I watched the old Narnia movie yesterday, the BBC one from 1988. Wow, it’s so last century… I’d seen it before, of course, but not for a long time; I’d almost entirely forgotten it. Except for the stuffed-animal Aslan, I remembered that. Oh boy. For Weta-Workshops-spoiled 21st-centurians, the “special effects” are nothing short of pathetic – not very special at all. Even in 1988 they could have done better (as demonstrated by Star Wars). The worst bit is the very lame superimposed animations of the magical creatures, the griffins and centaurs and such. But then, this is the BBC, and a TV series; they had nowhere near the budget of George Lucas or Walden Media. I suppose they did the best with what they had.
The unfortunate thing is that the sad un-special effects spoil the story. At least for me, they yank me right out of my suspension of disbelief – and that’s from someone who’s more than willing to do that suspending in the first place. Aslan is so glaringly obviously an animatronic stuffie, whenever I see his mouth mechanically open and close the only thing I can think of is to wonder if he’s still standing around in a BBC props department somewhere – I just cannot make myself think that this is Aslan, that he is what he is meant to be, as I do with the other characters. Mr and Mrs Beaver, who are played by actors in costume and make-up, are far more believable. In this series, they might have done better to follow the 1967 TV show, and had Aslan played by an actor in a lion’s mask; ditto for the magical creatures. The stuffie is so obviously fake, and the magical creatures so badly animated, it would be easier to believe in them if there was an obviously human actor playing the part – then I could just think “Okay, person in costume” and then forget that fact and get into what they represent, provided they do it well. (Which, come to think of it and completely off topic, is probably exactly how Shakespearean audiences thought of boy actors playing girls’ parts, which is a hard concept for us today to swallow.)
I wish those bad animations wouldn’t spoil the movie for me. I really want to get into this story, really want to suspend my disbelief for it. Because, you see, up until the point where the poor special effects yank me out of the story, I really like this version. It’s extremely faithful to the book; the dialogue and details are probably to 90% taken straight from the text. If it says that XYZ happens in the book, then XYZ happens in the movie (if they can pull it off). It’s a lovely moving and talking illustration of Lewis’ text. As for the White Witch, I really like this one – for all Tilda Swinton in the new version is a fabulous actress, I find her Witch too warm and human, even in looks – she’s more of a Pale Gold Witch than a White Witch. Barbara Kellerman plays her with the right iciness and despotic cruelty with some underlying hysteria; plus they gave her completely white make-up and the long straight black hair with which illustrator Pauline Baynes endowed her (with Lewis’ approval, apparently). The White Witch is supposed to have a Snow White look to her, an Ice Queen with blood-red lips; and that is how she is shown in this film.
In fact, comparing the 1988 film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the 2005 one is an excellent study in contrasting a faithful adaptation with one that is a good movie. The BBC version is, quite simply, the book translated to screen, bit by bit, page by page. Walden Media, on the other hand, tries to tell the story through film. In looking at the age-old fidelity question, the 1988 LWW is the perfect illustration of what you get when you (almost slavishly) stick to the book – you get a movie that’s really not all that interesting. As I said, I like this version, but I like it as a moving book illustration. I love this book, and I really love illustrations to books (“‘For what good is a book,’ said Alice, ‘if it has no pictures or conversations?'”), so I like this film of the LWW. But as a movie, the 2005 version has the 1988 one beat hands-down.
And it’s not just because of the astounding special effects, the Aslan and centaurs and griffins and talking beavers who look utterly real. It’s because of the difference in storytelling. In writing fiction, there is the adage “Show, don’t tell!”, but in a book, you can bend that rule. In fact, the reason it’s there in the first place is because writers still do a fair amount of telling instead of showing. Lewis does quite a lot (and he does it well). He shows us what Peter and Edmund and Susan and Lucy do or say, and then he tells us how they feel about it or how we ought to feel about it (for example, he says that Edmund’s lying about having been in Narnia was “the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of”, or that Peter killing the wolf is “a horrible, confused moment like something in a nightmare”). But in a movie, you can’t do that – you cannot “tell”, you can only “show”. So if you make a “faithful” movie, you take all the “show” bits from the book and string them together, and you end up with a story with holes, because unlike the book narrator, you’re not also telling, or explaining what those shown bits mean.
So in the 2005 movie, they are trying to tell the story just by showing it. In that one, we see the emotion on the kids’ faces, we feel the tension. There are still holes as far as the viewer who is familiar with the book is concerned – parts of the story that are missing because they simply cannot be conveyed visually – but they are only holes to the book reader, not holes to the story that is shown on the screen. The movie can be complete in itself.
It’s possible that “faithful” film adaptations are actually less true to the story than film adaptations that take some liberties with the source material but tell the story well in a visual medium. In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as a “faithful adaptation”, and the LWW movies are the prime exhibits in the case.