One of the most magical effects in the big-screen version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn't rippling computer-generated fur, ice castles or battle scenes.
It's the look of wide-eyed delight on the face of young Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy Pevensie, as she passes beyond the wardrobe for the first time into the winter wonderland of the Narnian wood.
That expression is what sells the magic of the wardrobe and the wood. Speaking with the Register and other newspapers in New York, Georgie explained how director Andrew Adamson got that look.
“They actually blindfolded me,” she explained. “They passed me down the stairs, man to man, you know, into Kelly Park,” a New Zealand equestrian center where the Narnian wood stood on a set the size of a rugby field. “They took off the blindfold, and I walked out, and it was actually amazing. So actually Georgie's first reaction is actually Lucy's first reaction.”
She wasn't the only one whose actual experiences paralleled the onscreen adventure.
“The making of this movie was in itself a through-the-wardrobe experience,” commented Anna Popplewell, the film's Susan. “Going so far away, doing such unusual things. It was fun, but it was kind of daunting.”
William Moseley, her screen “brother” Peter, added, “It was like we were a family, and we really felt close.”
Sometimes, it was a little too real. Asked about the hardest part of the shoot, Anna replied, “For me, probably, the Stone Table. We filmed it over a period of three or four days. And Andrew wanted very organic reactions and real tears, so, we were crying for three or four days. I ended up with a very blocked nose. But it was rewarding to do something like that as well.”
For Adamson, whose previous feature film work is limited to the two computer-animated Shrek films, working in the real world meant learning a whole new approach to filmmaking.
“In animation, as a director, you have to think about everything,” he said. “You have to think about blinks. You have to think about dust. You have to think about every drop of rain. In live action you get that stuff for free. There's a certain thing that just happens where you put a boy in armor with a sword on a horse and he's going to feel noble, he's going to look noble.”
On the other hand, real-world actors come with challenges of their own — for example, aging.
To address this, Adamson made the unusual choice to shoot the film chronologically rather than according to production convenience.
“The kids were going to grow, there was nothing I could do about that,” said Adamson. “Even though we joked about getting Skandar [Keynes, who plays Edmund] to start smoking. He grew six inches from when I cast him to when I finished the film. And also in the story, the Narnian air does make you more mature, it does make you grow emotionally, and I wanted to portray that physically.
“So even in the beginning, I sort of planned on, particularly with William, keeping him out of the sun, getting him to be kind of a soft British schoolboy, and then as we got into the production, getting him out training with the stunt guys, getting him out horse riding, and getting him into the sun, and letting him actually physically mature onscreen. So shooting chronologically allowed me to get the benefit of both those things.”
Not all the film was shot in the real world. Some of it was created on the computer screen, an approach Adamson knew all about, but had never worked with in a photorealistic context.
The most important hurdle, of course, was the lion, C.S. Lewis's stand-in for Christ, Aslan.
“We started developing the technology for Aslan about 21/2 years ago,” said Adamson. “I knew I wanted him to be a very real, very physical, believable character that you never thought about as an effect. You just accepted him as who he was, and he had a real screen presence.”
Getting the look right was only half the battle. Aslan also needed a voice, which the director found in Liam Neeson.
“It was an interesting and challenging character to cast — to create an omnipotent being that was still accessible,” said Adamson. “Liam pursued the role. He came to me, and he offered to read for me, which was an amazing opportunity. And even over the phone, listening to him, I could hear this resonance — [despite] this tinny little speaker — this resonance, but mainly this warmth in his voice that was really ideal.”
Adamson laughed when someone pointed out the number of mentor or authority figures Neeson has played lately in films like Batman Begins, Kingdom of Heaven, and Star Wars: Episode I. “He's just reached the age of sage.”
Although Aslan was entirely computer generated (except for the Stone Table sequence, where a puppet was used), many of the fantasy creatures, such as Tumnus the faun and the centaurs, combined actors with digital effects.
°One non-human character, however, had to be brought to life entirely by the skill of the actor: the evil White Witch.
Actress Tilda Swinton explained her take on the character this way: “I, in a way, don't play a character at all, because I'm not a human. I play the epitome of all evil, which is a free pass … into all manner of nonsense. But there have been stereotypes of evil before now, and Andrew Adamson and I early on shared a secret with each other, that we felt that the stereotype of evil that shouts and screams and gets all hot under the collar has never really frightened us. And we wanted to look for something different.”
