“It’s magic! It’s a magic wardrobe. There’s a wood inside it, and it’s snowing, and there’s a faun that I had tea with, and…”
In 1950, C.S. Lewis published the first volume of his series of books about Narnia, a mythical land of talking animals and valiant battles. It was entitled “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The book developed from stories that Lewis made up as a child and others that he told to schoolchildren housed with him during the years of the London blitz in World War II. There would eventually be seven volumes in all, although that just developed with time. Lewis had not originally planned for a second book, never mind seven.
Several of the books have been adapted for film or television, but “Lion” has been the title most often attempted. Versions were filmed in 1967, 1979, and 1988. The latter was part of an ambitious, though modestly-budgeted, effort by the BBC that eventually encompassed the first four volumes of the Narnia series. Home Vision Entertainment has now made the results available on DVD.
During World War II, four English schoolchildren (Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy) are sent to live with a professor in the countryside. While exploring his house, they come upon a wardrobe in the attic. The back of the wardrobe opens into the magical world of Narnia, which is inhabited by talking animals and other strange beings. Narnia is currently under the control of the White Witch who maintains the land in perpetual winter.
Once in Narnia, the four children learn that it has been foretold that when four queens and kings sit on the four empty thrones at the castle of Cair Paravel, Narnia will return to normal — the White Witch’s evil spell banished forever. When the White Witch learns of the children’s presence in Narnia and realizes that they threaten to fulfill the prophecy, she sets out to destroy them, but the children fight back with the help of Aslan the lion — the true ruler of Narnia.
It’s easy to turn one’s nose up at this British television version of the first volume of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series of books. For those accustomed to the special effects wizardry now so common in film, the costumes here are mostly unconvincing, the blend of live action and animation sometimes distracting, and too many of the creatures of Narnia awkward-looking and lumbering. But given the modest budget available, the need to be true to the book when it is a story beloved by millions, and especially bearing in mind the predominantly young intended audience, there is much more right than wrong about this adaptation.
One of the greatest difficulties in dramatizing a story that so many have read and for whose characters and situations they have formed their own mental images is coming up with a final product that doesn’t jar such images nor lose any favourite scenes or dialogue. (Of course, it’s impossible to please everyone because filmmakers aren’t usually mindreaders and something always has to be left out, unless you’re going to make a five-hour-plus movie.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [Editor’s Note: That’s The Sorcerer’s Stone to us American troglodytes.] and Lord of the Rings are two recent films that have recognized this basic requirement of being true to the source, and I’m happy to report that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is another. Anyone familiar at all with the book will find in the film most of its well-known sequences and much of the dialogue too.
The film also benefits from a good casting job for the human roles, particularly the four children, with Jonathan Scott and Sophie Wilcox capturing my idea of Edmund and Lucy very nicely indeed. Michael Aldridge gives us a very comfortable portrayal of the Professor. Less successful, however, are the choices made for those playing the people and creatures of Narnia. Of course, it’s hard to be convincing when you’re saddled with poor costumes and makeup, but even so, virtually none of the actors managed to suspend my disbelief. Particularly unsuccessful is Barbara Kellerman in the key role of the White Witch. She seems to deliver virtually all her lines in a very shrill, piercing shriek so that rather than creating an effectively evil character, she just provides an annoying one.
The film’s modest budget is most apparent in its special effects. For adult eyes, these will certainly be disappointing indeed — more reminiscent of a “Dr. Who“-like effort than anything else. Actually, things don’t start off too badly with the faun, Mr. Tumnus. The decision to rely on some body makeup and appliances gives a pretty effective result for that character. Unfortunately, things deteriorate from there. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are amateurishly done, with terrible costumes including pathetic-looking tails. Later, we are treated to an Aslan the lion that looks somewhat majestic, but lumbers around so awkwardly and talks with a voice so ill-fitted to the character that it fails to ignite any sense of a powerful saviour, more just an overweight pussy cat. Of course, younger eyes will be less critical of these deficiencies, although perhaps only somewhat given the excellence of special effects in so many new films that young audiences see nowadays.
The DVD comes to us courtesy of Home Vision Entertainment. It presents the film full frame as originally broadcast. The transfer is not bad. It’s very clean and delivers fairly precise-looking colour. It’s a little schizophrenic, however — frequently tending towards softness with occasional losses of shadow detail in darker sequences, but in contrast, occasionally sharpened too much with attendant edge enhancement. These aren’t glaring problems, but present enough for the viewer to be aware of them.
The sound is the original mono mix that provides a serviceable delivery of the film. It’s probably a good thing that the audio is not a more complex sound mix. It would draw even more attention to the special effects.
Home Vision has provided a few interesting supplements. The best one is a short segment from a BBC television program called “Bookworm.” It talks about C.S. Lewis and takes us to Oxford where we see the house (just purchased by a foundation and planned for restoration at the time of the program’s airing) that he and his brother lived in. The segment also covers some background about the Narnia stories and we hear from people involved in various societies dedicated to Lewis and his books. The second supplement is a bit offbeat. It’s a recipe for Turkish Delight — the delicacy with which the White Witch seduces Edmund. The disc concludes with a fairly easy trivia game and a gallery of 15 stills.
Despite its obvious budgetary deficiencies, this BBC television version of the C.S Lewis classic is an effort worth seeing. It will appeal most to children, but adults who are able to see past its rather crude special effects will find much to please them too. Home Vision’s DVD is a slightly above-average effort. This may be best considered for a rental. Those interested should note that this is the first of three Narnia discs available from Home Vision separately or as a box set. The other titles are Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair.