De-Mythologizing the Search for Self: A Comparison of Four Children’s Fantasy Films

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In an age when technology has caught up with our literary imaginations, film makers are faced with many decisions about how to adapt works of fantasy for the silver screen. Since the beginning of story-telling, the quest for something greater than self has permeated our stories, infusing them with elements of the supernatural and the divine.  As we seek a greater Other, we are also seeking ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to inhabit this earthly realm while longing for the numinous elsewhere. C. S. Lewis posited the following in Mere Christianity: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (120).  In our technological and visual age, film has become the medium through which we seek to tell the stories that can give us a glimpse of that other world.

In December 2005, C. S. Lewis’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe realized the potential power such stories have when translated for the screen by filmmakers, writers, and directors who understand the power of myth and have at their disposal the cinematic tools and talent to convey myth through a visual medium.  Directed by Andrew Adamson, this first film installment of the Narniad captures Lewis’s sense of that other world for which we long and draws viewers into the magic of Narnia in much the same way Lewis’s literature has drawn his readers for half a century.  As such, it serves as the gold standard against which to measure subsequent fantasy films.

Adamson and his crew recreated 1940s England with remarkable verisimilitude; Narnia is wrought with equal care. Both worlds are visually appealing, certainly; but the audience is treated to uncommonly vivid sensory imagery as they feel the first snowflakes that fall on Lucy’s face; bite with Edmund into the succulent, powdery Turkish Delight and smell the steamy hot cocoa; or hear the bells and the runners of the sledges as they hiss across the icy Narnian landscape. The young actors playing the famous Pevensie children are well-cast, especially young Lucy.  The carefully crafted script makes minor changes to the original story to allow the personalities of the Pevensie children to emerge more fully, creating a depth that is not explicit in Lewis’s telling. However, Adamson does more than make excellent use of the tools available to him as the director; he preserves the sense that the story is about none of these classic components of film: it is about Aslan.

In one of the most compelling scenes of the film, Lucy is drawn to something greater than herself when she enters the wardrobe. She is a stranger in a strange land, and, as intimated in the Jeremiah 14:8 passage, only in Narnia for a short time; but Lucy, the one who sees what the other children do not, knows she belongs in Narnia in a way she does not belong anywhere else. She has found the other world for which she was created. As the story develops n the screen, she and the other children encounter the Other to whom they belong. In their growing relationship with Aslan, the children find themselves. Peter learns to fight for something greater even than family as he leads Aslan’s army.  He and Edmund triumph in the end, not because of themselves, but because of Aslan. Aslan is the central figure of the story, yet beyond him there is an even deeper magic, the numinous that Lewis captures within the heterogeneously mythical boundaries of Narnia and which the film captures so effectively.

Adamson has captured three elements that help this film transcend the usual child-empowerment fare.  First, he has successfully translated the mythopoetic world for the screen in a way that makes it believable, but wondrous.  Second, in this world that is clearly not their own, the children find Joy, in Lewis’s sense of the word – a fleeting glimpse of the numinous – not in themselves, but in that which is greater than themselves.  Finally, then, what Adamson has done is to create on screen a eucastrophe, Tolkien’s ultimate story, the myth made real.  It is in the capture of these three elements that children’s fantasy films must succeed, or they will fail to varying degrees and in fact actually de-mythologize the texts from whence they came.

The first film to indicate how unique the accomplishments of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe truly were was the July 2007 released fifth Harry Potter film, Order of the Phoenix.   Hindsight shows that the film was a portent of things to come: a trend towards cinematic de-mythologizing rather than myth-making. Although Phoenix was satisfying enough as a rousing coming-of-age tale filled with the angst of a young boy exploring the beginnings of leadership and emerging manhood, the film failed to capture the mythic import of young Harry’s quest for self that is such an important part of Rowling’s story.  A thorough discussion of this could encompass an entire paper on its own, so suffice it to say here that evidence of de-mythologizing was particularly apparent in the climactic battle between the small contingent of Harry’s comrades and the followers of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, led by Lucius Malfoy, and even more keenly felt in the battle between Voldemort and Dumbledore.  What should have been a mythic battle between good and evil that transcended the world as we know it was firmly grounded in the special effects technology of the here and now.  What the audience is left with is, as Lewis notes in Out of the Silent Planet, “the mythology that follows in the wake of science” (65): in this case, in the wake of the science of CGI.