- 02 December 2010
- By Gerard Wood
Long before director Andrew Adamson and Walt Disney brought C.S. Lewis’s magical world of Narnia to life on the big screen, the BBC took us there with an award winning children’s series made for television, The Chronicles of Narnia. I have no doubt that many who enjoyed the series some twenty years ago will remember it with affection. Four of the seven novels in Lewis's series were adapted, commencing with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in 1988, followed by Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair. All were adapted by Australian writer Alan Seymour.
Warner Bros. has recently re-released the collected series in a DVD box-set through BBC America and I watched it again with mixed feelings of nostalgia and surprise.
For those who aren’t familiar with Lewis’s fantasy world, Narnia exists at a tangent to our own with a diminishing number of portals that allow humans – sons of Adam and daughters of Eve – to cross over. It is a land populated by mythological creatures and talking animals, ruled by a god-lion, Aslan. The adventure told in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe starts out in England during the Second World War. A young girl, Lucy Pevensie, evacuated from London to the country home of Professor Digory Kirke, hides in an old wardrobe during a game of hide and seek and finds herself transported magically to the land of Narnia, locked in eternal winter by the evil White Witch. Her three siblings, Peter, Susan and Edmund, do not believe her when she tells them of this strange new world, but they are soon in Narnia themselves, fighting alongside the noble lion Aslan to defeat the witch and her mighty army.
Confession time: although I devoured Lewis’s stories as an innocent and starry-eyed child, I soon found his work unreadable as I grew into adulthood. Lewis is thoroughly conservative both politically and religiously, not unlike his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien. Unlike Tolkien, Lewis’s fiction is barely concealed allegory and the narrative is the thinnest of disguises for his religious and political interests. There was a time when I loved Aslan as a ferocious god-beast, and then my eyes were opened and I found instead a big fluffy Jesus-lion! If you don't sympathise with Lewis's beliefs, as I do not, it's a challenge to enjoy the narrative because it is so utterly bound up with his religious agenda.
Lewis’s conservative values so thoroughly inform his story-telling that no adaptation can possibly conceal it entirely, although the Walt Disney films do a fair job of extracting an exciting adventure from the allegory. The BBC series is a far more literal adaptation than the Disney films and will appeal to those who love Lewis’s fiction for precisely the reasons I don’t.
What's more, if you’re excited by the religiosity of Lewis’s fiction, you may be able to overlook the dated and often laughable special effects in the TV series: cartoon-like animation superimposed over live-action, primitive animatronics, and hilarious animal suits. True, in their day these were more convincing (and we were more tolerant) but I suspect that children today, brought up with the super-realism of CGI, will be quickly bored. The acting, dialogue and effects in the first series are really quite awful and I’d recommend skipping it entirely because things do improve considerably with Prince Caspian. The final series, The Silver Chair, is by far the best and has a truly delightful and memorable performance by Tom Baker as the lugubrious Marshwiggle, Puddleglum. Look out for Patsy Byrne too as the Giant Nanny, unashamedly reprising her role as Nursy from Blackadder II.
For Tom Baker's performance alone I'd recommend this series.
The Chronicles of Narnia was released through BBC America on 9 November.
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