Saturday, December 26, 2009

Narnia nostalgia part 4 – The Silver Chair on BBC TV

In November and December of 1990, BBC TV released The Silver Chair in 6 weekly half-hour episodes. These were later edited into a feature-length film on VHS, and later, DVD (now available online in secondary markets like eBay and Amazon Marketplace). The teleplay was written by Australian playwright Alan Seymour.

Those who only have knowledge of The Chronicles of Narnia through the two Walden/Disney movies will not be familiar with Eustace Scrubb, the main character linking The Silver Chair with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a cousin to the Pevensie children, and was pulled into Narnia along with Lucy and Edmund in the previous story

Eustace attends a “progressive” boarding school, and has befriended Jill Pole. He confides in her about his adventures in the other world. Both are brought to Narnia by Aslan, who has a quest for them to accomplish. They are to find the lost Prince Rillian, the only son of the now very old King Caspian.

There are two main themes in the book which are also emphasized in the series. These are the importance of following the four signs which Aslan gives, and learning to overcome deception.

Aslan gives Jill four signs which she is to repeat to herself every day. These signs are important for the quest. This is reminiscent of the instructions God has given about the importance of scripture, such as the words to Joshua after he takes the leadership mantle of Israel upon Moses’ death.

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8 NKJV)

Throughout the story, we see how the children get off track whenever they do not follow the signs. They are also much more easily deceived.

Though a series of events, and with the help of the pessimistic but lovable Puddleglum, they eventually find their way to the Underworld, which is ruled by the Lady of the Green Kirtle. She is the Green Witch who has Prince Rillian under a spell.

As the trio are about to escape with the Prince, the Green Witch finds them, and tries to convince them using her enchantments that there is no Narnia to escape to – that only her world is real. Many see in this a parallel to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, which is an allegory about the nature of reality.

Puddleglum’s logic and quick thinking help them break free from the Witch’s deception, and they eventually make their way back to the surface where Rillian is gladly received as Prince.

The movie follows the book very closely, editing mostly for time and updating of idioms in the dialogue. There is one strange inclusion of a dragon not mentioned in the book, and the “deeper kingdom” of Bism (admittedly a rather confusing interpolation) is left out.

Although the film continues to suffer from special effects antiquated by today’s standards,* the acting is much improved. The three main protagonists, Eustace Scrubb, Jill Pole, and Puddleglum, are especially well played by David Thwaites, Camilla Power, and Tom Baker.

While we are waiting for Walden, partnered now with Fox, to release The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a year from now, the BBC versions of Dawn Treader and Silver Chair are the only videos of those two stories available. The BBC captured the major themes, but the costuming and special effects can be distracting, to say the least. But, for young children, these videos are not a bad way to introduce your children or grandchildren to this part of the series.

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*See Narnia nostalgia part 2 - lion, witch, and wardrobe on BBC TV, including note 2 at the end of the article, for a few words about the limitations of the special effects in the BBC movies.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Narnia nostalgia part 3: Prince Caspian and Dawn Treader on BBC TV

In November and December of 1989, BBC TV released Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 6 weekly half-hour episodes. These were later edited into a feature-length film on VHS, and later, DVD (now available online in secondary markets like eBay and Amazon Marketplace). The teleplay was written by Australian playwright Alan Seymour.

As with the Walden Media productions, a decision had to be made about the order in which to make the adaptations of the C S Lewis books. While The Magician’s Nephew is the first book chronologically, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first published and the most popular. It was a given that that book should be made first. However, a more difficult decision was what to do about a second production.

Although Prince Caspian was the second book published, and naturally follows the first book, it is one of the least popular. It is also needed to bridge the gap between The Lion and Dawn Treader. Walden attempted to deal with this dilemma by making the story a bit darker and more exciting, trying to appeal to a broader audience. This attempt had mixed results. (See Will the Australian Rating Hurt or Help Caspian? and Mark Johnson Admits Caspian Mistakes.)

The BBC solution was to devote only two 30-minute episodes to Prince Caspian, and the remaining four to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The year (England time) between the two books is ignored, and some of the joy of returning to Narnia at the beginning of Prince Caspian is diluted by cutting out the scene when the Pevensies splash in the ocean. The story is moved along more quickly, but important elements of both stories are missed.

The trick in editing a story is to know what details are can be cut so the finished product retains the essence of the original. The scriptwriter must also be conscious of important elements in the narrative not conveyed by the dialogue. Although the script may contain the exact, or nearly exact, words used by the characters, editing for length can completely change the meaning intended by the author.

