Saturday, December 31, 2005

On seeing Narnia

The magic of the books of my childhood: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Susan Cooper, Ursula Le Guin, Noel Streatfield... (Culturally quite an anglophile list I notice). How they once lit my world (and the flame has never since been put out - to paraphrase Hugh Latimer).

I must confess that I watched the film today in a half-horrified, half-amused disbelief - such a crude story, so militant and militaristic, so coldly calculated to the last second. This is not what my imagination got out of it 25 years ago. Not at all. It is a boundless tragedy if the modern generations of children won't read the actual texts and end up substituting Hollywood's simplistic special effects for their minds' eyes. Dear me - such a remarkable experience: fundamentally, I think, of cultural decadence. Of course it was very competent entertainment, professionally done and will undoubtedly get a very healthy return for the investment - but oh how crude we are getting nowadays. And, bloody hell, the controversy about the Christian prozelytizing: please, let the children read the Bible, let them run to the priests if they want to know anything about the Christian religion. If they would get any idea of Christianity from this movie (which they anyway won't), it would be religion as a cheap magic trick or as an obviously non-credible fairy-story like any other. Atheists should insist on their children watching this horrible mangling of religion. To be honest, much of that was already in the original text - no wonder Tolkien was so furious about it. The movie only finished the touch with this crass, throughly calculated commercialism, and a sound investment it no doubt will turn out to be.

It is quite interesting how these Hollywood mega-productions just cleanly kill the real effect of these amazing stories. Peter Jackson's highly competent and outwardly even somewhat faithful storytelling did not leave a single trace of Tolkien's beautiful, deeply tragic, conservative vision of the long defeat that worldly human life was for him - and very little indeed of his obsessively crafted huge, slow vistas of histories and cultures, of landscapes painstakingly walked through. No doubt it would not have sold very well. But I think it also would not have been understood. We are beginning to forget even Christianity these days. These films, these investments, represent the triumph of crude, calculated materialism over any spiritual world view, whether religious or secular.


helsinkian said...

Christianity is quite trendy today. One person who insists that Christianity is back with a vengeance is Mats Svegfors, a former editor-in-chief of Svenska Dagbladet, whose biography of the tragic UN secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld was published this year. His project was to prove that the secularist 1960s "lefties" (Dagens Nyheter!) had it all wrong about Christianity, truly modern people are truly Christian, like Dag Hammarskjöld was.

This may have nothing to do with Narnia but like C S Lewis, Dag Hammarskjöld was a Christian gentleman of the old world who can reappear in trendy 21st Century packaging as right on time. I would actually recommend Svegfors, because I loved the way he presented Hammarskjöld's worldview ("the first modern Swede" is what Svegfors calls Hammarskjöld) as a unified vision comprised of religion, politics, philosophy, a deep sense of history and not least modernist poetry. As Svegfors presents it in the biography, Dag Hammarskjöld in his posthumously published poetic diary Vägmärken comes out as a uniquely modern Christian visionary, a mystic who rejected dogmatist thought.

What I hated about Svegfors was the tendency to overplay the significance of Hammarskjöld's final acceptance of Jesus (probably sometime around 1953, but his diary notes are by no means unequivocal about this) as the turning point in his life. He was a religious man but he kept religion strictly to the personal sphere, almost never talked about it in public and Svegfors makes the late UN secretary general look like a politician with a mission from God in politics. Hammarskjöld's political mission was from the UN and he was aware of that.

I actually liked Shadowlands, the movie about C S Lewis. Would you recommend seeing Narnia and if so, what if anything in the film would make it worthwhile?

Anonymous said...

The way in which I was introduced to the Tolkien's master piece was somewhat unconventional. A good ten years ago I attended a flea market where I found several books. Among those books there was a strange looking set of smallish hard cover books, packaged by the publisher, in a sturdy black box. I noticed the name, The Lords Of The Rings, and I was delighted to find these particular ones for I had just heard, by passing, about this expose about Juan Antonio Samaranch and the rest of his ilk in the IOC. Well, you can imagine my surprise when, after arriving home and after the persistent dyslexic fog lifted, I realized what I had just purchased.

My experiences with the movies based on books have been almost always more or less disappointing. It is so true that our minds' eyes produce almost flawless movies and they are always uniquely tailor made just for us. Even when all the parts of a movie are so well done that we can't find an actual flaw it still falls short. My main case in point is director James Ivory's film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's gripping novel The Remains Of The Day. The performances by Emma Thompson and especially by sir Anthony were out of this world but the version I saw while reading the book was unmatched. An other example is director Atom Egoyan's ( what a name!) film adaptation of, my favorite short story specialist William Trevor's, Felicia's Journey. Bob Hoskins in a lead role did all what could humanly be done but never the less I left the theatre in wanting.

Probably the only movie that has matched "the premier performance of my mind" has been the 1940 film production of, John Steinbeck's, The Grapes Of Wrath. The author is rumored to have said that Henry Fonda as Tom Joad made him "believe my own words". This film, directed by John Ford, has, just as the book does, a plenitude of delicious monologues and dialogues such as for instance the gasoline attendant's:"You and me got sense. Them Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. Human being wouldn't live the way they do. Human being couldn't stand to be so miserable".

This silversmithing with a sledge hammer (approach) in film making has the characteristics of a runaway train. Is it ever going to stop or is it going to be, like any other addiction, that ever increasing amounts of trickery are needed to achieve a cheap buzz? This highly commercialized world of ours is certainly not fertile ground for slow (real) character developments and the way it is going presently the dumping of the text all together can't be far behind. This pessimistic view is bolstered by the seemingly shortened attention spans of the thrill seeking hordes of the movie consumers. For my own protection, I do not attend these mega budget, special effects laden, action movies.

Paraphrasing Bill Clinton, I say to you, I feel your pain. As you can see, based on this almost never ending ranting, this happens to be a hot button issue for me and I am grateful to have had this opportunity to vent my spleen. The nice thing about all this is that I am starting to feel a lot better already. Thank you, doctor!

stockholm slender said...

Excellent observations - I think Christianity might not be very well suited for the cinema. It is at heart a fairly uncommercial affair... Hammarskjöld's religious views were somewhat familiar to me, in general he seems like a such exemplary person though I wonder if all that idealism could have been completely genuine: he was a man of the world also, dealing with power and organization.

It is good to have a kindred spirit! I am quite appalled at the popular Hollywood movies at the moment. Of course the better stuff is somewhere else, and really good, but popular entertainment measures our culture and civilization, and maybe more accurately than high art. It seems to me that we are getting much cruder, polarizing on very simplistic lines. To quote Betjeman, "where are the free folk of England?" - where are the citizens, enlightened and responsible?