But For a Curiously Empowered Witch ...

The big-screen debut of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a momentous event, in some ways evoking a perfect storm of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Passion of the Christ.

Based on the beloved first volume of The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, it's a faith-inflected tale of a war of good vs. evil in a fantasy land with mythic creatures, like The Lord of the Rings, minus the obligatory large-scale story compression and PG-13 battlefield brutality of Peter Jackson's films.

As an ensemble story of 20th-century British schoolchildren caught up in a world of magic and danger, it evokes the Harry Potter stories, though without the moral debates about witchcraft and rule-breaking and the like.

And with its central motif of a divine being who defeats a chilly icon of evil by laying down his life to bring salvation before triumphing over death and evil, it recalls The Passion of the Christ, but without the troubling arguments about anti-Semitism or the almost unbearable brutality.

First-time live-action director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2) assembles a fine cast, with Georgie Henley as little Lucy Pevensie and Tilda Swinton (Constantine) as the evil White Witch particularly outstanding in crucial roles. Aslan, the great and terrible Lion who is the true King of Narnia, is an astounding digital creation, the quintessence of lion-ness more than an ordinary lion, voiced with authority and warmth by Liam Neeson.

Like Middle Earth in Peter Jackson's films, Narnia itself, held snowbound for a hundred years by the witch's magic, has been scouted or created in New Zealand, yet the Narnian forests and plains feel more intimate and less expansive than Jackson's immense vistas and endless mountain ranges.

Surprisingly, despite a lot of publicity concerning the film's fidelity to Lewis — not to mention education-oriented Walden Media's previous track record of ultra-faithful adaptations like Holes and Because of Winn-Dixie— the film follows its source material less closely than, say, the Harry Potter films. In many ways it's more of a Lord of the Rings-style adaptation, with the action ramped up, incidents changed, deleted or added, and characters reinterpreted.

Some of the changes made by Adamson and his co-screenwriters honor or even enhance Lewis’ story while adapting it to the needs of the screen. A case of briefly mistaken identity, suspenseful in the book, is given an exciting twist in the film; a character's decision to tell a lie is given more context in a way that makes perfect emotional and narrative sense. Purists will object to a number of added action scenes where Lewis had only an uneventful forced march, though in themselves these don't harm the essence of the story.

Other changes, though, do compromise Lewis’ story in basic ways. One of the most emphatic points of Lewis's story is the utter lack of parity between the omnipotent Aslan and the powerful but limited witch. The whole vision of good and evil at work in the story turns on the fact that the witch is never even close to being a rival or threat to Aslan, any more than Lucifer to Christ himself. In fact, the Narnia stories as a whole establish, and Lewis elsewhere confirms, that Aslan is not just a Christian allegory or “Christ figure,” but is literally meant to be the Second Person of the Trinity as a lion rather than a man.

Though the film never contradicts this, numerous changes undermine Lewis's systematic emphasis on the witch's limitations and Aslan's transcendence, making them seem more like comparable rivals than Lewis intended.

Significant plot points are omitted: The witch's initial ignorance about Edmund's species (“What are you? Are you a great overgrown dwarf that has cut off its beard?”); Mr. Beaver's confident assertions of the still-unseen Aslan's supremacy over the witch and all evil (“If she can stand on her own two feet and look him in the face, it'll be the most she can do and more than I expect”); even the notion of Aslan preexisting the witch, the Deep Magic, and time itself (“Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time…”).

Even more crucially, the film subverts Lewis's consistent portrayal of the witch's clear fear of Aslan. This is nowhere more glaring than in the parley scene: Where the book has the witch send her dwarf as an emissary to beg safe conduct from Aslan before she will approach him, the film depicts the witch fearlessly entering Aslan's camp on a royal litter with her dwarf acting as herald proclaiming her arrival. In Lewis, the parley ends with the terrified witch fleeing for her life at the sound of Aslan's roar; in the film, she responds to his roar by looking a little shaken and sitting down a bit hard in her litter before being carried off.

By the end, though, it's unambiguously clear that the witch has no power like Aslan's, and that he understands mysteries that are beyond her. Lewis’ point is thus ultimately affirmed, though it isn't clear throughout the story as Lewis intended it to be.

The cardinal motifs of guilt and consequences, sacrifice and redemption, death and resurrection remain embedded in the story. The witch's long winter (“always winter, and never Christmas”) lies on the land like the curse of the Fall, and Aslan's rescue-mission raid on the witch's house evokes the harrowing of hell.

And at least one touch, a strategically deployed echo of the sixth of Christ's seven words from the cross, suggests a deliberate nod to the story's religious meaning (likely the work of one of Adamson's co-writers, since the director himself has confessed that he didn't know the reference).

Though it brings Lewis’ story to life imperfectly, Adamson's film adds new dimensions to the experience of this story of wonder and redemption. Viewers unfamiliar with Lewis will experience something of his story and themes, and in many cases will discover the books for the first time.

Viewers who know the books will return to them after seeing the film, grateful to the film for what it adds to them — and to the books for what the film leaves out.

Content advisory: Recurring fantasy action and violence and some menace to children, including a basically bloodless but intense battle sequence. Might be a bit much for sensitive children.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.