When Reepicheep gives his speech to Aslan about losing his tail in the battle, Aslan is “conquered” to restore it not by his words, but by the proposed actions of his fellow mice. In the movie, Aslan responds immediately when Reepicheep explains that he will be made fun of if his tail is not restored. But in the book, his associate Peepicheep explains that all the mice are willing to cut off their own tails if their Chief’s honor is not restored. This affects the meaning of Alan’s words:

You have conquered me. … Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people, and still more for the kindness your people showed me long ago when you ate away the cord that bound me on the Stone Table… you shall have your tail again.

Although the screenplay contains some unfortunate editing, it does do a good job of conveying one of the main principles that is repeated throughout the two books. There are dangers and challenges that the voyagers must learn to face, and each must do his part. But, as it is in this world, there are some things that are beyond us, and beyond our control. These may be unyielding storms, trials, or temptations; the books are replete with all three. It is then that Aslan steps in and does what only he can do.

When Lucy is tempted by vanity to use magic to become more outwardly beautiful, Aslan’s appearance in the magician’s book helps her overcome that temptation. When the Dawn Treader is lost near the Dark Island, Caspian cries out to Aslan. An albatross appears and directs them back to the light. Many more instances when the Lion intervenes could be delineated.

Although God expects us to do what we can, he is always there to step in when we need him. That is not the only lesson of the books, but it is an important one, and it is well conveyed in the movie.

Without a doubt, Walden Media’s adaptation of Dawn Treader will have better special effects and will not cut out so many of the details. (See Narnia nostalgia part 2 - lion, witch, and wardrobe on BBC TV, including note 2 at the end of the article, for a few words about the limitations of the special effect in the BBC movies.) Hopefully it will do at least as well at conveying the import themes of the book. About a year from now we will find out.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Narnia nostalgia Part 2 - Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe on BBC TV

In November and December of 1988, BBC TV released The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 6 weekly half-hour episodes. These were later edited into a feature-length film on VHS, and later, DVD (now available online in secondary markets like eBay and Amazon Marketplace). The teleplay was written by Australian playwright Alan Seymour.

Like the American animated version from 1979, the script is very faithful to the book by C S Lewis. Unlike the animated version, the BBC adaptation does not update the characters, but firmly places the setting in World War 2.

In Narnia Nostalgia Part 1, it was asserted that the omissions from the animated film reveal more about it than its overall faithfulness to the book. For the BBC version, the additions to the story are the most revealing.

Warning: Spoilers

Lewis is very brief in his description of the circumstances surrounding the Pevencies stay in the professor’s home, so it is only natural that a video version of the story would need to add some dialogue. The personalities of the children are portrayed in their conversation on the train,1 perhaps painting Lucy as a bit more fearful, and Edmund as more adventurous, than Lewis intended. But the conversation does set the scene and let the viewer know the reason for situation.

In the book, Lewis introduces the housekeeper and servants, but gives no details except their names, saying that “they do not come into the story much.” In the video, the housekeeper is portrayed as a stereotypical British highbrow who insists on putting the servants “in their place.” One wonders if Lewis’s Digory Kirk would have allowed his household staff to be so treated.

Another addition to the story has to do with the Pevensies attitude toward the coats in the wardrobe. In the book, neither Lucy nor Edmund think to take coats into Narnia during the first two visits. The fact that they are cold and coatless is a factor in their reactions to what they discover there. In the video, both don the coats the very first time they enter. The comments from the book about not taking the coats out of the wardrobe are strangely transferred to the boots Susan has found when they all find themselves in Narnia. If they are worried about taking the boots, why weren’t they worried about taking the coats?

When Edmund first meets the White Witch, she invites him into the sledge and puts her mantle around him. We do not get the same cozy picture in the video as he does not even sit next to her. He already has a coat, so her offer to put a mantle around him is not exactly tempting. An important visual has been inexplicably lost – not exactly what you should want to do when adapting a book to a visual media!

The Witch also displays powers which are not attributed to her in the book. When the package of Turkish Delight is created, the Witch causes it to float in the air to Edmund and untie itself of it own accord. She also creates a tent out of thin air in which they continue their chat. The magic displayed in the book is used as a snare to hold Edmund captive to the designs of the White Witch. The sudden appearance of a tent seems rather gratuitous and purposeless to what Lewis was trying to convey.

Magical abilities are also bestowed upon Aslan which are not included in the book. In the film, the untame lion, with the girls on his back, flies from the Stone Table to the Witch’s Castle, while the book he merely runs while carrying the girls, although he is able to jump over the castle wall. The reason for this probably has more to do with the limitations of the animatronics and other special effects2 available and affordable at the time than anything else.

