Thursday, January 19, 2006

Narnia, the Movie

I just saw the Narnia film -- an extremely faithful adaptation, in every sense of the adjective. Some of this I liked: The wonder came through very well, and the emphasis on food; I loved the beavers, the centaurs, and Mr. Tumnus (especially Mr. Tumnus), and having grown up with the story of Christ, I was moved by the representation of Aslan's humiliation and death. But the filmmakers' decision to lose none of the automatic sexism of the book -- even to enhance it in Susan's constant doubting and harping, and with lots of manly shots of oh-so-strong-and-important-Ken-doll-Peter -- disturbed me a good deal, rather to my surprise. . . . It felt like a male's story to me, or a child's, for men and innocent ones are the center of all consciousness and rightness; I didn't find a place in it for a woman except as a caretaker like Mrs. Beaver or a queen under Peter, and I *hate* that, I really do. I know that my focus on gender here is missing the point of the book/movie entirely, and also that my struggle would be part of Lewis's religious point: One has to come to Christ either innocently or in full submission, accepting the truth He presents, even if that truth excludes women being in power. But that does not mean I like it.

I suppose it sums up my feelings that during the fight between Peter and the White Witch, I found myself rooting for the White Witch. For even though she is all that is evil and cruel, I never can be against a blonde with a sword.


  1. Girl, Tilda was FIERCE.

    Actually, as I think about it, can't it be argued that Susan's role is equally as important? First of all, despite all of her nagging doubts, she is the caretaker. (My sister's observation was that Susan reminded her of that Saturday Night Live character who is always down on everything). Second, she and her sister are the first to witness the return of Aslan: doesn't the fact that she was one of the first to see His return mean something?

  2. Ah, but still, in that scene, the emphasis is all on Lucy: Lucy is the last to leave and the first to turn back, and Susan is very much an adjunct. I'm not that comfortable talking about this since I haven't read the books -- I feel like I'm only parroting Pullman or Neil Gaiman -- but it felt to me very much like they were already preparing Susan to be the unworthy skeptic who will leave Narnia in the end, even in this first movie.

  3. I felt the same way, Cheryl.

    And the fact that Susan and Lucy are the first to witness his return is of course parallel to the women at the tomb in Jerusalem, who get to tell of Christ's return first (even if the apostles don't believe them and have to check it out for themselves). But I'm still not satisfied with that bone thrown to women, nor the fact that Lewis (and much Christian thought) relegate women solely to a caretaker role. (Not that there's anything wrong with that role -- it's noble and good.) But not being given the option rubs the wrong way.

    You can argue this a couple of ways -- one, that even griping about power is completely wrong-headed. There should be no power in Narnia -- the ideal is complete Christological submission for men AND women.

    But the second way of looking at this is to observe that 'not arguing about power' is pretty convenient if you're the one *with* the power already.

  4. Well, I guess that it really depends on how theory and reality relate to one another, right? I can write that the caretaker role is noble and good, but if we as a society don't treat people that way, what use are words? When I referred to the caretaker role, I was also thinking about the role of women in orthodox Judaism. Some would say that women occupy a subordinate and subservient role, but others feel that women are elevated.

    In any event, perhaps what you're really reacting against is the fact that all women are given a particular role and that there is no other role to play.

  5. They did leave out the most offensive line in the book, at least it was to me when I was 15 and first read "the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe", which was when Father Christmas tells Lucy, "Wars are ugly when women fight." I remember reading that and thinking, "No, wars are ugly, period, and they are especially ugly when the men get their butts kicked and the enemy comes and hacks the women and children to pieces." Perhaps it stems from British battles, for the most part, were fought somewhere else, guys putting on colorful uniforms to march in straight lines and stop bullets. The women stayed at home and kept the home fires burning.

    I've noticed in "Magician's Nephew" that Polly completely "disappears" in some scenes. The story is all about Digory. He's the one that asks the questions, takes action, is curious. Polly just stands around drooling. Harry Potter does most of the talking, acting, saving, etc. but I don't get that same feeling of "Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider."

    Lewis wrote a really nasty essay called "The Shoddy Lands" about how a professor gets transported inside the head on one of student's girlfriend and how grey and petty all her thoughts are. Lipstick and nylons must be the devil.


  6. You all are bursting my narnia childhood memory bubble.

    I didn't like the film. Everything in Narnia seemed too clean; nothing was torn or dirty in the camp. I also thought it was a really wierd image when Aslan killed the witch, because they kept the camera on him and it looked like he was chowing down on her like a real lion would.


  7. No man who says I'm as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

    And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food. 'Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I--it must be a vile, upstage, lah-di-dah affectation. Here's a fellow who says he doesn't like hot dogs--thinks himself too good for them no doubt. Here's a man who hasn't turned on the jukebox--he must be one of those highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were the right sort of chaps they'd be like me. They've no business to be different. It's undemocratic.'
    ~C.S. Lewis, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", The Screwtape Letters (1942)

    Ah, yes, and if men were the right sort of chaps they'd be . . . women.

