Adaptation is the name of the game in Hollywood these days, and the 2005 holiday season is full of it. Aeon Flux comes from an MTV animated show. Memoirs of a Geisha, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Brokeback Mountain all come from bestselling contemporary books, with Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist representing the classics. Yours, Mine & Ours and King Kong are remakes of previous Hollywood flicks. Rent is based on the hit Broadway musical. And A History of Violence comes from a comic book. Into this veritable throng of old ideas strides another, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, a screen translation of the first book in C.S. Lewis's beloved fantasy series. It's a film that demonstrates what adaptation should be all about.
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe follows the adventures of four English siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—who are sent to the countryside during World War II. In the house of a mysterious professor (the delightful, but sadly underused, Jim Broadbent), the children discover a wardrobe that leads to Narnia, a magical but frozen world of mythical creatures and talking animals. As they journey, the siblings are drawn into an epic war.
It has been years since I read the Chronicles, so my memory of details is sketchy, but I can say that the film feels like a very true adaptation. Andrew Adamson (director of both Shrek films) brings C.S. Lewis's set to life with beautiful CGI (I personally loved the gryphons, which are amazingly real), elaborate costumes, and fantastic cinematography (much of the film was shot in New Zealand). Adamson never makes it as silly or as mocking as Shrek, however, choosing instead to sprinkle moments of levity throughout.
Tilda Swinton leads a stellar cast as the White Witch, dominating every scene she touches. All four of the children are well-played, especially the young and curious Lucy (Georgie Henley), who must first convince her three elder siblings that Narnia really exists. And Liam Neeson lends an air of sage-like power to the film, providing the voice of the CGI lion Aslan.
The Christian undertones and symbolism of the Chronicles have often stirred up controversy, and the new film certainly doesn't bury any of that subtext. But neither does it throw the religious elements in the audience's face. Disney plays the balancing act well—those who want to draw religious parallels will find them readily available, and those who just want to be transported to a magical world can let themselves be carried away without bother.
The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe is such a powerful adaptation because it manages to capture the spirit and emotions of the novel and pass them on to the audience. We share Lucy's joyful fascination and curiosity as she explores a newfound fantasy realm. We cringe or weep when the White Witch turns yet another animal to frozen stone. And we cannot help but be swept up in the tide of battle when it finally comes. In its most expensive movie to date (with an estimated budget of $150 million), Disney has created a masterpiece that truly brings C.S. Lewis's imaginary world to life on the silver screen. With any luck, it will be the first in a series of films that will never disappoint.
Neil is a an aspiring writer who dreams of being a movie critic someday. He writes part-time for a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio, while washing dishes full-time at night to pay the bills and writing movie reviews on the side.