While the resurrected Son of the Emperor of the Sea may have more Supermanian abilities than just being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, the ability to fly is never used by Aslan himself in the books. As the deity of Christ was veiled while on earth, Aslan’s true nature is somewhat hidden when he visits Narnia.

Another disappointing addition has to do with how the appearance of Father Christmas is handled. In the book, his coming, representing the beginning of the end of the Witch’s power, is very subtle. A first-time reader may easily miss the clue Lewis gives when the Witch tells her Dwarf to get the sledge ready using the harness without bells. In the movie, this detail is repeatedly articulated by the Witch so that it can not be missed. She intends to sneak up on the children unheard.

Ironically, when the beavers and the three children hear a sledge coming, no bells are heard. Perhaps in order to fool the viewer, the director decided to keep the bells unheard until Father Christmas is actually seen, but this is a cheat. The point in the book is that when they hear the bells the group (and the unobservant reader) will assume the Witch is upon them. The film insults the viewer, while Lewis intends for the reader to discover subtle clues, perhaps upon a second reading.

One welcome addition is the children on the beach splashing in the ocean after they have been installed as Kings and Queens. This is, of course, a nod to a scene in Prince Caspian, which the next BBC movie, Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, will not take the time to include. More on this next time.

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1See Memorable quotes for “The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe” Episode #1.1 at IMDb.com.
2Other scenes affected by the limits of the special effects used were the knighting of Peter and Edmund and the crowning of the children at Cair Paraevel. The problem of Aslan using a sword in the ceremony is overcome (somewhat to the viewer’s dissatisfaction) by the lion touching his chin to their shoulders. And, since the stuffed lion used in the video could not be manipulated to hold a crown, special effects are used to show the crowns appearing out of nowhere and descending upon their heads. The limits of special effects may also be the reason for the strange means of the Witch’s death, who falls off a ledge instead of being killed by Aslan hurling himself upon her.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Narnia Nostalgia Part 1 - The CTW Animated Version

On Sunday April 1, 1979 and the following day, CBS aired an animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in two parts. The show was produced by the Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street, The Electric Company), Episcopal Radio-TV Foundation, and others. An animated version of The Hobbit by Rankin/Bass (Frosty the Snowman) had aired just a year and a half earlier on NBC.

Both adaptations followed the books rather faithfully, except that the animation in The Hobbit was rather goofy at times, to say the least. (See Getting Tolkien Wrong.) The animation for the Narnia book was much better–the creatures are drawn pretty much as you would expect them to look. The CTW version is also the only video version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to get the girls’ hair color right,* although the Pevencies are given a much more modern look. (The World War 2 setting is not used.)

The dialog in the show also follows that of the book, usually verbatim. The differences are usually due to changing some Briticisms, updating expressions, and abridging for time. The scriptwriter generally makes wise choices on what to cut, and what to leave in.

While it can be assumed that the filmmakers’ faithfulness to the book shows their respect for the abilities of C S Lewis, the parts that are removed reveal more about the film than what is preserved.

The first obvious omission is the setting of the story. It is never explained why the children are in the Professor’s house. The story begins with Lucy coming out of the Wardrobe for the first time and announcing “I’m back.” While beginning the story this way is not ineffective, the details of how the children come to be in the home are never explored. Perhaps the writers felt the target audience of young children would not be able to relate.

Another change is the impression the Professor leaves with the two older children when they come to him about Lucy’s “delusions.” The explanation of why Lucy’s story is believable is left intact, but he does not end with the statement that “everyone should mind his own business.” Instead, he responds that he does not know what they should do, and the next scene shows them immediately going into the wardrobe. The writers apparently do this to speed up the story, but this is incongruous with what the Professor will tell the children at the end of the story about not “trying” to go to Narnia. Narnia does not come when you are looking for it.

The next noticeable absence (to devoted fans, anyway) is the Robin. The Robin is important in the book because it is Lewis’s first hint of the return of spring. This is perhaps not an essential element to the story, but it is missed, and no air time is actually saved by leaving it out, since Mr. Beaver is merely introduced sooner.

The same goes for the children (minus Edmund, of course) meeting Father Christmas. They do hear the sleigh bells, but by the time they get out of the Beavers’ hiding place, he is gone. (The Christmas gifts are given to the children later by Aslan himself.) Unlike the book, the children meet the Fox’s party near the hiding place, and are told Father Christmas had been there. When the White Witch comes upon the scene later, one of the young ones lets it slip they have seen the children and the beavers. After turning the festive group into stone, the Witch redoubles her efforts to catch the children.

