Page to Screen: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988)

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
based on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

Once upon a time, flipping through channels, I encountered the end credits of what appeared to be an adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the Pevensies were walking across snow, followed by the beavers. In my memory, however, the beavers were of a regular-size, unlike the beavers that appear in the 1988 BBC television adaptation I found at my local library, so perhaps it’s not the same adaptation at all—but I can’t think of what else it could have been, being live-action. In any case, I picked it up to have something to watch while I did chores, which turned out to be a good thing; I don’t think I would have ever sat through this otherwise.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe follows the four Pevensie children, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, as they are relocated from London to the country mansion of a kindly professor during World War II. Playing hide and seek in their new home, Lucy hides herself in a wardrobe and discovers a magical country known as Narnia, a once peaceful and beautiful place now ruled by the White Witch and covered in eternal winter, and makes friends with the faun Mr. Tumnus. But when the Pevensies return to Narnia, Mr. Tumnus has been imprisoned by the White Witch, and the Pevensies’ efforts to save him turn into an effort to save Narnia itself—with the help of the mystical lion Aslan and without the help of their brother Edmund, who has been turned to the Witch’s service.

As an adaptation, this production is very faithful. (As Peter and Lucy’s relationship is one of my favorites in the books, I was pleased to see them get it right.) The tone is light and whimsical, even in the fairly pathetic last battle, and it’s very hesitant to add anything of its own—which, I find, hurts the character of Edmund. In the book, Lewis explains that Edmund’s behavior is due to the influence of his school chums, and in the liberal 2005 adaptation, that’s replaced with Edmund being a boy trying to assert himself as an adult in the absence of his father (and with Peter as man of the house). There’s no such explanation here; Edmund is just an annoying brat, who is introduced to the audience when he talks about all the gore and excitement they’ll miss being in the countryside and not in London. The other children always react to him in disgust and try to correct him, and there’s not really any hint of affection or connection between them at all—I was honestly surprised they wanted to go after him when he deserts them. There’s even a bizarre part of the miniseries where Edmund’s conscience addresses him, visually splitting him into bad!Edmund and good!Edmund, instead of making him a kid in over his head who needs to be shown the light—the implication is that bad!Edmund needs to be exorcised, which was just odd. The children playing the Pevensies also don’t help.

The child actors playing the Pevensies are… not good. (It probably doesn’t help that the costume choices can be offputting; Susan’s pigtails and Peter’s unfortunate shorts.) They overact, especially the girl who plays Lucy (who portrays none of Lucy’s inner strength), or otherwise flatten their characters, no doubt aided by a too faithful script that doesn’t add in things to compensate for unfilmable character moments (such as thought processes, although they certainly try). Edmund only lights up when he’s cruel, and subsides to not much of anything once he’s good—the aforementioned good!Edmund and bad!Edmund conversation shows how dull he can be. I also thought that Edmund and Peter looked to be too similar—in age, size, and bearing. The boy playing Peter also didn’t look heroic enough for me, but that’s hardly the actor’s fault, now is it? It’s a shame that the children are so poor, as they’re the heart of the book and ought to be the heart of any adaptation—failing them is almost like failing the entire production.

The special effects are trying their best, but a reliance on some terrible green screen certainly doesn’t help—the scene where Susan and Lucy ride Aslan back to the Witch’s liar? He, um, flies, instead of the bounding I’ve always imagined him to do. They also can’t decide on how to depict the animals; Aslan is a puppet, several flying beasts are animated, but other animals are people in some truly odd costumes. The cinematography is purely functional, so it’s not a treat for the eyes by any stretch. But this production does have some redeeming characteristics. There’s something campily delightful about Barbara Kellerman’s Jadis, whom I can best describe as Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel permanently stuck on the TEMPTED BY THE RING setting. She rages, howls, and cackles, bellowing her negative and keeping her eyes wide open. As far as characterization goes, I prefer Swinton’s Jadis, but you can tell Kellerman had fun. The professor is also quite good, eccentric, quiet, and very open-minded. The one improvement this adaptation has over the 2005 adaptation (which I vastly prefer) is Mr. Tumnus as played by Jeffrey Perry. He’s good-hearted but fearful, and there’s still something satyrish (but not too threatening!) about him. But good though he is, this adaptation isn’t really worth it.

Bottom line: Despite its faithful script, Barbara Kellerman’s hilariously campy Jadis, and Jeffrey Perry’s delightful Mr. Tumnus, the BBC’s 1988 adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a flop—the Pevensies are played poorly, the special effects are laughable (and raise some questions!), and the cinematography is, well, functional. Give it a miss.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

9 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988)

  1. As bad as this movie is now-a-days … when I was 5 years old and it was a new release (probably 6 or 7 years old before I actually owned it) … I loved this movie. At that age though, you really don’t know any better and in 1988 the special effects weren’t too bad. Mmy parents bought me the entire series and because I loved the books so much, I really didn’t mind the off-putting acting and the like :).

    I imagine if I watched it today, I would say to myself – “What was I thinking!?!”

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I loathe this adaptation, and had begun to think I was the only one who even sorta-kinda thought it wasn’t the best thing in the universe. I hated it so much that it ruined the books for me for many, many years. I couldn’t read them without picturing those horrid child actors, or the poor special effects. To this day, I refuse to watch movies based on books I care about, since I’m worried the BBC Narnia Effect will strike again.

  3. >>>visually splitting him into bad!Edmund and good!Edmund.

    This? Is one of my most favorite cheesy effects in all the land. I used to watch Guiding Light (used to in the sense that now it’s no longer on the air, which is the saddest thing ever to me, not used to in the sense I would ever have wanted to stop watching it because it was amazing and had incest and one time a clone), and there was a character called Edmund and this used to happen to him all the time! He wanted to be good, like his dead older brother had been, but his evil tendencies kept surfacing and talking to him. It was so great. Also he was the prince of his own island. Now that I’m thinking about it, he had weirdly a lot in common with Edmund Pevensie.

  4. This is the version I grew up with. My parents had taped it off of PBS. My sisters and I did rewatch it several times so we must have liked it a little bit, but we had some reservations about it. In particular, I remember not caring much for the young actress who played Lucy. But I don’t remember the bad!Edmund and good!Edmund part at all!

  5. Pingback: Page to Screen: The Silver Chair (1990) « The Literary Omnivore

  6. Aw, I think you’re being a little unfair, though I can certainly understand a lot of why this version has a harder time appealing to modern audiences. The biggest thing I can say in its defense is that I believe it managed to capture the magic feel of Narnia better — it understood better what Narnia is as a place. This is probably due mostly to its faithfulness to Lewis’ text. For all the advantages of the 2005 version — special effects and better casting, mainly — it also missed on this level. It felt like it depended too much on formula and was trying too hard to hit a target audience and be a Disney cash-cow, whereas the BBC versions don’t have that pretension.

    The production values don’t bother me, because there wasn’t much the makers could do about them. I didn’t notice them as a kid, and now, with the eye of an adult, they make me smile.

    I agree, the acting’s not very good. I do like Peter, but Lucy was always hard to take. Edmond fits the role decently but isn’t a great actor, and I guess I’ll say the same for Susan. And this White Witch is so theatrical and over-the-top that it’s almost impossible to not be entertained when she’s on screen. She’s kinda scary to, in the right way. Tilda Swinton is superior, but I was a little disappointed that they let her be a blonde, when the black hair seems to make sense for the character. But overall, yes, the casting of the 2005 movie is far superior.

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