C.S. Lewis' first 'Narnia' book hits the big screen
They say that on a movie set, the director is God. Not today. Not in the low mountains outside Christchurch, New Zealand, where on this December 2004 afternoon, heavenly forces are fighting Andrew Adamson for control over The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a $180 million adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ beloved children’s classic. On a vast plateau of sheep-grazing turf known as Flock Hill Station, the animation superstar (he codirected both Shrek flicks) should be staging Armageddon. The White Witch (Constantine‘s Tilda Swinton) should be leading an army of ogres, black dwarves, and pig-snouted boggles into battle against four British siblings and their legion of unicorns, satyrs, and assorted talking animals. But the field lies empty, thanks to a roaring gale that could knock a Minotaur on his arse. A day of shooting imperiled, and Wardrobe is already behind schedule.
Yet not all is lost. Down at base camp — A sprawling village of trailers and tents situated next to a gurgling river — Adamson is salvaging time with greenscreen work. Garbed in a chain-mail dress with a lion’s-mane collar, Swinton mushes a polar-bear-drawn chariot that will be rendered later with computers. Suddenly, Marilyn Manson starts screaming: ”REACH OUT AND TOUCH FAITH!” The Scottish actress punches the air to the sinister stomp. Her White Witch is pure Antichrist glam, and she felt Manson’s ”Personal Jesus” could get her in the mood. Everything’s rockin’ — then, really rocking, as the hammering gusts cause the overhead lights to sway. A month ago, another windstorm blew away the first greenscreen tent. No one wants to take any chances. ”I do wonder if we’re going to wind up in that river, splashing our way out,” says newcomer William Moseley, 18, who plays big brother Peter. ”Pretty crazy.”
And so, Adamson retreats to the catering tent, filled with half-dressed beasts killing time. Rail thin and pale, with shoulder-length blond hair, Adamson could be the missing link between Steve Buscemi and David Spade, only taller. Usually, the 39-year-old New Zealand native radiates a winning mix of confidence and gentleness. At the moment, he just looks beaten. Maybe now isn’t the kindest occasion to ask Adamson about making his live-action directing debut on a movie of this scale, expense, and significance. But hey: What else is there to do?
”What I’m doing…” — and then a windblast wallops the tent. He shakes his head and laughs. ”Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
And to think, it won’t be getting any easier from here.
That’s what Andrew Adamson had in mind after Shrek‘s exhausting trek. Something small. Every fantasy franchise in Tinseltown — from Willy Wonka to Lemony Snicket — wanted a meeting. Adamson just wanted a nap, then to make a tiny little art film thing. Then, Narnia called.
Before Harry Potter — was there actually such a time? — there was The Chronicles of Narnia. A seven-volume series of slender novels, Lewis’ enduring creation (over 85 million sold) was a melting pot of fantasy and folklore (much to the disdain of the British author’s buddy and mythic purist, J.R.R. Tolkien), colored by the cosmology of the scholar’s Christian beliefs. Wardrobe, the first book, published in 1950, is your archetypal through-the-looking-glass tale: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie — refugees of the London blitz — discover that a mysterious, fur-packed closet tucked away in a country home is actually a portal into a wonderland of chatty critters, all awaiting the return of a messianic lion, Aslan, who will end the Witch’s reign of tyrannical winter. Says Swinton: ”I think the world is evenly divided between people who read these books as children and those who didn’t.”
[pagebreak]There is a long and murky saga that explains why Hollywood hadn’t yet turned Wardrobe into a movie, aside from a 1979 made-for-TV cartoon. Said saga is headlined by producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who during the 1990s gave it a shot with assorted filmmakers at different studios, but were undermined by various factors: expense; inadequate F/X; and, according to whispers, disagreements with Lewis’ estate over creative choices. Bottom line: no movie.
But in November 2001, after regaining the film rights, the C.S. Lewis Co. was approached by Walden Media, a young, independent company, focused on family entertainment and funded by billionaire mogul Philip Anschutz, known for his Christian faith and conservative politics. Walden was searching for a biz-driving, brand-defining franchise, and they had a sweet and sweeping pitch for Wardrobe: a hefty budget. A faithful adaptation, a calculated stratagem designed to please all of Wardrobe’s fans, Christian and otherwise. And a Wardrobe-derived educational initiative that would expose Narnia to new generations of readers. The cash must have been enticing too: a reported $70 million for all seven books.
