ANDREW ADAMSON - Imagining Narnia

Written by Stephen Applebaum on . Posted in filmmaker

 "From your childhood, you just kind of go, ‘I love the book. I love the book.’ And then you read it again as an adult, and you go, ‘It’s a lot smaller than I remember it.’ It’s like visiting a house that you lived in as a child. I think largely it was because it was very empowering. You know, you think about it and these kids are disempowered in World War 2, they have no control over the situation, they’re being thrust around, and they go into Narnia and they’re greeted as kings and queens of Narnia, everyone is in awe of them, everyone’s waiting for them to solve all of their problems. While it’s a big shift in responsibility, I think responsibility is empowering for kids; it’s basically saying, ‘We trust you. We trust you to make the right decisions.’"

You directed the Shrek movies but you’d never directed a live-action feature, although you had directed scenes and sequences. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a huge undertaking. How did you get the gig?

“[Laughs] You know, I think it was somewhat of a leap of faith on Walden’s part but I think they basically saw that storytelling is storytelling, and you use whatever tools are available to you to tell the story well. You know, basically I got this because of Shrek and, I think, Doug[las] Gresham [C.S. Lewis’ stepson] from the [Lewis] estate liked Shrek. I think they saw in that a fantasy story that had a lot of heart, and obviously that was what we wanted in this film.”

There’s a great deal of irreverence in the Shrek films, you’re sort of deconstructing fairy tales, whereas here . . . 

“There’s a great deal of reverence, yes [laughs]. Very true!”

Did you have to rein in any aspects of your personality because the Shrek films suggest someone who is drawn to irreverence?

“The nice thing now is people will see I can’t just do one thing. No, I didn’t really have to rein in. They’re different films. I’m someone who immerses himself in what he’s doing and you just kind of absorb and take on the tone and concepts and everything of your film, and this was a different tone, a different film. The hard part was when I was doing both at the same time. There was a period when I was finishing Shrek while I was still working on this, and you get, you know, a little multi-personality during that period [laughs].”

A little bit schizophrenic?

“Yeah, a little bit. I try not to start talking about a lion in a Shrek meeting or vice versa. I think bringing any of the aesthetic of this film to Shrek was probably less confusing than bringing the Shrek aesthetic to this one [laughs].” 

You were a fan of the books?

“I was, yeah. Yeah.”

What was their appeal for you?

“You know, it was interesting because I read them when I was about eight, and I kind of read all of them and stayed in that world, and very reluctantly got to the end of The Last Battle knowing that I was going to have to put it down and start all over again, or just kind of leave the world. In retrospect, looking back, I was really trying to – because a lot of it from your childhood, you just kind of go, ‘I love the book. I love the book.’ And then you read it again as an adult, and you go, ‘It’s a lot smaller than I remember it.’ It’s like visiting a house that you lived in as a child. I think largely it was because it was very empowering. You know, you think about it and these kids are disempowered in World War 2, they have no control over the situation, they’re being thrust around, and they go into Narnia and they’re greeted as kings and queens of Narnia, everyone is in awe of them, everyone’s waiting for them to solve all of their problems. While it’s a big shift in responsibility, I think responsibility is empowering for kids; it’s basically saying, ‘We trust you. We trust you to make the right decisions.’ I think that, as a kid, is pretty cool. Plus you get swords [laughs].”

Do you think that today there’s a general distrust of kids to some extent?

“I think there is. I think we’re somewhat patronising to children. It’s so hard. I’m a recent father, I have a two-and-a-half year old and a seven-week old, and you never want harm to come to them. But at the same time if you over-protect them, they’re never going to learn to look after themselves. They’re never going to be independent. I wasn’t an over-protected child. At the age of 13 I was jumping on a motorcycle and heading out into the Bush in Papua New Guinea where we lived. Because of that, I think I grew up with a certain amount of confidence that’s allowed me to do exactly what I’m doing now. But, you know, with my own kids, I want them to have that confidence, I want them to have that freedom; at the same time, you have to watch them from a distance and let them make mistakes. So I do think there is a little bit too much over-protection. At the same time, as a parent, it’s hard to deny that.”

