Saturday, January 30, 2010

Narnia Nostolgia 5: The Radio Plays Part 1

BBC Radio 4 aired The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 1988. A few years passed until the series was taken up again in 1994 with The Horse and His Boy, and finished in 1997 with The Last Battle. These were produced originally under the series title “Tales of Narnia.”
Focus on the Family Radio Theatre began their series with the more popular Lion, the Witch in 1998, but went back “to the beginning” with Magician’s Nephew in 1999. The series was completed in chronological order with The Last Battle being aired in 2002. (CD sets of the Focus series are numbered in chronological order, beginning with Magician’s Nephew.)*

The following is an introduction to the radio plays, and a review of both versions of The Magician’s Nephew.

Different mediums require different methods and stratagems. As the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so it is only natural that differences will arise among the original books, the radio plays, and the videos. Both the books and the radio plays revolve around words – but not words exclusively. A book may also add maps, illustrations, and pictures; a radio play adds voice inflection and sound effects. In a movie, you can have relatively long periods of silence where pictures are conveying the story, but in a radio play, “dead air” kills the story.

An advantage of both the written medium and radio is that it leaves much to the reader’s (or listener’s) imagination. For film, writers and directors must work out the details (usually with a large team of prop designers, special effects people, etc.) of how every detail should look. Instead of hearing descriptions of what everything is like, the viewer sees it.

The difficulty of an audio play is, then, that it must accomplish much in words, while not just feeling like a “reading” of the text – for then it would be just an audio book. Since there are so many words involved, radio plays are usually read directly from the script instead of being memorized. This often results in a rather stilted presentation. Both radio versions of The Magician’s Nephew suffer from this, but the actors in the Focus on the Family version do a much better job of sounding like they are actually “in” the story.

The acting in the Focus version is much better, and the story is helped by appropriate music and sound effects. While the BBC Radio 4 version uses (sparingly) what sounds like synthesized music, the Focus dramatization is backed by a full orchestra. The sound effects in the British version are often poorly done, while those in the Radio Theatre production are excellent. For example, when the children and the Witch are fleeing the ruins of Charn, you mostly hear slow footsteps in the BBC adaptation, while you hear running footsteps and crumbling buildings in the Focus version. This is enhanced further with dramatic music.

An added bonus to the Radio Theatre version is that Douglas Gresham, step-son of Narnia author C S Lewis, shares a few insights at the beginning and end of the story. These short sound bites are almost worth the price of the CD’s by themselves.

A word of appreciation must be given to the writers who adapted the books for these dramatizations. Brian Sibley (BBC) and Paul McCuster (Focus) have faithfully followed the books and should be praised for their fine work as playwrights. McCuster was not afraid to embellish a bit to emphasize a theme in the book. (For example, the scene with Digory and his mother in her room before he ends up in Narnia is added to strike home his desire to see her recover from her illness.) And Sibley’s addition of a grown-up Digory as the storyteller helps to make the narrator’s voice more personal (although Lewis often uses the narrator in later books to let the reader in on things Digory would not have known about).

If you would like to familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with The Chronicles of Narnia, either radio drama would do well for that purpose. Focus on the Family does not recommend the Radio Theatre series for those under eight years of age, and that, perhaps, is a good recommendation for the books and videos as well.

The Radio Theatre production can be purchased online through the usual American outlets. For those in the United States, the BBC Radio adaptation may be hard to come by, and usually must be imported from Great Britain (which is rather expensive). There are copies available on the Amazon UK website

*For a discussion of the “proper” order of the stories, see The order of the Narnia chronicles.

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