Obviously it was decided that the story needed some excitement at this point, which apparently is why the changes were made. The chase scene is intensified as the Witch actually sees the children just before the sledge begins to get stuck in the melting snow.

Excitement is also created by showing the battle with the Witch before Aslan arrives. All of the video versions of the story do this. They all include a scene (mentioned after the fact in the book) of Edmund destroying the Witch’s wand and Edmund being injured. While later versions make the Witch the instrument of Edmund’s wound, in the CTW version he is wounded by someone else. The book does not make it clear how he was hurt.

All three films also show Peter going after the Witch after Edmund is wounded, which is not specified in the book. But, of course, it is Aslan who saves the day. (How the Witch dies in the BBC version is a bit peculiar, but we will save that for another day.)

All in all, the Children’s Television Workshop animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a commendable rendition of the book, especially considering the time period in which it was made and the target audience of young children. Not at all a bad way to introduce your child to the series.
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* In the last chapter of the book, it is mentioned that when they grow up in Narnia, Susan has “black hair that fell almost to her feet,” and Lucy was “golden-haired.” In the BBC live action version, the characters’ hair color is reversed. Susan is known for her better looks, so perhaps the BBC filmmakers, consciously or unconsciously, were influenced by modern stereotypes in choosing the actors for the roles. Of course, in the Walden version both girls have black hair, perhaps avoiding the stereotypes. Could the description in the book reveal Lewis’s own preferences?


The Children’s Workshop animated version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released on VHS in 1991 and DVD in 2005. The video is available in secondary markets such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9-11: Remembering the Two Towers

Eight years ago today, America was attacked by terrorists. It was a day not only characterized by barbarism, but also by heroism. Radical Jihadists were motivated to sacrifice themselves because of their belief that Islam will someday rule the world, and to kill others because of their hatred of the infidel. Passengers were willing to give their lives because of their belief in freedom and save others because of their love of country.

In the days after 9-11, “United We Stand” signs began appearing everywhere as Americans of different backgrounds and political beliefs came together. There were a few fringe elements that preferred to believe in conspiracy theories instead of a real threat to our country, but most joined with our President to do whatever they could to fight terrorism.

People were so sensitive at that time that there was even a petition drawn up on PetitionOnline.com to change the name of the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers. Peter Jackson was even accused of trying to exploit the fall of The Twin Towers in New York City. Never mind that the second book of The Lord of the Rings was published as The Two Towers in 1954. (The petition was removed in May of 2004 due to inactivity.)

Reviewers (for example, The Return of the King: "Fellowship" by Martin L. Cowen III) had already made a connection between the first movie and 9/11 in Gandalf’s words to Frodo in Moria. Frodo wishes out loud that the Ring had not come to him and that “none of this had ever happened.” Gandalf replies:

So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

The Fellowship also illustrates the ability of free peoples who have a past of mistrusting each other to come together when there is a need. The three free peoples of Middle-earth, Men, Elves, and Dwarves, have a history of squabbles. The past must be put aside in order for the Quest to be accomplished.

We see the repercussions of this history in The Hobbit in the way the Dwarves are mistreated by the Wood Elves and how the Dwarves refuse the requests of the Men of Dale after Smaug is slain. The old prejudices are exacerbated by greed and pride. What a lesson for today where greed has contributed to the devastation of our economy and pride is keeping many politicians from honest debate of the important issues of the day.

Our pride also causes us to forget that Providence is still at work. The Gandalf quote above presents our personal responsibility. But Gandalf does not stop there.

There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

September 11, 2001 did not take God by surprise. As Frodo could count on the fact that his burden came to him not without purpose, so we can be confident that God has a purpose in the challenges we face as a nation, and as individuals. The question is what we will do “with the time that is given to us.”

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dawn Treader Stars and the Perseid Showers

If you use Google as your search engine, you can't help but notice that the Perseid Meteor Showers are back. This time of year the earth moves through a section of space containing small particles. Some of these are pulled by the earth's gravity enough to fall into our atmosphere and be burned up in a blaze of glory.

Since I am off from my "real" job this week, I was able to sit outside and observe some of these "shooting stars." I live in a community outside of town, so the "light pollution" is still a problem, but I was able to, with patience, see some of the "big ones." (To give you an idea, on this very clear night I was able to see all the stars of the Big Dipper, and, if I strained hard, sometimes I could make out all the stars of the Little Dipper after my eyes had adjusted.) I did not have the spectacular views of those lucky enough to be farther away from city lights, but was privileged to see some of the marvelous display before the moon appeared over the trees in the east.