Your kids are growing up in LA, a very different society.

“Very different to Papua New Guinea, yes [laughs]. But as the kids get older I can fully imagine moving back to New Zealand, because New Zealand is a society that allows more freedom for children; and it is a safe place to be.”

You said that the book seemed smaller when you returned to it. But did it also seem bigger in the sense that maybe now you were able to pick up on or understand more the levels of allegory in the work?

“No, I think they grew more in the sense that . . .  C.S. Lewis wrote in a way where he really does plant a seed and allows it to grow. He says things like, ‘I can’t tell you how bad this is, your parents won’t allow you to read the book,’ and you’re immediately going, ‘Shit, that must be bad.’ And he says things like, ‘It gave them the feeling like you feel on the first day of summer holidays.’ So he’s a very evocative writer in that way. And I think that just over the years, the experiences you have, the things you see – I attribute, to some degree, my impression of the battle in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to seeing Star Wars, not that many years later. So suddenly I was projecting all that imagery and that scale and that epic nature onto my memory of the book. So, as I say, when I came to doing this, 30 years after reading it, everything had grown. The world of Narnia had grown, and when I came back and read the battle in particular, it was like there’s a page-and-a-half of Peter telling Aslan what happened while he was away. I was flicking backwards and forward through the book going, ‘Wait a minute, where’s the bit where all the mythological creatures [fight]? Where’s the description?’ Strangely enough, there’s a lot of description about breakfast [laughs] but not a lot about the battle.”

Was one of the challenges for you putting your own imprint on the material while remaining faithful to what is a much loved book?

“Definitely. Partly because he left so much to the imagination, and the difficulty is there’s a hundred-million people or so that have read this book, all of them with their own interpretation, all of them with their own impressions, their own imaginations, and it was very challenging knowing how to do that in a way that wasn’t alienating to some people. And the interesting thing throughout the process was how it seemed to coincide with so many people’s impressions. I’d have crew people, because a lot of the crew in New Zealand had read the books and grown up with them, coming onto the set and saying, ‘That’s Lantern Waste. That’s exactly how I imagined the lamp-post.’ That was a huge reassurance about the process.”

Were there certain images or elements which you had to take a hands-off approach to, that you knew you couldn’t play around with to any great degree?

“Yes, absolutely. And some of them were informed by Pauline Baynes’ illustrations. There were some things I deliberately stayed away from; I didn’t want Aslan walking around on his hind legs. As much as it’s a beautiful image of seeing him walking with the Witch with his hands behind his back, I knew that if you did that with a real lion it would just look comical. But that was always a starting point. It was good because people remember the illustrations without remembering them with any accuracy. So if you’re working with a basic impression, then you’re working in the same ball park, and you create an image that people think they remember.”

The scale of the project must have been daunting but so too must have been the reputation of the book.

“Yeah, both of those were daunting things. As I say, just meeting people’s expectations. But also I didn’t go into this naively. The first Shrek I went in thinking I was involved in an 18-month project, I was going to dabble in animation, and it was four-and-a-half years of sheer torture [laughs]. I mean not sheer torture, but it was hard work. I went into this knowing that it was going to be hard work and that made it a daunting task. I had done a lot of visual effects before, I knew the scale I saw this film to be, and I just thought it would be very difficult to achieve.”

For years the Lewis estate rebuffed the idea of doing a live-action film . . .

“Well no, they’ve wanted to do it. But I just think they haven’t found someone that adapted it in a way they were happy with. In defence of earlier attempts, it’s only recently that studios in the US have accepted that you can take English literature, adapt it faithfully, and still have it commercially viable. The success of Harry Potter and the success of Lord of the Rings has, somewhat, given me licence to do that in this case. So other people were trying to find ways to fit a square peg into a round hole and that’s what the estate objected to. They didn’t want Edmund asking for hamburgers [laughs]. That’s what it really comes down to.”

Is it true that in an earlier version the kids escaped an earthquake in LA?

