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Analysis

Del Toro Does Narnia

When Netflix announced its plans for a 13-episode TV adaptation of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, I was overwhelmed by a joyous wave of disbelief. Finally, an adaptation that may well be one that we, a dedicated and long-suffering audience, actually deserve. If I’m correct in assuming that 13 episodes means a single-episode adaptation of each book in the unfortunate series, we should be getting the length and time and medium that such a book series is worthy of. And with Neil Patrick Harris at the on-screen helm, things are looking good. I am hopeful. The atmosphere is rife with excitement and anticipation.

While we wait for this dreadfully beloved series to reach our screens, I’ll be presenting a new series of articles here on Fandom Following that I believe to be both fittingly fun and appropriately unfortunate. Fun because who doesn’t love imagining wonderful and amazing things, and unfortunate because in a paragon of outrageous injustice they will never come to be. But hey I can dream, can’t I?

Without further ado, I welcome you to “Adaptations We Deserve”, a series that will pitch a much-beloved book or other creative endeavour that would thrive in the hands of a cinematic great. Fandom Following is big on adaptations, and other writers on our site have delved into similar fantastical territory before, most famously by imagining our worst nightmares other adaptations in the hands of Game of Thrones creators Benioff and Weiss.

This series will be a little different. “Adaptations We Deserve” will be full of wondrous what-ifs and wishful thinking that will leave you both inspired and also crying face-down on your sofa when you remember that we were given M. Night Shyamalan’s Avatar: The Last Airbender instead of these beauties. But I digress.

Our first book series is The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S Lewis (currently being tackled as a re-read project on our site here and here).

Narnia has suffered a long history of disappointing film and television adaptations, most recently with a book-to-film adaptation that began in 2005 and petered out in 2010 with the third installment, and may possibly be returning in rebooted form in the near future with The Silver Chair. Among its failure to helm all six books, this film series was relatively light and fluffy compared to book’s solemn and eerie aesthetic. If I may quote:

“I’m a kidnapper for her, that’s what I am. Look at me, Daughter of Eve. Would you believe that I’m the sort of Faun to meet a poor innocent child in the wood, one that had never done me any harm, and pretend to be friendly with it, and invite it home to my cave, and all for the sake of lulling it asleep and then handing it over to the White Witch? And if I don’t, she’s sure to find out. And she’ll have my tail cut off, and my horns sawn off, and my beard plucked out, and she’ll wave her wand all over my beautiful cloven hoofs and turn them into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s. And if she is extra and specially angry she’ll turn me into stone.”

– Mr Tumnus, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis

Now tell me that’s not brimming with quietly haunting potential.

Strange, talking creatures roam a landscape of eternal winter under the rule of a terrifying witch whose presence can be felt among the trees even when she’s nowhere near. Narnia is a world so unlike our own it should be frightening; but through the eyes of a small child it is beautiful and special, even if hauntingly so. If you had to represent the atmosphere of Narnia with a single line I feel it would be John Hurt’s Mr Ollivander in the first Harry Potter film, rattling Harry to the core with his utterance of “Terrible! Yes. But great.”

Enter Guillermo del Toro, master of the terrible and great. Del Toro is the director of the 2006 Spanish-Mexican film Pan’s Labyrinth, a dark fantasy set in 1944 Spain about a young girl named Ofelia who finds a way into a mythical world of strange creatures. The film has some uncanny similarities to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, from the real-world time period to both young female protagonists encountering a faun.

Not only that, but both magical worlds require their young heroes to fulfil a prophecy that has been waiting for them for a very long time. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve who are destined to sit on the thrones in Narnia, whilst Ofelia is a reincarnation of the long-lost Princess of the labyrinth.

Now hold up. You might be thinking, Erin, Pan’s Labyrinth is an R-rated movie made for a mature audience, and C.S Lewis’ book was written for children. Why are you suggesting that Narnia be adapted into such a dark and mature movie?

Mr Tumnus literally looks like the devil. wtf.