I can imagine those in ancient times, before telescopes and the modern equipment we take for granted, wondering what these streaks of light were, and what they might portend. Even in our modern world we use the term "shooting star." Meteors do look like stars, and the ancient sometimes described them as "falling" or "wandering" stars.

The Bible takes up this concept, based upon what humans could empirically observe at that point in history, and uses it as metaphors for fallen angels (Isaiah 14:12; Revelation 12:4) and apostates (Jude 1:13). The phrase "wandering stars" in Jude is a translation of the Greek asteres planetai, and the word for "wandering" (planetai) is a form of the Greek word from which we get the English word "planet." The Greeks thought of planets as wandering stars, since they do not fit the fixed pattern of the stars as seen from earth.

So, what does this have to do with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader?

In Chapter Fourteen, King Caspian and those with him meet Ramadu, who discloses that he is a "retired" star. Eustace comments that "In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas." To which Ramadu replies, "Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

For the ancients, it did not matter what stars were "made of," but what they meant. In Genesis 1:13, God tells us that the stars were put in place to "serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years." [NIV] Humans eventually learned to steer ships by the stars. You don't have to have a modern perspective on the universe in order for the stars to have meaning–and a very practical meaning at that!

In the passage where Ramadu reveals he is a star, he also points out they have already met another star, Coriakin, the Magician who was given charge of the Dufflepuds. It seems that Cariakin was given this responsibility as a "punishment" for something he had done. Neither star in the book seem to correspond well to the metaphors in the Bible, but Narnia is unlike our world in many respects. But C. S. Lewis never meant his books to be straight allegory.

Note to those who follow my Blog: Since I last posted here a month ago, some exciting things have been going on for me personally. I have begun writing for an online news service, Exmainer.com, as the national Hobbits, Narnia & Spirituality Examiner. That, along with my duties as the "Fantasy Editor" for Hollywood Jesus, is keeping me busy. To keep up with all I am doing, may I suggest that you follow me on Twitter? Here is my Twitter link: InklingBlogger. If you do not have a Twitter account and do not care to start one, you can view my recent "tweets" in the column to the right just under the Voyage of the Dawn Treader count-down.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut: Great Introduction to G. K. Chesterton

Author and freelance writer Paul Nowak has begun a new publishing company, Eternal Revolution. The name is based upon a quote from G. K. Chesterton (more about him below) from the book Orthodoxy:
To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good any thing but good.
As the "Fantasy Editor" for Hollywood Jesus, I focus most of my effort on authors JRR Tolkien (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) and C S Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). G K Chesterton was part of the generation just prior to Tolkien and Lewis, both of whom name him as a significant influence. Chesterton was a prolific author and conservative Catholic apologist, who is probably best known as the creator of the Father Brown detective series.
Nowak recently published The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut, a book written on the sixth grade level based on the life and works of Chesterton. "Uncle Chestnut" was a nickname given by to the real Chesterton by a neighborhood child. The book contains fictionalized accounts of a young boy named "Jack" and what he learns from Uncle Chestnut. Nowak intends to write other accounts for an Uncle Chestnut series.
This is a great book to introduce children to G K Chesterton, who was able to use everyday events to teach about life. Adults who are unfamiliar with his writing will also find this a good introduction to the author. I know it has piqued my interest in exploring Chesterton's writings.
The Inconvenient Adventures of Uncle Chestnut is available online through Amazon.com or BarnesnandNoble.com.
Follow me on Twitter: InklingBlogger

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reading Between the Narnian Lines: Spewing Vile, or Finding Hope?

A few days ago, while looking for Narnia News, I found a blog post on TalkingPointsMemo.com about an anthology of short stories written by Neil Gaiman, comic book author, fantasy novelist, and the head script writer for the movie Beowulf. The blogger, know as "Doc Nebula," apparently enjoyed all but one story, saying it was "unconscionably vile."
If you love THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA even a tiny little bit, even the merest fraction of how much I love THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, then you mustn't read this story, because if you do, you will want to find Neil Gaiman and trap him in an aquarium slowly filling with overused motor oil while hitting him over the head again and again and again with a large hammer. Or, better, a small hammer; one just large enough to hurt quite a lot without actually knocking him unconscious or killing him. That way he stays alive in constant pain until the distilled petroleum product slowly fills his lungs and he drowns horribly with much the same smell in his nostrils and taste in his throat as dinosaurs floundering down into tar pits did... I have never really understood, on an emotional level, the concept of 'blasphemy' until I read this story, and now, I can also understand the Spanish Inquisition, and not the one with the comfy chair, either.