Walden got the rights, and shortly thereafter, it had a director. Adamson fell into Narnia at eight, when his Methodist missionary parents gave him the Chronicles to read. “I stayed in that world for months,” he says. “They occupied a special place for me.” Maybe a spiritual one? “In general, I am interested in spirituality,” says Adamson, who declines to discuss his religion. “They were always just ‘a good read.'” During his pre-Shrek days as an F/X guru (Batman Forever), Adamson even angled for jobs on Kennedy/Marshall’s failed Wardrobe projects. For Walden, Adamson’s passion, plus his technical expertise, made him a natural fit; according to Walden cofounder Cary Granat, the director was on their short list. Any worries about his live-action inexperience were allayed when Adamson produced a 27-page memo in March 2002 detailing every aspect of his game plan. “Looking back,” says Granat, “the finished movie is the memo.”
Problem is, movies are made out of screenplays, not memos. Adamson’s vision—nutshell version—was to “make the Wardrobe I envisioned as a child.” But rereading Lewis’ novel as an adult, Adamson was shocked to discover how much the author left to the imagination. That final battle? Just a couple pages. Those indelible, unforgettable children? Underdeveloped, particularly motherly big sister Susan. Over a two-year period, Adamson toiled on a dramatic yet faithful adaptation, working with multiple screenwriters and F/X artists charged with hashing out an animated previsualization of the film. Concurrently, he was casting, conducting R&D on Aslan — Wardrobe‘s most crucial special effect — and scouting locations. Just for giggles, apparently, he was codirecting Shrek 2 as well.
In the summer of 2004, Wardrobe was finally rolling in New Zealand, with Disney now on board to distribute the film and split the costs with Walden 50–50. On day one, Adamson discovered that 15 reindeer couldn’t pass quarantine. The shot would have to be rescheduled, the reindeer replaced with animatronics and computer imagery. Everyone hoped it was a good omen. “You know: ‘Bad dress rehearsal means great show,'” says Granat. “It quickly became clear this was going to be one fun ride.”
The day after Swinton’s “Personal Jesus” moment, Adamson is smiling again. On a ridge above the Flock Hill plateau, war is raging on a slope cutting between ancient boulders. Skandar Keynes — a 14-year-old Bobby Brady doppelgänger (and great-great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin) who plays the treacherous brother Edmund — is watching Swinton cross swords with his stunt double. In addition to offering the visiting journalist his unsolicited thoughts on the virtues of Starsky & Hutch and the cultural isolation of remote New Zealand, he notes: “I wanted a big hole in my chest, with my guts spilling out, but it’s PG. PG! Stupid parental guidance!”
Precocious and charming; chosen from thousands of hopefuls after an extensive search; were tight as real siblings during filming — yep, all the usual kid cast clichés apply. And boy, do they say the darndest things. Here’s 17-year-old Anna Popplewell (Girl With a Pearl Earring), who plays Susan, on potential franchise fame: “I certainly hope whatever I do, I do it in my own right, rather than following someone else. And I certainly hope we don’t become ‘the next Harry Potter kids.'”
“The thing I was most scared of about this project was the children,” admits Adamson, who employed a number of strategies to get quality performances out of them. Since the story tracks the siblings’ growing self-confidence, the director shot in chronological order, hoping to channel the cast’s own maturation. Most important to Adamson was getting the kids to buy into the fantasy; on their first day of shooting on Narnia‘s elaborate winter wonderland sets in Auckland, Georgie Henley (little sister Lucy) was brought to her mark blindfolded so Adamson could capture her initial reaction. The director ran afoul of Swinton, however, when she learned he didn’t want the actress fraternizing with her young costars; he worried the kids might not find the White Witch so scarily imposing if they became too chummy with her. “I quickly reversed that. It was ridiculous and insulted their intelligence,” says Swinton, who believed the kids could benefit from her on-set mentorship. “It was important for the children to have [a fellow actor] here for them.”
Especially on the day Henley had to shed some tears over the death of…well, if you’ve read the book, then you know. A deep-feeling 10-year-old, known for thumb sucking and giddy exuberance, Henley, nonetheless, doesn’t cry easily. It took an assist from Popplewell to accomplish the task. “Anna sat behind the camera and said, ‘Georgie, won’t you cry for me?'” Henley recalls with relish. “Then she said, ‘But you’d cry for your sister, wouldn’t you? Why won’t you cry for me?’ After 10 minutes of that, she said, ‘I HATE YOU! I ABSOLUTELY HATE YOU.’ I cried then.” Henley goes awkwardly silent, as if realizing this wasn’t such a funny story, after all.