“There was a version. And as I say, as much as I was very unhappy, because I read some of those earlier versions while doing visual effects, and it was very distressing, I understand why they felt they had to do that. And the climate has changed. And the technology has changed. It was hard to do this film without a photorealistic lion, so people were having to write around that problem and all of a sudden Aslan didn’t feature that much because he was just too damn expensive [laughs]. Let alone whether he worked, he was like the shark in Jaws; and it’s hard to do this without any impression of the lion. He needs to have such a screen presence. So there’s a lot of reasons why I think it couldn’t be made before.”

The cinematic culture has changed but has the cultural changes in America also made doing a film like this that has these spiritual/theological underpinnings easier to get into production, because they’re more acceptable?

“I don’t know. Matrix did pretty well [laughs].”

But isn’t this more overtly religious?

“But it’s not, though. C.S. Lewis was more outspoken as a Christian, which is the only thing that’s more overt about this. What people are calling allegory -- which it’s not, it’s supposition -- what they’re calling allegory is less present in this book than it was in The Matrix. I mean Matrix, you had this character Neo, he was chosen, he died, he came back, he saved the world: that’s the Resurrection story. In Lord of the Rings there’s a resurrection story. In Star Wars there’s a resurrection story. It’s only because of who C.S. Lewis is that this is considered any more allegorical than any of those stories. The Resurrection story has featured in different cultures and different stories throughout generations. I think it’s the climate right now that has brought attention to that.”

But the whole sequence of Aslan’s death and resurrection, you’ve got the two women – Mary Magdalene/Virgin Mary -- the humiliation and the cutting of Aslan’s mane, the beating of Aslan/Christ, the breaking of the Stone Table (tablets) – all these things make it closer to the Christian version of the Resurrection story than to any other version.

“It’s two little girls in this case [laughs] . . . You know, I don’t believe C.S. Lewis was that literal in his allegory. I think he would be mortified to think that people were taking it that literally. I don’t think he ever set out to re-write the Bible in different terms or anything like that. I think he wrote this story for his goddaughter, and he obviously integrated a lot of his personal beliefs. But I think it diminishes the project to call it allegory because it’s more than that. To me it’s more a story about family. All of that aside, it’s a story about a family dealing with a situation they have no power over, that goes to Narnia and their rivalries become epic, Edmund’s betrayal becomes life and death. And it’s about a family pulling back together in order to overcome evil, and that’s the heart of the story.”

But how do you feel about the passions that the project has raised within the evangelical movement, for instance? They have been expressing worries from the start about what will and won’t be in the film?

“Definitely there’s a concern from fans, you know? Of all belief systems, there was a concern that we were true to the book and I was very sympathetic to that. As I say, I grew up with it, I cared a lot about what was in there, and I think it’s perfectly valid for all of those fans to be protective of a piece of material that they’re very close to.”

How is Prince Caspian coming along?

“Prince Caspian, we’ve started thinking about the story and thinking, you know, as I did in this film, about trying and finding more of the emotional journey of the kids, and finding what that next emotional journey is. There’s a wonderful aspect to Caspian which is that rediscovery of this world, of the kids going back and remembering with nostalgia this experience, and then that very emotional thing of the fact that Peter and Susan, at the end of Caspian, don’t get to go back. So I think again, there’s a really heartfelt story there.” 

Lord of the Rings won a lot of Oscars. Do you think this has the same chance?

 

“[Laughs] No, I don’t. In all seriousness I don’t. And you don’t want, as a filmmaker, to be making a film for that purpose. Obviously everyone will be very happy if it does. The strange thing about making a film in New Zealand is that people in New Zealand seem to think that any film made there will win Oscars. It feels like a cultural expectation now. So people would say that to me. I’d be in some small town and they’d say, ‘Good luck at the Oscars’ and I’m like, ‘I haven’t even started shooting it yet.’”

NB: The Chronicles of Narna has received three Oscar nominations: Best Achievement in Makeup, Best Achievement in Sound, and Best Achievement in Visual Effects

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