Wow. Tell us what you really think, Doc.

Well, I was convinced. I needed to read this short story to see if it was really that bad. It seemed providential that NarniaWeb had just posted the second part of Devin Brown's Keynote Address from this year's annual Inklings Society Conference. This part of “Are the Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist?” is titled "Susan—No Longer a Friend of Narnia," and Gaiman's short story is "The Problem with Susan."

Actually, the story isn't badly written. But the worn-out fallacies about God relishing our suffering and death, and the bestiality in the dream sequences, are certainly not endearing. I do not condone Doc Nebula's proposed punishment, but I do understand the sentiment.

Why is it that so much vile has been spewed against this part of The Chronicles of Narnia? I can understand it when it comes from those who despise Lewis and his Christianity. But this was from someone who spoke as the Guest of Honor at the Mythopoetic Society's Mythcon in 2004 and claims to love the Chronicles. The problem seems to be an assumption about Lewis's views of sexuality and growing up—presumed views that certainly do not come out of the text.

Susan's absence from Narnia in The Last Battle is not because she has grown up and developed the natural interests of girls her age. It is because of the sins of vanity and unbelief. She talks of Narnia as a child's fairy-tale, and is only interested in superficial things. Whether this vanity and unbelief will become enduring traits is yet to be determined. She has not been permanently excluded from Heaven; she has not yet died. As Brown puts it in his address:
At the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Lucy asks Aslan, “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?” he promises, “I shall be telling you all the time” (247). From this we may conclude that after the last chapter of The Last Battle, Aslan will continue to tell Susan and the other characters still in England the way they can reach his country.

What is not clear is whether she will listen. But Aslan is speaking even through the accident. One thing that Gaiman touches on in the short story is that Susan would have had to identify the bodies of her siblings and parents. This is a part of life, and certainly Lewis did not gloat over it—he does not even mention it. Aslan is certainly not gloating over Susan's loss.

Death is real, and needs to be faced. In our society where someone besides family members prepare bodies for burial, we have learned to avoid death's reality all too well. Most of us have nothing to do even with the death or butchering of our own food. We understand little of what it means for another living thing to give its life for us to live. In those rare times when the reality of death does pierce through society-erected barriers, it is God's gift to us to help us think about what is truly important. The bitterness toward God that the retired professor (who is, or represents, Susan) expresses in the story is unjustified. God is not gloating over Susan's pain, but is seeking to reach her.

A little over a year ago, I suggested that a little "spark" between Susan and Caspian might be a good thing. After all, "the problem with Susan" is not that she is attracted to boys—that is a natural part of life.
Adamson has said that one of the prevailing themes in the movie is “the passage into adulthood.” Part of growing up is learning to relate to the opposite sex. It has been reported that in the movie, Caspian and Susan flirt with each other. The reaction by fans of the book seems to be overwhelmingly negative to these reports. “This can’t be; it doesn’t line up with what happens in the other books.” I happen to disagree. Although there is no hint of flirting in the book, I think this might be a good thing. Let me try to explain.

As I’ve indicated before, Lewis does not provide much detail, so it seems appropriate to “read between the lines.” I think this is a good read. Here is an exiled prince (at the height of puberty) with no human companionship except the four Pevensies. Among them is an attractive girl about his age who is obviously cultured and refined. It only seems natural to me that there would be some kind of “spark” between them. ...

We do know that Susan is left behind in this world in The Last Battle, but we do not know her final fate. She has put her social life (lipstick and nylons and invitations) above her belief in Narnia, but what effect will the death of her siblings have on her? Will she be restored much as Narnia is restored in Prince Caspian? I suspect we will still be left hanging when the movie series is completed—unless they decide to read between the lines…

Unlike so many of the detractors, I prefer to find hope between the lines.

"The Problem with Susan" was first published in 2004 in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy (ROC, an imprint of The New American Library, Penguin Books). It is also in Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman (2006 William Morrow).

Links updated 4November, 2009

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Last Earth Day: How will this planet end?

Today is Administrative Professionals Day (I remember it as Secretary's Day.) in the United States. It is also Earth Day around the world. The former was created to help us remember the importance of Administrative Professionals. The latter was founded by the late Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to help us remember the importance of treating our planet properly.

There have been a flood of movies released lately that emphasize the importance of taking care of our planet, from the humorous Wall-E to the suspenseful The Day the Earth Stood Still. Although I believe much of the hype about catastrophic climate change is most likely greatly inflated, we certainly do have a responsibility to care for the earth.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), the alien Klaatu says that it is more important for the Earth to survive than it is for human-kind to survive. There are few planets that can sustain complex life, he says, and it would be better to destroy humanity and let the earth have a fresh start than to let humanity turn the world into an uninhabitable rock. It must be decided whether humans are capable of improving to the point that they are not a threat.

