The recent popularity of the "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings" books and movies draws attention to another classic literary series, "The Chronicles of Narnia". Written by C.S. Lewis, a contemporary and a friend of Tolkien's, the "Narnia" books are simultaneously more suitable for children and more grounded in our reality than the "LOTR" cycle. The slender "Narnia" volumes can each be devoured in a matter of hours by anyone with a rudimentary understanding of language, whereas the intricate histories detailed in the "LOTR" books often bewilder the very young. However, the Christian philosopher in Lewis injected a healthy dose of his religion into "The Chronicles of Narnia", and the 7-entries series can be thought of as a populist primer on key concepts of the Christian faith via analogous examples understandable by anyone.
Don't worry, C.S. Lewis was more interested in entertaining children rather than converting people to Christianity. (It should be noted that Lewis had not always been a devout man, having rejected religions in his youth.) Therefore, you can enjoy "The Chronicles of Narnia" as a set of myths concerning Narnia, a fantasy country occasionally accessible by children. In Narnia, there are animals capable of human speech, fauns, naiads, dryads, satyrs, giants, witches, werewolves, etc. There are swordfights, epic quests, and lessons to be learned. There's also Aslan the Lion, revered as a god but never called one by the other characters.
Actually, Lewis parallels Aslan as "The God", not just "a god". Aslan calls upon "Sons of Adam" and "Daughters of Eve" to rescue Narnia from grave perils, and "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" even draws upon Judas and the Resurrection as sources of literary inspiration. Aslan's acts even calls to mind one of the most effective uses of Biblical quotations in the Dickensian canon--"I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord" from "A Tale of Two Cities".
Home Vision Entertainment, in association with the British Broadcasting Corporation (the BBC), presents 3 DVDs of telefilm adaptations of some of the "Narnia" stories. These 3-hour movies, made between 1988 and 1990, played on PBS when they arrived on American shores. You can buy a "The Chronicles of Narnia" Box Set, or you can buy the DVDs separately. The Box Set is an expanded Alpha case, and the single DVDs are housed in single keepcases. (While these movies do hint at the idea that God is God no matter what name "true believers" use to worship him, none of these adaptations touch upon the culturally allegorical implications of the other entries in the series featuring the unmistakably Arab-like inhabitants of Calormene.)
"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe": Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy journey to a country manor from London during World War II in order to find safety from Nazi air raids. The four children stumble through a wardrobe into Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a perpetual winter over the lands and banned Christmas. The human siblings must lead the oppressed Narnians to victory over the White Witch and her evil minions. (For those of you keeping score, Edmund can be thought of as Judas, while the bad guys can be thought of as those who did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior. A kind man, C.S. Lewis gives Edmund an avenue for redemption.)
"Prince Caspian" and "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader": Though presented as one feature, "Prince Caspian" and "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" are actually two separate novels in "The Chronicles of Narnia", and they have separate credits sequences on the DVD as well. In "Prince Caspian", our four heroes from "The Lion..." return to Narnia in order to help Caspian reclaim the throne from his evil uncle. (Shades of "Hamlet"?) In "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader", Lucy, Edmund, and their cousin Eustace embark on a quest to find the 7 lords who were banished from Narnia because they were loyal to Caspian's father.
"The Silver Chair": Eustace returns to Narnia, this time with a schoolmate, Jill Pole. With Caspian old and near death, Eustace and Jill must find Prince Rilian, who has been missing for quite a while. A green serpent poisoned Rilian's mother, and the young prince disappeared while hunting for his mother's killer. Aslan assigns Jill the task of recognizing 4 signs that will lead the way to Rilian's whereabouts.
These films concentrate on the pluck and bravery of children in the face of evil, so they're fairly inspirational in their own quirky way. As expected, production values improve with each installment, but the special effects are rather obvious by today's standards. You'll have a hearty laugh when you see the hand-drawn flying horses and flaming skulls, far cries from the sophistication of computer-generated visuals. The film's lengths prove to be their greatest weakness. The scripts often belabor the same points for much longer than necessary, and the pacing can seem langurous for long stretches.
The best thing about these BBC adaptations? Barbara Kellerman. Kellerman's commanding screen prescence lead to her playing three memorable villains--the White Witch in "The Lion...", a silver-tongued hang in "Prince Caspian", and the Green Lady in "The Silver Chair".
The 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) video transfers look very much like VHS transfers. Soft, sometimes fuzzy, and featuring weak colors, I'm afraid that these movies have not been rendered well for their DVD release. While clean and lacking in source defects and film grain, the prints look "tired" and in need of some restoration.
Though a glossy sheet included with the box set states that the DVDs come with mono sound, the Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks exhibit stereo qualities. Voices and other sound elements bounce between the left and right front speakers. Since most companies other than Criterion usually double mono tracks to the front left and the front right channels rather than sending the audio only to the center speaker, the stereo effects may have been induced by simply cutting off the feed to one channel or the other when convenient.
All that being said, I found the stereo effects to be distracting as they did not always match the onscreen action, creating unintentionally disorienting environments. Also, the tracks lack dynamic range, with high ends sounding shrill and screechy and low ends appearing thin and transparent. Dialogue and music cues have been done well, though.
(The DVDs do not have any subtitles or closed captions.)
Despite the rich history surrounding the creation of C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia", the DVDs offer unspectacular bonus materials. Each disc contains a "Trivia Game" and a "Stills Gallery". When you successfully complete each "Trivia Game", you will be given a special password that allows you to download from the Internet various pictures related to the DVD release of the 1988-1990 BBC adaptations.
The "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" DVD also includes an excerpt from the BBC television literary magazine "Bookworm". The footage provides an introduction to C.S. Lewis's world, including a look at his former house.
A couple of inserts accompany the DVDs in the box set. A glossy fold-out provides a mini-biography of Clive Staples Lewis, some quotes from Lewis, little-known Narnia trivia, DVD credits, and chapter listings. Four postcard-type inserts provide summaries of the movies as well as reprints of the cover art found on the single-disc releases. A recipe card for Turkish Delight (a candy key to the plot of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe") has been included for aspiring confectionists. Finally, a glossy sheet, stuck to the back of the box (but removable), provides additional information about the movies and the DVDs.
I eagerly sat down to watch the BBC TV adaptations of 4 of the "Narnia" books, for I enjoyed them greatly when I saw them on PBS nearly 10 years ago. Reluctantly, I must admit that time has given us more engaging motion pictures set in fantasy worlds than the ones created by the BBC. Of course, when you compare the lengths of the "Narnia" books to the "Harry Potter" or "The Lord of the Rings" volumes, you can immediately appreciate the fact that any "Narnia" movie need not approach the 3-hour mark. Created for a TV audience, the BBC's "The Chronicles of Narnia" movies are wonderful entertainments for children too young to experience most other fantasy movies.