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action version (sometimes mixing animation with the live shots) made in the late 1980’s. Both of these versions were originally made for television.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. (I am also trying to obtain a copy of the BBC Radio 4 production that aired in the 1980’s, and will include a review of it if I can.)
In November and December of 1988, BBC TV released The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 6 weekly half-hour episodes. These were later edited into a feature-length film on VHS, and later, DVD (now available online in secondary markets like eBay and Amazon Marketplace). The teleplay was written by Australian playwright Alan Seymour.
Like the American animated version from 1979, the script is very faithful to the book by C S Lewis. Unlike the animated version, the BBC adaptation does not update the characters, but firmly places the setting in World War 2.
In Narnia Nostalgia Part 1, it was asserted that the omissions in the animated film reveal more about it than its overall faithfulness to the book. For the BBC version, the additions to the story are the most revealing.
Lewis is very brief in his description of the circumstances surrounding the Pevencies stay in the professor’s home, so it is only natural that a video version of the story would need to add some dialogue. The personalities of the children are portrayed in their conversation on the train,1 perhaps painting Lucy as a bit more fearful, and Edmund as more adventurous, than Lewis intended. But the conversation does set the scene and let the viewer know the reason for situation.
In the book, Lewis introduces the housekeeper and servants, but gives no details except their names, saying that “they do not come into the story much.” In the video, the housekeeper is portrayed as a stereotypical British highbrow who insists on putting the servants “in their place.” One wonders if Lewis’s Digory Kirk would have allowed his household staff to be so treated.
Another addition to the story has to do with the Pevensies attitude toward the coats in the wardrobe. In the book, neither Lucy nor Edmund think to take coats into Narnia during the first two visits. The fact that they are cold and coatless is a factor in their reactions to what they discover there. In the video, both don the coats the very first time they enter. The comments from the book about not taking the coats out of the wardrobe are strangely transferred to the boots Susan has found when they all find themselves in Narnia. If they are worried about taking the boots, why weren’t they worried about taking the coats?
When Edmund first meets the White Witch, she invites him into the sledge and puts her mantle around him. We do not get the same cozy picture in the video as he does not even sit next to her. He already has a coat, so her offer to put a mantle around him is not exactly tempting. An important visual has been inexplicably lost – not exactly what you should want to do when adapting a book to a visual media!
The Witch also displays powers which are not attributed to her in the book. When the package of Turkish Delight is created, the Witch causes it to float in the air to Edmund and untie itself of it own accord. She also creates a tent out of thin air in which they continue their chat. The magic displayed in the book is used as a snare to hold Edmund captive to the designs of the White Witch. The sudden appearance of a tent seems rather gratuitous and purposeless to what Lewis was trying to convey.
Magical abilities are also bestowed upon Aslan which are not included in the book. In the film, the untame lion, with the girls on his back, flies from the Stone Table to the Witch’s Castle, while the book he merely runs while carrying the girls, although he is able to jump over the castle wall. The reason for this probably has more to do with the limitations of the animatronics and other special effects2 available and affordable at the time than anything else.
While the resurrected Son of the Emperor of the Sea may have more Supermanian abilities than just being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the ability to fly is never used by Aslan himself in the books. As the deity of Christ was veiled while on earth, Aslan’s true nature is somewhat hidden when he visits Narnia.
Another disappointing addition has to do with how the appearance of Father Christmas is handled. In the book, his coming, representing the beginning of the end of the Witch’s power, is very subtle. A first-time reader may easily miss the clue Lewis gives when the Witch tells her Dwarf to get the sledge ready using the harness without bells. In the movie, this detail is repeatedly articulated by the Witch so that it can not be missed. She intends to sneak up on the children unheard.
Ironically, when the beavers and the three children hear a sledge coming, no bells are heard. Perhaps in order to fool the viewer, the director decided to keep the bells unheard until Father Christmas is actually seen, but this is a cheat. The point in the book is that when they hear the bells the group (and the unobservant reader) will assume the Witch is upon them. The film insults the viewer, while Lewis intends for the reader to discover subtle clues, perhaps upon a second reading.
One welcome addition is the children on the beach splashing in the ocean after they have been installed as Kings and Queens. This is, of course, a nod to a scene in Prince Caspian, which the next BBC movie, Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, will not take the time to include. More on this next time.
1See Memorable quotes for “The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe” Episode #1.1 at IMDb.com.
2Other scenes affected by the limits of the special effects used were the knighting of Peter and Edmund and the crowning of the children at Cair Paraevel. The problem of Aslan using a sword in the ceremony is overcome (somewhat to the viewer’s dissatisfaction) by the lion touching his chin to their shoulders. And, since the stuffed lion used in the video could not be manipulated to hold a crown, special effects are used to show the crowns appearing out of nowhere and descending upon their heads. The limits of special effects may also be the reason for the strange means of the Witch’s death, who falls off a ledge instead of being killed by Aslan hurling himself upon her.