Swinton added that “getting all hot under the collar doesn't frighten [children] because if anything, it makes them know that grownups get hot too…. But the thing that children find really unfathomable, because they never actually do it, is to be cold and to be emotionally disengaged and dominating and quiet as well.”
What about the next six Narnia books? Is Adamson committed to making them as well?
“There was a point a couple of weeks ago where I was committed to never making a film again, after a year of visual effects,” he laughed.
“If anything draws me into making a sequel, it'll be the kids,” he said. “If these kids do it again, I'll probably do it again, because I care too much about them. I can't imagine letting them go to another director. I’d be worried that they might treat them in ways that I don't want them to be treated.”
When might another Narnia movie come?
“I'm packing a long vacation,” said Adamson. “I have two kids now. I didn't when I started this film. So I want to spend some time with them.”
Steven D. Greydanus is the editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Did Filmmakers Miss the Faith?
A lot of thought and effort went into getting the feel, the look, the period and the characters of C.S. Lewis's beloved fairy tale The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe right for the screen. Yet, strangely, according to the unanimous testimony of the filmmakers, one crucial element of the book was not a consideration in adapting the story: the religious significance its author filled it with.
“I didn't really think a lot about the religious aspect,” director Andrew Adamson stated at a New York press conference. “I know C.S. Lewis never really intended it to be allegory, but he definitely wrote from a place of his own belief, and a lot of people get that from the book. People can interpret the movie the same way, they can apply their personal belief and interpret the movie the same way they interpret the book.”
Do the show's actors agree?
“A lot of people know that C.S. Lewis is a well-known Christian apologist,” said Tilda Swinton, whose chilly performance brings the White Witch vividly to life. “And for a lot of people for whom that's important, that religious allegory will be important. But there are many, many millions of other people for whom it's not. And it's all still theirs. But the Christians are welcome,” she added jocularly.
William Moseley, the film's Peter, offered a similar perspective.
“I think a lot of things come down to what you believe, and who you are, and your individual perception of good or evil. Whether that's religious, or whether that's just your personal point of view. When I first read the books, I didn't see the religious aspects a tiny bit. But then I was told that it was a religious story. And I still thought it's an amazing story.”
Anna Popplewell, who plays Susan, concurred.
“What you take from the movie in terms of a message is kind of what you'll take from the book. There's a lot of room for interpretation; it's a very simple and strong story.”
Producer Mark Johnson went so far as to claim, “Lewis himself never really saw these as Christian books. Obviously he is a Christian, and imbued them with a lot of his values, but they are not specifically that. So we wanted to be true to the books, so that if you find religious meaning in the books, hopefully you'll find that in the movie also.”
What does Johnson think the books are about, if not Christianity? Johnson cited “the strength of the family, compassion, and forgiveness” as “central to the book, and hopefully to the film too. And those are values that belong to everybody.”
When a member of the Christian press pointed out that the film places one of the seven words of Christ on the cross, “It is finished,” in Aslan's mouth, Adamson seemed surprised.
“I actually honestly didn't know that,” he admitted, and went on to offer a different, non-religious interpretation of the line. “I wanted a line where he could really just turn to Peter and say, ‘It's over. It's done.’”
Adamson was not enthusiastic about the attention the religion question was getting.
“We're getting a lot of interest in that, particularly from the press. At the same time, The Matrix— huge commercial film — is the resurrection story. He's the chosen one. He goes to his death. He comes back from death, and he saves the world. I don't think the [directors] had to [answer] quite as many questions about it as I do!”
Adamson has actually said that the Witch “has to be as smart, as strong and as intense as Aslan the Lion in her confrontations with him.” Asked about this, he conceded that “Aslan was always intended to be more powerful,” but added that he “wanted to make her a significant adversary, so that it wasn't just an easy thing for Aslan to deal with.”
Johnson called Aslan and the Witch “worthy adversaries,” although he argued that the film does depict Aslan as “the smarter of the two, because he's figured out the Deep Magic in a way that she hadn't.” Later, Adamson acknowledged that Aslan is “omnipotent.”
C.S. Lewis's omnipotent lion does come to life in grand fashion on the screen, along with much — but not all — of the book's religious meaning, whether the filmmakers realized it or not. For more, see the review on page 14.
— Steven G. Greydanus