Some time back, I wrote an article about an essay by C. S. Lewis from Christian Reflections titled “The Funeral of the Great Myth." The "Great Myth" for him was the idea that humankind is progressing and gradually becoming better and better. Develpmentalism is not a new Hope that has just shown up recently. It has been popularized in science fiction for decades. Somehow we will overcome our proclivity for destroying ourselves-whether by war or by pollution. Peace will reign on Earth, and we will take our place among the stars.

C. S. Lewis wrote an article in 1958 for the Christian Herald titled "Will We Lose God in Outer Space?" (Published as "Religion and Rocketry" in the C. S. Lewis anthology The World's Last Night--1960, still available as a reprint.) While logically explaining why life on other planets would not preclude God or Christianity, he wonders whether God would allow us to venture out with the possibility of contaminating unfallen races. (A subject which, of course, he delves into in his Space Trilogy.) Lewis did not believe that we would progress to a point where we would no longer be a threat to hypothetical worlds.

In the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the reason for Klaatu coming to Earth was not to save it from us, but to save the other planets from us. The concern was not what we were doing to our own species or our own planet, but what we might do if we were to travel to other worlds. Klaatu explains how these worlds have solved the problem of hostility and war not through progressing beyond it, but by controlling it. Robots have been programmed to take action against any aggression. The peace is maintained by the threat of force.

Lewis believed that the final peace will come by force. In 1952, he wrote "The Christian Hope--Its Meaning for Today" for Religion in Life (titled "The World's Last Night" in the above anthology). He believed the Second Coming of Christ would be apocalyptic in nature. No gradual "bringing in" of the Kingdom, but a sudden, forceful take-over. He presents sound theological reasons for supporting such a Coming, and uses the same arguments against Develpmentalism that he used in “The Funeral of the Great Myth."

Lewis does remind us that Christ said no one knows the day or hour of His Coming--He did not even know it Himself (one of the great mysteries of the incarnation). But we should live with the reflection that it could be at any moment, and that He will come in Judgment.

We cannot always be excited [about His Coming]. We can, perhaps, train ourselves to ask more and more often how the thing which we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at each moment will look when the irresistible light streams on it; that light which is so different from the light of this world--and yet, we know just enough of it to take it into account.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tolkien's Bio: The Carpenter Benchmark

JRR Tolkien, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, expected to live beyond the 81 year he was given. His ancestors had lived much longer. But although death surprised him in September of 1973, he had long since prepared to hand over his literary legacy to his son. Christopher, who had long collaborated with his father about his mythology, spent the next few years editing The Silmarillion for publication.

It is also evident that Tolkien knew that a biography would be forthcoming, and he prepared "a few pages of recollections" and made notations on a number of old letters. Humphrey Carpenter, a friend of Tolkien's children, was given access to the family's private papers, and interviewed family, friends, and Tolkien himself. This biography has been the standard since it was published in 1977, and has been the basis for virtually every Tolkien biography that has been written since. Not until John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War (2003) was much added to the general knowledge of his life history. (I hope to review Garth's book in the coming months.)

Tolkien himself did not think that much could be learned about an author's writing by looking at his life. But it is evident that his life and interests had an influence upon his imagination. Three details jumped out at me as I re-read this book: Tolkien's faith, his affection, and his perfectionism. Each of these affected how his imagination was put down on paper.

While Tolkien's works are not overtly Christian, they are framed with the Christian worldview, and based on Christian morality and ethics. The God behind Middle-earth is clouded from our view in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but is a little more obvious in The Silmarillion. Middle-earth is not about his faith, but his faith certainly is ingrained within it.

Tolkien had a genuine affection for people. Companionship is a recurring theme in Middle-earth. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, there is the camaraderie of friends and companions. His deep love for his wife is seen in The Silmarillion's story about Beren and Lúthien.

Tolkien's perfectionism helped create what he would call the verisimilitude of the story. The painstaking detail he went through to make sure the details have continuity is extraordinary. This desire to get every bit of minutia just right was many times a hindrance to completing the task, but we who read are blessed with the "suspension of disbelief."

And we are blessed that Humphrey Carpenter was able to take up the task of writing about Tolkien's life. There is something for everyone in this volume. The Tolkien novice will find the text easy to follow, while experienced aficionados will find an opulence of detail, including background on some of Tolkien's more obscure works. There are also helpful appendices with a genealogical table, chronology of events and bibliography of Tolkien's published works.

