Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What is a Daughter of Eve

I just finished watching "The Chronicles of Narnia" a few hours ago and am glad I don't have to write film criticism for a living, because I wouldn't know how to review the movie without mostly talking about myself and reading the books when I was young. When I was a little older than the usual audience -- I think 14 -- I read them all straight through in what I now only recall as a hypnotized state that lasted about two months. It took me about that long to read all seven, and even though I was a pretty omnivorous reader even back then these books were a special case because I could tell they were having a lasting effect on me. In retrospect, I realize the conditions were just right, so much so that I'd venture to say I had all the ingredients of an ideal reader: I was ignorant of most of the Christian symbolism, and so was able to ignore the figurative overtones in favor of taking the whole thing literally; I had a very idealistic but un-Christian temperament, and so took all the heroism and mysticism to heart without watering it down into the debased Scripture some like to see in it; I was an avid reader and didn't let myself lose the fairly complicated thread of the series' plot, which hopscotches hither and yon like non-readers probably wouldn't believe; and I was hungry for something to believe in, which it helped furnish even if only by accident and likely not what the author intended. The movie reminded me of all the things I liked about the books rather than really enacting them on the screen, but even for this I'm grateful.

On a purely technical level it doesn't make a hash of the job and promises that future movies with the same team will be better. The animated animals are real enough to suspend disbelief, as you'd expect, and there's just enough money in the special effects generally to keep things going without showing the strings attached to the puppetry. The youngest of the four children, Lucy, is the best actor of the bunch, which is a bit disorienting since it seems like she's about five and still hasn't got all her teeth in. The guy playing Peter has one trick -- looking boyishly into the sun at a 45-degree angle from the camera -- and pulls it off just enough for the shot to switch every time, although you can see some dangerous wavering here and there, as if he were thinking about basketball or whether he left the stove on.

If you haven't read the books and are wondering whether to see it just as a standalone movie, as a piece of entertainment, you might be misled into wondering what the big deal is about the books. And that's a shame, because even at an extended length the movie feels rushed and doesn't capture much of what made the books so great and interesting, which is the very persuasive way C. S. Lewis patiently makes you believe everything he's writing is perfectly natural and true. Most writers of fantasy, and most writers of children's books, don't have that knack. He seems to not even have to try. In fact, although I didn't have the vocabulary for it at the time, I felt something like what others feel when they read the Bible: that it is an authorless masterpiece. You can put quotes around authorless or not, and I don't because I think it cheapens the feeling, which is very real. I don't mean that even at the time I thought these things had literally happened, but that the story they described was, or should be, essentially a true one: that of good people unready to fight becoming heroes in the face of oppression, of people making fantastic journeys that last years and have deep resonant meanings, of people and the natural world doing impossible things and restoring balance and a sort of primal vigor to the fabric of life where it had been absent. These are notions that sink into you permanently if you encounter them at the right time and in the right way, and I would venture to say that in my case they did so. There are other books and other influences that had equally strong effects on me, although not necessarily in the same manner or producing the same response, but they either won't make movies out of those or should never have bothered with the messes that have been offered over the years. (You'll have to keep guessing for now -- I'm not in full soul-baring dudgeon this evening.)

It may be a bit much to hope a movie captures you many years later the same way the book did when you were young. You could always cross your fingers. But I feel like it hardly makes a difference how the movies turn out. I mean, there are "fans" of the series, who want to see the story told with as much cinematic splendor as their wildest, greediest dreams will allow. And then, I like to think, there are those who got what the books really are, which isn't a tightly plotted narrative that works well in CGI. It's a message to the heart and the conscience, written in a way that is least conducive to demonstration in film. I'll probably end up seeing as many movie versions as they come out with, out of curiosity, but I won't mistake their quality for that of the books and neither should you. In fact, you should go read them. They're good for you.

3 Comments:

Anonymous mikeswanson said...

I would consider yourself traumatized by yet another movie that should've never been like LOTR. Now when I think about Gandalf fighting the Balrog, I see the scene from the movie and wish I hadn't seen it. Oh well, hopefully in a couple years I'll have forgotten all about the movies and the books will be my own mental images again. Thanks for the tip, I'll continue to avoid that movie. I swear, does Hollywood have ANY original ideas anymore?! MI:3 WTF?!?!

11:56 PM  
Blogger charvakan said...

I never read the Narnia series. The Perelandra trilogy turned me off Lewis, despite containing some really fine, unforgettable imagery and some fairly interesting plot points. He was just so obviously preachy I couldn't stand it, ultimately. I have seen earlier made for TV adaptations of Narnia and thought they were simply silly, but this may have been the crappy BBC production values talking.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Lapp said...

Having never read the Perelandra series I can't make a comparison, although I never detected any preaching per se in the Narnia books (and I think my "stick it to the man" detector was pretty finely tuned when I was that age). Instead of telling you what you should and shouldn't do, I felt like the books sort of held up a model without being too prescriptive and showed you the value of being good for its own sake. I'm basically making this up as I go along, since I haven't read the books since then, but that's my enduring memory of them.

Now on mikeswanson's point: you didn't like the Lord of the Rings movies? Are you Gollum? Hiding in a hole? Eating living fish? Mumbling about a precious when it's in your pocket, your eyes slowly turning into lamps? Hunting through your underground lair for things whose purpose you don't remember? Riddling before the kill? Is that you? Because that would HAVE to be you, wouldn't it, to hate art. For shame, Gollum.

For shame.

9:20 PM  

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