“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” highlights family both on screen and off. Not only does the story revolve around four siblings separated from parents, but the production itself of C.S. Lewis’ classic tale mirrored family issues in all sorts of ways.
Members of the cast and crew sat down with religion writers in New York in late November to discuss the $150 million adaptation, which opens nationwide today. (Read our review.)
Director Andrew Adamson, the filmmaker behind “Shrek” and “Shrek 2,” said the film’s intricate computer-generated effects weren’t what scared him.
“Children,” said the 39-year-old New Zealander. “My biggest fear going in.”
“With children, they’re very unpredictable, and you never know what the difficulties are,” he said. “And I hadn’t had a lot to do with children when I started this film. I didn’t have a family of my own. I didn’t know a lot of people who had teenage children. And I didn’t know mainly if they would like me. I didn’t know if I could relate to them.”
But it all worked out, and by all accounts Adamson got along splendidly with his four young stars: Georgie Henley (“Lucy”), Skandar Keynes (“Edmund”), Anna Popplewell (“Susan”) and William Moseley (“Peter”).
When shooting began in New Zealand in June 2004, their respective ages were 8, 12, 15 and 16.
“I found that I actually enjoyed it,” said Adamson. “And I was able to find four kids that I really liked. And ultimately I can say it’s the most rewarding part of it—the relationships that I ended up forming with these kids.”
The children, all British, traveled to the other side of the world and spent several months on location, apart from their larger families.
“I wanted to make this as much of a positive experience for the kids as possible,” said Adamson, who arranged for them to make day-trips and enjoy fun activities when off-set in his native country.
“Going off to New Zealand, I was very nervous” said Popplewell, who added, though, that anxiety decreased once she arrived.
“We were looked after so beautifully” she said. “Everyone was so supportive.” In addition to excursions like volcano climbing, visiting real lions and shopping, Popplewell even got a lift to dinner—in a helicopter.
But all the star treatment didn’t go to their heads, the actors were quick to say. When the “Narnia” video game came out prior to the film’s release, Popplewell and Moseley both said their siblings enjoyed crashing Susan and Peter into the lamppost repeatedly.
Fun and games aside, the experience appears to have resonated with all the young actors.
“They grew a lot physically and emotionally and so on throughout the journey,” said Adamson, who expressed a sentiment picked up by Moseley.
“I was thrown into this position [taking the role] much like Peter’s thrown into this role of father,” said an energetic Moseley, who makes his film debut in “Narnia.”
The filmmaking experience appears to have been empowering for its young stars. Curiously enough, that sense of empowerment actually led Adamson to argue for diverging from the book at one point.
In the book, written by Lewis in 1950, Father Christmas visits the children in Narnia and gives a shield and sword to Peter; a bow, arrow and horn to Susan; and a magic potion and dagger to Lucy.
“I do not mean you to fight in the battle,” Father Christmas says to Susan. To Lucy he says, “You also are not to be in the battle.”
“Battles are ugly when women fight,” he emphasizes.
Both Adamson and producer Mark Johnson recalled how Adamson debated these lines with the movie’s co-producer, Douglas Gresham. Gresham is Lewis’ stepson and handler of the Lewis estate, including book rights.
“C.S. Lewis had wanted the girls to be somewhat non-participatory, especially in the battle,” said producer Johnson.
“I thought that was a very sexist thing and disempowering to women,” said Adamson, who allowed that Lewis’ thought on the matter was largely a product of the times.
“Doug was a little concerned about, Was that taking away from C.S. Lewis’ intention?” said Adamson. “I said, ‘C.S. Lewis wrote this book before he met your mother, and after he met your mother, there are a lot more strong female characters.” (Gresham’s mother, the American Joy Davidman, married Lewis in 1956. She died of cancer in 1960.)
Adamson and Gresham eventually compromised. When Father Christmas bestows the gifts, instead of saying, “Battles are ugly when women fight,” audiences will hear the truncated, “Battles are ugly affairs.”
Nearly as scary as the climactic battle is the persona of the White Witch, played by Tilda Swinton, who works her malevolent magic on Edmund, especially.
“It occurred to me that what little children are really frightened of is coldness and a kind of emotional unaffectability,” said Swinton, a 45-year-old Londoner. Swinton, as the White Witch, appears very much cold-blooded, using blackened contact lenses and lavish costumes to do, in her own estimation, 85 percent of the work of this iconic figure of Narnia.
Another well-known figure in Narnia is the first one we meet: a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Lucy encounters him by the famous lamppost, and after introductions he invites the little girl back to his house.
One reporter asked James McAvoy, who plays Tumnus, if he was concerned that the legendary scene might play, in contemporary times, like a sort of child abduction with pedophilic overtones. After all, Tumnus’ motives aren’t completely pure, as fans of the book know.
The 26-year-old Scottish actor said the scene is “actually a very good story that I think we want to tell our children.”
“Not everybody is bad,” he continued. “Yes, be aware, be afraid and be wary of people trying to lead you away. However, let’s have a little bit of hope about the world as well. Let’s not try and convince all our children that the world is the darkest, darkest, darkest place and everybody is a potential whatever.”
“You have to play that darkness to show that light,” said McAvoy.
Adamson does play both darkness and light, as did Lewis. And in Adamson’s estimation, the dark and light merely help cloud or illuminate the family unit.
“To me, it’s a story about a family,” said Adamson. “It’s a small family drama that’s just extrapolated and taken to epic proportions.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.