the charm of that world. Well, that and the fact that it’s part of manly nature to want some things to themselves. No man who is not part of some male society is fully masculine. Lewis felt and enjoyed this aspect of his own masculinity keenly. Female envy did not tame him in life and should not tame him in death.

If you think you have found something conventional and tame in Lewis’ thought or world, you have not understood what you found. And you probably should not be making a movie of his books. He is deeply traditional, but in his – and our – milieu, that is a protest, not a conformity. He found exceedingly creative ways to be traditional in a non-traditional world, and that’s his great achievement. It shouldn’t be undone – certainly not in his own name.

Fourthly, by the time the four children leave Narnia at the end of LWW, they have all but forgotten where they came from. They speak with a precision, gentleness, and nobility unavailable to our world, in which “demons are unmaking language” to quote a Lewis poem. They hold themselves to a level of manner and behavior that our peers would scoff at as pretentious and unnecessary  – and they do it with utter sincerity and innocence. They have, in short, lost their modernity. That is the fate of everyone who spends time in Narnia – the more time, the stronger the effect.

A move-maker depicting Narnia must leave his modernity behind as much as possible. He must not guiltily bow to modern values or casually import modern language where Lewis eradicated it. He must not condescend to his audience. He must assume, as Lewis so successfully did, that the medievalness of his world would charm and appeal to youngsters perennially, not as a matter of taste but simply because the uncorrupted choose realness whenever they can get it.

I suggest finding a medievalist if possible to consult on the film.

5 thoughts on “Tips for a New Narnia Movie from an Amateur Lewis scholar/fan

  1. All good comments, but the larger issue is wwhether ANY movie can adequately convey Narnia. The nature of the medium makes it nearly impossible.

    BTW, care to comment on Bob Dylan getting the Nobel prize for literature.

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    • I wish I could comment on it but I’ve never paid any attending either to Dylan or the Nobel Prize. I guess in a general way I can say that prizes only mean something when they award expression of a value held by the whole of society. In a society so ideologically divided as ours prizes are almost bound to become methods of furthering agendas. But I don’t know for sure that’s what this is about.

      I think a film Narnia is just as plausible as a book Narnia or a poem Narnia. True, Lewis thought there was “death in the camera” but he only ever saw one movie and it was a bad one. He couldn’t forsee Peter Jackson – though he clearly foresaw Guillermo del Toro.

      I think film is still coming into its own as an art form but like any other it already has its own language of conventions. They key is to express the Narnia qualities, thoughts, stories and characters in the conventions of film rather than in book conventions – without altering the relation of events that creates the essential drama of the story. Drama is common to both film and literary stories so there’s no reason to alter that. Obviously makers of film-versions of books are still figuring that out.

      It does seem that a Marxist/Darwinian/Freudian tradition of story-telling has afflicted the growth of film conventions. What I mean is that film story-tellers seem to hold harder than book writers to the false premise that the soul of story is conflict. You can clearly see this affecting the way that the children behave in the film version of ‘Wardrobe.’

      I think these are specific problems that can be pinpointed so we don’t have to put it down to something so general as the quality of Narnia not being adaptable to film portrayals.

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      • I will give you an example of what I am trying to get at: The best film I have ever seen from a literary source is Apocalypse Now. A resetting of Joseph Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness. A 2 and a half hour movie for a 38000 word story. Even then the movie only traced the broad outlines if story and character that Conrad’s work did a more complete job of.

        The compression and layering of time that is easily handled in literature is almost impossible in film. The medium is too linear in my opinion even with all sorts of CGI. Plus I was an extra in a movie once. Took a week to film what turned out to be a less than 5 minute scene on the screen. The inefficiency of movie making is mind-boggling. The lack of control of even the most dedicated “Artur” is also a major difference. In writing Narnia the only interactions were between Lewis and his characters. Many more influences at work in movies

        I hope I am wrong. It would be great to see a successful movie of Narnia.

        As to Dylan I think you are spot on. Had not thought of it that way. I think the whole thing is hilarious. Unfortunately it shows how narcissistic “literature” has become.

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  2. I though the first Narnia film portrayed Aslan relatively well. It was one of the few attempts at a faithful portrayal of Lewis’ works in the film. But you’re right, it still wasn’t good enough.

    As to what needs to be improved for an at least halfway decent film about the books;
    I agree with Michael. It is very difficult given the medium. Much of the critical part of the books focuses on the internal feelings and thoughts of the characters, which (like the modern Game of Thrones, where the character of the Dwarf is not half as funny as in the books), and without the clumsy device of a “thought” whisper or a narrator (the latter of which might have actually improved the film). The musical score should probably be something renaissance or medieval. Also, all modern/postmodern ideas/thoughts should be eliminated.

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