The Authorized Biography is a valuable resource that every Tolkien fan should have in their personal library.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

News from Narnia and Middle-earth

It's been almost two months since I've made an entry to this Blog. I've been busy.

Last week I did an interview with a new movie director. Reclaiming the Blade, a documentry about the history of the swoard, will definitely be of interest to fans of Middle Earth and Narnia. The bonus features include an interview with Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), who talked at length about Eärendil and The Flame of the West—Narsil, the sword that was re-forged. For information and links t my coverage, see The Interview and the Bonus Features.

I thought I'd also give you a glimpse at the News Blogs I am responsible for keeping at Hollywood Jesus. (I also contribute other articles there as well.) Here are the latest from The Hobbit ... Whole and the Narnia News Blog.

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What is Your Narnia?

There has been very little news to report about the Chronicles of Narnia movies lately. As I have reported, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is now scheduled for the end of 2010, and most of the filming is apparently going to take place beginning in a few months in Australia. Please peruse Narnia News for all my recent reports.
As I search the Internet daily for new reports, I have been struck by how the term “Narnia” is used in our society, becoming synonymous for an idyllic place or “dreamland.” Of course, people’s ideas of what their Narnia is differ dramatically. Two recent stories come to mind.
In today’s online version of UK’s The Guardian, actress Juliet Stevenson gives some biographical background to explain her “family values.” She equates the Buckinghamshire cottage in which she lived as a young girl with the Narnia she was reading about at the time.
In stark contrast, there is the report out of NYU of a dorm room that had been transformed into a haven for sex and drugs that was called Narnia. I suppose that some would say that the NYU dorm room was a place where Freshmen could find a home and live a bit of a fantasy life. But, at what cost?
C S Lewis did not create Narnia as a mere escape. Our journey to “dreamland” should help us to appreciate, and live in, the real world.
Sources: Guarian.co.ukWashington Square News

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What if Disney Produced The Hobbit?

Cinematical has a fan’s conception of what a Disney version of The Lord of the Rings would have looked like. According to The Animated Movie Guide and other sources, Disney held the movie rights until they were sold to United Artists in 1968. But there is apparently no hard proof that Disney ever held these rights. It is well known that Tolkien despised Disney, and did not want his characters “Disnified” (Tokien’s spelling). As I contend in another place, Bakshi came close enough in the Warner Brothers 1977 animated release of The Hobbit.
Sources: Cinematical.com2719 Hyperion Blog • The Letters of J R R Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin 1981 Edition, pp. 17, 119

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Hobbit: Graphic Novel Edition - Painting There and Back Again

When J R R Tolkien first imagined Bilbo Baggins, little did he realize what a huHobbit Three-Volumege franchise would grow from this little fellow. Editions of The Hobbit are available from the cheapest paperback, to an exquisite leather deluxe edition. It is even available in a comic book!

In 1989 and 1990, this graphic novel version was published by Eclipse Books in three parts. The illustrator was David Wenzel, and the story was adapted by Charles Dixon and lettered by Sean Deming. In 1990, a combined edition was published by Ballantine Books in the United Hobbit Graphic NovelStates, and Uniwin Paperbacks in the UK. In 2001, the Ballantine label Del Rey edition was first published with, inexplicably, a cover with artwork by Donato Giancola, who also did the artwork for the dust jackets on the Science Fiction Book Club editons of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In 2006, HarperCollins published a revised version with added material. This version is not available in the United States.

The Hobbit was not new to Wenzel. In 1977 Centaur Books had published Middle Earth: The World of Tolkien Illustrated, which was basically a series of paintings depicting scenes from The Hobbit with a brief summary of each scene by Lin Carter. By comparison, the artwork for the older book was not nearly as rich, and it is well that that early publication was supplanted by the graphic novel.

Charles Dixon stayed very true to the book, incorporating every important plot twist, which should delight Tolkien purists. Tolkien's narrative voice is missed when Dixon has to edit for space, but the overall vision is not missed. This is a huge improvement over the 1977 Rankin/Bass film version.

The artwork is also a dramatic improvement. No "Disney-fied" dwarfes or amphibian-looking Wood Elves like in the animated movie. Wenzel captures the splendor of Middle Earth with plenty of detail and vivid colors.

If your children (or you) are into comic books, this might be just the trick to get them "into" Middle Earth without losing much of Tolkien's magic or his moral compass. Bilbo certainly is not perfect. But his down-to-earth insights ("as my father used to say...") and courage in spite of himself are characteristics that we can emulate today.