From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: Time Ba–um hey actually The Chronicles of Narnia

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, The Company of Wolves, Legend, and The NeverEnding Story. We know we promised Time Banditry this month but circumstances prevented this. . . the circumstances being that Molly had an allergic reaction to the attempts we made to watch the film–twice–and so it’s been postponed. Indefinitely. Instead, we’re wrestling with another cinematic masterpiece featuring dwarves. . .

Film: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (BBC series 1988)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Source material by J.R.R. Tolkien (just seeing if you’re paying attention). Direction by Marilyn Fox, who did other beeb tv shows such as Five Children and It, and scripts by Alan Seymour, who also did a lot of BBC work, including the scripts for the other Narnia adaptations. Acting by sundry moppets (Richard Dempsey, Sophie Cook, Jonathan R. Scott, and Sophie Wilcox), as well as Jeffrey S. Perry, Michael Alridge, Barbara Kellerman, and, of course, Big Mick. Music by Geoffrey Burgon, who also did Brideshead Revisited, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and other programs your great-aunt was probably fond of.

Quote: “The Witch knew the Deep Magic, but there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time.”

Alternate quote: “Turkish Delight for the little prince?”

First viewing by Molly: Young enough that I was convinced the two dudes in the Aslan suit were a real lion.

First viewing by Jesse: Young enough that my parents still only had PBS—cable came late in our house.

Most recent viewing by both: Last week. Molly wanted to watch them and we were all like “oh, we’ll use it for the November FM column. . . yeah.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Immense. I know reminiscing is all part of this project, but talking about Narnia always feels a little too personal for comfort. When I was but a wee Tanz, my father read them all to me aloud, probably more than once. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was the first chapter book (!) I ever read by myself. When we first watched the BBC series, I was in awe—the dialogue is all lifted straight from the book, and the aesthetic of the production was very close to my vision. . . well, um, definitely lumpier than my vision, which was entirely informed by the amazing illustrations. I know this is supposed to be about the film and not the books, but they’re pretty much the same for me, and ok you know what? I’m merely setting up the unbelievable amount of slack I’m about to cut this low-budget, badly-acted nightmare of an adaptation.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Negligible. We were more of a Hobbit household, and while I read the first few books in the Narnia series I never really got into it. I remember liking the miniseries when I saw it, but I have the anglophile gene that makes you think all BBC productions are awesome even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Nervous but happy. I figured Jesse was going to crack wise throughout, and, given the scatological nature of his sense of humor, that I’d have to stick my fingers in my ears to avoid feeling icky (Jesse says: another vote of confidence from the Tanz. Wonderful.). Also I should mention that we didn’t have to rent these. . . I still own the VHS copies my parents bought, at this point, literally decades ago.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Not quite chomping at the bit, but given some of the titles I plan on inflicting upon Molly for future columns I knew I should just grit my teeth and think of England. After all, revisiting the series couldn’t possibly be more painful than re-watching other BBC shows I enjoyed growing up, such as the Young Ones episode where Vyvyan went to Narnia.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Well, yeah. It’s. . . not the best. I’ve ranted at length elsewhere about the new Narnia films—which should be a lot fucking better than they are, given the budget, the cast, the it’s-not-1988-anymore, the everything—but the old BBC series. . . come on. It’s just like. . . hey, you know what? Clearly this is a production done in good faith, with less ham-fisted “OH NOEZ IF WE KEEP IT THE SAME IT WILL OFFEND PEOPLE MAYBE” that infuses the new films (and, come to think about it, the execrable Golden Compass movie, for the opposite but still somehow the same reason). It’s a loving effort by people who care, in a completely sincere manner. And it shows.

The story of LWW will immediately turn off those without a high tolerance for C.S. Lewis’ writing style, which can be summed up quite nicely as MY ALLEGORIES, LET ME SHOW YOU THEM. The children playing the Pevensies are all dreadful. The production values are more impressive on the level of “for what money they had, they did all right!” than anything else. And yet. . . they captivate me utterly. From the moment that first French horn starts tootin’, I’m there on that railway platform with the Pevensies, being awkward in front of Professor Kirke, feeling their anticipation over discovering foxes! badgers! on the grounds, disappointed over the rainy day that leads Lucy to the wardrobe. When Mr. Tumnus (who is just this guy in hairy pyjama-bottoms) shows up with his parcels and his umbrella and his tail tucked over his arm, I am there in a state of wonder with Lucy. I still to this day get really upset during the scene where the wicked monsters bind and shave Aslan. Seriously! Go ‘head and laugh, internet. I don’t even care. So there. Go ‘head and talk amongst yourselves about the problem of Susan and the clunky Jesus stuff and the terrible beaver costumes—I’ll be over here, hanging out in the woods with the talking stags and fauns and dryads and sundry mythical beasts having a goddamn picnic. We’ll get up in a few hours and see who had more fun.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Considering I wasn’t the target audience when I was a kid, I’m definitely not the target audience now—Narnia just isn’t my bag. There’s some cool stuff in there, like talking foxes and wolves and evil witches and Children Having Adventures, so by all rights I should like it, but it just isn’t my thing. I feel a little hamstringed even trying to write about it here because it’s such a cherished work for so many people, and given that I’m not crazy about the source material bad-mouthing this particular production seems akin to yelling at somebody else’s puppy for piddling on somebody else’s carpet. I mean, I can take the piss all day from things that I loved as a kid but now see for the atrocities that they are, but am less keen about ragging on this when I never had a deep level of affection for it in the first place.

It would certainly be different if this had featured star actors and a massive budget, but considering it looks to have been for about fifty bucks, I feel some amount of slack-cutting is probably in order. I mean, fifty dollars is only like, what, thirty pounds sterling? The Aslan “effect” is, as Molly pointed out, two guys in a lion suit, for His sake—you know, the kind of costume where one person has to be the animal’s posterior? Although I suppose if one does have to play the part of an animal’s ass on tv, being a Jesus metaphor’s bottom is probably as good as it gets. Hmmm, I may have to rescind my air of injured pride at being accused of having a low sense of humor earlier in this column.

So yeah, it’s not my cuppa, but it does have that skin-of-their-teeth charm that low-budget but sincere productions sometimes muster, and everyone seems to be having a ball doing what they can to adapt a beloved work with the materials at their disposal—what more can you ask for? A fan-made montage of Edmund’s story arc set to a Nirvana song? Very well, if you insist:

High Points: The Queen, who is camping it up with Big Mick the sleigh-driver. The final battle (not to be confused with The Last Battle) where everyone just kind of runs around, interacting with cartoons and costumed monster-things. The Dr. Who-quality of the special effects, like the “turn to stone” effect, which manage to be hokey but adorable. The monster-things during the scene where the White Witch sacrifices Aslan on the Stone Table.

Low Points: There were some of inexplicable decisions made by people involved with this production that somehow got approval even though they were (1) unfaithful to the text and (2) beyond the capacity of the special-effects crew. At the top of this list would be the part when Aslan, inexplicably, flies across rural Britannia. Runner-up would be the terrible and bizarre effect where crowns alight upon the craniums of the Pevensie children (at the 20 second mark). Also, those beaver costumes were, are, and will always be beyond terrible.

Final Verdict: You’re asking for something objective here?

Next Time: We’ll be celebrating Halloween with an iconic Tim Curry film we all know and love. . .

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her story “In Sheep’s Clothing” appears in Running with the Pack, and she has work forthcoming in Palimpsest and Historical Lovecraft. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.