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.

Sadly, this scene in the Potter film is not an isolated example of the trend to de-mythologize well-beloved fantasies for children and young adults as they are adapted for film, nor can it be dismissed simply as an example of the price we must pay to recast these beloved stories in a new cinematic mold. Two subsequent offerings, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, released in October 2007 as The Seeker, and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (December 2007), prove equally problematic, although for different reasons.

A great number of things have been said about the ways in which The Seeker, under the direction of David L. Cunningham, falls flat.  Actually, the beginning of an online comment on Internet Movie Database may be only somewhat hyperbolic: “Worst film adaptation ever.”  Part of the problem with the film is readily identifiable in most any review one chooses to read as all around bad movie-making. Although it has some visually striking moments (the Great Hall is impressive, for example, if a bit over the top), the cinematography and set design are certainly not on a par with the carefully crafted look, feel, and sound of Narnia. Rather than the contrasting drab grays, muted blues, and black of the Narnian winter against the full-blown color of spring as the children near Aslan’s camp, David Lee’s dreary visual palate varies hardly at all and does nothing to advance the story. Similarly, the repetitious and forgettable Christophe Beck score pales in comparison with the rich textures that characterize Harry Gregson-Williams’ musical representations of Narnia. Joe Ransom’s camera-work, while perhaps intended as innovative with its tilted angles and distorted lens effects, does not serve any clear narrative purpose. The viewer never gets any real sense of the conflict that Will should face when confronted with the news that he is not an ordinary boy but the last of the Old Ones. The very tools Adamson uses so well become distractions in Cunningham’s adaptation of Cooper’s novel.

The script by John Hodge deviates significantly from Cooper’s novel, sacrificing any sense of wonder, atmosphere, or character development as the film rushes to get to the action sequences.  An American Will, wearing a UC Santa Cruz jacket as he enters the most hallowed hall of the Old Ones, has no sense of the mythology of the Arthurian quest narrative underlying Cooper’s tale.  This older Will feels misunderstood, but his new “powers” somewhat compensate for the teenaged angst he feels.  He even gets to fly at the end as he declares “It’s me! I’m the sixth sign!”.  Everything is accomplished through his new power, not through the deeper magic that comes from his being an Old One. There is no sense that there is any greater power than that which exists within Will himself. He is rather like Lewis’s blind man who mistakes the effects of light for light itself and plunges to his death (“The Man Born Blind”). The audience is left with no sense that Will has been significantly changed by his adventure, for he has not encountered the numinous. Even the “tingling” music that Will hears in the book, which signals the numinous in much the same way as the music of the spheres accompanies the descent of the Planets in That Hideous Strength, is missing. Instead, in a change that one can only suppose comes in deference to a putative visual audience who frankly deserves better, the signs are marked by a swirling psychedelic pattern.  This pattern is a more important visual motif in the film than the circle in the cross that marks the deeper magic underlying the symbols Will must collect to accomplish his quest. The frenzied pace of what Dennis Harvey of Variety calls “escalating, overblown, nearly nonstop action and fantasy” leaves no room for the mythic atmosphere Cooper creates so convincingly in her books and which Adamson proved could be recreated so much more effectively in the Narnia film.

The final film in this flurry of fantasy adaptations, is extremely well-made, in contrast to The Seeker film, but is also extremely problematic.  The problem with The Golden Compass, however, lies not in the film adaptation, but within the original text itself. The problems are merely exacerbated as the story is brought to the screen.  Although Chris Weitz creates a visually stunning version of  Lyra’s Oxford that is every bit as compelling for the viewer as Pullman’s descriptions were for the reader, Weitz has also, probably unknowingly, accurately translated the mythological vacuum that is Lyra’s world.

To anyone who has read Pullman’s works or the myriad of criticism surrounding it, this should come as no surprise.  Pullman has been consistently explicit about his deliberate attempt to create a world devoid of myth or superstition.  Although there are elements of superstition inherent in the cultures of people like the Gyptians, the armored bears, and even the people of Oxford themselves, ultimately Lyra exists in a world that has nothing to believe in.  In one of the interviews included in the bonus materials for the DVD, Pullman confesses that he has never been a fan of fantasy; he never read it, thus it is no surprise that he is unable to effectively incorporate it into his work. In fact, Lyra’s world has far more a science fiction than a fantasy feel to it as is reflected in the set design, which won a much deserved Oscar. Fantastic though it seems to the audience, Lyra’s Oxford, while imaginatively conceived and effectively portrayed both in the text and on the screen, is Lyra’s actual world. Lyra shows no sense of wonder in it. Although there are wondrous things she longs to see, such as armored bears, she finds no sense of joy in anything outside of herself.

