Currently I am in the middle of a series on the Sublime. Last week I wrote an article on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I am going to continue that discussion here by showing how the Sublime operates in the movie and the book. In particular, I will show how Burke’s concept of the Sublime as infinite, terrible, and uncertain applies to Lewis’s creation of Aslan, but not the movie’s adaptation.
No book or novel has ever been made into a movie, except perhaps a very short book. It is simply impossible to take every element of a written story and transform it into another art form while keeping the original meaning in its entirety. I mean its absolute entirety. But that does not mean that books should never be adapted into movies, it just means that the director must make certain decisions in order to capture the essence of a story while shortening it into a movie. That is the difference between an adaptation and making a book into a film. When I see an adaptation, I do not expect it to be identical to the book, but I do expect a good director to retain the themes and power of the original source. It is my contention that Adamson failed to adapt The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I will be looking specifically at three ways in which Aslan was portrayed differently from the book: his status as teacher, his relation to the “Emperor,” and his Sublime attributes.
One of the elements of Lewis’s book that does not make it into the movie is the role Aslan plays as a teacher. I am thinking of two scenes in particular, but there are doubtlessly others. In these scenes from the book, Aslan commands one of the children to do something. In the movie, these commands are left out and the children simply know to do what is right. The first of these scenes is when Aslan pulls Peter aside to talk to him and Susan blows her horn calling for help. In Adamson’s version, Peter knows that it is Susan and he runs to save her. In the book, Aslan tells Peter, “It is your sister’s horn.” This might seem like a minor detail, but if one considers the complexity of Lewis’s allegory then it is important. Although Peter is going to be High King of Narnia, he still needs instruction from Aslan. Peter does not have some innate knowledge of what he should do: this is a world where man is fallen in his mind as well as his soul and body. Adamson removes this and in doing so, suggests that Aslan is not needed in order for Peter to act correctly in this world. The conversation that Peter and Aslan are having before Peter runs off is on the “Deep Magic,” (which I will discuss later) and it appears that Aslan is teaching Peter. But this teaching is what Schaeffer would call “upper-storey,” it is irrational, otherworldly, and does not really affect this world. In other words, Adamson allows that God can teach us about spiritual things, but earthly things are the responsibility of man.
The next scene is after the battle with the witch, near the end of the book. Aslan and Peter’s forces have triumphed, but Edmund is dying. When Aslan and the other children reach Edmund, Aslan reminds Lucy of her cordial which has the power to heal all wounds; Lucy does not remember on her own. And after Lucy heals Edmund, Aslan commands her to help others. This is how this scene takes place in the book:
“There are other people wounded,” Said Aslan while she was still looking eagerly into Edmund’s pale face and wondering if the cordial would have any result.
“Yes, I know,” said Lucy crossly. “Wait a minute.”
“Daughter of Eve,” said Aslan in a grave voice, “others are also at the point of death. Must more people die for Edmund?”
“I’m sorry, Aslan,” said Lucy.
This exchange is quite different in the movie. There, Lucy realizes herself that she can save Edmund, and then she quickly runs around healing others without any word from Aslan. Adamson presents us with a God that has nothing to offer humanity on this earth: no words of wisdom, no commands, no rebuke, no instruction, nothing. He is a silent God. In this world man does not need God in order to do what is right, for each person knows instinctively what to do. This is no minor difference. Lewis gives us a world where people are genuinely fallen and need God’s instruction, His Word, and His guidance; this is a Biblical world. This is Christian Art. Adamson’s adaptation is not.
The second area where Adamson fails to adapt Aslan properly is in the portrayal of the Deep Magic. In the book, the Witch comes to Aslan’s camp and presents her case for Edmund belonging to her on the grounds of the Deep Magic. Susan is shocked because of this magic Edmund must be given to the Witch, so she whispers to Aslan:
“Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”
“Work against the Emperor’s magic?” said Aslan turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.
Here Lewis shows that Aslan cannot go against the magic. But notice how carefully he constructs this. Lewis does not say that Aslan is subject to or beneath the power of the Deep Magic, but rather he cannot work against the Emperor’s magic. There is a great difference. In this allegory Aslan, like Christ, could not simply free Edmund from the penalty of his sin; the penalty of sin is death. To go against this would be to deny justice and therefore His very character; and God cannot be not God. This is the Deep Magic, which was established by God but also by Christ in the profoundly complex Trinity. Had Lewis said, as we hear in the movie, that Aslan was subject to the Deep Magic just like everyone else, he would he in effect say that Christ was not God; He was forced to obey a law over Him. Thus Aslan, instead of being obedient to the Emperor and his own character, is merely another being under the power of some mystical law.
The last argument I will make concerning the adaptation of Aslan is that he ceases to be Sublime in the movie. And with this loss of the Sublime, Aslan is further lowered to the status of hero. When I speak of the Sublime, I am primarily referring to Edmund Burke’s definition in his essay “On the Sublime and Beautiful:”
“Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (35).
