When Harry Potter first burst onto the scene and all those columnists in the newspapers began churning out ream after ream of gushing praise for the wonderful originality and depth of J K Rowling’s contributions to fantasy fiction and children’s literature, the few dissenting voices most often brought up C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia as a prime example of a classic children’s book series that had done it all before. So it’s really only fair that Narnia finally gets a cinematic outing, and also only fair that the first Narnia film is so much more accomplished than the first in the Harry Potter movie franchise.
First published in 1950, shortly after his fellow Oxford professor and friend JRR Tolkien saw his Lord of the Rings greeted with popular acclaim, C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe quickly secured its place as a modern classic. Being, as it was, an extended Christian fable (with the Lion, Aslan, the substitute Christ figure throughout the entire Narnia series), the traditional morality of Lewis’ works appealed to parents keen to instill their offspring with a kind and responsible world view in a post-war world that was changing rapidly. But for the children who were the primary audience, the excitement of talking animals, battles and evil witches in a world accessible from our own – but only to children – was a wonderfully engaging idea that has continued to appeal to successive generations.
Yet although the books continue to attract new readers, there have been no attempts to film them for nearly 20 years. The BBC’s television adaptations of some of the Narnia books towards the end of the 1980s, though now available on DVD, have not dated especially well thanks to the last couple of decade’s massive advances in special effects. And after the roaring success of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien’s fantasy tale, it is really only fair that the other great British contribution to the genre has its chance at the Hollywood big time. It is also perhaps only right that the special effects for this new adaptation are provided by the team responsible for bringing The Lord of the Rings so wonderfully to life on the big screen.
Although many of the themes of the Narnia books may now seem rather quaint and old-fashioned, this should be no reason to be put off. After all, what is Harry Potter if not a revival of the long tradition of boarding school fiction in the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays or Billy Bunter? Likewise, the Christian undertones could be off-putting for some, yet these are hardly obvious even in the originals – at least until the later books in the series – and despite the influence of the Evangelical Right in the modern United States have not been played up for the movie version of the first novel.
So, is it a good adaptation? Well, you already know that the Lord of the Rings crew are behind the special effects, so you know it’s going to look great. Add to that a cast that includes Tilda Swinton, Ray Winstone, Rupert Everett, Jim Broadbent and Dawn French, and it’s certainly worth getting up your hopes. Top it off with the fact that this is the first live-action feature from the director of the Shrek films, and you are pretty much guaranteed a great night out. A contender for one of the films of the year, and a welcome Christmas replacement for The Lord of the Rings.