The necessity to rely solely on Lyra’s perspective forces the viewer to see this cinematically stunning world only through Lyra’s artificially jaded eyes.  The audience is never allowed a moment of wonder in this film such as the moment when Lucy emerges into Narnia that first time. Unlike Lucy, Lyra is too tough to allow herself the vulnerability of wonder.  She must give the appearance that nothing surprises her, frightens her, or awes her; and this shell of invincibility stands between the audience and any sense of the numinous that they might find in this story. The ability to wonder at Lyra’s world is further undercut by the film’s opening exposition in which everything about Lyra’s world – dust, parallel worlds, daemons – is explained to the viewer by Seraphina Pekkala’s matter-of-fact voiceover. The viewer is thus robbed of the pleasure afforded the reader of discovering the intricacies of Lyra’s Oxford as the story unfolds, even though the exposition is probably necessary for viewers who are only getting part of the complex trilogy in this first film.

If the set designers are the most important people behind the screens, the young actresses playing Lucy and Lyra are the most important people on them; but The Golden Compass is not a child-ensemble piece like the Potter films or Narnia. Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra carries the burden of the entire film on her shoulders in a way that Georgie Henley as Lucy does not. This is true on a mythological level as well, since there is nothing to The Golden Compass without Lyra.  Her loss of innocence is the only thing that matters.  There is nothing bigger than she is.  Her alethiometer is under her instinctive power.  The very question of dust hinges on her decision.  There is no magic, just Lyra’s adventure.

Everyone associated with the film recognized the danger of relying so heavily on a single child. Even Pullman himself was aware of this problem from a narrative standpoint. Early on, as he has related in a number of interviews, he saw that first chapters of the book “weren’t working.”  He recognized that Lyra needed something outside of herself, and this is the point at which he invented daemons to give Lyra a foil, something to push up against.  The irony that the most intriguing element of Pullman’s story comes from his need to recognize the very thing that he seeks to deny – the numinous, that which is greater than ourselves – is no doubt lost on Pullman.  The exposition of the film explains that there are many worlds, “worlds like yours where people’s souls live inside their bodies, and worlds like mine where they walk beside us as animal spirits known as daemons.”  Abbot Zerchi in A Canticle for Leibowitz posits a truth about souls that Pullman misses: “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily” (281). In Pantalaimon, Pullman has merely created an enchanting mirror of the physical version of Lyra, but both remain unconnected to anything greater than each other.

The ultimate good in Lyra’s world is human knowledge, something we spend a lifetime trying to achieve in our own strength with little hope of attaining it.  There is no significant sacrifice in Lyra’s world, no transcendent redemption.  Like the Narnia film, Compass also stars an amazing CGI animal; but, while Iorek Byrnison comes to Lyra’s aide and would probably die for her if need be, he is no Aslan on the stone table making death itself work backwards. Further, we see no change in Lyra as a result of the bear’s faithfulness that is comparable to the change we see in Edmund as he comes to realize what Aslan has done for him. Indeed, there is little love in Lyra’s world at all apart from her love for Pantalaimon and he for her.  Lyra cannot choose anything different, for this is a world in which the author makes all the choices for his characters.  Lyra’s decisions are predestined by her creator before her story begins, thus any subsequent films based on the series can only further disappoint viewers.  Lyra will never get to choose, as Will Stanton does, whether or not she will sacrifice her innocence, seek a different kind of knowledge, and save her world. The final sacrifice of her budding love for Will Parry on the altar of the Republic of Heaven cannot help but ring hollow. There will be no music of the spheres here.  The price is too small, and the prize too unbelievable, grounded as it is in human experience, to elicit our compassion.

It is no wonder that there is little, if any talk about continuing with the Pullman series.  No amount of cinematic artistry can redeem a story that has been so de-mythologized before it even gets to the screen.  Where there is no sense of eucatastrophe there can be no joy, and joy is essential to fantasy. Lewis knew this, and Adamson understood it. The various directors of the Harry Potter films have grasped it on varying levels because it is so very prevalent in Rowling’s books. It is there in Cooper’s books as well, and it may be possible to bring that series to the screen successfully as the Narnia film demonstrates.  However, when there is no sense of the numinous to work with in the text itself, there is little hope of creating a fantasy film that will fulfill our need for story or give us a glimpse of that other world for which we long and were created.

Works Cited

Harvey, Dennis. “The Seeker.” Variety. 4 October 2007.  Web. 26 July 2008.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillian. 1952. Print.

— Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Macmillian, 1968. Print.

Miller, Walter M., Jr. Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1959. Print.

Pullman, Phillip. “Lyra’s World.” Behind the Scenes. Dir. Chris Weitz. New Line Home Cinema. 2008. DVD. 2 Discs.