Weekly Video/DVD Picks
The Chronicles of Narnia (1988-1990)
Nov. 22 marked the 40th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, one of the 20th century's most prolific and popular Christian writers and a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien. Among Lewis' best-beloved works are The Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-volume series of children's stories that are part Christian allegory, part fantasy-adventure and part classical mythology — all baptized by a vividly Christian imagination.
For children and parents who have enjoyed the Narnia stories, this BBC series represents a unique opportunity to revisit these classic tales in a new way. Like many BBC adaptations, these made-for-TV movies are respectful, straightforward visualizations of the text of the books.
Beautiful, rugged U.K. landscapes, splendid old castles and other locations, and some impressive sets help create a sense of authenticity. At the same time, with modest production values, rudimentary special effects and uneven acting, the Chronicles can't be held even to the standard of such American TV productions as the Merlin and Arabian Nights minis-eries.
At times, the costumes and props are more reminiscent of a stage production than TV fare. However, for viewers able to exercise a suspension of disbelief comparable to what would be appropriate for a televised stage play, Lewis' spiritually rich stories come to life with excitement, beauty and magic.
Based on the first of the Narnia books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988) tells the story of how four London children discover a magical world of talking beasts and mythological creatures — but also a world gripped by perpetual winter, ruled by the cruel White Witch but rightfully belonging to the great Lion Aslan.
With its allegorical retelling of the redemptive passion, death and resurrection of Christ, this is among the most spiritually significant of Lewis' tales. Unfortunately, the BBC's first stab at Narnia is also the most limited and flawed, with full-sized adults in silly costumes playing Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and exten-sive reliance on hand-drawn animation. Fortunately, the series improves as it goes on.
Aslan himself is a well-made two-man puppet; unfortunately, Ronald Pickup as the voice of Aslan has neither the requisite authority nor the humor for the role. Among the child actors, Sophie Wilcox shines as Lucy, with her round face and genuine manner.
The second presentation, Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1989) combines two stories — Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Caspian is one of the slighter of Lewis' stories and as abbreviated here is slighter still, omitting both the spiritual lessons of the journey to Aslan's Howe and also the mythological riot of the final chapters. However, the production values are improved, and after the over-tall Beavers it's nice to see Trufflehunter the badger played by a suitably sized actress in a decent costume.
With Dawn Treader, one of the best-loved Narnian tales, the filmmakers finally hit their stride: This episode is a delight, with the Dawn Treader herself, Caspian's ship, beautifully realized, virtually every major episode covered and the Christian imagery (Eustace's transforming “baptism”, the lion looking like a lamb) and moral insights (the dangers of wealth, the fearfulness of our own inner worlds) basically intact.
The Silver Chair (1990), the third and final film in the series, is the most mature, complete and sat-isfyingly realized of all the four adapted works. Following the books, it is darker and grimmer than its predecessors, with an extended journey into darkness that calls into question the reality of everything the heroes love and believe in.
As Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle, one of Lewis' best and most vivid creations, Tom Wilson (sometime Dr. Who) is excellent. He's not the right physical type, but he nails the long-faced bog-dweller's blend of frowning pessimism, canny wisdom, steady nerve and finally heroic faith.
For dramatic reasons, Lewis' Black Knight has been made into a kind of Man in the Iron Mask; Richard Henders makes the enchanted knight too sinister and menacing rather than frivolous and giddily shallow but does better with the role when the spell is broken.
Content advisory: Fantasy menace and scary images; stylized violence.