Page to Screen: The Silver Chair (1990)

The Silver Chair
based on The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

You may recall my review of the 1988 BBC television adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeit was, uh, not a positive one. So why on earth would I want to subject myself to more of the BBC Narnia adaptations? Well, poking through a The Chronicles of Narnia message board to research some reviews, I discovered that Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor himself, played Puddleglum in the 1990 BBC television adaptation of The Silver Chair. As a New Whovian easing into old Doctor Who, I’ve heard fantastic things about Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor and I thought this might be a good way to get introduced. In any case, the Pevensies are nowhere to be seen, so we’re safe, right?

The Silver Chair follows Eustace Scrubb, cousin of the Pevensies, as he returns back to school after his adventures in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Running away from bullies, Eustace runs into Jill Pole, a girl in the same position whom Eustace once bullied. Eustace decides to confide in Jill about Narnia and the two end up yearning to visit—and Aslan grants their request. But no one ever goes to Narnia for just pleasure, and Aslan sends Eustace and Jill on a mysterious quest involving the vanished Prince Rilian, son of the now ancient and withered Caspian X.

The Silver Chair improves wildly upon The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with the acting—David Thwaites is a reformed Eustace who can still be a little obnoxious, and Camilla Powers’s Jill is just a kid who wants to do the right thing but gets easily distracted and is a bit lazy. In short, Eustace and Jill are kids, kids who aren’t particularly well-suited to the task at hand—but they try. They’re actually complex human beings—what a concept! Tom Baker’s Puddleglum is fantastic; as in the book, he grows on you until you realize you love this character. He’s delightfully dour but never loses his dignity—his performance was worth the price of admission, which, to be fair, was free. Richard Henders is also quite good as Prince Rilian and the Black Knight—honestly frightening but always noble. Barbara Kellerman is back as the Lady of the Green Kirtle and, while she’s beautifully subtle in her first appearance, quickly takes a flying leap back into evil Galadriel territory. Alas! At least the giants are good.

The production value has also improved wildly since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the animal costumes are a lot more creative and, very wisely, not dwelt on. While the adaptation is otherwise faithful to the point of tedium, the gnomes have been changed to “Underearthmen” for ease of costuming—and it works. Even the sets are better—wide open spaces and the darkness of the subterranean world punctured by the false splendor of the Lady’s chambers. (Even the titular silver chair is well-done.) As The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe failed in acting and production value, it’s really nice to see The Silver Chair execute them so deftly.

But that isn’t to say that The Silver Chair doesn’t have problems. As previously mentioned, the adaptation is so faithful that it hurts the pacing. However, I think the DVD release doesn’t do it any favors. When first aired on the BBC, The Silver Chair was composed of six episodes—but the DVD release cut them into a two and a half hours long movie, instead of collecting the episodes. Perhaps it would have improved if I could tell where an episode began and ended. It also starts with Jill being beset by bullies, which is all well and good, but they just yell at her while she stands still. While it’s a passing thing (the bullies are only a plot device to get Jill and Eustace together and into Narnia), it’s an odd choice that I find hilarious—my notes ask, “Do you know how bullies work?”. Worse, my favorite moment in the book—where our heroes see the world further under the earth—becomes a bizarre, trippy moment where the Earthmen just hurl themselves down a chasm. Still, as the one BBC adaptation that doesn’t have a big screen, big budget analogue (yet! …though I sincerely doubt it), The Silver Chair does quite well for itself in a quiet, dignified way.

Bottom line: The BBC’s 1990 adaptation of The Silver Chair is a huge improvement over its lackluster adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; the cast is solid, especially the children and Tom Baker as Puddleglum, and it’s actually nice to look at—new costumes and simple, but thoughtful, set designs. While the adaptation can be faithful to the point of tedium and has its own weird moments, I feel the BBC shortchanged it by cutting a six episode miniseries into a film on the DVD release. I feel I can safely say this is the best of the BBC adaptations, even without seeing the second miniseries.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Silver Chair (1990)

  1. Tom Baker! Tom Baker! Tom Baker! I have never had any interest in the Narnia adaptations, but I will investigate if Tom Baker is involved.

    (Aw, now I’m sad about Sarah Jane all over again.)

  2. This probably was the best of the BBC adaptations, though I confess I have a deep affection for all of them. They were a key part of my childhood movie experience, and neither Lucy’s distractingly buck teeth nor some of the more obvious production value failures could shake my love for that vision of Narnia. In fact, as much as I do like the “new” big-budget Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I don’t think it captured the feel of Lewis’ Narnia as well as the four BBC movies.

    But yes, Silver Chair is the best done of them, I think. I’m a new Whovian who hasn’t yet got into the classic series, but I’ve heard great things about Tom Baker. Once I familiarize myself with his Doctor, I shall definitely have to rewatch him as Puddleglum.

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