I feel I could settle that argument just by mentioning that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was converted into a 1979 cartoon that’s way more fucking horrifying than anything Del Toro has come up with and probably gave me more nightmares than Pan’s Labyrinth ever could, so the scariest version of the story has already been made. If you’re unconvinced and want to investigate on this claim further, the whole movie is on Youtube. There are so many disturbing screenshots I feel I could write a whole other post on just how weird this movie is. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But I won’t leave it there; I have a more grounded and reasonable argument in mind. If you’re a regular around Fandom Following you’ll know we’re a big fan of children’s media. If you’re new here, welcome, we are fully-grown adults who like to watch kids’ shows. But there’s a reason for that. Children’s media has lately felt a whole lot more nuanced, developed and aware of the big issues than a lot of adult media has. So if that’s the case, what happens if we take a children’s story and go-big-or-go-home with those mature themes? If we can take adult stories and turn them into stuff for kids like The Beginner’s Picture Book Bible, why not try it the other way around? After all, Lewis’ Narnia is not-so-secretly all about Christianity; Aslan is one giant fluffy metaphor for Jesus. And as with most fantasy stories, the myth and folklore upon which the fantasy elements are based originate from the history and culture of entire nations of people, not just little kids. So by turning Narnia into a more mature film adaptation, all we’re really doing is going back to the roots.

If you still don’t find my case strong enough, there’s one undeniable fact that must be taken to account. And that is Guillermo Del Toro’s next project. That’s right, folks – Del Toro next gig is none other than a stop-motion animated version of the classic children’s fairy tale, Pinocchio. The film’s IMDB page says that Del Toro’s Pinocchio will be “a darker version”. Considering how darkly disturbing even the Disney version was, need I say more?

Del Toro’s insane attention to detailed production design also makes him an appropriate choice for a fantasy series adaptation. His latest directorial effort Crimson Peak didn’t do amazingly with critics but the production design was nothing short of incredulous. The design team spent nearly 7 months constructing the haunted house from eerie attic to creepy basement. If you’ve seen this film, you can begin to imagine what Del Toro’s Narnia might look like: a dark and unruly snowy forest, awash with a sense of foreboding. If you stop crunching snow beneath your feet you’ll just be able to hear the trees whispering to each other as you pass them. The Beavers’ beehive-shaped house beside the dark green frozen dam is a wild tangle of branches knotted tightly together to form a dimly-lit but cozy interior, with clutter to rival the Weasley Burrow. The White Witch’s palace has the scale and frostiness of Elsa’s ice castle but a combined atmosphere of Crimson Peak and Orthanc, tower of Isengard.

The thing about Narnia that no adaptation I have seen seems to fully grasp is the seriousness and solemnity of the world. When the four children first enter through the wardrobe, the Narnia they find is harsh and lonely, the result of the White Witch’s terrible power of the land. This is universe desperate for revival and rescuing. The state of Narnia is dire. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are the first spark of hope to enter the world in what seems like forever. Most adaptations focus on the magic and wonder of the world, which is of course a vital part. But I consider what I consider even more important is conveying Narnia’s great sense of need. It’s a place of desperation, a mythical world whose own myth of the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve has all but faded from memory. The color has drained from the world and does not return until the great Stone Table cracks and the slain Aslan returns to life.

“[Susan and Lucy] walked to the eastern edge of the hill and looked down. The one big star had almost disappeared. The country all looked dark grey, but beyond, at the very end of the world, the sea showed pale. The sky began to turn red. They walked to and fro more times than they could count between the dead Aslan and the eastern ridge, trying to keep warm; and oh, how tired their legs felt. Then at last as they stood for a moment looking out towards the sea and Cair Paravel (which they could now just make out) the red turned to gold along the line where the sea and sky met and very slowly up came the edge of the sun. At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise — a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate….. The rising of the sun had made everything look so different — all the colours and shadows were changed — that for a moment they didn’t see the important thing. Then they did. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end of end; and there was no Aslan.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S Lewis

Despite their dark and gothic atmosphere, Del Toro’s films are always full of life thanks to his incredible knowledge and use of color. Undoubtedly this scene by his hand would have been chillingly beautiful.

Pan’s Labyrinth, which received a whopping 22 minutes of standing ovation when it screened at the Cannes Film Festival, proved that Del Toro is more than capable of presenting a dark and wondrous tale through the eyes of a child, making himself and Narnia a stunning match.

So there you have it. A little taste of Narnia as Del Toro might have seen it.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this article would be full of wondrous what-ifs and wishful thinking that would leave you both inspired and also crying face-down on your sofa. If the very idea of this wasn’t enough to make you both excited and sad, let me leave you with this gem. If you click that link it will tell you about a pretty hefty rumour that circled a few years back, saying that Guillermo Del Toro actually was offered the Narnia series, but turned it down.

There, there. It’s okay to cry.

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    Erin Latimer is writer whose specialties include film analysis, television and gaming reviews, and re-examining movies from her childhood through a lens of feminist fan practices and queer theory.

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