  8. Sherry, I'm finding it hard to unpick quite what you mean by that quote and your comment.(Complicated by the fact that the Screwtape letters are written by a devil, yes?) I'm not thinking about the superiority of one gender over another here, nor meaning to denigrate the boys in the story. It's what Katy and Jimmy said -- it's not being given the option to be anything *but* a caretaker (or damned, or a witch) in Narnia that that rubs the wrong way. Perhaps this changes in later books.

    I also observe that that quote is the most Ayn Rand-like statement I've ever heard from someone who is not Ayn Rand. :-)

  9. I'm inclined to think that all this gender stuff is a bit of a red herring. Let's face it,characterization is not Lewis's strong point. Lucy is Aslan's favourite, Peter gets to be High King, Edmund is the traitor, Susan is nothing much. In later books, Aramis is a gutsy heroine and Eustace is a pill. It doesn't divide up too badly (though it could be better). Really all Lewis's children are more or less interchangeable, and maybe that makes them easier for chidren reading to project themselves onto them? (that just occurred to me -- I think that's what I did)

    For me, the point is that my four year old has been climbing into the pantry in search of Narnia for the past three weeks. I'm prepared to pay the price of some casual sexism to get the wonder and the mystery and the delight.

    -- Kate

  10. Kate! You wrote, “I'm prepared to pay the price of some casual sexism to get the wonder and the mystery and the delight.” And I agree! I wouldn’t throw out a book just because it contains sensibilities from a different time. Huck Finn would be a good example of this or Plato’s Symposium. (Women certainly don’t get much of a fair shake in that!)

    But I wear a bunch of hats when looking at a book. There’s my “Mom Bedtime Story” hat, which is most likely a flannel night cap with a red tassel. When I’m wearing that hat all I care about is an exciting tale with a good message. It’s a simple equation… Plucky heroes overcoming obstacles + bad guys getting their butts kicked+ Happy Ending = Awesome!

    There’s my literary criticism hat, a dusty mortarboard that slips off to the side, that I wear when I’m pulling a story apart, asking what does this mean, picking apart all the themes and unraveling it to see what’s there. Then I sit back and look at the mess with a satisfied feeling.

    And for “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” I’m also wearing a fourteen-year-old girl hat, which is probably a denim headband with beads and flowers embroidered on it. I remember a sour disappointment at the boys getting to fight evil and the girls sitting on the sidelines. In the book Susan never gets to shoot that spiffy bow of hers, saving the day. In the book the girls are told specifically that they are not to fight because that would be ugly. When I was fourteen it was a different time, it was pre Princess Leia, girls couldn’t wear pants to school, even on cold days, and the worst insult that a coach could yell at the track team was, “Ya bunch of women!”

    So does Narnia hold wonder, mystery and delight? You betcha! There’s magic and lions and tea and toast! But because Lewis wrote the book some sixty years ago in a different culture and time there are other things tucked in there as well, more that just red herrings.


    P.S. Cheryl! You can really tell a lot about a person by what they think of Ayn Rand. ;-)

  11. I must admit I've never read Ayn Rand. To speak plainly and not hide behind Mr. Lewis or Screwtape, I think Lewis believed that women were primarily caretakers and nurturers, and I suppose I agree. Battles ARE ugly when women fight. Men are the fighters and the protectors. I know it's unfashionable, very retro,

    Jill and Aramis and others are strong characters in the Narnia series, and Lewis's Till We have Faces features two women who are the central characters and who both show a great deal of intelligence and initiative. However, a movie or a book that shows men being men (or boys becoming men), protecting others and leading in battle, is quite refreshing in this age of emasculation.

  12. Well, okay, Marilyn, not just a red herring. I guess I came to Narnia at eight or so, before my consciousness was raised. And if Narnia (and Tolkein) was the only book of magic we had, I would definitely be more worried about the gender thing. But as there are plenty of feisty, spunky girl heroes around now, I say it's worth it...

    And Sherry, I must sneakily agree with you too (well, partly). I surprised myself by not actually minding boys being given swords to fight evil (if they were misslie launchers I might have minded more but swords are safely symbolic -- I hope). It would be nice to have more -- I dunno -- more honour for boys to emulate.

    -- Kate

  13. First of all, The Toymaker Sent me.

    Seondly. on my very liberal campus of Earlham College, there a debate raging on whether or not our cultural literacy should be based on sexist, racist, classist, etc. literature.

    And I feel a lot like Marilyn on this one. Let our children read Narnia. Let them read Indian in The Cupboard, Huck Finn, Where The Wild Things are, and whatnot.

    But let us also look at them critically. That way, when they come to college and a discussion of Narnia comes up, they can discuss the allegory first and then dismantel the patriarchial paradigm.

    And heaven forbid we discourage children from reading anything because it is 'Too Contriversial'!

  14. Let's not forget in The Night Kitchen by Sendack


  15. Looks like we are all in furious agreement.

    I am by no means denying the inherent sexism of Lewis's books (and many others), and of course we should be criticial of same, and point it out to our children.

    But don't forget that the girls get to be Valiant as well as Gentle (even if the boys are Magnificent and Just!)

    And at least it's not as bad as Enid Blyton -- don't know if you guys were brought up on her to the same extent as we were in the colonies -- where *literally* all Anne does is scream in terror and make sandwiches, and George has to give herself a boy's name before she can do anything adventurous. And there is no magic to compensate.

    -- Kate