This idea is very applicable to Lewis’s book considering the concept of Aslan being good but not safe (which is changed to good but not tame in the movie). Concerning the comprehension of God, Burke says that, “we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before Him.” (58). The very idea of God is terribly (in a literal way) Sublime, and Lewis understands this. Aslan, in the book, is feared by all. This also fits in with Burke’s concept of God and the Sublime: “The notion of some great power must be always precedent to our dread of it” (59). For Aslan to be truly powerful, and truly allegorically representative of Christ, he must evoke a sense of dread in the other characters and the reader. Both the “good” characters and the bad are afraid of Aslan. Even in the first description of Aslan we can see the Sublime:
“The Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then the found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly” (123).
This is a powerful passage, and its power comes through the description that defies physical rendering. In our imagination, we can create Aslan as Lewis presents him here, with all that terror and majesty. This image transcends the rational and the material, and affects us on a much deeper level. It evokes in us the infinite, the unattainable, and the ethereal. Here is the God we find in Old Testament (who is the same today as He was yesterday), who is a consuming fire and is also love. While we struggle to understand how Aslan could be both good and terrible, we are reminded of the character of God in a way that transcends theology and logic. It strikes us Sublimely. If, however, we were to attempt to render this image in a painting or a significant drawing or in a movie, we would find that this power is gone. The individual pieces of Lewis’s description cannot be reasonably formed into a physical rendering because they are not reasonable in an earthly sense. This is in part due to the great uncertainty of Aslan’s true appearance. We are told of the affect of the lion’s appearance upon the children and the Beavers, but not what he looks like. In reality, we are only told that he has eyes, and a golden mane! Let me allow Burke to make this clearer:
“Painting…can only affect simply by the images it presents; and even in painting, a judicious obscurity in some things contribute to the effect of the picture; because the images in painting are exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature, dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions, than those have which are more clear and determined.” (53).
In other words, whenever we try to make a physical representation of something, we must always appeal a great deal to nature, but this will always fall short compared to rendering something in language. In language, as in the description of Aslan, images can be created through ambiguity and uncertainty in such a way as to evoke an even more powerful ideal. Thus, we do not merely see a lion, we see an infinitely powerful, loving, terrible, lion. How could this ever be physically rendered? According to Burke, any attempt and rendering such things results in disaster:
“[Poetry’s] apparitions, its chimeras, its harpies, its allegorical figures, are grand and affecting; and though Virgil’s Fame and Homer’s Discord are obscure, they are magnificent figures. These figures in painting would be clear enough, but I fear they might become ridiculous” (54).
Aslan, in Adamson’s film, is ridiculous. He is beautiful, but not terrible, and not infinite. The problem with paintings and other visual arts is that you are always confronted with the finite. No matter how obscure of a painting you make, it will always have a definite ending even if that is only the frame. In language, an image can thrive forever. This is incredibly important. When Lewis attempted to create a character who stood allegorically for Christ, (not descended as a man Christ either) he did so in a way that allowed our imaginations to be affected by a Sublime image and evoke in us the infinite. But as soon as that lion is made into a picture, particularly in a film, we see that it is only a lion. Only an oversized cat. There is a finiteness to his roar, to his beauty, to his voice, to his size, to his terribleness, and to his goodness. He is no longer a god, he is now securely a mortal. This is the great problem with rendering a character that represents God in a film.
But Adamson could have done certain things to retain some of Aslan’s majesty, terror, goodness, and therefore his infiniteness. If Aslan’s terror had been emphasized, it would have affected the audience Sublimely. We would have been confronted with a character that defied our understanding, being good and terrible, and would have thus suggested a great otherworldliness. Adamson, however, chose to remove all aspects of Aslan’s terror, giving us a character that is good but not tame, rather than good but not safe. Here is the difference: there are many animals that are not tame, but are very safe. Tame connotes control, not necessarily safety: not all tame animals are safe. But if an animal is not safe, then there is a definite danger. This difference can be seen throughout Adamson’s version of the story. Aslan is no longer a god that strikes fear in the hearts of the children and the other “good” characters, only the “evil” people fear him. Allegorically, this means that those who are followers of Christ have nothing to fear from God at all; there is no need to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” as Paul said in Philippians. Only the evil people, those who are clearly evil, should fear God.
To conclude, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a great work of art, as Lewis wrote it; however, the film version denatures Aslan, making him nothing more than a hero and give us a poor work of nonchristian art. Aslan has nothing to say to people in regard to commands, instruction, or advice for this world. He is under the rule of a law, just as humans are. And he is a finite, ridiculous, safe (but not “tame”), hero who only judges those with clearly evil hearts. The great depth of Lewis’s work, which resides mostly in his use of the Sublime, is striped from this film, leaving us with a nice adventure story and a character that sacrifices himself for a friend. But it is not good Christian Art.