Welcome to Book vs. Movie Match-Up, my new series where I will see if the age-old belief that “The book is always better” is true. Sure, books can develop characters and tell a more intricate story, but movies can create an experience that cannot be had simply by reading words on a page. Let’s break it down and see if the book or the movie (or the other movie or the TV miniseries) is better with my first entry—C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was first published in 1950, and is the first book in C.S. Lewis’ most famous work, The Chronicles of Narnia. Lion tells the story of four children who, while staying in the countryside during World War II, stumble upon another world in a wardrobe and help the forces of good defeat the unworthy queen who has taken power. Before long, Lewis’ story was a modern staple of children’s and fantasy literature.
The first adaptation was in 1967 on BBC, but seeing as that version is not available anymore, I will not be looking at it here. A cartoon adaptation aired on TV in 1979, winning an Emmy for Outstanding Animated Production, and has since been released on home video. Another TV version aired on the BBC in 1988 as a six-part serial, which was also nominated for a slew of Emmys. Finally, the most famous adaptation came in 2005, when Walden Media and Disney created a big budget blockbuster featuring the talents of Tilda Swinton, Liam Neeson, and others. It’s time to take a look at which of these versions does the best job of immersing you in the world of Narnia for the first time. Let’s begin the Match-Up!
Just for clarification sake, since there are four versions, I will refer to them as 1) The book, 2) The cartoon, 3) The BBC version, and 4) The Disney film. Today, I will be breaking down the similarities and differences between our four lead characters, the Pevensie children.
The youngest of the four children, Lucy is the first to enter the wardrobe and discover Narnia, which she does during an exploration of the house. While in Narnia, she meets the faun Tumnus, who plans to turn her over to the White Witch, but can’t go through with it when he discovers how kind and loving she is.
The book describes Lucy as having blonde hair, and her defining characteristic is a sense of childlike wonder. It’s important to remember that the novel is pretty much an extended fairy tale, so don’t expect complex characters or even that much growth in characters outside of the most basic arcs. (To be fair, the later books actually do mature in themes and character arcs.) Lucy pretty much begins the book as a kindhearted girl with a sense of adventure and stays that way throughout the whole thing.
The cartoon portrays her in very much the same way, although the poor animation leads to her making some very strange expressions.
Animation aside, Rachel Warren’s voice work brings a lot of life to the character, wonderfully portraying both the wonder and the concern for others that make up Lucy’s character. Sophie Wilcox in the BBC version is either bad casting or just a bad performance, which I don’t like to say about child actors, but this was just wrong. Anytime she tries to show emotion, she just gives this look like she’s confused. I wondered at first if perhaps the child they cast was too young, but nope, she was thirteen. I don’t like blaming children for performances like this, but the director has some explaining to do. Also, why did the costume designer give her the haircut of a 65 year-old woman?
Then we come to the Disney film. Georgie Henley was only ten when this film was released, and while this was her very first film, she knocks it out of the park. She feels nothing like a “movie kid,” but rather an actual child. She’s vibrant and fun-loving, while still caring deeply about everyone she meets. Henley takes the character from the page and brings her to life. The Disney film gets the point.
Edmund is probably the most difficult of the four children to pull off, even though he has the closest thing to an arc. The difficulty lies in the fact that he sort of just goes from being a traitor to suddenly being purely good. There is definitely some sympathy that can be given to Edmund at the beginning, though, because like Lucy, he simply trusts the first person he meets in Narnia. This person just happens to be The White Witch.
Unfortunately, both the cartoon and the BBC version portray Edmund as an unbearable jerk for the first half. It really makes you wonder if the production team of the BBC series hated children. There’s also a strange scene in that version where Edmund (Jonathan R. Scott) steps outside of his own body and talks to himself, because why should we just have Edmund narrate his thoughts?
The novel tries to some extent to establish that Edmund has been acting rebellious for a while, but the Disney film takes it to another level by showing Edmund’s (Skandar Keynes) constant fighting with Peter being a result of him not wanting to accept his brother’s authority while their father is away at war. It’s a small change, but it’s crucial enough to once again give the Disney film the point.
Easily the least developed character in the book, Susan is often sort of just there. She sometimes acts as the voice of reason, especially compared to Lucy’s sense of adventure, but it’s not a defining characteristic of her literary version. She is very caring for her siblings, and is especially protective of Lucy, and she is with Lucy during Aslan’s death and resurrection. The cartoon more or less portrays her in the same way, again with some strange expressions due to the animation.
The Disney version tries to expand her character, with Anna Popplewell bringing a lot of dry humor to the part, but unfortunately the script makes her a little too much of a killjoy, always denying what she sees even when animals are clearly talking in front of her. Honestly, the only version that does something interesting with the character is the BBC version. Sophie Cook’s Susan is responsible, but also seems to be enjoying herself throughout the adventure. She seems to be younger than the other interpretations of the character, but there’s a joy to the performance that is sorely missing in the others. The point goes to the BBC version.
Peter is an interesting character, because while he is a good leader, he also has hidden power he isn’t aware of. By the end of the story, he has shown himself to become a competent warrior and someone who will be a great king. His first sign of inner strength is his killing of The White Witch’s chief henchman, Maugrim the wolf.
All versions portray him as kind, although with more conflict with Edmund in the BBC and Disney versions. The cartoon Peter is fine, playing up the kindness and wisdom of the character, but he wears that sweater the whole time, even in the final battle. It’s cheap animation, but he’s wearing a sweater and no armor in the middle of war.
The BBC Peter is good, but Richard Dempsey is clearly not old enough to assume any kind of leadership. While Susan being younger is alright, it really doesn’t work for Peter. At least he doesn’t fight the battle in a suit and tie.
William Mosely is memorable as Peter in the Disney film, bringing a similar sense of humor that Popplewell does and getting an additional scene showing his fear of Maugrim. It’s a more upfront way of showing his hidden strength than in the book, and it works pretty well. However, this Peter never stops trying to send his siblings home, even after they’re at the Stone Table preparing for battle. It makes sense that he would want to at first, but after a while, it just doesn’t make sense or add any dramatic tension. The book’s Peter understands that he and his family have a part to play in Narnia’s history and he steps up to the plate magnificently when he needs to. This is why I give the point to the book.
At the end of the first part of this Match-Up, let’s see where we stand.
Next time, I’ll be taking a look at all of the remaining characters and seeing which version portrayed them best.