[pagebreak]Emotionally or logistically, making Wardrobe was always complicated, no more so than when production moved from the Auckland soundstages to New Zealand’s South Island, where filming was hampered by wind, rain, and later, snow—not good, since by Wardrobe‘s finale, spring has come to Narnia. Having already fallen behind by a week, Adamson was forced to make do with a temperamental climate and to pack extra work into a brief stint in the Czech Republic, like parts of a frozen river action sequence invented for the story. In February 2005, Adamson finally wrapped. All that remained was the hard stuff: using special effects to brighten the moody weather, fabricating legions of Narnian creatures, enhancing or manufacturing scenery, and augmenting the costumes, including putting faun legs on the humanoid torso of Mr. Tumnus (James McAvoy). “Many times,” Adamson chuckles, “I felt like killing myself.”
The darkest days of postproduction concerned Narnia’s lion king. Adamson originally tapped Brian Cox to speak for Aslan. Yet after seeing and hearing the voice and image put together, the director decided Aslan wasn’t working and replaced Cox with Liam Neeson. “I’m a huge fan of Brian, and that’s what got in the way,” says Adamson, adding there was no pressure to choose a more marquee name. “Basically, Brian helped me find Aslan; I not only recast but reworked the whole character to make him more personable.”
Completing Wardrobe‘s F/X required more time, resources, and yes, money, than anyone expected. Adamson sheepishly admits he didn’t help matters by asking for extra dough to pump up the spectacle. In the end, Wardrobe’s budget swelled to $180 million, and possibly more, according to insiders. Jokes producer Mark Johnson, “There were times I wondered, ‘Am I the most irresponsible producer in the world or what?'” Given Wardrobe‘s costs, Walden and Disney face a challenge to make the money back, especially in these baffling box office times. Disney’s wide-ranging marketing campaign includes an aggressive pursuit of the same Christian audience that propelled The Passion of the Christ to a $370 million gross. “Can we make our money back? Definitely, yes,” says Granat, adding that ancillary revenues like merchandising and DVD will also help that cause.
But Disney’s religious push could backfire. The tactic was intended, in part, to reassure Christians that nothing has been done to obscure Wardrobe‘s subtext. Mission accomplished. Yet, in the process, the attention the strategy has generated has loudly emphasized aspects of the book (Aslan = Jesus; White Witch = Satan) that generations of readers have never cottoned to, and weren’t necessarily meant to; Lewis himself decried reading Wardrobe as strict spiritual allegory. Oren Aviv, Disney’s chief marketing officer, doesn’t think the film is being narrowly perceived as The Passion of the Aslan. “The movie has the potential to be as appealing as any other movie we’ve released before,” he says.
In the end, the choice to adapt Wardrobe faithfully settles the issue: Audiences can read anything they want into the story, just as readers have for decades. Swinton believes Wardrobe isn’t a timeless spiritual parable, but a timely political one. “For my money, it’s about the imagination of the war child,” she says. Douglas Gresham, artistic director of the C.S. Lewis Co. and the late author’s stepson, is happy to spell out his interpretation. “This movie will bring back to the forefront of people’s minds the great values that the twentieth century threw away. Chivalry. Honor. Duty. Commitment. Personal courage,” says Gresham. “What the world needs now is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!”
As for Adamson, who became a father twice during his Wardrobe journey, what he needs right now is that nice long nap he’s been wanting to take since Shrek. A year after the stormy days of Flock Hill, the Kiwi still looks tired and underfed, but not a bit defeated. A few weeks earlier it might have been a different story; he admits the grind of Wardrobe had him second-guessing whether he wanted to make another film again. But most directors say that after finishing most any movie. He’s open to helming the next Narnia flick (should Wardrobe hit, Walden and Disney will next make Prince Caspian, the only other Narnia yarn featuring all four Pevensie kids), but he’d also like to do the smallish film he thought he wanted to do after Shrek. You get the sense that Adamson is a guy whose creative ambition can get the best of him. Run this theory past him, and the filmmaker just laughs. “Whatever happens next,” he says, “it would be really nice if it can happen on a tropical island.”