Walden Media was not the first to bring The Chronicles of Narnia to film. There were also an animated version in 1979, and a live action version (sometimes mixing animation with the live shots) made in the late 1980’s. Both of these versions were originally made for television. Here on Narnia Features I will be reviewing these productions, as well as the Radio Theater version of the Chronicles produced in the late 1990’s and early this century. One review is planned each month.
On Sunday April 1, 1979 and the following day, CBS aired an animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in two parts. The show was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street, The Electric Company), Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation, and others. An animated version of The Hobbit by Rankin/Bass (Frosty the Snowman) had aired just a year and a half earlier on NBC.
Both adaptations followed the books rather faithfully, except that the animation in The Hobbit was rather goofy at times, to say the least. (See Getting Tolkien Wrong.) The animation for the Narnia book was much better–the creatures are drawn pretty much as you would expect them to look. The CTW version is also the only video version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to get the girls’ hair color right,* although the Pevencies are given a much more modern look. (The World War 2 setting is not used.)
The dialog in the show also follows that of the book, usually verbatim. The differences are usually due to changing some Briticisms, updating expressions, and abridging for time. The scriptwriter generally makes wise choices on what to cut, and what to leave in.
While it can be assumed that the filmmakers’ faithfulness to the book shows their respect for the abilities of C S Lewis, the parts that are removed reveal more about the film than what is preserved.
The first obvious omission is the setting of the story. It is never explained why the children are in the Professor’s house. The story begins with Lucy coming out of the Wardrobe for the first time and announcing “I’m back.” While beginning the story this way is not ineffective, the details of how the children come to be in the home are never explored. Perhaps the writers felt the target audience of young children would not be able to relate.
Another change is the impression the Professor leaves with the two older children when they come to him about Lucy’s “delusions.” The explanation of why Lucy’s story is believable is left intact, but he does not end with the statement that “everyone should mind his own business.” Instead, he responds that he does not know what they should do, and the next scene shows them immediately going into the wardrobe. The writers apparently do this to speed up the story, but this is incongruous with what the Professor will tell the children at the end of the story about not “trying” to go to Narnia. Narnia does not come when you are looking for it.
The next noticeable absence (to devoted fans, anyway) is the Robin. The Robin is important in the book because it is Lewis’s first hint of the return of spring. This is perhaps not an essential element to the story, but it is missed, and no air time is actually saved by leaving it out, since Mr. Beaver is merely introduced sooner.
The same goes for the children (minus Edmund, of course) meeting Father Christmas. They do hear the sleigh bells, but by the time they get out of the Beavers’ hiding place, he is gone. (The Christmas gifts are given to the children later by Aslan himself.) Unlike the book, the children meet the Fox’s party near the hiding place, and are told Father Christmas had been there. When the White Witch comes upon the scene later, one of the young ones lets it slip they have seen the children and the beavers. After turning the festive group into stone, the Witch redoubles her efforts to catch the children.
Obviously it was decided that the story needed some excitement at this point, which apparently is why the changes were made. The chase scene is intensified as the Witch actually sees the children just before the sledge begins to get stuck in the melting snow.
Excitement is also created by showing the battle with the Witch before Aslan arrives. All of the video versions of the story do this. They all include a scene (mentioned after the fact in the book) of Edmund destroying the Witch’s wand and Edmund being injured. While later versions make the Witch the instrument of Edmund’s wound, in the CTW version he is wounded by someone else. The book does not make it clear how he was hurt.
All three films also show Peter going after the Witch after Edmund is wounded, which is not specified in the book. But, of course, it is Aslan who saves the day. (How the Witch dies in the BBC version is a bit peculiar, but we will save that for another day.)
All in all, the Children’s Television Workshop animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a commendable rendition of the book, especially considering the time period in which it was made and the target audience of young children. Not at all a bad way to introduce your child to the series.
* In the last chapter of the book, it is mentioned that when they grow up in Narnia, Susan has “black hair that fell almost to her feet,” and Lucy was “golden-haired.” In the BBC live action version, the characters’ hair color is reversed. Susan is known for her better looks, so perhaps the BBC filmmakers, consciously or unconsciously, were influenced by modern stereotypes in choosing the actors for the roles. Of course, in the Walden version both girls have black hair, perhaps avoiding the stereotypes. Could the description in the book reveal Lewis’s own preferences?
The Children’s Workshop animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released on VHS in 1991 and DVD in 2005. The video is available in secondary markets such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace.